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A map of Eurasia and Africa with biomes and ancient and medieval states marked

Isn’t this a cool map? The places where states which controlled at least a million square kilometers before 1800 were founded, from Turchin, “A Theory for the Formation of Large Empires.” Look how many there are in North China and Southwest Asia, and how few in Southeast Asia or Europe! (Although part of that is the fact that we treat the long history of the Byzantine and Roman empires as one thing, but each Mongol or Chinese dynasty as different)

After a chat with T. Greer of The Scholar’s Stage, I read an interesting article by Peter Turchin called “A theory for formation of large empires” (2009). He is curious whether other world regions show the same pattern as China of empires beginning in the steppe or in the neighbouring farmland not the richest and safest agricultural districts. As he says, a lot of research focuses on the decline and disintegration of empires, not so much how a single king can come to rule millions or tens of millions of people in the first place: why do some empires last centuries when most fall to pieces within decades?

Turchin catalogued 64 states until the year 1800 CE with an area of at least a million square kilometers, and found that “over 90% of historical mega-empires were located next to or within the Old World arid zone extending from the Sahara desert to the Gobi desert” (which is a slightly different claim than the one about steppe frontiers, but never mind). When I read his list, one line popped out at me:

A table with statistics on empires including Assyria, Media, Achaemenid Persian, Alexander's (Hellenistic), Seleucid, and Parthia

The table lists a Median empire with 2.8 million square kilometers in -585 (which is 586 BCE in Julian astronomical years with a year 0, but I think he means 585 BCE). That would have been as large as Iran, Afghanistan, and Pakistan combined. And the trouble is that such an empire probably did not exist, and if it did exist we don’t know its area.

Scholars used to believe that Babylonian and Greek sources described a powerful Median empire under Cyaxares stretching from western Iran to eastern Anatolia, but in the 1980s Heleen Sancisci-Weerdenberg started asking some bold questions about whether the cuneiform texts and the archaeology really supported the Greek stories. There are no archaeological traces of an empire in Iran after the Assyrians and before the Persians, no monumental buildings or standardized storehouses or objects stamped with the name or sign of a king, and when Babylonian royal inscriptions talk about the mighty Medes, they are often making excuses about why they just rule the lowlands and who destroyed sacred cities in Assyria. In 1988, Heleen Sancisci-Weerdenberg asked “was there a Median empire?” and by the 1990s most of us had come to agree agree that the answer is “no.” The best defense of the old view is that if Cyrus conquered all the way from western Iran to Bactria, there had to be some existing political organization in place so he did not have to fight every city and tribe one after another and then laboriously explain the concepts of “taxes” and “conscription” (it took the Romans a century or two to conquer places like Iberia or Britannia where every valley had governed itself). But we certainly don’t know enough about such an empire to give its area in square kilometers, and Robert Rollinger has shot holes in the argument that the Medes ruled up to the River Halys in Turkey.

A topographical map of Western Eurasia in antiquity

In the 1970s, we thought that Cyaxares the Medes ruled the Southwest Asian highlands from the river Halys in Anatolia to central Iran or even Afghanistan (black stripes). But all we really know for sure is that they controlled an area in the central Zagros Mountains around Ekbatana (solid blue) and could bully their neighbours to the south and west

Turchin’s tables of empires are just backed by a single reference list, not sources for each entry, but the ideas about the Median empire seem to come from two articles published by an Estonian-born, California-based political scientist named Rein Taagepera in 1978 and 1979. So he is relying on research from the 1970s, which summarizes even earlier research, and beginning in the 1980s our knowledge moved on.

Turchin and colleagues checked some recent historical atlases and expanded Taagepera’s list: they added 8 to his list in their 2006 article (Axum in East Africa, Hsi-Hsia and Kara-Khitai in Central Asia, Srivijaya in South-East Asia, and Maurian, Kushan, Gupta, and Maratha in South Asia, total 62 empires), and the 2009 article adds two empires (Hepalthite Huns and Scythia), deletes one (Srivijaya), and splits another (the Ghaznavids) into two entries with the same name, total 64 empires.[1] Just wonder at that for a moment: world history is so big and complicated that its easy to overlook an empire which controlled an area the size of Pakistan for a century or two. There are so many gaps in our knowledge, and so many cases where our understanding of the past changes as we learn new things or unlearn old ones. Readily available sources in English in the 1970s were very Eurocentric, and any one researcher has blind spots.

