All Empires Are Not Alike

Greg Woolf

All Empires are not alike, but they want you to think they are
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All Empires Are Not Alike

Look at the reverse of a penny of George the Sixth, father of the present British monarch, and around his head are the words GEORGIUS VI D:G:BR:OMN:REX F.D: IND: IMP. On the other side is Britannia, seated with an oval shield and a spear, wearing a helmet with a crest and the words ONE PENNY and the date. The Latin legend stands for “George VI, by the grace of God king of all the Britons, defender of the faith, emperor of India”. Coins struck in India during his reign, in Annas and Rupees, used the simple English formula “George VI King Emperor”.

Empress Victoria in 1882.

The Latin and the abbreviations, and the particular resonances of the words Rex and Imperator, point back to Rome. Something this sort of thing is written about as a ‘survival’ or ‘echo’ of the past, or as one manifestation of something called a ‘classical tradition’. But symbols like this have no momentum of their own to propel them forwards in time, nor were these terms particularly traditional. The India had only had an emperor (and empress in fact) since 1876 when Disraeli persuaded George VI’s great-grandmother to take the title. The motives had little to do with India, and most to do with keeping up with the German relatives and the King Emperors of Austria and Hungary. The titles, symbols, the iconography were deliberately appropriated, and they were chosen to appeal not to indigenous Indians, but to the educated classes of Britain and Europe.

One thing that made this a plausible strategy was that it had been done many times before. Roman style eagles, laurel wreaths, and heroic statues littered the courts and coinages of Europe. Some looked back to medieval appropriations all the way back to the moment when the Frankish king Charlemagne had himself crowned Roman emperor by the Pope on Christmas day 800 in a show of superiority in the west and equivalence to the other Roman emperor, the one ruling in Byzantium. Further north and east a series of Slavonic chiefs used variants on the title Tsar, a transformation of Caesar. For different reasons in it suited each of these dynasties to dress up their power in Roman clothes. But the kingdoms and empires they ruled had little in common with the imperium Romanum of the first centuries CE.

The only thing empires have in common, when it comes down to it, is that each represented one people ruling over others. Some empires were run by national states– as was the case in the nineteenth and twentieth century empire of France and Britain, Germany and Italy, Spain and Portugal, the Netherlands and a Mexico. But there was always an imperial people, like the Britons who “never will be slaves” in Rule Britannia. Not all empires had emperors – both the Roman and Dutch Republics carved out empires before they acquired monarchs.  And below the surface of all the borrowed pageantry, empires were otherwise as different as the peoples who had created them.

Charlemagne coin with the inscription: Karolus Imperator Augustus

The British Empire, for instance, was run by members of the educated middle-classes. David Cannadine in his book Ornamentalism showed how they imported into the colonies all the anxieties and displays of class status that obsessed them back home. The Roman Empire, by contrast, was ruled by aristocrats whose slaves did much of the work. Medieval German emperors were just kings on a larger scale: they stood in relation to the various kings and nobles just as English kings stood in relation to their tenants-in-chief. There were empires built on clans and kinship groups – the empire of the Inca and some Chinese empires are cases in point. Other empires resting on city-states or palace bureaucracies. Many empires simply took over whatever infrastructure had been there before: Rome did this in some places, so did Alexander’s Macedonian successors, and so did the Manchu. Whatever worked, to keep the ruling people happy.

Rummaging in the wardrobes of their predecessors, many emperors hoped to persuade their subjects that their rule was deeply rooted in the past and would last for ever. It never did, and when they fell, there was always a good chance their conquerors would steal the emperor’s old clothes.

Greg Woolf is the author of Rome: An Empire’s Story. The second edition, released 27th August, is updated and revised taking into account the decade of research since the critically acclaimed first edition was published in 2012.

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