Empires and Bureaucracy in World History: From Late Antiquity to the Twentieth Century


In the context of the current global, medical emergency, government health systems and other administrations are being tested to the full. The difference between those countries that have managed to ‘flatten the curve’ and keep infection and death rates low and those that have not is chiefly a story of political will and administrative capacity. The capacity of governments today, however, rests on longer histories of state formation and, in particular, of bureaucratic development. This is the starting point for the book ‘Empires and Bureaucracy in World History’. It offers refreshing relief from a contemporary journalism that tends to reduce the fate of governments to the morality and wisdom of current leaders.

This book presents an impressive collection of seventeen contributions, a very through introduction and afterward about empires and political structures and forms of governance in world historical perspective. It is written in a way to inspire a new way of thinking about the complex and dynamic relationship between an empire and a bureaucracy that goes beyond well-established boundaries, drafted by the historians as well as political scientists. A novelty of this study is that compared to similar other studies of empires this book treats them in relation to bureaucracy, a new ‘conceptual coupling’. The true value of this pairing lays in a two-part claim – a) bureaucracy is basic to the subject matter of imperial history and b) this coupling is especially useful for comparative approach to the studies both empires and bureaucracy, across time and space.

Chapters are organized in three thematic parts, covering the period from late antiquity to the middle ages and from the age of European expansion to the end of empires. The book takes us on an extraordinary intellectual adventure through pre-industrial empires, including Song China, the Inca, the Ottomans, Byzantium, the Carolingians, to the medieval West, Napoleonic Europe, to British colonial India and the post WWII Africa. Two chapters of the book are on Africa: From Chief to Technocrat: Labor and Colonial Authority in Post WWII Africa by Frederick Cooper and The Unintended Consequences of Bureaucratic “Modernization” in Post WWII British Africa by Timothy Parsons.

Imperial bureaucracies explored and studied in the volume vary in terms of size, complexity and “rationality”.

The book raises some of the fundamental questions about temporality and imperial lifespan – endurance and adaptability of certain empires, instead of just focusing on their “decline and fall’. There are two underlying issues that the authors try to address, and these are:

  • Gaining power usually through violent conquest, how did empires rule over different peoples across vast expanses of space and time?
  • How did relatively small numbers of imperial bureaucrats govern large number of subordinated peoples?

Bureaucracy played an important role in providing empires with a means of “articulating social power and marshaling resources in regions far from the imperial core”. Bureaucracy was an essential component of imperial rule. Empires typically began with military conquest, but a conquest must entrench itself with an institutionalized system of ruling the population, other than assimilation – if it is to result in an empire. Once established, imperial bureaucracies sought to coordinate, even if they could not entirely control, the means of coercion, the means of persuasion and the means of production. Imperial bureaucracy was an art of transforming conquered populations into obedient subjects – of keeping people in their place, when they didn’t want to be ruled. Their capacity to rule directly was limited by the small number of bureaucratic personnel, by the problem of communication and by the difficulty of ruling “different” peoples who did not want to be ruled. The very nature of imperial bureaucracy was authoritarian, extractive and backed by violence. An extreme use of violence.

The relationship between an empire and a bureaucracy was at the same time a paradoxical one. While the development of a bureaucratic infrastructure was necessary precondition for consolidation control over territorial acquisitions – in certain circumstances it acted to undermine imperial power. Chapters in the book show how the expansion of bureaucracy can destabilize imperial power because the attempt to rule directly alienates the very elites without whose compliance imperial rule would have been impossible in the first place. What was common to all empires is an ongoing challenge of maintaining a hypersensitive equilibrium between integration and fragmentation, between assimilation and differentiation. Not easy to maintain because of dynamic nature of empires who are constantly changing in their attempt to respond to internal tensions and external pressures of various kinds.