Islam gave the West a gift—its liberty. It was not a direct gift, nor deliberately bestowed, nor understood for what it was when given. Yet it was quite real. Islam made this gift not by what it produced but by what it prevented: the emergence of “comprehensive empire” in the Western world.
Empires uniting enormous tracts of territory have dominated the history of most regions of the civilised world. The most striking case, East Asia, has experienced imperial rule for approximately 1600 of the past 2200 years. The Middle East—today’s Egypt, Israel, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon and Iraq—has been within the bounds of one or another empire for about 1500 of the last 2600 years. India (or, more precisely, its core Gangetic Plain) has been part of an empire for about 1600 out of last 2300 years. Western and Mediterranean Europe, by contrast, has been ruled this way for only approximately 500 of the past 2200 years, and not since, memorably, 476. Russia aside, the rest of Europe has lived under comprehensive empire almost not at all.1
Empires have their merits. Once they’ve reached their “natural frontiers”, they can be bringers of peace, creators of common markets, and authors of lasting cultural, legal, moral and religious community. To the West’s one significant empire, Rome, we owe foundational law codes, a great tradition of public works, and Christendom.
But there is also a big imperial downside. Most of the great pre-modern empires have not, for example, been especially friendly to liberty, political representation, or restraints on power. Even the Roman empire, though ruled through law, was not ruled by it when that most counted. At the highest levels, life or death, war or peace, freedom or slavery, imprisonment or exile, were determined by realpolitik, not the content of statutes or rules of procedure. Other empires have been far worse. Empire’s long arm also makes it physically easier to squelch intellectual dissent, foreign asylum being beyond easy reach.
And though empires can safeguard trade over long distances, they are not generally systems in which commerce is most valued or offered a share in governance; hierarchical power and martial glory usually earn top honours and drive policy. What’s more, like dissidents, commerce also loses the ready ability to migrate from less favourable to more favourable environments, an important deterrent against fiscal exploitation.
Most states have been run by tax-extracting elites, few by actual producers of goods and services. And the exceptions have seldom been territorially large, a fact which represented the greatest challenge to the founders of America’s “extended republic”. Ancient republics, like Athens and early Rome, in which ordinary people could aspire to voice and leadership, were usually quite diminutive. In pre-modern times common people most effectively exerted power through numerical concentration, which small-scale polities, via assemblies, demonstrations, or riots, facilitated. The absence of widespread hinterlands also limited the development of “latifundia”, vast estates whose resources could be tapped by elites and despots to solidify rule. In larger states land usually outweighs people.
This essay appears in the October edition of Quadrant.
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While empires can be built on a variety of geographical foundations, the most secure are those in regions that allow widespread resource aggregation. In pre-industrial times this was generally a matter of water transport, usually riverine. Armies most often marched or rode, but it was over water that most long-distance trade occurred, particularly with respect to vital bulk commodities like grain or rice. Communications also benefited. The largest pre-modern empires were thus typically based on great river systems like the Nile, the Tigris and Euphrates, the Indus, the Ganges, the Huang Ho and the Yangtze.
Western republicanism was facilitated in its earliest days by the opposite circumstance, geographic miniaturisation. Greece’s rough topography, indented coast and short rivers produced patchwork clusterings of people and resources. Italy’s terrain, somewhat similar, also encouraged the emergence of city states in both antiquity and the Middle Ages.
Moreover, western and central European river valleys were generally of modest length, only the Danube being comparable to the earth’s other great rivers in the area it drains.2 Moderately long river systems separated, as they frequently are in Europe, by mountains, or located on peninsulas and islands, helped generate a patchwork multi-state system, whose members, if not necessarily dwarfish, were usually of no more than middling size. This, in turn, favoured political equipoise, no principality large enough to gain hegemony over the others, with each offset by the power of neighbours. Operating across the European map, this equipoise also created a large number of interstitial spaces between (or even within) regimes of the usual aristocratic and militarist type; spaces, like chartered towns and city states, wherein commerce could reach for political power via the establishment of constitutional order.
The Western world’s take-off from agrarian semi-stasis to commercial, technological and constitutional dynamism was centred on two such constitutionalised polities that would not likely have preserved their independence in the face of comprehensive empire—the United Provinces of the Netherlands, and England. Both were able to employ the fluid mechanics of European multipolarity to sustain themselves—indeed, they collaborated to resist a succession of attempts to destroy their liberties by the two most threatening European powers of their times, Philip II’s Spain, and Louis XIV’s France.
