Thursday, August 7, 2014


Peter Fibiger Bang, Dariusz Kołodziejczyk (ed.), Universal Empire: A Comparative Approach to Imperial Culture and Representation in Eurasian History. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2012. Pp. xx, 378. ISBN 9781107022676. $110.00.

Reviewed by Rolf Strootman, University of Utrecht (

Version at BMCR home site


The studies in this book explore the concept of universal rule in imperial states from the Assyrians to the modern world. Since the idea that the world can be seen as somehow a whole, unified by the charisma of a single Great King, originated in the Ancient World, and several of the contributors therefore focus on ancient empires and the Roman heritage in later times, this volume has much to offer to ancient historians.

Universalism may be considered a defining aspect of premodern empire.1 The concept of world empire began in the Ancient Near East (and later independently in China and pre-Columbian America as well) and was disseminated via the Hellenistic empires to both the Roman west and the Parthian- Sasanian east. The Roman imperium sine fine in due time became the best-remembered instance of the ideal. In the Middle Ages and Early Modern Period various Christian and Islamic empires claimed a Roman or Roman-Persian heritage of world dominion, among these the Carolingian, Byzantine, Umayyad, Ottoman, Mughal, Austrian and Russian empires. Thus the notion of world empire has no simple genealogy. As the editors emphasize in their introduction, it was notably in the Islamic world that the universalism of Alexander the Great was best remembered, while earlier the Achaemenids had been 'far more present on the mental horizon of the Romans than to later Persian dynasties'; thus, 'the notion was reproduced and constantly reinvented in a complex process of cultural transfer and competitive appropriation, emulation as well as differentiation' (p. 14).

Several of the articles eschew the traditional delineation between east and west and instead approach the development of universal ideology as a common Eurasian phenomenon, substantiating the editors' standpoint that the dynamics of universal empire constitute the principal political driving force in Eurasian history until c. 1800 CE.

In the introduction, entitled '"Elephant of India": Universal empire through time and across cultures' (pp. 1-40), the editors explain the importance of the ideological concept of universal monarchy for the practice of empire. Universalism both helped to position empires vis-à-vis other states and was instrumental in the integration of the heterogeneous cultures and polities that empires are characteristically composed of. The existence of competing centers of power did not preclude universalistic claims, as is shown e.g. by the world of competing empires in the Near East during the Late Bronze Age and again in the Hellenistic period, or by the diplomatic exchanges between the Mughal and Safavid emperors in the early modern period (brilliantly discussed in this volume by Koch, see below). Universalism first of all was a hierarchical conception of rulers and polities, and Bang and Kołodziejczyk aptly describe imperialism as a drive for 'hegemonic pre-eminence' rather than an attempt to actually conquer the entire world. Attempts at universal rule often were a mix of the direct exploitation of vast territories, the indirect control of satellite states with varying degrees of autonomy, and the ideological downgrading of rivals in public propaganda: 'The key component in the grammar of universal monarchy was the celebration of mastery over a multiplicity of lesser lords and subject populations [and] imperial rulers everywhere attempted to publicize their boundless might by putting on display the infinite diversity of people gravitating to their throne' (pp. 26-27).

The subsequent essays focus on three key themes: (1) the symbolism and iconography of universalism in imperial self-presentation and diplomatic exchanges, (2) universalism and cosmopolitanism in literary culture, and (3) 'the inclination to present universal imperial rule as an expression of cosmic order' (p. 27).

Gojko Barjamovic opens the collection with a piece entitled 'Propaganda and practice in Assyrian and Persian imperial culture' (pp. 43-59), discussing the complex relationship between claims to world rule and real policy. Barjamovic successfully shows how in the Assyrian and Achaemenid empires the pragmatic negotiation of social contracts between the imperial elite and local elites went hand in hand with the proclamation of universal dominion by divine sanction in palatial iconography and grand imperial festivals.

Peter Fibiger Bang in 'Between Ashoka and Antiochos' (pp. 60-75) examines the connection between universal kingship and cosmopolitan notions in the (wider) Hellenistic world, stressing the integrative qualities of Hellenistic civic culture: 'Hellenism, a badge of nobility, produced a cosmopolitan and trans-regional aristocratic culture tying together elite groups across culturally and linguistically very diverse regions, [creating] a thin layer of laterally united elites presiding over a (peasant) majority of more insulated communities' (p. 75). Bang's essay is a welcome corrective to the perceived idea that because in the third century BCE the Hellenistic world in practice was a multipolar political system, the rulers of the Hellenistic empires must therefore have pursued a policy of balance of power.

Rolf Michael Schneider's lengthy article 'The making of Oriental Rome: Shaping the Trojan legend' (pp. 76-129), starts from the paradox that on the one hand the Roman Empire claimed to dominate the world, and consequently saw 'Rome' as an equivalent of 'world', while on the other hand in its ideology focusing intensively on the non-Roman. The article then examines Augustan and post-Augustan images of 'Asians', relating the image of the bearded (Parthian) barbarian who is defeated by Rome to the image of the clean-shaven 'handsome Asian' of myth and ancient history. Through an elaborate argument that brings us to the Romans' Trojan ancestry, Schneider is able to show how in the age of Augustus the image of the proto-Roman Trojans was profoundly remodeled to accord to the more generic, Hellenistic type of the 'handsome Asian'. This icon of the east in general was appropriated to become a specifically Roman icon, indicating Rome's Trojan descent. As a result, Schneider argues, 'Rome could claim both the East and the West as her own' (p. 111).

