Tag Archives: empires

Enjoy it while it lasts

99-204 CE

If a man were called to fix the period in the history of the world, during which the condition of the human race was most happy and prosperous, he would, without hesitation, name that which elapsed from the death of Domitian [96 CE] to the accession of Commodus [180 CE]. The vast extent of the Roman empire was governed by absolute power, under the guidance of virtue and wisdom. The armies were restrained by the firm but gentle hand of four successive emperors, whose characters and authority commanded involuntary respect.

Edward Gibbon, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Chapter 3

Gibbon doesn’t include China in this assessment of the state of the world, but for that country too, under the Eastern Han dynasty, there was a period of stability and prosperity, lasting from the death of the usurper Wang Mang in 24 CE to the outbreak of the Yellow Turban peasant uprising in 184 CE. During this time, the Roman and Han empires so completely dominated their respective portions of Eurasia that they enjoyed relative peace. Toward the end of the second century CE, both empires had populations around 50-60 million; world population was perhaps 190 million. In the succeeding centuries both empires would experience major population declines and political collapse. As a result, the world’s total population may have declined as well.

Of course Gibbon’s view is a retrospective one, and didn’t anticipate the vast rise in standards of living that eventually followed the industrial revolution.

(After this I’ll give dates as numbers without the “CE”.)


Mirror empires

After centuries of division into warring states, China was united in 221 BCE, under the short-lived Qin and then the long-lived Han dynasties. (Here’s a dynamic map showing the process of unification.) Just a few years later, in 209 BCE, the nomads of the steppe north of China were united under the Xiongnu confederation.

China, like Rome, provides an instance of empire formation along a metaethnic frontier between civilized and barbarian peoples. But it also differs from the Roman case. The Roman frontier kept pushing into barbarian territory for many centuries. The descendants of Asterix and Obelisk would eventually forget their identity as Gauls, and become Romans.


But in the Far East, the steppe north of China would not support agriculture, and the people who lived there would continue their nomad way of life and retain a separate ethnic identity. For centuries after 221 BCE, China held off the barbarians by a combination of military measures (notably of course the Great Wall) and bribery (poorly disguised as “gifts” from Emperor to subject). The Xiongnu held together as a centralized state because their ruler managed the flow of trade and tribute from China. In effect, Qin/Han and Xiongnu were “mirror empires,” facing off across the line between Sown and Steppe.


Write and wrongs

Here’s one account of the origin of the first system of writing in Mesopotamia:

The immediate precursor of cuneiform writing was a system of tokens. These small clay objects of many shapes – cones, spheres, disks, cylinders, etc. – served as counters in the prehistoric Near East and can be traced to the Neolithic period, starting about 8000 B.C. … The development of tokens was tied to the rise of social structures, emerging with rank leadership, and coming to a climax with state formation. Also, corresponding to the increase of bureaucracy, methods of storing tokens in archives were devised. One of these storage methods employed … simple hollow clay balls in which the tokens were placed and sealed. … Accountants eventually [turned to] imprinting the shapes of the tokens on the surface of the envelopes [balls] prior to enclosing them. An envelope containing seven ovoids, for example, bore seven oval markings. The substitution of signs for tokens was a first step toward writing. Fourth millennium accountants soon realized that the tokens within the envelopes were made unnecessary by the presence of markings on the outer surface. As a result tablets … replaced the hollow envelopes filled with tokens.

Schmandt-Besserac How Writing Came about

(Hat tip to commenter Eric for the reference.)

Examples of tokens and corresponding pictographs below:

tokens : writing

And here is Claude Lévi-Strauss (Tristes Tropiques) on the original function of writing:

Writing is a strange invention. One might suppose that its emergence could not fail to bring about profound changes in the conditions of human existence, and that these transformations must of necessity be of an intellectual nature. The possession of writing vastly increases man’s ability to preserve knowledge. It can be thought of as an artificial memory, the development of which ought to lead to a clearer awareness of the past, and hence to a greater ability to organize both present and future. After eliminating all other criteria which have been put forward to distinguish between barbarism and civilization, it is tempting to retain this one at least: there are peoples with, or without, writing; the former are able to store up their past achievements and to move with ever-increasing rapidity towards the goals they have set themselves, whereas the latter, being incapable of remembering the past beyond the narrow margin of individual memory, seem bound to remain imprisoned in a fluctuating history which will always lack both a beginning and any lasting awareness of an aim.

