The imperial imperative

The German and Russian emperors in 1913. Image: Wikimedia Commons

In the Shadow of the Gods: The Emperor in World History

Dominic Lieven, London: Allen Lane, 2022, 500 pps. hb., illus., £35

In the battle for precedence between the ‘great man’ and more ‘inclusive’ views of history, an account of emperors across centuries and cultures feels like a defiant assertion of the older school. Cambridge historian Dominic Lieven’s excuse, if he needs one, is that even the most ancient empires and remote emperors offer leadership lessons we can and need to learn, and that individual agency is as important as impersonal forces. The last truly imperial act was in 1945, when Japan’s Emperor Hirohito ended the Second World War, but legacies of empires surround us still, from Western controversies about immigration and slavery, to Russia and Ukraine’s claims to the same plains, and China’s coveting of Taiwan.

The author brings specialist knowledge of the Romanovs to his sprawling subject (a Lieven was military adviser to Tsar Paul I), but he ranges ably from Sargon of Akkad to twenty-first century Japan by way of China, Rome, India, Austria, Britain, Prussia, and other once grandly expansive hereditary monarchies. It is interesting to have such varied societies seen as a single subject, and Western readers are likely to learn much about the trajectories of Eastern empires.

Divergent though they were, all emperors aspired to govern large territories and diverse peoples over long periods. Some empires operated moderately efficiently over long periods without resorting to tyranny, and this appeals emotionally and intellectually to a liberal-minded author of pan-European antecedents who is married to a Japanese, and has Jewish and Filipina in-laws. Other empires were short-lived, and if some emperors were brilliantly humane others were cruelly inept. But even the most egregious failures bear comparison with the post-imperial world order, whose achievements and leaders are often even less impressive.

The Dowager Empress Cixi, last Empress of China. Image: Wikimedia Commons

Empires were usually established by charismatic warriors, who could be brutally wolfish, like the Assyrians, or highly cultured, like Alexander the Great. China’s imperial saga, which informs Xi Jinping Thought, was severally revolutionized by brilliantly-led Turkic or Mongol hordes irrupting from the boundless steppe-lands. The sky-god worshipping horsemen romanticised in the West by Christopher Marlowe (Tamburlaine the Great) or Saint-John Perse (Anabasis) burst into China (and India, Turkey, and eastern Europe) from Perse’s “great land of grass without memory”, burning settlements and mounding their late inhabitants, and supplanting decadent dynasties. But they paradoxically often absorbed the settled cultures they found, so much more polished than that which obtained out under yurt-canvas. The Tang dynasty (618-907), China’s greatest, was half-Turkic, originating in the northern border regions that would later birth the equally enduring Manchus (1636-1912).

Empires that established something like orderly hereditary succession soon became characterised by custom and tradition, which eventually ran the risk of ossification, and supplantation in their turn. Over-endogamous ruling families gradually ruled themselves out of contention. Tutankhamun, who was probably the product of three generations of intermarriage between close cousins, was married to his half-sister, had a deformed foot and spine, and died at eighteen. The Habsburgs were renowned (if at times exaggeratedly) for unattractive hereditary jaws and intellectual incapacity. Conversely, Russian tsars before Peter the Great ‘married down’ into the gentry to refresh the lineage and avoid intra-familial tension, while Ottoman sultans sometimes selected their heirs from sons fathered on slaves.

Many occupants of imperial thrones claimed to be descendants of gods, or at least divinely appointed. Peace and prosperity were signs of celestial approval of earthly arrangements, what Chinese thinkers called the “Mandate of Heaven”. Ying Zheng of the Qin dynasty, who united China in 221 BC, distinguished himself from lesser kings by terming himself Huangdi (“August Thearch”), embodiment of Buddhist and Daoist spirituality. Buddhism itself might have remained confined to the Himalayan foothills had it not been adopted by India’s Emperor Ashoka, Christianity could have remained a Near Eastern niche had it not been for Constantine, and the Arabs might have remained only regionally important had they not embraced Islam, and envisioned a global Caliphate. Holy Roman Emperor Charles V derived authority from his real descent from both Charlemagne, Western Europe’s Christian unifier, and Godfrey of Bouillon, crusader-king of Jerusalem – and legendary descent from Noah. Into the 1960s, many Britons believed Elizabeth II had been chosen by God.