Spain’s assaults on the Netherlands were hobbled by simultaneous conflicts with England, France and the Ottomans, while England was able to combine with the Dutch and Austrians to frustrate the universal designs of the Sun King—ultimately organising its foreign policy self-consciously around preserving a European balance. A bit later, the West’s third great mercantile nation, the United States, was able to make good its freedom by expertly exploiting the same divisions.3
The sheer degree of their successes made the Netherlands, Britain and America outliers, but they were certainly not the only places where Western fragmentation nurtured flowers of liberty. Before 1789 many European kingdoms had representative bodies, municipal freedoms, and notions of rights under law. The achievements of the Netherlands, Britain and America, together with the great revolutionary upheaval in France, had wide European impact only because there were many other European locales which had pluralist traditions similar to their own. Until the lights went out in 1914, the continent was moving along a broad front towards unprecedented levels of political freedom and economic prosperity—its social heterogeneity engendering massive creative strength.
Western Europe’s one great enduring empire was not founded on a river system but on an inland sea—the Mediterranean. Only after mare nostrum, as the Romans meaningfully called it, had been closed to hostile fleets could the empire feel secure. It’s no accident that the final act in the ascent of Augustus was his defeat of the Egyptian navy at Actium. Constantine’s fourth-century movement of the empire’s capital to the head of the Bosporus also reflected Rome’s concern over Mediterranean control. Fifty years earlier the Goths had penetrated the straits to ransack much of Greece and Asia Minor. A fortified capital at the waterway’s entrance reduced the likelihood of recurrence.
Rome’s fall looms as large as it does in Western history because no comprehensive empire ever arose to take its place. But as the history of imperial restoration elsewhere demonstrates, there was no inevitability about this. Attempts at resurrection were, in fact, repeatedly made—two, shortly after 476, with near success.
After becoming ruler of Italy in 493, Theodoric the Ostrogoth was able to add to his collection of dominions Visigothic Spain and, as tributary states, Vandalic North Africa and the Burgundian Kingdom of the Rhone valley; that is, except for the rest of Gaul and Britain, just about all of the old West Roman patrimony. Documents suggest that at this point he contemplated assuming the title Augustus. Had he done so, and had his title been recognised in the east, the empire would have been formally restored. But Theodoric died before he could close his grip.
A generation later it was the eastern empire’s turn. In 533 the Emperor Justinian reconquered North Africa, and in 536 launched a war that, after decades of fighting, brought Italy back into the imperial fold. A large portion of the Spanish coast was also for a time reoccupied, once more giving the Mediterranean the semblance of a Roman lake. Full consolidation of the Italian reconquest was prevented only by the untimely appearance upon the Danube of the Avars, fit successors of the Huns, whose predations pushed new waves of German tribesmen into Italy while simultaneously menacing the Balkans. Despite this, a number of sizeable and lucrative western footholds were retained by the eastern empire including Rome itself, many other major Italian towns, and the great granaries of Sicily and North Africa.
Just as the memories of the first imperial dynasties of China—the Qin and the Han—never ceased to mesmerise subsequent generations of East Asians, so too did that of Rome fascinate later Europeans: its titles, symbols, personal names, architectural styles, law, language, calendrical systems and religion getting appropriated by such disparate claimants as the rulers of Germany, Russia and the Holy See. All that was wanted was a natural platform from which this mystique could be feasibly translated into a project of reunification.
In China these platforms were to be found in one or the other of the two great rivers that crossed the Confucian world from east to west. The first three reunifications, under the Sui and Tang, the Sung, and the Yuan, first consolidated themselves in the Huang Ho valley and then proceeded south. The last, the Ming, started in the Yangtze and moved north, the centre of Chinese wealth and population having by the fourteenth century transferred itself to the semi-tropics.
The natural centre of Mediterranean Christendom lay in its east, a place of rich and populous cities, Jesus’s passion, the great breadbasket of Egypt, and the almost impregnably walled “New Rome” of Constantinople. By the end of the sixth century this region was largely united culturally—by identity “Roman”, by language mainly Greek, and by religion mostly Orthodox Christian. This constituted a power base much more formidable than that possessed by any contemporary western Christian regime, all of which were relatively rude, loosely organised and lacking the symbolic status of the eastern empire. Reconquest, even in the wake of Justinian’s shortfall, was probably less a matter of “if” than “when”.
That this never happened was due to a disruption in the Mediterranean ecumene far more profound than anything that could have been accomplished by mere barbarian intrusion. With the stunning sweep of Islam over Syria, Egypt, North Africa and Spain in the seventh and early eighth centuries, the political heartland of Mediterranean Christendom was irrevocably destroyed.