But it looks like they did not go back and see whether all of Taagepera’s empires should still be included. Obviously I have a special interest in the Achaemenid empire, and a “big picture” article like this can’t study every empire in detail. But Turchin is interested in the Achaemenid empire as the first really big state, and in his 2009 article he bases a paragraph on the belief that the Median empire reached the Indus in 600 BCE (which is a claim I first read in this article, and I spent five years reading everything on ancient Persia I could find). If he had read any recent book or encyclopedia by a specialist in preislamic Iran, he would have learned that there were big questions about the existence and extent of a Median empire.

A line charg ofthe largest state on earth 2800 BCE to 1800 BCE. Between 1000 BCE the size collapses, then more than doubles and remains high from 500 BCE onwards

Isn’t this neat? There is a clear ‘phase transition’ in the size of large states around 500 BCE, and a weaker one around 1200 with Genghis Khan. Without trying to measure empires, you might not notice that Eurasia was divided into relatively many and small states when Genghis Khan entered the scene, and you would definitely have trouble convincing someone else. From Turchin, “Theory for Formation of Large Empires,” p. 205 fig. 2

A topographic map of western Eurasia with the Neo-Babylonian Empire coloured in

An ‘optimistic’ view of the Neo-Babylonian empire in 539 BCE, filling in all the lightly populated gaps between the sites that the King actually ruled and including everyone who kissed his feet and paid tribute. After Wittke, Olshausen, and Szydlak (eds.), Historischer Atlas der Antiken Welt, Karte 55b

Turchin’s list excludes the Neo-Babylonian empire as falling below his threshold, and it now seems that they controlled most of the former Assyrian empire plus Tayma in western Arabia. Modern Iraq + Syria + Lebanon + Israel + Occupied Territories/Gaza/West Bank + Jordan is 746,000 square kilometers, and Nebuchadnezzar also ruled parts of modern Saudi Arabia and Turkey, so depending on how you define “controlled” and where you draw the lines the Neo-Babylonian empire might cross Turchin’s threshold of one million square kilometers. Taagepera wrote back when the Neo-Babylonians were seen as peaceful, and when the Medes were thought to have occupied the heart of the old Assyrian empire. At about the same time as people were asking whether the Medes were really so powerful, researchers noticed that a lot of cities in the Levant were suddenly demolished after the fall of the Assyrian empire, and that Babylonian chroniclers talk about campaigns in the west even if they don’t lovingly count villages burned and heads removed. So because they are relying on research from the 1970s, Turchin’s team include empires which they should exclude and exclude ones which they should include.

I only had time to check one of his figures for the area of an empire, and I picked the Achaemenid Empire. By adding up the land areas of states which were once part of the Achaemenid Empire from the CIA world factbook, and ignoring Sudan, Cyrene, North Macedonia, and Cyprus, I get an area of 6.9 million square kilometers. Turchin’s figure is 5.5 million, and goes back through Taagepera to the anonymous Hammond Historical Atlas from 1968. So even when our understanding of the maximum size of an empire has not changed since 1978, my estimate is 20% higher than Taagepera’s estimate! One thing which distinguishes empires is that they are fuzzy around the edges, so something like the land area is hard to measure even if we have the best records.

Both ancient and modern states tend to proudly claim control over territory, cities, and peoples that they don’t exercise effective control over. Being cynical about their pretensions is a good thing. But without access to the atlases Taagepera cites, I can’t tell how his sources fell on questions like “do you count the eastern and western deserts of Egypt?” (and is their choice consistent with the way that we treat say Canada as controlling the Canadian Arctic and the Chilcotin in 1900 even if the locals disagreed? Grizzled war cartographers present the Syrian and Iraqi desert as belonging to nobody, but the CIA World Factbook treats every grain of sand as somebody’s sovereign territory).[2] Taagepera talks a bit about these issues and includes margins of error, but his readers seem to have just taken his median estimate from 1978 and 1979 and treated them as timeless facts.

I am sure that Taagepera’s sources were cutting-edge in the 1970s, but after 40 years they need updating and fact-checking. As Michael E. Smith says, historians and archaeologists have a responsibility to construct better data sets for social scientist and world historians, but social scientists and world historians have the responsibility to use their sources with the same level of skepticism they apply to the morning paper.

Turchin’s SESHAT project currently describes eastern Iran in 585 BCE (Sogdiana) with the archaeological name “Koktepe II” not the historical name “Median.” I hope that means that he has heard that a Median empire larger than modern Iran probably did not exist. His theory of the formation of large empires is interesting, and it can be fun to read ‘big idea’ books. Studying narrower and narrower slices of the past like most historians and archaeologists can distort your perspective too. Studying this article has made me think about what I see differently and how I could communicate that to people who are not specialists in the first millennium BCE. Big broad books by historians like Yuval Harari, anthropologists like David Graeber, and archaeologists like Barry Cunliffe have factual mistakes too. So its a good idea to read them, soak up the inspiration and the exciting ideas, and use that enthusiasm to keep motivated as you double-check every single fact.

