Empires in World History: Regions and Themes

Course Material 2023/24

Empires have been the dominant form of political organisation in human history. Only recently has the nation-state emerged to challenge this hegemony. So historians of empire are fond of claiming. However, this simple statement assumes that ‘empire’ is a coherent or at least meaningful category of historical analysis. Determining whether this is the case requires attention both to individual, region-specific histories of empire and comparisons between empires.

This paper engages in both modes of inquiry, introducing broad themes in the history of empire through lectures and providing opportunities to explore these themes in specific historical contexts through region-focused supervisions. Core themes will include definitions of empire and related concepts, ideologies and administrative instruments of imperial rule, the economic and social bases of empires, methods for encompassing large and diverse populations, resistance to imperial rule, and the purported end of the age of empires. Potential topics for clusters of supervisions may include the Mughal empire in South Asia, the Qing empire in China and Inner Asia, ‘indigenous empires’ in Southeast Asia and Africa, and settler colonialism in North America. 

Like the first-year Outlines, this paper embraces breadth and so draws on the wide range of world history expertise available at Cambridge. However, it also strikes a balance between abstract, comparative analysis and attention to case studies. By giving students more opportunity to study regional histories in greater depth, it offers a gateway to more specialised papers and independent dissertation research in Part II.