World History Connected Home    
Home List journal issues Table of contents
Printer-friendly format        

Book Review


Jane Burbank and Frederick Cooper, Empires in World History: Power and the Politics of Difference. Princeton & Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2010. Pp. xi-xiv + 528. $24.96 (paper).


     In Empires in World History Jane Burbank and Frederick Cooper present a sweeping yet cogent and highly readable account of empire from the Roman and Chinese empires in the third century BCE to the widespread dismantling of colonial empires after the Second World War. While twentieth century decolonization provides a logical endpoint, the book's chronological starting place begs more explanation. The Roman and Chinese empires of the third century BCE, as the authors point out, were hardly the first to emerge on the world stage. Yet compared to their Assyrian, Persian, and Egyptian predecessors, among others, Rome and China became enduring examples for later empires. As Burbank and Cooper observe, they "both attained a huge physical size, integrated commerce and production into economies of world scale (the world that each of them created), devised institutions that sustained state power for centuries, developed compelling cultural frameworks to explain and promote their success, and assured, for long periods, acquiescence to imperial power." (4) China's training of and dependence on a loyal class of officials, for example, and Rome's ability to empower its citizenry (if only in theory) were strategies of particular utility to subsequent empires.

     The intervening chapters guide the reader through over two thousand years of varied and flexible "imperial repertoires," from Byzantium, the Islamic Caliphates, and the Carolingians, to the Mongols in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, and to the expansion of Ottoman and Habsburg power following the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople in 1453 and Habsburg's defeat of the remaining Islamic Caliphate at Granada in 1492, which ended Muslim rule in Iberia. Burbank and Cooper then shift to the expansion of European commercial networks in Asia and the Americas, Russian empire-building in Eurasia, China's push into Siberia, and later the United States' expansion across North America. Thematic chapters in the second half of the book explore the interplay of empire with nation and citizenship, sovereignty, war, and revolution.

     In demonstrating the versatility and endurance of the imperial state, Empires in World History adroitly challenges traditional narratives of world history that attribute significant shifts in world politics since the early modern period to the rise of the modern state (as defined in the "West"), or which suggest that nation-states supplanted empires as ideas about popular rights and sovereignty gained currency since the eighteenth century. Not only did empires endure well past the eighteenth century, they were often inextricably intertwined with the developing concerns of the "national" state. In many cases, contests over "national" rights, sovereignty, and citizenship unfolded within a broader imperial frame well into the twentieth century; "nation" and empire were not inherently incompatible forms of state. Compared to the relatively recent birth of the nation-state, moreover, empire has proven to be an exceptionally durable political configuration over the last two millennia. With this historical trajectory in mind, Burbank and Cooper speculate that history may one day identify the nation-state--or at least its grip on political imaginations worldwide--as a relatively fleeting phenomenon.

     Despite considerable variation in the structures and strategies of imperial rule across time and space, the authors demonstrate that the endurance of empires often hinged on their success in managing the inclusion of diverse populations into the polity while maintaining (or in some cases constructing) distinctions among them -- a process Frederick Cooper describes in his 2005 book Colonialism in Question as balancing "the poles of incorporation and differentiation."1 The varied methods by which empires employed "the politics of difference" are a central concern of Empires in World History. While in some cases this involved a recognition of the diversity of peoples within the empire and how this diversity could be used to suit imperial objectives (such as in the use of indigenous intermediaries), in others difference was employed to draw a rigid line between elite insiders and "barbarian" outsiders. The authors suggest that by taking a longer view of empires and the colonial relations they produced, and by broadening the geographical frame beyond European empires, a more flexible repertoire of colonial difference emerges--one that complicates the self/other, black/white, colonizer/colonized binaries so common in studies of European colonialism in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Yet in this way the novelty of their approach to "difference" is perhaps a bit overstated. It seems to discount the work of post-colonial scholars who have for a long time pointed to the enduring import of "difference" in the colonial project while at the same time eschewing interpretive binaries in favor of a more complicated understanding of colonial roles and relations.

     Empires in World History nonetheless provides fresh insight into the strategies of imperial rule that have sustained empires over time. It includes nearly eighty photos, illustrations and maps, an extensive index, and suggestions for further reading on each chapter. It will be a useful text for both undergraduate and graduate students, as well as general readers interested in imperial histories.

Paula Hastings is Assistant Professor of History at the University of Toronto, where she teaches courses in British imperial, World, and Canadian histories. She can be reached at



1 Frederick Cooper, Colonialism in Question: Theory, Knowledge, History (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005), 154.



Home | List Journal Issues | Table of Contents
© 2013 by the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois
Content in World History Connected is intended for personal, noncommercial use only. You may not reproduce, publish, distribute, transmit, participate in the transfer or sale of, modify, create derivative works from, display, or in any way exploit the World History Connected database in whole or in part without the written permission of the copyright holder.

Terms and Conditions of Use