In The Rule of Empires, Timothy Parsons gives a sweeping account of the evolution of empire from its origins in ancient Rome to its most recent twentieth-century embodiment. He explains what constitutes an empire and offers suggestions about what empires of the past can tell us about our own historical moment. Parsons uses imperial examples that stretch from ancient Rome, to Britain's "new" imperialism in Kenya, to the Third Reich to parse the features common to all empires, their evolutions and self-justifying myths, and the reasons for their inevitable decline.
Parsons argues that far from confirming some sort of Darwinian hierarchy of advanced and primitive societies, conquests were simply the products of a temporary advantage in military technology, wealth, and political will. Beneath the self-justifying rhetoric of benevolent paternalism and cultural superiority lay economic exploitation and the desire for power. Yet imperial ambitions still appear viable in the twenty-first century, Parsons shows, because their defenders and detractors alike employ abstract and romanticized perspectives that fail to grasp the historical reality of subjugation.
Writing from the perspective of the common subject rather than that of the imperial conquerors, Parsons offers a historically grounded cautionary tale rich with accounts of subjugated peoples throwing off the yoke of empire time and time again. In providing an accurate picture of what it is like to live as a subject, The Rule of Empires lays bare the rationalizations of imperial conquerors and their apologists and exposes the true limits of hard power.
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Very Good, learned a lot, well researched
Please Don't Buy This Book!
If this had been written by one of my undergraduates, I would have given it an "F" and handed it back. While there are a variety of problems, I'll point out only a few that are indicative:
1) Research - the book claims that Constantine the Great made Christianity the religion of the Roman Empire. He did not - he legalized it. This occurred under Theodosius. That's shoddy research and makes most claims in the book suspect.
2) Logic - Parsons bases his argument on the romanticized view of "empire" in the West (which I think is accurate). However, when discussing the Umayyad Caliphate, he dismisses outright the possibility that modern groups (i.e. Al-Qaeda, ISIS, etc.) do not have a similarly romanticized view of this Caliphate, even while offering quotes that support a romanticized view. Is it ONLY Westerners who romanticize history and empire? That seems inconsistent to human behavior!
3) Case Selection - Parsons states that his list of selected cases is neither "exhaustive nor definitive." The not-exhaustive part I get. But not definitive? If at least ONE of the cases studied is not a definitive example of empire, in a book about empires, then why were these cases chosen? Further, one wonders about the logic of Parsons' case selection? Why were the Assyrians and Egyptians excluded (the Assyrians, especially, could have supported his thesis)? Similarly the Hittites, Moghuls, or Alexander's brief "empire."
I genuinely wanted to like this book - but it quickly devolved from a thorough academic examination of the excesses of empire to poorly researched revisionist history that favored histrionics over history.
Some of the pronunciations made my ears hurt!
- Brett M Miller