“Shadow Empires: An Alternative Imperial History” by Thomas J Barfield

A horserider of probable Xiongnu origin; 1-2nd century BCE. Excavated in Saksanokhur, Tajikistan (via WikiMedia Commons) A horserider of probable Xiongnu origin; 1-2nd century BCE. Excavated in Saksanokhur, Tajikistan (via WikiMedia Commons)

Anthropologist Tom Barfield’s field work in the steppes of northern Afghanistan in the 1980s inspired a lifelong curiosity for the ancient empires that once arose in this frontier region. In an earlier work, The Perilous Frontier (Wiley Blackwell, 1992), he examined the relationship between the steppe pastoralists and sedentary states, concluding that the emergence of first the Qin and then the Han empires enabled the first great steppe empire, that of the Xiongnu. In the book under review here, Barfield explores how the Xiongnu/Han dynamic more generally explains different imperial trajectories. 

For Barfield, the Xiongnu represent the archetypical “exogenous”, or “shadow” empire of the book’s title. Such empires arise on the frontiers of large settled empires to extract protection money from the settled hegemons. In addition to the Xiongnu/Han pairing, this includes the Huns and the Romans, the Gökturks and the Tang, and the Mongols and the Song. Pastoralists use protection money not to enrich themselves, but to buy the loyalty of a loose network of fellow pastoralists.  Hence they are “shadow” empires, only existing on the periphery of large, wealth producing polities.

By contrast the settled empires, called here “endogenous”,  are the real thing: they impose uniform government and raise taxes to finance the bureaucracy and the army. Endogenous empires include the Persian empire, as well as the Great Mughals of India. Barfield makes a powerful case for the significance of these great empires in human history. At one time, perhaps half of humanity lived in Rome, Persia or China. Barfield supplies tables of surface size, population, and years of rule that allow readers to make their own judgements about the solidity of their imperial achievements.

From the steppes of Afghanistan to factories of the Coromandel Coast, Barfield has synthesized as good an understanding of these possible models as we are likely to get.

Shadow Empires: An Alternative Imperial History, Thomas J Barfield (Princeton University Press, October 2017)
Shadow Empires: An Alternative Imperial History, Thomas J Barfield (Princeton University Press, October 2017)

In contrasting the endogenous and exogenous empires, Barfield sometimes makes the contrasts too black and white. He argues, for example, that endogenous empires knew their natural limits, citing Augustus’s decision to abandon Germania, and the Han’s reluctance to conquer the steppe.  But the Mongols, too, eschewed conquests where they could not pasture their horses, while the Tang ventured deep into the steppe.

A second form of shadow empires arose not on the steppes but on the high seas. These include the maritime empires of the Athenians, the Portuguese, the Dutch and the British. This typology yields very instructive insights into the Athenian empire and its limitations. Athens was loath to make its imperial subjects citizens. In fact it reduced the franchise, while Rome, on the other hand, extended Roman citizenship first to Italy and then to all its provinces. The British too, gradually excluded their Indian subjects from a role in the empire, at least until the twilight of their rule. Maritime empires are not there to create uniform rules and global identities, but to make money and repatriate it. Britain was Athens, not Rome.

Here too Barfield’s typologies can seem too rigid. The Spanish, says he, fashioned a land empire in the New World, worthy of the Roman legions. That ignores the huge importance of the galleon trade, which lent the Spanish empire a decisive maritime character.  On the other hand, he argues that the Portuguese built a maritime empire without ambition to settle beyond narrow strips of coastline. It’s hard to explain Brazil in this context.

Likewise, the distinction between trading and raiding is perhaps not so clear cut as Barfield makes out. Pastoralist empires, in addition to extracting protection money, facilitated trade across the great inland sea which was the steppe. The British in India squeezed payments from Delhi, Oudh and Hyderabad—less brutally than steppe conquerors like Nader Shah, but with the same end result. Steppe and maritime empires had much in common, after all.

The strongest insight in this book is the well-described contrast between the traditional empire with its bureaucrats and taxes, and the freebooting empires of horsemen and sailors.

In Barfield’s typology, Moscow’s tsars founded a “vacuum” empire, and the Manchus a “vulture empire”. In both cases, they expanded into the void left by the collapse of the Golden Horde and Ming China, respectively. They created empires modeled on the polities that they absorbed. The Tsar became the Great White Khan (ie, of the West), while the Khaghan of the Manchus became China’s son of heaven. In both cases these empires expanded opportunistically into the steppe, because there was no countervailing power in existence to stop them. 17th century China and Russia caught the steppe people in a pincer movement and gave them no opportunity to create a later-day shadow empire.

Finally Barfield examines what he calls “nostalgia empires”, attempts in Europe to continue the legacy of the Roman empire by Charlemagne and Otto the Saxon. It’s interesting how little he has to say about Tamerlane, who might be said to have attempted to create an empire nostalgic for the Mongols.

The strongest insight in this book is the well-described contrast between the traditional empire with its bureaucrats and taxes, and the freebooting empires of horsemen and sailors. The latter lasted much longer, but the former spread much wider. The one provided the stability that enabled population growth and the patient development of civilization.  The other dramatically unified wide swathes of humanity, enabling interchanges of ideas and commodities that steadily made the world a smaller place.

Shadow Empires is a thought provoking book which allows readers to form new perspectives about individual empires, from the Khitan-Liao, to the Dutch Republic and Muscovy. For more familiar empires it offers a refresher about what made them unique; for the less well-known ones it makes them seem less exotic. After all, there are only so many different models for ruling an empire.  From the steppes of Afghanistan to factories of the Coromandel Coast, Barfield has synthesized as good an understanding of these possible models as we are likely to get.


David Chaffetz is the author of Three Asian Divas: Women, Art and Culture in Shiraz, Delhi and Yangzhou (Abbreviated Press, November 2019). His forthcoming book Horse Power will be published by WW Norton in 2023.