The Rule of Empires: those who built them, those who endured them, and why they always fall.Timothy H. ParsonsOxford University Press £29.95ISBN 978-0195304312
In this book, Timothy Parsons builds a case against imperialism at any time and in any place by considering the rise and fall of seven very different and disparate imperial endeavours. One of the book’s manifold weaknesses is that some of his examples were arguably not imperial exercises at all. Is it really useful, or even possible, to yoke together Roman rule in Britain, which lasted four centuries, with the WWII German occupation of France which managed just four years? The book is a prime example of a historian setting out a thesis – the truisim that Empires are invariably evil and always fail – and then selecting and even bending facts to fit the thesis. If the Nazis were, as Parsons maintains, the only Empire in history specifically and openly devoted to the genocide of the people it conquered, where does that leave the ravaging realms of Ghenghis Khan or Tamburlaine? Parsons doesn’t say.He begins his imperial examples with the Roman occupation of Britain. Far from regarding it as the civilising mission that we are still taught about, Parsons sees Roman rule – as he sees all Empires – as benefiting the conqueror to the detriment (and often death) of the conquered. Forget, in other words, Roman order: straight paved roadways; beautiful baths, masks and mosaics; sophisticated central heating. Think rather slavery, misery, exploitation and repression. If Roman rule meant civilisation and benefits for all, he asks, why did Boudicca’s rising attract so much support?Somewhat bravely, Parsons applies the same critical yardstick to an example of Islamic rule – Al-Andalus in southern Spain- arguing that we forget the reality of Spanish subjugation since we are seduced by Moorish achievements in astronomy, algebra, architecture poetry and the irrigation of arid landscapes. He is no kinder to the Spaniards: oppressed in Andalucia, in South America the Conquistadores became cruel oppressors, wiping out the cultures of the trusting Incas and Aztecs who had welcomed their arrival.Next, its the turn of the British and French to get it in the neck, as the ‘positive’ achievements of Napoleon in Italy and Britain’s Raj in India and Kenya, are ruthlessly dissected, roundly rubbished, and shown to be a self-serving smokescreen masking naked greed. But again it must be asked whether all imperialisms fit Parsons’ ‘Evil Empire’ cliche. Take an example from his own academic speciality, Africa: can it really be said that the average Zimbabwean’s lot is better today, under Robert Mugabe’s wise rule, than it was in 1950 when an antiquated British Colonial Governor called the shots? Nor, surprisingly, does Parsons consider in depth what many would regard as the outstanding Empire of today – his own country’s Pax Americana. More damagingly, when he strays away from Africa, Parsons also makes elementary factual howlers, disgraceful in a schoolboy, unforgivable in a Professor: Petain did not sign the surrender to Hitler, and the Nazis did not invade Russia in September 1941. This makes one mistrust his more general conclusion: that the age of Empire is past in a globalised world. This reminds me uncomfortably of the fatuous claim by another American historian, Francis Fukuyama, in the 1990s that with the downfall of Communism capitalist liberal democracy had triumphed everywhere, and history had come to a full stop.