What Were the Most Dominant Empires and How Did They Achieve and Maintain Their Power?
Interviewer: Aco Momčilović, psychologist, EMBA, Owner of FutureHR, Ph.D. Student @ University of Dubrovnik
Interview with Mirko Sardelić, Ph.D., Research Associate at the Department of Historical Studies HAZU, Honorary Research Fellow of the ARC Centre of Excellence for the History of Emotions (Europe 1100–1800) at The University of Western Australia; formerly a visiting scholar at the universities of Cambridge, Paris (Sorbonne), Columbia, and Harvard.
Arguably, one country could claim to have been the most successful and powerful in the world. It would be the United Kingdom, in the year 1900. No other country would ever be so dominant on a global level. There are many discussions about a post-American world, and many assume that China will overtake its dominance on the world stage. Therefore, it would be good to reflect on what was happening with state power in history.
1. What were the most powerful countries/empires at different stages of history? How was their power measured? What was the source of their power?
Mesopotamia is where the sedentary civilization as we know it started some 10,000 years ago. The invention of the wheel, agriculture, irrigation, writing, the formation of the first cities, mathematics, astronomy — all of this is closely connected with the area. The Sumerian, Akkadian, Assyrian, Babylonian empires are just some that achieved a significant level of development. The area gave birth (or was incorporated in) to some other fascinating empires in the centuries that followed. Some of them were less familiar to us in the West, due to the polarisation between East and West that influenced not only politics and economics but also the way history is perceived.
We should mention the Umayyad and the Abbasid caliphates; at their peak, the latter ruled over an area larger than 10 million square kilometers, which stretched from Tunisia to Afghanistan. The Abbasid rule was considered to be the Golden Age of Islam (750–1258). The most impressive features of this empire, alongside the propulsive religion that had spread rapidly in these centuries, were a splendid commercial network, fabulous cities, and knowledge. Greek philosophy and geography, Persian, Greek, and Indian mathematics, and astronomy — a whole range of sciences were developed in intellectual centers, especially in the capital, Baghdad. The empire used its networks and existing knowledge to support its development into one of the most propulsive empires. It also transferred this enriched knowledge ‘back’ to Europe that had ‘forgotten’ or had never known, some of these achievements. We are talking about a wide range of things: Greek and Roman classical literature, geography, astronomy, financial tools (such as cheques and similar), and much more. When the empire’s capital was conquered by the Mongols, it was an end of an era and the beginning of a new one.
For a little over a century (in the 13th and 14th centuries) the Mongol steppe empire was doubtless the most influential force in the world. Just imagine ruling China, the steppes, the polities along the Silk Road, Persia, the Russian principalities, and more — all in one empire stretching from the Sea of Japan to the Mediterranean. Its success lay in elements that are everything but measurable: the charisma of its founder Chinggis-khan, incredibly disciplined armies, skillful and capable generals, and a readiness to learn from the best. For example, they did not possess knowledge of engineering, so they employed the best Chinese engineers to work for them; they had never run an empire, therefore they assigned Persian administrators to important roles so that everything could function well. Any skillful artisan, artist, or trader was valued and incorporated into the Empire’s machine.
The Ottoman Empire dominated the area between Europe and Asia for four centuries. They owed their success to several contributing factors, and one of them was certainly the military system: both in its structure and equipment, such as the gunpowder artillery that they brought to Europe. Another crucial factor was the Empire’s centralized structure, its ability to adapt, and its continuity — the many Turkic ethnic groups in Eurasia never formed a state but were rather dispersed across other polities. They also early took control of the majority of lucrative trade routes connecting Europe and Asia early on.
The Habsburg Empire had an enormous role in the development of continental Europe — some even say that, in some elements, it was the forerunner of the European Union. Moreover, prior to the division of the House of Habsburg in 1556 into an Austrian and a Spanish branch, their possessions on several other continents entitled them to be considered a global empire. It was in the period of Emperor Charles V Habsburg that it was given the label “the empire on which the Sun never sets” — referring to Spanish possessions in the Americas.
