Empires of the Plains: A World Historical Perspective

AHA Session 138
Friday, January 6, 2017: 1:30 PM-3:00 PM
Room 603 (Colorado Convention Center, Meeting Room Level)
Jonathan Skaff, Shippensburg University
Nomadic Empires, Kinetic Empires
Pekka Hamalainen, St. Catherine's College, University of Oxford
Empires of Mobilities
Bryan Miller, University of Oxford
The Horde and the Mongol Peace
Marie Favereau, University of Oxford

Session Abstract

This panel provides a wide-ranging reinterpretation of the history of equestrian nomadic empires from the fourth century BCE to the late nineteenth century CE through a series of case studies. The panel has three major objectives that are interrelated. First, it expands the scope of the field by extending it beyond the better known Eurasian nomadic empires into the Americas, where new research has revealed previously unidentified nomadic empires. Second, it seeks to break new methodological ground by showing how innovative and underused approaches—integration of environmental and imperial histories; blending of multiple analytical scales to reveal the socio-political complexity of nomadic societies; and a specific spatial reorientation in which developments are viewed from nomadic domains outward rather than from sedentary frontiers inward—can yield a broader and more nuanced understanding of the emergence, behavior, and historical influences of nomadic empires. Third, the panel seeks to untangle the study of nomadic empires from normative and mechanistic models by introducing new conceptual avenues that allow us to examine nomadic empires on their own cultural terms. This requires decoupling the definitions and theories of empire from conventional formulations that have privileged sedentary forms of power: direct management of people and resources, relatively static relationships of hierarchy and diversity, fixed points of control, and territoriality. Viewed through a lens calibrated for sedentary societies and empires, nomadic regimes appear organizationally and historically diminished: Nomads are opportunists who prey on agrarian societies and prefer violent exploitation over diplomacy and persuasion; their institutions, like their way of life, are too fluid and ephemeral to sustain robust empire building, forcing them to erect one-dimensional raid- and plunder regimes. Stepping outside such formulations, this panel focuses on imperial dynamics rather than imperial types. The panelists are concerned with the processes—adaptive, strategic, structural—that have unfolded and intertwined to form and sustain nomadic empires, and their papers illuminate the vast spectrum of historical nomadic empires. Together, the panelists outline a set of broad analytical approaches that can serve as a guiding framework for future research. These include the possibility that shape-shifting and nodal spatial composition could give nomadic regimes tremendous staying power; testing the hypothesis that some nomadic societies erected empires without any identifiable governing centers while others became partially sedentary and built agricultural enclaves to consolidate their power; shifting attention to nomad-nomad relations that arguably were often more important for nomadic empires than their relations with sedentary societies; and a notion of expansionist nomadic regimes as kinetic empires that turned mobility into an imperial strategy. The five papers exist in a comparative dialogue with one another. Collectively, they reveal nomadic empires as a multifaceted world-shaping phenomenon and, by doing so, challenge the received views of what empires are, where they can exist, how they exercise power and rule, and how they decline and fall.
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