You can have empires without emperors. The proud Dutch Republic of the seventeenth century built up a great overseas empire, as did the French under the Third Republic. Earlier, the republics of Venice and Genoa had significant maritime empires. Even in the British Empire, Queen Victoria and her successors were emperors only of India, not of the rest. And, of course, many people speak freely of the American and Soviet republics as empires, not to mention the new Russian empire that a republican president is trying to re-create.
Equally intriguing, but with more of a tragicomic element about them, are emperors without empires, at least real ones. The ill-fated Habsburg Archduke Maximilian was crowned emperor of a non-existent Mexican empire in the 1860s, before being shot by Mexican rebels. There was also Jean-Bédel Bokassa, self-styled “Emperor of Central Africa” for three years in the 1970s before being overthrown and sentenced to death, though he was cleared of charges of cannibalism. In 1822 Dom Pedro I declared himself “Constitutional Emperor” of a Brazil that, though large, was not an empire in the usual sense. Japan since 1945 has had an emperor, but is expressly forbidden to have an empire.
Dominic Lieven, in his new book, In the Shadow of the Gods, ignores these instructive cases, perhaps thinking them peripheral. For him emperors are hereditary monarchs, usually male, who rule over an empire, and he aims to offer “a collective biography of emperors” in world history. What, he says, distinguishes an emperor from “a mere king”? Emperors, he argues, claimed higher status, regarding themselves, as in the Iranian tradition, as “king of kings”, shahanshah. They also claimed universality, portraying themselves as rulers of the only true civilization on earth, whose light should shine on all. In that sense all empires aspired to be like the Chinese “Middle Kingdom” (zhongguo), an imperial policy that saw itself as occupying the center of the world, from which radiated outwards the beams of civilization.
But we should remember that some of the greatest monarchs repudiated the title of emperor, or regarded themselves as at least its equal. Louis XIV, the “Sun King”, claimant to “Universal Monarchy”, thought of himself as being on a higher plane than the holder of what he saw as the empty title of Holy Roman Emperor. Philip II of Spain ruled a far vaster realm than his uncle Ferdinand, the Holy Roman Emperor. Maria Theresa of Austria was clearly the real ruler of the Habsburg lands, even though her husband, Francis Stephen of Lorraine, was Holy Roman Emperor. Some of the smaller countries, such as Henry VIII’s England or the Visconti dukes of Milan, might proclaim themselves “empires”, but for many of the larger ones the word, like its cognate “emperor”, were already beginning to appear quaint and archaic by the eighteenth century.
What arguably relaunched the term was Napoleon’s adoption of the title of emperor following his suppression of the Holy Roman Empire, and the sense that one could now aspire to follow in the footsteps of Alexander the Great, and of the great Roman emperors, in spreading civilization to the world. Certainly the British and the French, after their imperial losses in the eighteenth century, hurried to make these up in the nineteenth century, with such success that by the end of that century every aspiring power, including Germany, felt the need to have an empire , preferably a global, overseas one, like the British and French. Only the Americans, at least formally, refused to take on the “white man’s burden” urged on them by Rudyard Kipling over the Philippines in 1899.
Lieven scrupulously refrains from engaging in the “empires wars”, an attitude hard to sustain these days. This is, he insists, a book “about the past”; “indignation needs to be suspended and the past to be understood on its own terms”. He clearly expects “indignation” or condemnation to be the dominant response among contemporary readers to a book about empires. Perhaps that is why he goes out of his way to show considerable sympathy for emperors, faced with the formidable task of managing realms of enormous scale and diversity. His particular favorites include Taizong, the second Tang emperor, “beyond question one of history’s greatest emperors”, not just a successful general and administrator, but a calligrapher and poet of note. He finds the Abbasid caliphs of the medieval Arab empire to be “model universal emperors”, praising especially Abdullah al-Mamun – rather than the better known Harun al-Rashid – for the creation of the brilliant artistic and intellectual culture of the Abbasid court at Baghdad. Another praiseworthy ruler is the Mughal emperor Akbar – “one of the most impressive emperors in history” – who did much to reconcile Hindus to rule by Muslims, and who laid down the institutions that not only ensured long-term Mughal rule, but also proved serviceable to their British successors.
The rather humdrum terms in which Lieven appraises these emperors illustrate one of his principal problems: the lack of detailed information about the personal lives and thoughts of so many emperors, especially but not only in the ancient world. Again and again we get statements such as “it is impossible to gain any insight into the personalities and the inner worlds of the rulers of steppe empires”, or “it is difficult to get behind the official mask of Ottoman sultans and gain a sense of their personalities”, or, speaking of the restored Meiji emperor in 1868, “it is impossible to gain much sense of the human being who presided over this momentous era in Japanese history”.
With the Mughal emperors, Lieven is better served, being able to draw on the lively autobiographies the Baburnamathe Akbarnama and the Jahangirnama of their respective emperors. He is also good, as one might expect from a specialist on the Russian empire, on the Russian tsars, especially Peter the Great, Catherine the Great and Alexander I, though the summary assessments sometimes strike a note of banality: “Catherine was a highly intelligent, tough, self-disciplined and self-aware realist”. This also supplies the occasion for an extended account of the rise of Lieven’s own family, German “Baltic barons” who faithfully served the tsars almost to the end of the empire, for which they were richly rewarded: “the imperialy of the Romanovs was their El Dorado”. From family memoirs and even family conversations, Lieven picks out many intimate details of the lives of several of the later Romanovs.
The sparsity of material on the lives of emperors means that this book is as much about empires, as a type of polity, as it is about emperors, individually and collectively. As such it tends to go over ground covered by such well-known works as Jane Burbank and Frederick Cooper’s Empires in World History (2010). But it also adds many perceptive observations of its own, for instance showing that the strength of the rule of primogeniture in the European empires usually allowed them to escape the ferocious succession struggles that plagued so many of the non-European empires – Ottoman, Mughal, Chinese – where brothers, cousins, uncles and nephews fought for the throne. On the other hand, as the Habsburg and to some extent the Romanov families well illustrated, primogeniture could mean succession by the weak and feeble-minded rather than by those who had proved themselves in battle or superior court politics (often fought out by ambitious mothers). of the harem).
In the Shadow of the Gods is an impressive feat of synthesis, written with the author’s customary flair and eye for detail. It draws on the voluminous literature on the various empires, including Lieven’s own Empire: The Russian empire and its rivals (2000) Towards the Flame: Empire, war and the end of tsarist Russia (2015). He says of the present book that “in many ways it sums up almost everything I have studied, taught and written about in a career of nearly fifty years”. With his failing eyesight and hearing loss, about which he writes movingly in the preface, this book inevitably has a swan-song feel about it. It will probably not be the one by which he is most remembered. But with its engaging style, its undogmatic tone and the wealth of coverage, it will undoubtedly attract many readers. Dominic Lieven says disarmingly: “if readers conclude that this book is a heroic, thought-provoking and sometimes amusing failure I will be more than content.” Failure it is not; Stimulating, informative and enjoyable it certainly is.
Krishan Kumar is the William R. Kenan, Jr., Professor of Sociology at the University of Virginia. His books include Visions of Empire: How five regimes shaped the world imperial2017
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