Empire in Asia

A New Global History

Peoples and Empires

Book Cover

Book Title

Peoples and Empires: A Short History of European Migration, Exploration, and Conquest, from Greece to the Present. New York: Random House, Inc., 2001


Pagden, Anthony


This is a broad introduction to empires as a general area of study; Pagden himself clarifies that it is a “very short book on a very big subject”. The book therefore boasts a vast temporal and geographical scope and prioritizes breadth over depth, aiming to provide a brief overview of primarily European empires rather than an in-depth analysis of them. Tracing the beginnings of empire to Alexander the Great and his attempts at universal conquest, Pagden flits, in a roughly chronological manner, across various large themes, from maritime power and navigation to slavery. In order to concretely illustrate the challenges of creating and maintaining an empire, however, he does examine in moderate detail selected momentous decisions and events which have had drastic implications for future imperial endeavors, such as the long-standing debate over the treatment of the Indians between Las Cases and Sepulveda, or the birth of the slave market in 1444 thanks to Prince Henry the Navigator. His discussions on the evolvement of empire throughout the ages also take place within larger historical frameworks, such as the permeation of Christianity into the political and moral aspects of European life, and the advent of the social sciences. The book ends with Pagden’s observations on the end of the colonial project in the 1960s and 1970s; he argues that the political and cultural residue of old empires is still visible today, most notably embodied in groups like aboriginal peoples which straddle awkward middlegrounds between colonial times and the modern, independent nation.

Scope (Topics Covered, Time Period)

Pagden’s approach is heavily Eurocentric. By arguing that the notion of empire-building began with the ancient Roman world, he effectively limits his discussion to European imperial rulers and elites which inherited their Roman predecessors’—Augustus and Alexander the Great, for example—strategies and attitudes toward their empires and the peoples in them. Empires in Asia, such as the Chinese, Indian and Japanese empires, garner only fleeting interest in contrast to the far more detailed examination of their Iberian and British equivalents. While Pagden clarifies that the Europeans were not alone in practices relevant to empire, such as maritime trading, he appears almost to dismiss the extent and agency of Asian empires and relegates them largely to the sidelines. In fact, non-Euopeans figure principally as either victims of European colonization or as the source of exotic Western fantasies—as in the case of the Tahitian women encountered by Antoine de Bougainville.

Pagden begins with a compressed biography of Alexander the Great, whom he claims was viewed as the “archetypal empire builder” for centuries to come. Through Alexander’s example he provides a preview of the major challenges every aspiring imperial leader faces: how to establish and sustain rule over a diverse collection of peoples, how to ensure internal and external security, and how to find compatibility between imperial ambitions and domestic value systems or moral codes. Pagden argues that the Iberian and British empires inherit these concerns, albeit in different forms and under different circumstances; therefore, these issues become major themes running through the length of the book, with multiple sub-themes (for example, slavery falls under the controversial issue of the treatment of various indigenous peoples). Chapters are organized according to these themes and sub-themes.

Pagden is ambitious in terms of time, moving rapidly from ancient Roman times to present day. As a result of his focus on European empires, however, much discussion centers on the 15th to the 18th centuries, during which the Portuguese, Spanish, French and British built their empires, mostly in Asia and the Americas. The ancient times of Alexander the Great serve as a historical reference point for these 300 years of intense colonial activity. The book is loosely chronological: Pagden jumps back and forth between years or even decades, but progresses steadily through the centuries.

Argument (Methodology, Significance)

Pagden’s decision to establish the empire of Alexander the Great as the starting point for empires makes it difficult for him to discuss Asian or other non-European empires in their own right, as they were presumably far less directly influenced by Alexander and his legacy than their European counterparts. The book thus focuses overwhelmingly on the European colonial experience, mostly portraying non-Europeans only as supporting actors or as passive victims of exploitation and subjugation. He does however passingly note that empires are not a European creation.

More positively, however, the same decision also results in a strong sense of historical continuity. Pagden draws links between contemporary practices and ancient Roman ones—for instance, the distinction between just and unjust wars. He also takes care to juxtapose new societal developments with the old status quo. For instance, he examines in some detail the pivot toward Christianity, contrasting it to the previous more militant Roman moral code. He also distinguishes between old and new imperialism, where the former refers to a strong economic emphasis on trade and exploitation of native labor and resources, and the latter refers to the acceptance of the self-imposed responsibility of educating, modernizing and proselytizing to indigenous peoples. By making constant references to previous trends when introducing new ones, and drawing comparisons between them, Pagden reminds readers that the evolvements of empire did not happen in a vacuum independent of historical memories.

Pagden broadly characterizes empires rather than narrows them down to a definition. Because they involve the mass movement of peoples across vast territories, he considers them a result of “restlessness”, the product of innate human desires for a better life. They are built by conquest, in various forms and intensities. Empires often showcase a highly stratified and technologically sophisticated society, accumulated wealth, and at least some degree of security from external threat. Most importantly, they are often forced to be diverse, cosmopolitan entities by virtue of their inclusion of many peoples. Crucially, Pagden argues that the building of empires has shaped the world since Alexander’s time, creating and destroying whole societies and becoming an integral part of the construction and dissemination of human knowledge. Thus Pagden claims that empires constitute the history of the human race.

Pagden’s emphasis on the significance of empires is best exemplified in his argument for a universal element to empire building. The first Roman empires aspired toward the extension of universal citizenship and thus the exercise of power upon a new world of their own creation. This was based on the assumption that certain values—those endorsed by the imperial elite—were not specific to a particular race or culture, and were all-encompassing in nature. Today, Pagden claims, it appears that the values of individual rights and liberal democracy have dominated the international political scene. While this “universal creed” may establish solidarity in times of crisis, Pagden warns that this form of universalism was precisely what created empires in all their destructive capacity.

Annotated by Jennifer Yip