The Rule of Empires: Those Who Built Them, Those Who Endured Them, and Why They Always Fall

The Rule of Empires: Those Who Built Them, Those Who Endured Them, and Why They Always Fall

The Rule of Empires: Those Who Built Them, Those Who Endured Them, and Why They Always Fall

The Rule of Empires: Those Who Built Them, Those Who Endured Them, and Why They Always Fall


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 Empireslays bare the rationalizations of imperial conquerors and their apologists and exposes the true limits of hard power.


Looking back to his youth, when Britain ruled Kenya and he served in its East African army, seventy-four-year-old Daniel Wambua Nguta’s hatred for his former colonial rulers remains undiminished. “A European is no good. He rolls you like a ball at his will. And you have to live by his commands.” Nguta’s characterization of British rule is strikingly different from the idealized and romantic notions of empire.

The conquerors of Kenya would have dismissed men like Nguta as barbarous tribesmen. The British peer Baron Cranworth claimed that he and his fellow Kenyan settlers brought progress and modernity to the “primitive” peoples of the East African highlands.

We give peace where war was. We give justice where injustice ruled.
We give law and order where the only law was the law of strength. We
give Christianity, or a chance of it, where Paganism ruled. Whether
the native looks on it in that light is another matter. I am afraid that
possibly he doesn’t as yet truly appreciate his benefits.

Cranworth made his case in 1912, but the current archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, echoed his sentiments almost a century later when he criticized the United States’ occupation of Iraq by lauding Britain’s rule of India. “It is one thing to take over a territory and then pour energy and resources into administering it and normalising it. Rightly or wrongly that’s what the British Empire did in India.”

Today, few westerners doubt this argument. Confident in the superiority of their technology and culture, they believe that the empires . . .

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