Yet nothing we know about writing and the part it has played in man’s evolution justifies this view. … If we ask ourselves what great innovation writing was linked to, there is little we can suggest on a technical level apart from architecture. … To establish a correlation between the emergence of writing and certain characteristic features of civilization, we must look in quite a different direction. The only phenomenon with writing has always been concomitant is … the integration of large numbers of individuals into a political system and their grading into castes or classes. … At the time when writing first emerged, it seems to have favored the exploitation of human beings rather than their enlightenment. This exploitation, which made it possible to assemble thousands of workers and force them to carry out exhausting tasks, is a … likely explanation of the birth of architecture. My hypothesis, if correct, would oblige us to recognize the fact that the primary function of writing is to facilitate slavery.

(To follow up on the preceding post about empires before history: Lévi-Strauss acknowledges that there have been empires without writing, but argues that the lack of writing kept them from enduring long.)


Uruk and the empires before history

3592-3286 BCE

The story of the evolution of civilization in Mesopotamia used to go like this. As people settled the plains of the Tigris and Euphrates, from the late fifth millennium BCE on they organized themselves around temples that controlled irrigation and distributed rations. From the late fourth millennium, when the written historical record begins, temples were consolidated into city states that warred with one another, until eventually they were united by Sargon of Akkad (in northern Mesopotamia), who founded the first empire in the region around 2300.

But lately it’s been looking like there might have been a whole cycle of empire formation before the invention of writing. The archeological evidence shows that one city, Uruk (home of the legendary Gilgamesh, and probably the same as the Biblical Erech) in southern Mesopotamia had grown to dwarf others in the region by the mid fourth millennium. We find Uruk artifacts over a wide area, from western Iran to northern Syria and southeast Anatolia. These might reflect trade, and probably also settlement, with the establishment of Uruk trading colonies. But at one site at least, something else was going on. Homoukar, in northern Syria, is the site of a city contemporaneous with early Uruk. In 3500 the city was destroyed by hostile forces armed with slings and clay bullets. (The attackers also wiped out what looks like an Uruk trading settlement at Hamoukar, who maybe picked the wrong side to fight on.) The evidence points to Hamoukar having been subsequently occupied by forces from Uruk. We don’t know what kind of administrative control Uruk established, if any, but this does look like long-distance imperialism. Hamoukar is more than 400 miles north of Uruk.

The advent of writing (coming up tomorrow on Logarithmic History) marks a watershed in our knowledge of the past, but we might get a distorted view of social evolution if we assume that the only empires are the ones we know about because people wrote about them. Here are other possible Empires-Before-History, supported by varying levels of evidence or speculation, that we may consider as we continue:

Big in Japan

Japan with its purely feudal organization of landed property and its developed petite culture gives a much purer picture of the European Middle Ages than all our history books.

Karl Marx. Capital

A subject peasantry; widespread use of the service tenement … instead of a salary …; the supremacy of a class of specialized warriors; ties of obedience and protection which bind man to man and … assume the distinctive form called vassalage; fragmentation of authority; and in the midst of all this, the survival of other forms of association, family and State … seem to be the fundamental features of European feudalism … [But] feudalism was not an event which happened once in the world. Like Europe – though with inevitable and deep-seated differences – Japan went through this phase.

Marc Bloch. Feudal Society

After centuries of relative isolation, Japan was forcibly opened to the modern world with Commodore Perry’s visits in 1853 and 1854.


Japan is an interesting case for those who think there are laws of human history – that history is more than just a collection of narratives – because of the similarities between European and Japanese social structure, in spite of wildly divergent high culture. Here are some theories (not necessarily incompatible) about the convergent social evolution of Europe and Japan.

