Archive for the ‘empire’ Category

Byzantine empire


The Byzantine Empire (476-1453) never called itself that. That is a name made up by the French 400 years later. The Byzantines called themselves Romans: when Rome fell, in 476, the richer, eastern, Greek part of the Roman empire still stood. It did not fall for good till nearly a thousand years later in 1453. Its glory days were from 500 to 1000.

There is no real break between the Roman and Byzantine empires – they are just names. But because the Byzantine empire was Greek and Christian it is hard to see it as the same empire that Augustus had founded. And yet even Justinian, its most famous ruler, spoke mostly Latin and, unlike us, considered the loss of the west as only a passing thing.

At the heart of the empire stood the city of Constantinople. It was one of the largest cities in the world at the time. Constantine I had founded it in 330 as the “New Rome”. It became the seat of Roman power in the east.

Just as the law, religion and ways of Rome form the foundation of the West, so the Byzantine empire forms the foundation of eastern Europe and especially Russia. Russia is the daughter of the Byzantine empire and Moscow the third Rome.

The Western system of laws (except for the English-speaking world, which follows common law) is Byzantine. Justinian made Roman law into something that can apply to Christian society in his Corpus juris civilis.

The Byzantine empire was the universal state of the Christian world until two things happened:

  1. Charlemagne was made the ruler of the west in 800 by the pope.
  2. The Christian church broke in two in 1054 into Catholic and Orthodox churches.

From this point on the Byzantine empire was simply a Greek empire. Even its religion was no longer a universal faith.

In the 500s Justinian sent Belasarius to take back the west. He conquered quite a bit of it, but he left the cities of Italy in ruins. Most of what he conquered was soon lost.

The First Crusade was called in 1095 to save the empire: Romanus IV lost the battle of Manzikert to the Turks and was in danger of losing all of Anatolia and Constantinople itself. The Crusaders drove back the Turks before going on to the Holy Land to conquer kingdoms of their own.

The Fourth Crusade broke the empire’s back. The Crusaders took over Constantinople in 1204 and set up the Latin empire. It was short-lived – the Byzantines took back Constantinople in 1261. But from 1261 till 1453, when Constantinople fell to the Turks, the empire was no longer an empire – just a kingdom centred on Constantinople.

The Fourth Crusade also destroyed a great deal of Greek learning and literature.

Better dates for the Byzantine Empire would be from 395 to 1204. That is when it was an empire and when it had its own emperors. As late as 395 the western and eastern Roman Empire still had a common emperor.

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Jamaica Kincaid

Jamaica Kincaid (1949- ) is an American writer who was born Elaine Potter in Antigua. She wrote for the New Yorker magazine from 1975 to 1995. The “Talk of the Town” part was hers.

She has written many books of her own – about her mother, her father, her brother, her garden, her old country, her new country and so on. But whatever her books seem to be about, they are in fact about her and how life has double-crossed her: Her mother has failed her, her father has failed her, Antigua has failed her, England has failed her.

Much of her writing, therefore, is bitter and biting. But it is good. So good that I would like to read about her garden even though I do not care for gardening.

“A Small Place” is about the small island of Antigua where she is from, how it was under British rule and after. It is the best book about empire I have read outside of Thucydides. At university we were taught to speak about how unjust the world is in long Marxist words – as if we were talking about the inner workings of a butterfly wing. But she talks about it in simple language. Because she sees it straight, because her mind cuts through all the long-winded lies. It is a joy to read. I fell in love with her from that moment. (The New Yorker refused to print any of it because it was too angry.)

Her writing flows like a river, on and on, not stopping, with bits of sentences coming back up again and again. Her sentences are long, some as long as two pages, but her words are mostly simple, short and everyday.

She writes slowly, carefully crafting each sentence. Sometimes it takes days for the right words to come to her.

She writes because she has to, she writes to save herself. It is her passion, she cannot imagine doing anything else. She loves reading and she loves writing and she loves words.

She went to school in Antigua and wrote for the New Yorker when both still cared about fine writing. She did not understand her good fortune till years later when she saw both go to the dogs.

As a girl she did very well in school and read and read and read. But, despite her promise, her education was cut short at 17: her father became very sick so she was sent to America to help support her family. She came to New York and worked “as one of those many ladies you see with little blonde children”. But she did not send any money home and she did not read any of the letters her mother had sent.

She began to write under the name of Jamaica Kincaid so that no one back home would know it was her. In time she met George Trow of the New Yorker through a friend and so she was “discovered.”

