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I've added a new category to the Coffeeblog: Nations and Empires. Originally I had thought of adding a "history" category. Then I realized that everything I post to the Coffeeblog is some kind of history: the history of Bettie Page and the Kefauver Commission, or the history of Andres Serrano and his "Piss Christ" image with the resulting kerfuffle. Even a movie review is a history of sorts. Thinking it over, I realized that the kind of history that has begun to interest me lately is the history of empires and the nations, peoples, tribes, ethnic groups, language groups, and other societal entities engulfed, absorbed, or instrumental in the development of such empires. I would have never predicted such an interest as a college freshman who felt overwhelmed by the huge reading assignments of my required basic history course. But back then there was no hypertext, Internet, or Wikipedia. Why such a powerful interest now, so late in life? It has to do with the world events swirling around us about which the dead tree media and the idiot box generally keep us in abysmal ignorance. Why do Shia and Sunni Muslims attack each other in Mesopotamia (the dead tree pundits call it Iraq)? There are reasons for it. "Civil war" the treekillers call it. Sort of like Antietam or the Battle of Bull Run? Please. And then there's Central Asia, the route of the Silk Road, where the focus is not silk any more but petroleum., land of many fallen empires. To paraphrase George Santayana, "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to write for CNN."
Like most Coffeeblog topics, "Nations and Empires" turned out to be much more complex and hard to pin down than I expected. I found that the best starting point was the idea of empire itself. It comes from the Romans and their Latin word imperare, which simply means "to command." It's a military term. Commanding officer and all that. From imperare came imperium, which the was the legal concept of the power to command, vested not only in officers but in magistrates. The Romans, unlike the founding fathers of the USA, did not advocate separation of powers. Roman politicians served simulatenously as magistrates (judges), Senators, and military commanders. They had the imperium. The Romans used the same word to describe their empire: Imperium Romanum. The power derived, in principle, from the Senate and the people: Senatus Populusque Romanus (SPQR). In the 1960's, I saw manhole covers in Rome with SPQR on them.
Because Roman law codified the principles of empire, the Roman empire (east as well as west) is a good example to study, and that includes Roman imperium during the years of the republic before the first Emperor, Augustus Caesar. But Rome was by no means the first. Rome inherited (hijacked might be a more accurate term) the empires of Carthage and Alexander the Great, who in turn took over that of the Persians, who had taken over the kingdoms of the Egyptian Pharaohs. The Persian Empire (actually a series of empires) might be the best prototype of an empire to study, but for the fact that languages in which its history have been recorded are less accessible in Western translation than the Greek and Roman histories, if they were written at all. Along the Silk Road and to the north and south have been empires that are forgotten (Khitans, anyone?) and others which some want to forget (the Huns and Mongols).
OK. So what? A point I want to make is that we are still coming off the nineteenth-century political pipe-dream high of nationalism and nation-states. In their purest forms, nation-states are not multicultural, and by definition, not multinational. Empires are both. That's the difference. Nation-states sometimes engage in ethnic cleansing to stay pure. A nasty habit. But what is a nation? The question has always been easier to ask than to answer. The word nation also comes from Latin, and it means a birth. The birth of a nation, perhaps? (That was a 1915 movie honoring the Ku Klux Klan, by the way.) Presumably a nation consist of people born sharing a common heritage, meaning language and culture. Nations, however, are almost never homogeneous, like homogenized milk, and they are never static. They change. The idea of a nation is better understood by using the word for nation in Greek: ethnos. Yup. An ethnic group. And there is a Hebrew word for nation, goi, often used Biblically in the plural, goyim, "the nations." When the Bible was translated into Greek, goyim was translated as the plural of ethnos. As many know now, goyim in Yiddish means people who are not Jewish, in other words, the "other nations," and I have read that ta ethne, the Greek plural, has been used to mean non-Greeks, the barbarians, and among Christians, the opponents of Jesus.
So, my friends, perhaps nations are not all good and empires are not all bad. As Rodney King asked, "Can we all get along?" Excellent question. And I would add to it, "Can we all get along without empires? And if not, which empires?"Permanent Link to This Entry | | Technorati Tag: Empire blog comments powered by Disqus Comments (View)
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