Garth Fowden in 'Pseudo-Aristotelian politics and theology in universal Islam' (pp. 130-148) discusses the interactions between the cultural worlds of 'Greece, Arabia and Iran' in some Abbasid writings pertaining to universalism, particularly the apocryphal correspondence between Aristotle and Alexander that was perhaps translated from the Greek, and the pseudo-Aristotelian Secret of Secrets, an Arab Fürstenspiegel of sorts dating probably to the Umayyad period, in which Hellenistic and Sasanian influences merge. In these writings, which were widely read by members of the Abbasid administrative class (and from the twelfth century disseminated also to Western Europe in Latin translation), Alexander and Aristotle appear respectively as the embodiments of political omnipotence and intellectual omnipotence.

Dimiter Angelov and Judith Herrin examine in 'The Christian imperial tradition – Greek and Latin' (pp. 149-174) the impact of Christianity on the development of imperial rulership in the Middle Ages, in both the Latin west and the Byzantine east. There are rich and important discussions of various aspects of medieval imperial representations (especially of the role of the church in inauguration rites) but the conclusion is perhaps not surprising: Christianity and the infrastructure of the church served to consolidate empire, more so in the Byzantine Empire than in the Holy Roman Empire, where the papacy formed 'a third medieval "empire"' (p. 173). Byzantium kept alive and enriched Roman imperial traditions and became a repository of imperial symbols and ideas for foreign imperial rulers.

Several interesting studies in the book not directly concerned with the ancient world can only be summarized in the space given here. Dariusz Kołodziejczyk's study of early Ottoman imperial titles ('Khan, caliph, tsar and imperator: The multiple identities of the Ottoman sultan', pp. 175-193) is one of the more successful contributions, discussing the exchanges between Islamic and Christian imperial traditions as can be seen by the Ottomans' use of such titles as kayser, basileus, and imperator alongside padishah and, after 1517, caliph. Ebba Koch ('How the Mughal padshahs referenced Iran in their visual construction of universal rule', pp. 194-209), focuses on the Mughal emperors' rivalry with the Safavid rulers of Iran for the imperial title of padishah (Great King) as expressed in visual representations from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, in which the (originally Turkic-Mongolian) Mughals appropriated the mythical Iranian past and claimed for themselves a policy of religious tolerance against the Safavids' alleged intolerance in religious matters. Velcheru Narayana Rao and Sanjay Subrahmanyam ('Ideologies of state building in Vijayanagara and post-Vijayanagara south India', pp. 210-232) question the conventional division of historical India between a Muslim, Persianite north and an 'indigenous' Hindu south, arguing inter alia that the notion of a uniquely Hindu form of kingship is largely an invention of colonial times; instead, the authors show how monarchical ideology in south India often had pragmatic rather than spiritual origins.

Evelyn Rawski ('Sons of Heaven: The Qing appropriation of the Chinese model of universal empire', pp. 233-249) shows how from the conquest of the Shang by the Zhou in c. 1122 BCE universal empire (the 'Mandate of Heaven') became a leitmotif in the ideology of successive Chinese empires, and how after c. 1650 the, by then Confucian, ideal of universalism was appropriated by Korean and Japanese rulers to refute claims to world hegemony by the Qing Dynasty, a Manchurian clan that had overrun Ming China in the second half of the seventeenth century. Justyna Olko ('Aztec universalism: Ideology and status symbols in the service of empire-building', pp. 253-279) discusses the various strategies employed by Aztec rulers to co-opt elites in conquered territories, and the creation, through religion and ritual, of an imperial core at Tenochtitlan. Finally, Peter Haldén ('From empire to commonwealth(s): Orders in Europe, 1300-1800', pp. 280-303, shows how in Europe during the Ancien Régime, in particular after the Peace of Utrecht (1713), the violent struggle for hegemonic pre-eminence was replaced by a (often no less violent) idea of a balance of power between the states.

Despite its vast geographic and temporal range, Universal Empire has become a successful, coherent volume, illuminating one of the primary features of premodern land-based empires. As John Hall stresses in his concluding remarks ('Imperial universalism -- further thoughts', pp. 304-309), several themes recur throughout the book. To these belong first and foremost the cohesive qualities of universalistic ideology, viz., its ability to link culturally disparate elites horizontally over large territorial spaces; and second the fact that claims to world empire are seldom hindered by the existence of competing empires and other independent states, but rather flourish in a geopolitical order characterized by intense imperial rivalry. Editors and contributors have succeeded in charting the varied transfers and interactions between successively and simultaneously existing imperial projects, and in showing that universalism is sometimes more a matter of hierarchizing and co-opting other rulers than a real endeavor to actually rule each and every one.


1.   See e.g. C.M. Sinopoli, 'The archaeology of empires', Annual Review of Anthropology 23 (1994) 159-180, esp. pp. 159-160; S. Howe, Empire. A Very Short Introductio (Oxford 2002) pp. 13-15; H. Münkler, Imperien. Die Logik der Weltherrschaft. Vom alten Rom bis zu den Vereinigten Staaten (Bonn 2005); P.F. Bang and C.A. Bayly, 'Tributary empires – towards a global and comparative history', in: id. eds., Tributary Empires in Global History (Cambridge; New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011) 1-17, esp. p. 7. A second feature of empire, returning in most definitions, is the fact that internally empires are characterized by cultural and political diversity.

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