Empires:
Perspectives from Archaeology and History

Susan E. Alcock, Terence N. D'Altroy, Kathleen D. Morrison + Carla M. Sinopli (editors)

Cambridge University Press 2001
A book review by Danny Yee © 2002 http://dannyreviews.com/
Though Empires consists of all the papers from a 1997 conference, it lacks the uneven and disconnected feel conference proceedings often have. One reason for this is the obvious work that has gone into putting the volume together. Another is the way recurring themes connect the papers together, forming a kind of network argument for the unity of the overall subject (even though one of the themes is the impossibility of any simple definition of "empire"). And the intrinsic fascination of the subject also helps. Empires as a whole, and many of its papers individually, combine traditional approaches (centred on written records and excavations of palaces, temples, and monuments) with more recent ones (stressing settlement studies, peripheral areas, and more complex readings of texts). The result should have something for anyone with any kind of serious interest in history and archaeology.

The seventeen contributions span a broad range. Geographically, there are six papers on American empires, three on South Asia and two on East Asia, and six on the Near East and Europe (counting the Portuguese and Spanish overseas empires as South Asian and American respectively). The major themes addressed include ideologies and actors (at various levels), geographical variation and local and peripheral perspectives, and connections to a broader world, whether geographical (world-systems) or temporal (successor states and historiographical perspectives). And a thematic approach is used to structure the volume, with the papers divided into five sections, each with its own introduction.

"Sources, Approaches, Definitions" contains a mixed bag of papers that address methodological or epistemological issues. The first paper, by Thomas Barfield, starts with the Xiognu and Han China, but extends to steppe empires and China more generally and thence to a universal taxonomy of empires. Barfield's typology embraces primary empires — with "administration of diversity", transportation and communication systems, a monopoly of force, and some kind of broad "imperial project" — and various forms of "shadow" empire — "mirror" empires (such as those of the steppe nomads), merchantile empires, "vulture" empires, and "empires of nostalgia". This framework is used by several of the other contributors to Empires, though sometimes only as a basis for dissent.

Sanjay Subrahmanyam presents a history of the Portuguese Estado da India, asking whether or not it should be classified as an empire. Katharina Schreiber surveys the archaeology of the Wari empire of Middle Horizon Peru, tackling the epistemological problem of what criteria can be used for assigning "empire" status in the absence of written evidence. And Amélie Kuhrt examines one of the archetypal examples of an empire, the Achaemenid Persian Empire, focusing on its formation and cohesion, governance, and the balance between central power and local particularism.

The papers in "Empires in a Wider World" are a bit of a miscellany. Michael Smith looks at the Aztecs in the context of the broader Mesoamerican economic world system, considering both Aztec imperial strategies and their effects on society in the provincial area of Morelos. Carla Sinopli gives a brief account of the earlier Mauryan empire before turning to the Satavahana dynasty of south India (c 100BCE to 200CE), where she focuses on the extent to which its ideological claims in inscriptions and monuments actually had substance in political, military, and economic infrastructure. And Kathleen Deagan looks at how the imperial ideology of Spanish America clashed with local practice, especially in frontier and rural areas.

In "Imperial Integration and Imperial Subjects", Terence D'Altroy surveys political and economic developments in the Inka empire, with a focus on aristocratic lineages, estates, and inheritance. Robert Morkot looks at imperial relations between Nubia and Egypt, during the expansion of the Eyptian New Kingdom Empire into Nubia (c. 1550-1050 BCE) and, a millennium later, during the 25th Dynasty Kushite domination of Egypt (c. 750-650 BCE). Kathleen Morrison attempts to illuminate debates about the nature of the Vijayanagara empire of south India (c. 1300-1700) by looking at three local areas (dry farmers in the urban hinterland, resistance in northern Tamil provinces, and forager-traders in the western mountains).

Opening the "Imperial Ideologies" section, Elizabeth M. Brumfiel presents a study of Aztec state religion and ritual, in both the capital Tenochtitlan and a regional town Tepepolco, arguing that it was aimed at the young men who formed the backbone of the army. Greg Woolf takes a fresh look at imperial ideologies in the familiar literary evidence from classical Rome. Susan Alcock writes about memories of the past in the Eastern Roman Empire, focusing on landscapes and architectural spaces. And Robin Yates argues that the Chinese Qin dynasty created key cosmographic myths, in particular those that underpin notions of Chinese cultural unity.

The final section is "The Afterlife of Empires". Mario Liverani gives a historiographical overview of ancient and modern explanations for the end of empires generally and for that of the Assyrian Empire in particular, considering such themes as inner decadence, outer shock, and cycles of collapse and rebirth. John Moreland outlines the roles of administration, warfare and plunder, and trade in constructing the Carolingian empire, but focuses on the ideological appeal to classical Roman models, examining the monastery of San Vincenzo in southern Italy as "a beacon of Carolingian ideology on the edge of empire". And Sabine MacCormack looks at historical perspectives on the Inca Empire, at the Spanish use of comparisons with the Roman Empire and at the effect on indigenous histories of conflicts within Inca lineages in Cuzco.

April 2002

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%T Empires
%S Perspectives from Archaeology and History
%E Alcock, Susan E.
%E D'Altroy, Terence N.
%E Morrison, Kathleen D.
%E Sinopli, Carla M.
%I Cambridge University Press
%D 2001
%O hardcover, notes, bibliography, index
%G ISBN 0521770203
%P xxii,523pp