There are a lot of facts in the world. Keep me checking them with a monthly donation on Patreon or paypal.me or even liberapay

PS. My Doktorvater is also interested in the question why some empires last centuries and others barely survive their founder and organized a conference on Short-Termed Empires in World History: Decapitated or Defective? in June 2017 with papers like “The European Union: a Short-Termed Empire?”

Edit 2020-08-11: Robert Rollinger, Julian Degen and Michael Gehler (eds.), Short Term Empires in World History (Springer VS, 2020) ISBN 978-3-658-29434-2 https://asianreviewofbooks.com/content/short-term-empires-in-world-history-edited-by-robert-rollinger-julian-degen-and-michael-gehler/

PPS. And Rein Taagepera informs me that he knows of one detailed study of a particular empire to flesh out his rough-and-ready estimates: chapters 4 and 15 of Zenonas Norkus, An Unproclaimed Empire: The Grand Duchy of Lithuania from the Viewpoint of Comparative Historical Sociology of Empires (Routledge: London and New York, 2018). I have not read this so I don’t know how much or how little it changes his estimates.

Further Reading:

  • Peter Turchin, Jonathan M. Adams, Thomas D. Hall, “East-West Orientation of Historical Empires and Modern States.” Journal of World-Systems Research 12 (December 2006) pp. 219-229 https://jwsr.pitt.edu/ojs/index.php/jwsr/article/view/369/381
  • Peter Turchin, “A theory for formation of large empires.” Journal of Global History (2009) 4, pp. 191–217 http://peterturchin.com/PDF/Steppe_JGH_reprint.pdf
  • Rein Taagepera, “Size and Duration of Empires: Growth-Decline Curves, 3000 to 600 B.C.” Social Science Research 7 (1978) pp. 180-196
  • Rein Taagepera, “Size and Duration of Empires: Growth-Decline Curves, 600 B.C. to 600 A.D.” Social Science History, Vol. 3, No. 3/4 (1979), pp. 115-138
  • Helleen Sancisi-Weerdenburg, “Was There Ever a Median Empire?” in Amélie Kuhrt and Heleen Sancisi-Weerdenburg, eds., Achaemenid History III: Method and Theory, Leiden, 1988, pp. 197–212.
  • Robert Rollinger, “The Western Expansion of the Median Empire: a Re-examination,” in Giovanni B. Lanfranchi, Michael Roaf, and Robert Rollinger, eds., Continuity of Empire(?): Assyria, Media, Persia (Padua, 2003) pp. 289-319 (academia.edu
  • EncIr. s.v. Media (last edited 2006) http://www.iranicaonline.org/articles/media “Different opinions have been expressed about the character of the Median kingdom. For instance, according to Ernst Herzfeld, it was a powerful empire, which stretched from north Mesopotamia to Bactria and India. On the other side, Heleen Sancisi-Weerdenburg insists that there is no real evidence about the very existence of the Median empire and that it was an unstable state formation.”

Edit 2020-01-31: I checked Vogelsang’s The Rise and Organization of the Achaemenid Empire: The Eastern Iranian Evidence from 1992 and it already says nothing about Cyaxares’ Medes except as a power around 600 BCE in Western Iran. The same is true of Pierre Briant’s book from 1996 (English translation 2002) and Amélie Kuhrt’s sourcebook from 2007; I am pretty sure that the same is true of Josef Wiesehöfer’s from 1994 (English translation 1996) but I do not have a copy to hand. Turchin 2009 cites Vogelsang on page 210, so I am honestly confused why the same article speaks of a Median empire stretching to the Indus.

[1] While the co-authored article from 2006 helpfully lists the differences between their list and Taagepera’s lists (p. 221 n. 1), the 2009 single-authored article does not mention that one entry has been split and another has been deleted, or explain this decision; it simply says that the list in table 2 was “Compiled from items listed in note 33” and adds a note on the Hepalthite Huns of South Asia in table 4. ⇑ back to top ⇑

[2] For an introduction to the philosophy of political mapmaking, see some posts on geocurrents.info by Martin W. Lewis such as “Misled by the Map”. As he argues: “the basic political map of the world, focused as it is on mutually recognized sovereign states, is a misleading document. This map purports to depict the existing global political configuration but does not actually do so. Instead, it essentially shows the world as it should be, according, that is, to the foreign-policy establishment. Western Sahara, for example, appears as a country on almost all political maps—except those made in Morocco— even though it has never actually been an independent state and in all likelihood will never be one. Diplomatic pretense, on other words, habitually trumps geopolitical reality in our most basic depiction of the world.” ⇑ back to top ⇑