Marxism. According to Marx, there is a limited number of “modes of production” – slavery, feudalism, capitalism, and so on – defined by how the ruling class squeezes a surplus out of the exploited. There are quasi-scholastic arguments among Marxists about how many modes there are, and what society belongs to what mode. Some Marxists define feudalism so broadly that it covers most complex societies before capitalism. Others however (and probably Marx himself) would apply a more limited definition that confines feudalism to Europe (maybe just Western Europe) and Japan. On this view, all feudal societies, even if they are not historically related, will show some generic similarities. Thus (so the story goes) it is no accident that Japan is the one non-Western society to make a relatively rapid and easy transition to capitalism. Even if you don’t buy the whole Marxist package, Perry Anderson’s two volumes, Passages from Antiquity to Feudalism and Lineages of the Absolutist State (from which I got the Marx quote above) are well worth reading.

Cliodynamics. According to some theories, state formation takes place along “meta-ethnic frontiers,” where very different cultures and ways of life abut. In Eastern Europe and most of Asia, the mother of all meta-ethnic frontiers is the one dividing settled farmers from pastoral nomads. The vast majority of really huge empires in history have formed on one side or other of this frontier, or straddling it. In Western Europe and Japan, however, history played out differently. There was less pressure to corral everyone into one monster state, or to overcome the fragmentation of authority by consolidating Church and State, or Emperor and Shogun. (Although consultation and consent between king and vassal didn’t develop in Japan as it did in Medieval Europe.)

Anthropology of kinship. Across a band of territories running from the Middle East through India to China, states developed in conjunction with patrilineal descent groups. In northern Eurasia, and its western and eastern periphery, such groups were not as strongly developed. I wrote a paper once tracing the “deep history” of this and other macro-geographic contrasts in kinship systems. (I should caution that parts of the prehistory need updating.) Feudal society in Western Europe and Japan depended on non-kin-based personal ties. This may have facilitated the later development of non-kin-based institutions like the public corporation and the nation-state. Certainly many Chinese were aware of the difference in social cohesion between their country and Japan. As Sun Yat Sen would remark, “The Chinese people have only family and clan solidarity; they do not have national spirit…they are just a heap of loose sand. But the Japanese are sticky rice.”


The Taiping rebellion in China began in 1850 and was finally put down in 1864. It was led by a former school teacher who discovered, after repeatedly failing his civil service exams, that he was the younger brother of Jesus Christ, destined to bring China over to his own brand of Christianity.

The rebellion was by far the most destructive conflict in the nineteenth century. It illustrates a general characteristic of Chinese history: Chinese wars were fewer but more destructive than European ones. China was unified for most of the past two millennia, governed by dynasties which established peace for long periods of time, among a huge population, over a vast area. But when things fell apart in China, whether from invasions (usually involving steppe nomads) or internal rebellions, vast numbers of people died. Here’s a chart comparing estimated numbers of war deaths for major wars Europe (red) and China (blue)  between 1 and 1800 CE.


The Taiping rebellion comes too late to show up on the chart, but cost the lives of about 20 million people.

Inbreeding depression


“Let others wage war. Thou, happy Austria, marry” (a description of Habsburg marriage policy)

Human inbreeding has both a genetic side (which favors outbreeding, at least within the species) and a political side which may favor a balance between outmarriage (to make new alliances), and in-marriage (to conserve old alliances, and keep land and honor within the family). The Habsburgs played the political game adroitly, putting together an enormous empire, partly by war, but partly by astute dynastic marriages. The Habsburg domains were so unwieldy that after the death of Charles V in 1558, they were divided between two branches of the family. Both sections were huge. The map below doesn’t even show the Habsburg possessions outside Europe, in Spanish America and the Far East.


By 1700, however, genetics caught up with the Habsburgs. The Spanish Habsburg line ended with Charles II, who was grossly disabled, physically and mentally. He was also impotent, and left no heirs. A recent calculation shows that, as a result of generation of in-marriage, Charles II had a coefficient of inbreeding of .254. For comparison, a child of full sibling incest will have a coefficient of inbreeding of .25!

Here’s a recent journal article, and discussions by Ed Yong and Razib Khan.