Religion could alternatively rive empires. “When Chinggis Khan was born”, the Secret Book of the Mongols asserts, “his destiny had already been ordained by Heaven above”. The 16th century Safavid uprising split Islam’s umma, and turned Iran forever Shiite. Rulers who rode the tiger of religion sometimes fell off, like the Empress Dowager Cixi, who unwisely backed the Boxer Rebellion, and had to flee the Forbidden City disguised as a peasant.

Empires often co-opted earlier imperia to bolster their pretentions; Russia saw herself as the ‘Third Rome’ (‘Tsar’ signifies ‘Caesar’), and the obelisk called ‘Cleopatra’s Needle’ was taken to London in 1878 to suggest Anglo-Saxon analogies with ancient Egypt. Empire-builders were also often quick to harness new technologies. In the 19th century, trains and telegraphs were yoked to ancient acquisitiveness, counterintuitively expanding empires and reinforcing royal families even as democracy and nationalism were making radical inroads. New intellectual currents could also legitimize imperial aggrandizement, with Darwinian logic wielded to legitimise the survival of the ‘fittest’ in an eternal struggle for resources. Kaiser Wilhelm II’s fascination with new technology ultimately led to World War I and the downfall of Europe’s empires, as he engaged in reckless naval brinkmanship with Britain, to strengthen his arriviste Empire’s ‘place in the sun’.

Emperors and empresses could disappear for months into private quarters, and when seen were freezingly dignified, like the Thai kings of the 1680s who “sat on their thrones like gods”, according to ambassadors from France’s Louis XIV, himself sizzlingly resplendent as the “Sun King”. Distance must sometimes have lent popular enchantment, at least in good times – and even in bad, troubles could be blamed on corrupt or inefficient officials (or eunuchs, or foreigners, or mistresses) rather than allegedly avuncular emperors. But cynicism flourished in courts, where cruelties, inefficiencies, and rulers’ private peccadillos were every day evident. Not even demi-gods could be heroes to their valets, let alone their viziers.

Then there was vicious Realpolitik. In 813, Al-Amin, Arab Caliph of Baghdad, was murdered by rebels allied to his brother. His brother was supposedly grieved by Al-Amin’s death, but coolly instructed his chief counsellor, “Use your ingenuity to find an excuse for it”. In 1687, after forty-six years confined to the gilded prison of Constantinople’s Topkapi Palace, when Prince Suleyman was taken out to be proclaimed Sultan, he thought he was to be executed.

Many emperors are known only as names, expressionlessly masked and stiff in official portraiture – their personal qualities, private dilemmas and bitterest struggles apparent only to confidantes or concubines. Countless doubtless fascinating conversations must have been lost to history, and the pillow. Lieven nevertheless unearths much interesting personalia from Ozymandian remains. India has the Baburnama, the unusually candid autobiography of Babur the Tiger (1483-1530), founder of the Mughal Empire. In the West, Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations have been used as a manual of statesmanship and philosophical primer since the sixteenth century, revealing an admirable compound of equipoise, intellectual curiosity, realism, and self-restraint.

Aurelius also had friends who gave honest advice, a wise counterbalance to courtiers’ natural tendencies to tell emperors whatever they wished to hear, while consolidating their own positions. The Qing emperor Kangxi used a secret network of informants from all around his kingdom, who reported to him in private. Louis XIV respected candour in his ministers, even when their news was unwelcome. Less shrewd rulers were often islanded by their own ‘greatness’, which ultimately made them ironically less great. But even paragons inadvertently undermined their inheritors by setting standards of personal conduct, military skill and political astuteness that could not easily be lived up to by lesser (or less lucky) successors.

Skull on a Hapsburg coffin. Image: Wikimedia Commons

There are rare redundancies in the book; military history, it seems, “has devastating consequences for ordinary men and women”. Ideally, had space permitted, there would have been more about smaller but equally interesting empires, like Belgium, Benin, Brazil and Ethiopia. The ‘Afterword’ feels like an afterthought, ritualistically denouncing Donald Trump as the worst kind of post-imperial politician, and ending abruptly. But then all post-war politics have an unsatisfactory ‘ending’, as we come to terms with the very recent vanishing of history’s most prevalent social order. This remains an excellently informed comparative history of some of the most powerful individuals ever to have lived.

This review first appeared in the July 2023 issue of Chronicles, and is reproduced with permission

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