Legitimizing the Empire: Varieties of Imperialism in Historical East Asia

39 Pages Posted: 16 Sep 2014

Date Written: 2014


This paper offers a typology of empires based on their mechanisms of legitimization. Legitimacy impacts not only how empires justify expanding imperial control, but also how empires relate to one another, and what narratives may be deployed to undermine them. I identify three ideal-type forms of empire: universalist, competitive, and predatory. Universalist empires are those that claim universal or quasi-universal authority, and thus a right to rule or subordinate much or most of the known world, recognizing no others as peers. Historical examples include the Roman Empire, Imperial China, and the Pax Islamica. Competitive empires, in contrast, recognize peers: multiple imperial hierarchies may co-exist, competing economically and militarily with one another. Modern European colonial empires fit this model, as did some Classical Greek empires. Predatory empires neither claim universality nor recognize peers. Instead, they justify themselves as political alternatives to or sites of resistance against others, from whom they extract wealth. Examples include Eurasian steppe empires, and the barbarians of early Northern Europe. Better understanding these varied justificatory frames clarifies how empires rise, flourish, decline, and conduct inter-imperial relations. I illustrate with historical examples from in East Asia, where all three imperial formations were present.

Suggested Citation

MacKay, Joseph, Legitimizing the Empire: Varieties of Imperialism in Historical East Asia (2014). APSA 2014 Annual Meeting Paper, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=2453748

Joseph MacKay (Contact Author)

University of Toronto ( email )

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