For roughly 300 years, the Golden Horde (a Mongol-Turkic khanate) dominated Russian lands, from the 13th to the 16th century. The next 300 years, however, saw the beginning of the Russian Empire’s rise. Ivan (IV) Grozny, the first Tzar of all Russians (1547–1584) conquered the Volga region and started both the modernization and the expansion of the Empire. Peter the Great (1682–1725) modernized it further and made the West aware of his strength and presence on the Baltic (where he founded the splendid city named after him: St Petersburg). During his reign, the Russians had already explored the coasts of the Pacific Ocean, and in the time of his granddaughter-in-law, Catherine the Great, the first permanent Russian settlements were established in Alaska. The Russians sold Alaska to the United States in 1867 for 7.2 million dollars, retaining an empire on ‘just’ two continents.
At its peak, around the year 1900, the British Empire covered a jaw-dropping 24% of the world’s land surface and roughly the same percentage of the world’s population. However, the last three generations have witnessed what a single century could bring to humankind. After two world wars, the British Empire lost most of its power, and three other superpowers took its place: the United States, Russia, and China.
While the former two are, relatively speaking, more recent entities, China has had impressive continuity of civilization. It is a pity that some aspects of Chinese history are not taught in this part of Europe; I am sure the comparative material could offer interesting food for thought. I remember that some ten years ago Professor Walter Scheidel of Stanford University had an interesting project that compared the Han Dynasty (202 BC-AD 220) to the Roman (Republic and) Empire which prospered during the same period. It discussed the convergence and divergence of two powerful empires on opposite parts of Eurasia, taking into account economic and military power, and state institutions.
2. Was the world ever before polarised as in the period of the Cold War? Who were the competing forces?
This polarisation you talk about is a classic mental game of Us and Them (or rather: Us vs. Them). The first example that comes to my Eurocentric mind — even though I have tried a lot to expand my horizons since, still my education was such — was the division made by the ancient Greeks. They were arguably the most responsible for the dichotomy between Asia and Europe — two enormous and fabulous constructs that influenced so many generations’ perception of everything from geography to social relations.
And indeed, it was a huge clash, because the Greeks were in the orbit of one of the most powerful empires the world had ever known: the Persian Empire. Founded by Cyrus the Great (c. 600–530 BC) for a little over two centuries it ruled the vast fertile landmass from the Indus river to the west coasts of the Black Sea and Egypt, covering more than five million square kilometers. (In comparison, the EU covers less than 4.5 million km2.)
There was a crucial reason why ‘Europe’ feared the East. After the Persians, in the millennium after Christ, several waves of nomadic migrations (which are usually dubbed ‘invasions’ by historians) occurred, which substantially affected state formation in Central and East Europe, just to begin with. There were Huns, Avars, Magyars, and Cumans, all-powerful nomadic forces of nature. It all culminated with the Ottoman Empire: exactly at the geographical border of Europe and Asia, but significantly different enough to be a powerful Other for several centuries in the Early modern period (15th-19th centuries). As this empire declined, the Russian Empire became a superpower in the East, as we mentioned earlier.
In ancient times there was a famous king, Alexander III of Macedon, known as Alexander the Great (356–323 BC). In his early thirties, he ruled an empire stretching from the Mediterranean to the Indus river, an area larger than five million square kilometers. (Just for comparison: the legendary Roman Empire was 4.4 million km2 at its peak — and it took the Romans several centuries to accomplish what Alexander did in a bit over a decade.) His conquests were not just spectacular military and logistic achievements; they were remembered for centuries for something else, although it was related to his military victories. He went east and conquered Asian nations, one by one, creating a long-standing myth that was frequently rehearsed, especially during so many centuries of military domination by Eurasian nomads. His status was probably somewhere between that of a superhero and a saint-protector from the dangerous races of the East: such as, for example, Gog and Magog, whom he ‘repelled’ by constructing an enormous iron gate in the Caucasus.*