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Posted on Aug 29, 2011 in Books and Movies

Atlas of Empires – Book Review

By Douglas Sterling

Atlas of Empires. Peter Davidson. New Holland Publishers, 2011. 240 pages with 55 color photographs and 60 maps.

Attractively printed and lavishly illustrated, Peter Davidson’s Atlas of Empires is the most recent of New Holland Publishing’s offerings in the history realm. New Holland is based in South Africa, with branches in the UK, Australia and New Zealand, and specializes in well-made illustrated books on a variety of topics including travel, arts and crafts as well as food and drink and home and garden. New Holland has also produced a number of books of history, biography and reference, including military history, ancient history and historical atlases.


Davidson’s book is well laid out and sprinkled with images of artifacts and artwork as well as 60 informational and stylish maps. Each chapter, which describes the history and evolution of individual empires, begins with a brief introductory paragraph, setting the theme for the discussion of the chapter. Each chapter is highlighted with its own illustrations and maps that generally depict military strength and movements of forces but also show trade networks and communications systems which, it is stressed in the text, have been vital in maintaining control and tying empires together. To the author, competition for natural resources leads to war, which becomes a struggle to impose peace so economic life and trade can flourish. “But maintaining peace required more than force. Communication systems were necessary.”

This is essentially a world history, and for such a broad subject the detail must of necessity be fairly thin compared with works that focus on a specific empire, region or historical era. Yet it is well written and concise, more so than is common in an atlas, tending toward telling a story while maintaining a point of view. Accordingly, the author is able to go into greater depth on each subject area (individual empires) than might be expected in such a wide-ranging work, as well as to make contrasts and parallels that justify his thesis concerning the definition and nature of empires.

This definition is spelled out in Davidson’s very succinct introduction where he gives key stipulations of what should be termed an “empire.” He explains that an empire consists first of all of a “core” nation with “surrounding” nations in which there is “an unequal relationship between a core state and a periphery of one or more states controlled from the core.” But to be a core nation is not just being the strongest in a region. In this formulation, control from the core can obviously mean military dominance but is not limited to such. It can also signify cultural and economic influence. This can indicate economic pressure or the forces of religious, ideological or other cultural memes. But one key component of this thesis is that such cultural dominance is not necessary, nor is it necessarily one-way.

The book focuses first on the “core” societies—to asses the various “motives for expansion, from the dream of imposing an imperial peace on squabbling states to the desire for economic exploitation, lust for the glory of conquest or zeal for evangelism, religious or ideological.” Davidson also extends the focus to the peripheral states, as that is “the place to look for crucial resistance or collaboration. Often, the core can provide an account of an empire’s rise, while the periphery better explains its persistence.”

To illustrate this point, Davidson contrasts Athens and Sparta. Sparta led a league, but without interference in other states’ domestic affairs. Athens, by contrast, was interventionist, forcing a supervised political system—which was what made it “imperial.” Other sections are presented as dichotomies as well, such as Assyria and Babylonia representing military vs. cultural importance. “Assyria was defining itself as a warrior society keen to subdue its neighbors while Babylonia was demonstrating its growing ability to exert a widespread cultural pull.” Davidson highlights the constant seesawing of power between the two, but those who respected the dominant cultural influence of Babylon thrived better. His discussion of Persia highlights its role as a template for empire throughout history. Persia was “an empire with an organizational structure developed from a realistic idea of how to govern different subject peoples. It defined the role of an emperor and set a template for future empires from the Romans to the British. When Alexander came to replace the dying Persian Empire with a vision of his own, he held the example of Cyrus in the front of his mind.” But Davidson considers each early empire as, to some extent, a working example for those who came later.

Apart from describing the rise and configuration of empires, Atlas of Empires also discusses their decline and collapse, from either internal decay or resistance. Sometimes decline came about due to societal and technological evolution, wherein structures undergo change through time, so the book highlights a “historical progression of themes” with overlap between areas, where there is no firm categorization. Yet Davidson does see an evolution from empires that espouse “societal and political ideals” to empires fired by religion, and land empires giving way to maritime.

In this sense, Athens’ maritime empire, and its basis in democracy, “opened up opportunity and convinced Athens of its moral superiority, both of which encouraged a spiraling imperialism that ended in its downfall.” The chapter on Athens leads to a discussion of Rome—another republic, but one determined to make empire work, by taking measures similar to Persia to cope with increasing size and multiculturalism. Athens was more self-centered, using its empire solely to further its own greatness, instead of drawing others in to participate in that greatness. Rome understood that to survive beyond a particular size, the empire must be capable of distributing benefits to its subjects, to ward off rebellion. Rome’s legacy and lessons to Europe were: separation of domestic politics from imperial administration; citizenship and centralized institutions; and benefits to the provinces.

Post-Roman empires in the West centered on the spread of common cultures. “In the West, all that was left of Rome … was the Church.” The Church directed the “conscience” of European society and therefore could have its pick of powerful states to fight for it, states that, though not necessarily part of a political “empire,” were part of a cultural domain. But this reaching for a cultural, religious realm brought a warfare of religious intolerance exacerbated by its collision with another faith-based empire, that of Islam. Davidson stresses the similarities of the two faiths in that they both created cultural empires without the protection of single states, but Islam at first had a leg up because it was a “political faith from the outset.” The clash of the two faiths, however, helped solidify a political program on both sides.

Additionally, proximity within the European empires gave a rough technological equality. But in America the isolation of existing empires, both from Eurasian empires and from each other, led to a “technology gap” which made them easier to conquer. The rise of global empires ended the reign of “empires of isolation.” Now global trade and communication came to the fore. But globalization, with the need to control territories at vast distances, created difficult new problems. And it was the increasing inability to control these problems that led to rebellion and movements toward independence.

Davidson is particularly good on the economic policies of trade, such as the creation of joint stock companies. Buying shares allowed for greater investment possibilities with lesser risk. To gain control of the spice trade the Dutch were ruthless in controlling supply and discouraging competition. But the Dutch were not really interested in colonies or emigration, opening the door for others. When colonies were begun, such as at New Amsterdam and the Cape of Good Hope, Dutch government and company boards were not willing to adequately support them so that, like with New Amsterdam, more ruthless countries were able to take easy pickings. It was such an inflexible company policy, writ large in a nationalistic sense, that led to the American Revolution and the great empires of the later part of the survey. But the American Revolution demonstrated the “danger of alienating a colonial elite” though “those who really suffered from imperialism were never a threat.”

Atlas of Empires is an excellent outline of the rise and fall of empires throughout world history, and this reader believes it would prove useful as a reference work as well as an introductory volume for students of world history.

Douglas Sterling is a bookseller and freelance writer from Northern Kentucky who has published works on Julius Caesar’s army, the later Crusades, the Hundred Years’ War and World War II. He has Master’s Degrees in Military History and American History. His articles for include "Erwin Rommel – Roots of Victory, Seeds of Defeat."