Are Empires Always Bad?

Empires have been part of human history for millennia. Are they, of necessity, a bad thing?

The Course of Empire: Destruction by Thomas Cole

Being part of the Aztec federation was not without its advantages

Caroline Dodds Pennock, Senior Lecturer in International History at the University of Sheffield

Stereotyping ‘empire’ as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ is not only deeply flawed and ahistorical, but also misses the fact that a wide range of types of state are bundled under this heading. The ‘Aztec empire’, for example, wasn’t really an empire in the sense that is often imagined: it was a cluster of allied and subject states, bound together in a network of power and tribute relationships. When Cortés arrived in Mexico in 1519, he believed that the Aztecs of Tenochtitlan ruled an ‘empire’. The reality was much more unstable and complex.

Moctezuma II was the huey tlatoani (great speaker) of what we call the ‘Triple Alliance’ of Tenochtitlan, Texcoco and Tlacopan: three cities which dominated much of central Mexico. Moctezuma was not the only tlatoani in the region – there were many others, all with their own territory. Each city was part of a complex pyramid of obligation, which was expressed through the giving of tribute – grain, cotton, luxury goods like warrior costumes, even sacrificial victims – to their overlords. It was a similar structure to ‘hegemonic’ empires, where power is more important than territory. The Aztecs were more interested in extracting wealth than deep control and ‘imperial’ relationships shifted constantly, sometimes through war and violence and at other times through alliance and cooperation.

The Aztecs did use their formidable warriors to rise through the ranks – but only made it to the top of the pile in the mid-15th century. Being part of the Aztec federation had advantages: as a citizen of the empire, you gained protection, access to communal grain stores and land and the right to appeal to the imperial courts for justice, and even your own sources of tribute. (Privileges varied depending on your willingness to accept Aztec rule.) This loose network was the reason that the ‘empire’ broke down when the Spanish arrived, as member states looked for more advantageous alliances. But was it good or bad? For Aztecs, that depends on how high up the food chain you were. From a historian’s point of view it is neither, only a demonstration that our ideas of empire are often too reductive to allow a nuanced understanding.


Suspicion of earthly greatness was fundamental to the culture exported by Europeans

Tom Holland, Author of Dynasty: the Rise and Fall of the House of Caesar (Little, Brown, 2016)

Imperialism depends on self-belief. When Sargon of Akkad, in the third millennium BC, blazed a trail for empire, he did so convinced that he had the backing of the gods: his name meant ‘the legitimate king’. Conquerors who followed in his wake invariably upheld a similar conviction. Pharaohs ruled as agents of ma’at; Chinese emperors claimed the Mandate of Heaven; Persian kings identified their rule with the order of the cosmos. ‘You who shall be king hereafter, be firmly on your guard against the Lie.’ So Darius the Great instructed his successors. To defy him was to defy Truth itself.

In the West, the most influential model of empire has been the Roman one. Like other successful imperial peoples, the Romans tended to see their sway as evidence of divine approval. In time, provincials would come to share in this self-estimation. In the second century AD, the rhetorician Aelius Aristides travelled from his home in what is now Turkey to Rome to deliver a lecture. Once, before Rome had embarked on its global mission, he declared, life had been ‘little different from living on a mountainside’. Now, thanks to Roman rule, the world was filled with cities ‘radiant with grace and splendour’. Even amid what had once been barbarous wildernesses, there were ‘gymnasia and fountains, gateways and temples, exquisite handicrafts and schools’.

This, mutatis mutandis, was the justification for empire that modern European imperialists – the Spanish, the British, the French – liked to deploy. Yet there was a catch. No people in antiquity would ever have succeeded in winning an empire had they doubted their licence to slaughter and enslave the vanquished; but Christians could not be so innocent in their cruelty. The image of a God tortured to death by an imperial power lay at the heart of their faith. Suspicion of earthly greatness was a fundamental aspect of the culture that European conquerors exported to the rest of the world. The most distinctive legacy of European imperialism was also its most paradoxical: the doubt that empire can ever be justified.

Africa’s experience of empire was of an alliance of African and European elites

Toby Green, Author of A Fistful of Shells: West Africa from the Rise of the Slave Trade to the Age of Revolution (Allen Lane, 2019)

Empires excel at producing quantity: of people moving (by force or not), increased populations, increased production and consumption and increased strains on ecosystems. That makes them good for statisticians, economists and those who measure reality by spreadsheets. But the human experience is not measurable by a spreadsheet; and there is no quantifiable ‘balance sheet’ for empires.

Like all empires, Africa’s sought control over resources, trade routes and people. The West African empires of Mali and Songhay controlled the gold trade, expanded through conquest and, when Songhay usurped Mali’s power in the 15th century, it did so by taking control of trans-Saharan trade routes; meanwhile, the Omani empire on the Swahili Coast from the 17th to 19th centuries controlled production on the spice islands and the dhow trading routes.

Whether the experience of this was ‘bad’ depended on who you were. For Islamic theologians, itinerant preachers and traders, the empires of Mali and Songhay were beneficial. The circulation of books, scholars and goods increased. Alongside this went growing artisanal production, so craftsmen also gained. Yet for subject and conquered populations, the capacity to be enslaved created insecurity. Empires feed inequalities and depend on coerced labour to do so. As Claude Meillassoux, put it: ‘The surge of philosophical or political thought in ancient Greece or Rome is partly attributed to the leisure time slavery made available to the ruling classes.’

European empires in Africa also fought to control human and material resources, first through slavery, then through forced labour. They did not introduce these paradigms to Africa, but transformed existing institutions. Whether during the Atlantic slave trade, the Scramble for Africa, or the Cold War, the African experience depended on social position: elite gatekeepers of people and resources could expand prestige, even as subject populations were impoverished. As the Guyanese historian Walter Rodney wrote, the African experience of empire was of the alliance of African and European elites at the expense of the African poor.

Subjective and arbitrary notions of ‘good’ or ‘bad’ are inadequate as analytical categories

Kim Wagner, Senior Lecturer in British Imperial History at Queen Mary, University of London

This is in many ways a silly question and one that no serious historian would ever pose. The study of the past does not simply consist of trawling through history and meting out labels of either ‘good’ or ‘bad’ – and the category of ‘empires’ is at any rate so vast and varied that any sweeping assertions would in this regard be meaningless. Today, the notion that history can be reduced to a moral binary is most often seen in public debates concerning the British Empire. Yet, even if we narrow it down, the British Empire at the time when the first colonies in America were established is hardly the same as the British Empire at its apex, when Kipling penned ‘The White Man’s Burden’ to guide America as an imperial power of its own.

Judging history primarily in moral terms allows for particular narratives to be formulated – that the British Empire was on balance ‘good’ because of the abolition of slavery, for instance. Yet this assertion of ‘good’ is based on some kind of ahistorical calculation according to which the centuries of slavery before its abolition are essentially wiped from the ‘balance sheet’ while the subsequent fate of freed slaves as indentured labourers is effectively forgotten.

That does not mean that the abolition of slavery was ‘bad’, but rather that these labels are altogether useless if our aim is to actually understand the past and recognise its continuing legacies. Or take something like the Amritsar Massacre of 1919, so often highlighted as an example of a colonial atrocity that was indisputably ‘bad’. That label, however, does nothing to help us understand why the event occurred the way it did, nor how it was justified or criticised at the time.

Not only are subjective and arbitrary notions of ‘good’ or ‘bad’ inadequate as analytical categories, they actively hinder a more complex engagement with the past. Rather than a meaningful question in and of itself, what must be interrogated is the perceived need to attach simplistic and ahistorical labels to historical events and structures.