Book Review: Empires in World History: Power and the Politics of Difference


by Jane Burbank and Frederick Cooper

Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2010. Pp. xiv, 511. Illus., maps, diagr., notes, biblio., index. $35.00. ISBN: 0691127085

In Empires in World History the authors, professors of history at N.Y.U. prolific writers (Russian Empire Colonialism in Question, etc.), compare and contrast the evolution, character, structure, and life of several megastates over the ages.

The volume addresses similarities and differences among many “empires” over the ages.  Not all of these were genuinely unitary states, as the volume includes some that were loosely linked politically but bound together by strong ideological ties or leaders.  Among the entities covered are Rome, China, Medieval Western and Eastern Christendom, the Islamic Caliphate, the Hapsburg world state of Charles V, the Ottoman Empire of Suleiman, the United States, Russia, and so on.  The authors delve into many aspects of each empire’s being, ethnicity, religion, economy, as well as leadership, military prowess, and other traditional measures of power.  More a “meditation” about history than a detailed study, the authors stress the importance of the differences, not the similarities between the various empires.  While the different empires may have had many traits in common, such as the similar solutions the Romans and the Chinese developed for internal
development or frontier defense against the “barbarians,” the authors argue that it is the differences among the various megastates that are more interesting.  A good example of a notable difference is, in the case of the Romans and Chinese, why the former empire “fell” never to rise again, while the latter survived a series of “falls,” each time rising again? 

A good read for those interested in any of the empires discussed or in the rise and fall of megastates.


Reviewer: A. A. Nofi   

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