W. Pohl u.a. (Hrsg.): Emerging Powers in Eurasian Comparison, 200–1100

Emerging Powers in Eurasian Comparison, 200–1100. Shadows of Empire

Pohl, Walter; Wieser, Veronika
Anzahl Seiten
451 S.
€ 164,78
Rezensiert für H-Soz-Kult von
Randolph Ford, Visiting Professor of Classics, Skidmore College

“There is more to the fall of empires than ‘collapse’” (p. 1). So say Walter Pohl and Veronika Wieser in their introduction to this horizons-broadening volume. Rather than focus on traditional narratives of imperial decline and fall, this collection of essays examines the various political groupings that appeared following imperial disintegration, and it does so from a comparative Eurasian perspective. The editors situate their approach in the context of comparative studies of empires as well as global studies, offering a brief survey of current methodologies and problems. The latter include difficulties in arriving at a comprehensive definition of “empire,” the scholarly legacy of terminologies and narratives created in the context of colonial domination, and the challenges of engaging with other historical traditions while still employing European/American methodologies and frameworks. Yet the editors argue that interrogating earlier narratives and loaded terms of historical research, especially from a comparativist historical perspective, may serve as a fruitful source of new questions and approaches in an effort to “de-centre Europe, and open up to the multiplicity of post-imperial developments” (p. 7).

The volume is divided into six sections which focus on “macro-regions” (China, Byzantium, etc.) although the essays themselves focus on the peripheral zones and middle ground(s) where sub- and post-imperial regimes took shape. In part 1, which considers the post-Roman west, Ian Wood examines perceptions of the decline of Roman imperial control, concluding that rather than a moment universally recognized as the empire’s “fall,” sources reveal instead a wide range of views as to the moment when imperial control had ceased to be a reality as well as the causes which led to its dissolution. Walter Pohl discusses the role of ethnonyms in the political discourse of the post-Roman kingdoms, providing an overview of earlier scholarly debates and arguing that while ethnic categories were of course dynamic and artificial, they constituted “an underlying system of distinctions in which political powers could be located” (p. 103). Stefan Esders’ contribution demonstrates that strategies of legitimation in the post-Roman west served simultaneously to strengthen individual rulers’ local autonomy while also confirming their status as what he and others have described as a “Byzantine Commonwealth.”

In part 2, Helmut Reimitz develops the concept of Carolingian “double continuity” expressed in Carolingian historiography to show how this strategy was mobilized in the construction of a broader conception of Frankish identity.1 Reimitz then explores the efforts of Bavarian elites to establish their own form of double continuity in reaction to Carolingian imperial ambitions and strategies of legitimation. The result of these processes was not a restoration of Roman-like imperial authority but rather a crystallization of a plurality of non-Frankish identities. Ildar Garipzanov offers a discussion of external influences on the region of southern Scandinavia, beginning with late Roman material culture but focusing on processes of cultural/economic exchange and political centralization. He emphasizes the extent to which fluctuations in the degree of Danish political centralization occurred in the shadow of empires to the south and southwest, noting that Danish kingdoms shared the instrumentalization of a supra-regional Danish identity alongside significant cultural and political influence from the larger empire with which they were in contact.

In part 3, Francesco Borri examines the perpetuation of Roman identity in Italy up into the 8th and 9th centuries. Contrary to some modern claims, Borri shows that a Roman imperial presence was acknowledged in Italy well up into the 8th century and that the ideal of empire persisted, whether in the form of Roman military presence or a Roman Italian aristocracy that identified as subjects of the empire. Jonathan Shephard’s chapter offers a novel description of Byzantium as a “variable geometry empire”(p. 222), arguing that it exhibited a wide range of strategies for negotiating with a complex and varied array of powers along its peripheries. Shepard offers an intriguing discussion of the ways in which Bulgar, Rus, and German regimes not only “grafted imperial imagery and other aspects of Byzantine political culture onto their own rites of rulership” but also exhibited shifting degrees of contrarianism, legitimating strategies that Shepard describes as a set of “public rituals, religious cults, and visual and verbal declarations of authority formatted in reaction to Byzantium” (p. 231).

