Friday, July 11, 2008

A matter of empire

What is an empire? What is an emperor? In the political and historical lexicon this is thrown around a lot, but does the word 'empire' have any real meaning? Well, no, not really, it just seems to mean nowadays very powerful state, or maybe expanding state, or maybe state with extensive influence.

But let's step back a sec and look at the older meanings. Why? Well, this isn't really a historical definition question, but it's still something fun to think about.

Well, the word 'emperor' comes from the name 'imperator' which just meant commander (although the Roman Emperor took it as his title, emphasizing his military role) and 'empire' probably just comes from 'emperor'. But if we look at emperors in other lands, a common title, used in both the ancient Persian Empire and the Ethiopian Empire in its better days is King of Kings (obviously the local language equivalent like šāhān šāh or Nəgusä Nägäst). And then if we look at the case of say the Holy Roman Emperor, he was more really the case of a king above the princes. Furthermore even the Roman Emperor ruled over semi-autonomous provinces and client kingdoms, (although the extent of his power over much of the territory matches nicely with the title of 'king', the Romans hated the idea of a king, associating it with ancient tyranny and they liked to pretend otherwise).

But in summary, what empire really seems to historically mean is a ruler who ruled over many semi-independent kingdoms and prince-ships. Which actually means that emperors, while traditionally ruling over more extensive territories than kings, were often far less powerful over the full extent of their territories.

Now using this as a political science concept might be useful, but there are so many other examples of historic kingdoms which don't match that concept of empire, so it's kind of iffy to use it for history, but... well...


And I've got the history to prove it!

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