The Imperial Legacy

by Dr. Yuval Noah Harari

Personal Lecture Notes from Lesson #9: Imperial Visions

(These are personal summaries and paraphrasings of some of the major points of the lectures that I felt to be important. They are not meant to be comprehensive records nor intended to be reproductions of copyright materials. I encourage you to participate in the course for better understanding. All ideas and examples are by Dr. Harari.)

In last lecture it was discussed that three orders contributed to the historical trend towards global unification: 1) Economic order, 2) Political (Imperial) order, and 3) Religious order. This lecture is about the political order.

Dr Harari defines empires as having two primary characteristics:

1) Cultural diversity: Empires rule over a number of different groups of people with different cultural identities.
2) Flexible borders and an appetite for potentially unlimited growth and expansion.

Crucially, empires are not defined by the system of government nor by their size. 

The first empire in history that we know of is the Akkadian Empire of Sargon the Great, from around 2250 BC. Sargon conquered all Mesopotamian states and many regions outside, from Persian gulf to the Mediterranean. He boasted, mistakenly, that he had conquered the entire earth. Soon after this death, the empire collapsed. However, it left behind the imperial dream of conquering the entire world.

In the fifth century BC, Cyrus the Great of Persia founded the Achaemenid Empire. Unlike previous conquerors, he made a radical claim. He claimed that he was conquering others for their own benefit. He did not see himself as Persian king ruling over other nations. He saw himself as the king of all humans. It was a new inclusive and all-encompassing ideology, while people for the large part had seen people of other nations as barbarians or not even humans. Similar ideas arose independently in several places at several times in history, and justified the spread of a superior supreme culture of the world that would benefit everyone. The Han Chinese empire, the Roman empire, Muslim Caliphs, Spanish and Portuguese empires, the British empire, all of them used the same logic. Even today, Dr Harari comments, people argue that USA has the ethical responsibility to bring democracy and human rights to the third world ('barbarian') countries. 

Often the conquered people adopted the culture of the conquering class and when that happened, over time (centuries) they merged to form a single culture. For example, Rome ruled the lands around the Mediterranean Sea for centuries. And after centuries, most of the people conquered were considered Romans and were allowed to be a part of the Roman military and bureaucracy. Emperor Septimius Severus, came from modern-day Libya, from a Punic family, against whom Romans had fought. There are examples of other Roman emperors as well.

A similar process happened in Middle East with Arab empire. Egypt, for instance, had an entirely different cultural identity, but after it's conquest by the Muslims, over time the Egyptians came to identify themselves as Arabs.

All human cultures today are, at least in part, the legacy of empires of imperial civilization. There are no authentic cultures untouched by imperial influences. The ideal of cultures to revert back to some ideal, pre-imperial, more authentic cultural identity is a fruitless ideal.

(For prior posts covering this course, see the label A Brief History of Humankind.)