In Part 4, Johannes Preiser-Kapeller considers Armenia between the 4th and 11th centuries, focusing on both the decentralized nature of Armenian aristocratic society as well as continuities in notions of Armenian religious and territorial identity. Considering Armenia’s place between the empires of Rome, Persia, Byzantium/Rome, and the Arab Caliphate, he suggests that Armenian aristocratic society was able to adapt to competing political demands and cultural influences of foreign powers while still maintaining a vision of a “Great Armenia” community, whether based on memory of the Arasacid monarchy or the distinct doctrinal unity of Armenian Christian Orthodoxy. He highlights the liminal position of Armenia between these rival spheres of influence and suggests that it was the decentralized nature of Armenian aristocratic society that allowed it not only to resist annexation but also to preserve a notion of distinct Armenian identity. Alexander Beihammer’s discussion of Turkish communities in Anatolia examines the hybridized forms of political discourse and legitimacy that characterized the region in the 11th and early 12th centuries, thus challenging earlier narratives that posit the battle of Manzikert as a decisive moment of cultural/political transformation from Christian-Byzantine to Muslim-Turkish rule. Beihammer argues that Turkish rulers could draw on, and switch between, “Byzantine and Muslim forms of self-representation according to the nature of specific interactions” (p. 296), thus relying on both Baghdad and Constantinople for legitimation while also maintaining local autonomy.

In part 5, Maaike van Berkel employs a more narrow focus on the workings of a single imperial entity (the Abbasid Empire) and even on the reign of a particular ruler (al Muqtadir); the essay sheds light on the limitations of the imperial center in its efforts to extract resources from, and ensure cooperation with, its peripheries. Jürgen Paul considers the role of local nobility in 9th–10th century-Fārs as essential to the incorporation of the region as a province of the Abbāsid, Ṣaffārid, and Būyid regimes, examining their role as intermediaries in the economic and political spheres as they alternated between positions of collaboration and self-assertion in relations with the imperial center.

In part 6’s discussion of the region of China, Andrew Chittick discusses what he terms an “ethnicization of difference” (p. 355) in the Northern and Southern dynasties period, and he challenges the convention of labelling both the empires of north and south in this period as simply “Chinese.” In comparing the discourse of ethnicity in both northern and southern sources, Chittick argues that the respective empires of the period saw themselves as both geographically and even ethnically distinct civilizations—not two halves of a single empire destined to be reunited. Q. Edward Wang considers the discourse of legitimacy in the Northern and Southern Song periods, analyzing the work of Neo-Confucian scholars and historians. He examines how conceptions of legitimacy varied in their emphasis on different factors (moral, geographical, and ethno-cultural) in the writings of different authors and depending on geopolitical conditions surrounding the empire. Michael Drompp considers two ethno-political groupings at opposite ends of the lands ruled by Chinese empires: the Tuyuhun of the northwest and the Khitan of the northeast. He provides a parallel historical chronology of each (relatively understudied) society, emphasizing their respective geographical liminality and its consequent challenges/opportunities. Drompp reminds us that the trajectories of smaller, peripheral states may offer geopolitical surprises, contrasting the seemingly advantageously-placed Tuyuhun’s eventual destruction by the Tibetans with the eventual rise to imperial state formation by the initially less politically cohesive and organized Khitan.

As is perhaps inevitable with scholarly collaborations of this kind, it is difficult to ensure that all contributors engage directly with central themes outlined in the introduction. While all of the contributions consider center-periphery relations, some are more narrow in scope and exhibit less engagement with the broader, trans-cultural implications of their findings. Still, the volume offers an excellent introduction to the field of comparative Eurasian history in this period: its strength is its novel focus on the geographical and chronological margins of empires, on the areas where complex trends of continuity and discontinuity, of creative imitation and repurposing of imperial traditions, defy simple categorization. The volume is essential reading for those interested in pre-modern empires in general as well as their role in the formation of political and cultural identities on their peripheries.

1 For the sake of transparency, the reviewer should note that Helmut Reimitz previously served on the reviewer’s PhD dissertation committee.

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