The Idea of Empire

28 December 2009


To speak of empire today, or to describe anything as “imperial”, is to employ a turn of phrase that is highly tendentious and politically charged. In other words, the term has come to have a primarily emotive meaning. This is as much as to say that the idea of “empire” has become useless for anything except slander, and this is an unfortunate turn of events because the idea of empire has played a significant role in the history of Western civilization.

Western Roman Empire

I have just finished listening to The Decline and Fall of Rome, fourteen lectures by Professor Thomas Madden from the Modern Scholars series, and obviously indebted to Gibbon’s famous treatment of the theme. Madden focuses on the Western portion of the Roman Empire, so he only mentions the Byzantine continuation of the Roman Empire in passing. This allows Madden to concentrate to canonical historical issues of the decline and fall of Roman power in the West. I really enjoyed this historical review.

Augustus, the man who, more than any other, created the Roman Empire, but retained the fig leaf of Republican institutions.

The Roman Empire began in fiction and ended in fiction. By this I mean that when the Roman Republic effectively ended and Octavian became the first Augustus, he made this possible in part by pretending to maintain the forms of the Republic while replacing it with the actuality of imperial power concentrated in the hands of one man. For several generations this ruse was perpetuated, with Roman emperors allowing the Roman Senate to confer upon them an office that had no legal status within the law of the Roman Republic. Ultimately, the role of the emperor was codified into law (the emperor was officially above the law, by the way), and when the Roman Empire ended in the West the opposite fiction came into play. German kings of invading tribes called themselves Roman emperors. Indeed, Charlemagne had himself crowned Roman emperor, and throughout the Middle Ages there where Holy Roman Emperors (indeed, there were Holy Roman Emperors through the early modern period). It is ironic that medieval kings sought the status of Roman Emperor as an indicator of their legitimacy, since, as we have seen, the office of emperor originated outside the law.

Charlemagne was crowned Imperator Augustus by Pope Leo III on 25 December 800.

A week ago in Ideas Again I made a distinction between embodied ideas and abstract ideas. I could go on to make a further distinction between embodied universal ideas and embodied particular ideas. The idea of empire is a universal idea that has been embodied by many different political entities; the idea of the Roman Empire is an embodied particular idea that has only the Roman Empire as its embodiment, and this particular idea — the idea of the Roman Empire — has been so powerful in Western history that it has played an intellectual role out of proportion to any other conception of Empire. The Roman Empire for Western thought exemplifies empire itself. Medieval kings sought legitimacy by calling themselves Roman; they did not simply declare empire for empire’s sake, but appealed to the tradition of the Roman Empire in particular as a continuing influence in their world. In this sense, in the sense of continuing influence over our history, we are all of us Romans and all of us imperialists if only because our minds have been constituted in part by a long-defunct empire.

Hegel used to talk about something he called a “concrete universal.” I was never able to make sense of Hegel on this score, but now, in retrospect, it occurs to me that one way to explain Hegel’s concrete universal would be to characterize it as what I have called an embodied particular idea. Sometimes, in roundabout way such as this, by my own reasoning I come to a plausible interpretation of a concept that previously had escaped me.

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For more on the idea of empire see The Imperial Idea, its Imperfect Execution, and its Eventual Undoing.

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