The catchment area over which an empire assembles resources usually needs to be infused with a substantial degree of cultural unity, reinforcing (or sometimes emerging out of) its riverine or maritime integration. Hellenism and then Christianity provided this for Rome, Confucianism for China, Hinduism and (eventually) Islam for many of the empires in between. By contrast, the resources of the post-Islamic Mediterranean came to be divided by two civilisations whose mutually exclusive religious claims left them incorrigibly at loggerheads. Given the passionate nature of their rivalry, complete conquest of one by the other had a very high hurdle to surmount.
Of the two sides the Muslim was long the stronger, possessing the rich Nile and Mesopotamian valley systems and blocking Christians from easy trade access to the riches of the Indies and China. This meant that if a universal West-Eurasian empire was to be re-established during the post-prophet but pre-industrial period, it was most likely to be accomplished by Muslims. Twice they came close. Had Constantinople fallen to the Arabs, or had the Franks been overrun, Islam might have reunified the Mediterranean during its initial burst of expansion. A second, much later attempt was made by the Ottomans, though given the intellectual and technological advantages which by that time had accumulated in Christendom, its prospects were never very great.
Playing a much weaker material hand, post-Islamic, pre-industrial Western efforts at recreating empire, even when they were just confined to the rump of Christendom, were far feebler. The Frankish attempt, held together by little more than the skill and grit of three successive warrior chieftains, collapsed soon after Charlemagne’s death. The Ottonian, a century later, was even more ephemeral. The Papacy’s required a priestly dynamism few pontiffs in fact possessed. Not until the resources of the New World were added to the Habsburg realms did reviving universal Western empire again seem a realistic prospect, and even in that case Europe’s entrenched fragmentation defeated it.
In an alternative European history, one following a cyclical pattern of imperial collapse and restoration, each reassembly of Romanitas, like the successive dynasties of China, would have certainly differed from its predecessors, just as the Roman empire of the fourth and fifth centuries was quite distinct from that of the Twelve Caesars. Still, the Chinese cycles from Qin to Qing resulted in much less change than, over the same course of time, happened in the West—where kaleidoscopic rough and tumble kept standing-pat from being a viable option. The remnant of the empire that did survive, Byzantium—centralised, bureaucratised, caesaropapist and classicising—was also a much more culturally sterile place than medieval Italy, Germany or France, doing less with its great archive of ancient Greek texts than did the squabbling Latins. It was also less commercially dynamic, relying increasingly on the Venetians and Genoese to mediate its trade.
If comprehensive empire had become the European norm, this Byzantine stasis might well have been writ large, bolstered, as in China, by a master-of-all-one-surveys regime complacency. Under these very different circumstances the nineteenth-century West’s most notable figures might not have been industrialists, financiers and scientists, but magistrates, landowners and churchmen lovingly steeped in stale antiquarian learning.
History doesn’t follow neat laws. Perhaps long-lasting empire would not have drastically dimmed the West’s lights. But if there’s one generalisation that has real scope of historical application, it is, I believe, that competition is a good thing. The absence of enduring empire, contrary to the experience of most of the civilised world, inscribed competition much more deeply into the “cultural genes” of the West than anywhere else.
The possibility of European empire largely revolved around control of the Mediterranean basin where Rome had built its domain. By dividing that sea into two antagonistic spheres, Islam broke its unifying power and gave Western competitiveness its chance. However we today may view the religion of Mohammed, we should at least be pleased with this unintended consequence of its achievement.
1. The later Napoleonic, Nazi and Soviet imperial projects, though belonging to very different world orders, also collapsed, as may the European Union. And the thalassocracies of eighteenth-, nineteenth- and twentieth-century Britain, and of nineteenth- and twentieth-century France, failed to carry over into encompassing European empire.
2. So why did the Danube never breed a European-wide empire? Perhaps because empires already established can limit new empire-building efforts nearby. For the Mediterranean-centred Romans the Danube constituted a northern imperial frontier, and they sought to break up any power concentrations that developed along it. Later the Danube region was exposed to periodic invasions by nomadic peoples, whose power centres were often a good deal further east. The Habsburgs would eventually establish a Danube-based empire but it was far from taking in Europe as a whole.
3. All these commercial nations also had some purely geographic advantages, England being an island, America safely across the Atlantic, and even featureless Holland capable, when desperate, of opening its dikes before invaders.
Stephen H. Balch is the Director of the Texas Tech Institute for the Study of Western Civilization in Lubbock, Texas. He wrote “Cognoscendancy: The New Tyranny of the Talkers” in the April issue.