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Extending Power over Land and Sea
on 18 October 2013
The term "empire" alone, with its suggestions of romance and earthshaking battles, will attract some readers to this book. They will not be disappointed; the story it tells is a rich and fascinating one. This study examines empires over time and space, and in the process gives us a fresh and insightful look at world history.
Readers will discover that despite their common traits, empires are all unique, often in surprising ways. Authors Burbank and Cooper study the extension of power over both land and sea. They devote much attention to how empires attempt to govern different ethnicities, different nations, sometimes by assimilation and equalization, other times by preservation and protection of differences.
The authors do not see empires as leading inevitably to nation-states; sometimes the reverse is true. One empire may evolve into another, or into more than one. The old Roman Empire, for example, became two "Romes," and out of the eastern one developed the Byzantine Empire, one of the longest-lasting in history. Some empires are mobile: The nomadic Mongols built a vast political system in Eurasia, which, though short-lived, transformed many lands and contributed to subsequent governing systems built by the Ottomans, Russians, Chinese and Mughals of India.
Elsewhere in the book, the authors suggest the European empire-builders of the 15th and 16th centuries might be viewed as the "Mongols of the sea" because of their mobility, their skill at concentrating resources, and their adept use of appropriate military technology. The authors also explore how empires interact with and vie with each other, militarily and in terms of trade.
Example: the (Spanish-focused) Holy Roman Empire of Charles V and the Ottoman Empire of Suleiman the Magnificent. These two empires, built on the western and eastern remnants of the old Roman Empire, respectively, were dramatically different in structure and focus. Charles sought to impose social and religious uniformity on the populations he controlled, and built an economy based on state monopoly. Suleiman, by contrast, protected the diverse religious and ethnic communities of the former Byzantine realm, and promoted a decentralized imperial economy built of multiple trade networks. In its glory days, the Ottoman Empire was a far cry from its later portrayal as the "sick man of Europe."
[A version of this review appeared in the March/April 2013 issue of Saudi Aramco World magazine.]