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American Empire

American military presence, 2007

The American Empire (1898- ), also known as the “Free World”, is made up of America and those countries which depend on it in trade and war: North and South America, Western Europe, Oceania, most of the East Asian countries near China, South Africa, Israel, Pakistan, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and the small countries of the Persian Gulf, among others. As I write this, it is fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan.

America has more people than any other country in the West and its empire covers most of it. Places where the empire extends beyond the West, as in East Asia, have taken on many Western ways.

It is not an empire of land and direct rule, like the British or Roman empires. It is more like the empire of Athens – one where it is the first among equals, but is far more equal than the rest and tends to get its way.

Many on the left will agree that America has, sadly, become an empire. But most on the right will deny it. So whether there is even such a thing as an American Empire is a matter of debate.

Yet if it is not an empire, it is something very much like one: it keeps the peace in its part of the world and spreads its way of doing things – which it sees as the answer to the world’s troubles.

At the centre of the empire is America and the rich democracies – Britain, France, Germany, Japan and so on. Beyond that are poor countries that serve the centre, vassal states that provide markets, cheap labour and raw materials. Some of these countries are democracies but many are ruled by generals – the so-called banana republics.

Beyond the empire are Russia, China, India, some of the Arab world and much of Africa.

Some countries have done well in the empire. South Korea, for example, has gone from battlefield to banana republic to one of the richest countries in the world.

Some have left (or tried to leave) the empire, like Cuba, Iran, Vietnam, Nicaragua and Iraq, with mixed success.

Most stay, even if they do not always agree with America. The thinking is that they are better off sticking with America than standing alone. Many are near big countries which they fear more than faraway America, like the countries near Russia and China.

During the Second World War much of the wealth of the British Empire came to America to pay for the war against Hitler. After the war, America was the only large, rich country whose homeland was untouched by war.

It soon found itself locked in a cold war against Russia and its empire – then known as the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact. The Soviet empire fell in 1991.

Since 2001 it has been fighting a war against Osama bin Laden and his worldwide network of terror, who are fighting a holy war. The main battlefield is the Middle East where each seeks an empire.

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British Empire

The British Empire (fl. 1815-1942) was the largest empire in history, larger even than the Mongol empire. It ruled the seas, a fourth of the land and a fourth of mankind. It had more people than even China. It was the top power in the world from Napoleon to Hitler, from 1815 to 1942. The war against Hitler left it broke and worn out and it fell apart in the years that followed.

During the war its wealth and position went to America, a daughter of the empire. Many regard present American world power as the British Empire II. New York and Washington have simply taken the place of London.

Although the rise of industry started in Britain, it did not spread to its empire – most of the empire remained shockingly backward and poor. But by the 1940s industry had spread to Europe, America and Japan. So when war came in the 1940s it found that it was no longer the mighty power that it once had been. The world had changed.

In the old days, land was power. Now it was industry and business. The landed rich of Britain saw this shift in power in their own island in the 1800s and then saw it take place again in the world at large in the 1900s.

The empire was built on sea trade and sea power. For the most part it was made up of ports and countries along the sea from London to Hong Kong.

London was the centre of the empire and world trade. At the time it was the largest port and largest city in the world.

In 1940 the empire had 600 million people. A tenth lived in Britain, two-thirds in India and the remaining 140 million in other parts of the empire.

By 1940 Australia, New Zealand, Canada and South Africa were dominions. That meant they were no longer ruled by Britain, but they still worked within the empire in matters of trade and war.

Most of the countries that were once part of the empire are now part of the Commonwealth.

In the late 1600s and 1700s it got rich mainly from slaves and sugar. It lost its American colonies but then became the top power in the West after defeating Napoleon.

In the 1800s it freed the slaves and shifted its attention to India and later Africa. In the 1900s it went broke fighting two wars against Germany.

What the British Empire gave the world among other things: cricket, world trade, parliaments, football, capitalism and English as a world language.

It brought the Christian faith to much of Africa but left Africa and the Arab world weak and divided. It left Hindu India poor but in one piece and so it is much stronger today because of it.

Hitler and Gandhi, more than anyone else, brought the empire down. But it had fallen behind in many ways – in teaching science, in building arms, in spreading industry, in freeing trade – and so it was only a matter of time before it fell.

– Abagond, 2006.


Lands the British ruled at one time or other between 1600 and 2000. Click to enlarge.

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