Empire and Region in Comparative Perspective: Central Imperial Expectations and Local Practice

AHA Session 255
Sunday, January 9, 2011: 8:30 AM-10:30 AM
Tremont Room (Marriott Boston Copley Place)
David Armitage, Harvard University
Roman Empire, Roman State
Clifford Ando, University of Chicago
Charlemagne's Empire: The Limits of Standardization
Jennifer Rebecca Davis, Catholic University of America

Session Abstract

All empires face certain common challenges including handling diversity, managing local elites, and integrating new regions into an imperial center.  While the ways in which empires have faced these challenges vary tremendously, the common challenges mean that historians studying empires in different times and places need to ask some similar questions about how empire worked in practice.  This panel is meant to explore the problem of empire, and in particular the contested ties binding empires to their component regions.  By adopting a comparative perspective, the panel is meant to reveal some of the methodologies and questions which can be profitably employed by historians studying different historical examples of empires.  The American Historical Association, as an organization for all historians working in the United States, is an ideal venue to bring together scholars who rarely encounter each other’s work.  What we hope will result from this series of papers on a common theme is a creative approach to the problem of studying an empire and its regions, and a series of questions, methodologies and ways of thinking about the issue which can be applied by historians studying empire in different historical contexts.

            Dr. Deborah Tor will begin by exploring the dilemma which the rulers of the Great Seljūq Empire faced in attempting to reconcile two conflicting political traditions of rulership: Turkic tribal nomadic steppe culture, with its “primus inter pares” ideal of political participation by tribal elites and decentralized rule; and Perso-Islamic sedentary culture, with its idea of centralized absolutism, concentrated in the person of the ruler.  The paper will assess how well these divergent political expectations were combined and will evaluate the extent to which the Sultans were able to control local territories.

In his paper, “Roman Empire, Roman State”, Dr. Clifford Ando combines two usually separate issues, that of extension of citizenship and standardization of political practice, to offer a new perspective on how the Roman empire impinged on the conquered regions over time.  By analyzing these two processes in conjunction, Dr. Ando is able to shed light on the nature of Roman imperial structures and the ways in which the empire re-shaped the provinces.

As the final paper in the session, Dr. Jennifer Davis will consider the balance struck by Charlemagne between imposing Frankish practice on conquered regions and yet also profiting from the local diversity he could not in any case have entirely eliminated.  Rather than attempting to transform the regions he conquered, Charlemagne and his court insisted on uniformity only in certain limited situations.  In other aspects of political practice, the Franks used conquered regions as a source of new ideas about rulership and as an arena in which to experiment with techniques of governance. 

In sum, this panel on Empire and Region in Comparative Perspective is meant to encourage creative synergy among historians working in various fields, and to suggest questions, methodologies and new ideas relevant to the study of empire and imperial control in many different contexts.

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