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Daniel Naroditsky

History 120A: The Russian Empire, 1450-1800
Professor Kollmann

Reading Log #1: A Review of Karen Barkey’s Theory of Imperial Rule

In Empire of Difference, Karen Barkey argues that longstanding imperial rule is the
product of three conditions, all of which must be met if an empire is to transcend the political,
religious, and social disunity inherent in its subjects. According to Barkey, an empire is a “large
composite and differentiated polity” wherein the center rules over “groups ethnically different
from itself” (Barkey 9). To this diversity — which already constitutes a precondition for internal
strife — may be added the disquieting possibility that the “diverse and differentiated entities”
(Barkey 9) under an empire’s rule unite to contest the center’s authority.
To curb this propensity for fracture, Barkey argues that an empire must, in the first place,
derive a “supranational ideology that often includes a religious claim to be protectors of
Christendom or Islam, and an elaborate ideology of descent and lineage” (13). In turn, this
ideology is “the glue that offers spiritual cohesion to the elite upper classes of the empire,
encouraging their participation” (13). To this end, one can imagine that an inhabitant of a
territory under imperial rule — say, a Roman by the name of Helveticus who lives in Gaul and
who is an ethnic Celt — may find his cultural and political allegiance conflicted. A supranational
ideology may have persuaded Helveticus that by being a Roman, he was participating in a noble
mission and partaking in the most advanced culture of his day.
Even if Helveticus decided to be an upstanding Roman citizen, he would be unlikely to
readily abrogate his native language and customs. To this end, Barkey contends that the second
precondition for imperial unity is the adoption of a consistent way to deal with multireligious and
multiethnic diversity, “from the ‘toleration’ of diversity and its incorporation to forced
conversion and assimilation” (Barkey 13). Diversity, coupled with the paucity of communication
between the various entities under an empire’s rule, meant that a “common understanding of an
imperial community was lacking” (Barkey 11). Helveticus may well have decided to be a
Roman, but his friends and community would remain Celtic. Therefore, an imperial ruler had to
decide in what doses to allow religious and cultural diversity. Too much would raise the
possibility of secession and civil war; too little would alienate an empire’s subjects and foster
negative public opinion.
Regardless of the specific political and social strategy that an empire implemented,
Barkey posits that the third aspect of longstanding imperial rule is the necessity to “keep elites
separate, distinct, and dependent on the central state” (Barkey 13). To this end, it is important to
observe that an empire’s territory and population is too vast to allow for direct rule. Rather, an
emperor rules through a vast and oftentimes sinuous network of intermediaries (Barkey 10) and
regional potentates that perform the day-to-day operations, such as tax collection. It is a matter of
life-or-death for an empire to keep these intermediaries satisfied and performing well. By
ensuring that there is no link between these intermediaries and local elites, an empire’s ruling
body essentially isolates and renders manageable any potential conflict. For instance, if
Helveticus serves as the principal tax collector of a region in Gaul and becomes dissatisfied with
his salary, he would have to lodge his complaint directly with his superior in Rome. If Helveticus
possessed the opportunity to inquire about the salaries of all principal tax collectors throughout
Gaul — and if these collectors, upon putting their heads together, found that they were all
grossly underpaid — the center would have a very serious problem on their hands.
Ultimately, a notion as theoretical as that of longstanding imperial rule cannot be said to
hinge on a finite number of concrete factors. However, I believe that Barkey’s compact theory of
imperial rule contributes to a useful framework that can be applied to analyze various imperial
successes and failures throughout history.

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