“Short Term Empires in World History”, edited by Robert Rollinger, Julian Degen and Michael Gehler

Nader Shah (Wikimedia Commons) Nader Shah (Wikimedia Commons)

The world-weary Giuseppe Lampedusa introduced us to the cynical formulation “for everything to remain as it was, it’s necessary for everything to change.” Empires rise and fall, sometimes swiftly.  The papers in Short Term Empires in World History, delivered at a conference held in Germany in 2017, raise the issue of continuity and discontinuity in the context of characterizing empires.

Were the 5th-century Huns an empire? Or did the German tribes of eastern Europe simply support three generations of Hun overlords, who happened to be good at extracting money from the Romans (as Peter Heather asks in his essay here)? A similar question can be asked about Timur and the Turco-Mongol tribes of Iran. This is a critical question for historians because it raises the question: why choose to study a given period? Are these short-term empires phenomena or epiphenomena?

The editors’ preface defines empire as a polity that rules over multiple, distinct peoples. They admit to setting an arbitrary upwards limit of three generations of succession to define short term. One of the difficulties facing historians in evaluating these polities is that they often had no time to develop an official discourse explaining who they thought they were. So not only were they short term but in the eyes of posterity, shadowy.

Did these empires fail because of bad luck or because of a fatal design flaw?

Short-term Empires in World History, Robert Rollinger (ed), Julian Degen (ed), Michael Gehler (ed) (Springer, June 2020)
Short-term Empires in World History, Robert Rollinger (ed), Julian Degen (ed), Michael Gehler (ed) (Springer, June 2020)

Beatrice F Manz highlights the uniqueness of Timur’s empire in this respect. She measures the significance of this empire by how much it continued to shape society after its political demise. While Timur’s empire collapsed in his grandsons’ generation, the Timurid princes indelibly marked Iranian art and culture. Their book production created the canon of Persian literature. So they must rank as a culturally significant empire, though not as long lived as either their predecessors the Mongols or their successors the Safavids.

The contributors were asked to address another question, did these empires fail because of bad luck or because of a fatal design flaw? It’s hard to answer this question since poorly-managed empires with good luck may have lasted longer than well-managed empires with bad luck. Lucian Reinfandt’s example of the Ghaznavids, though, supports the notion of fatal flaw. This eastern Iranian empire was created by Mamluk generals as a Raubwirtschaftstaat, a state based on theft, which could only retain the support of its elites with a constant flow of plunder from conquests. Any such state inevitably runs into the limits of conquest, the resulting reduction of income, and abandonment by its elites.

An essay by Arnold Suppan about Hitler’s Third Reich fails to clarify the reasons for this empire’s failure. Did ideology lead Hitler into unsustainable military adventures, or did the regime require conquests to sustain itself? A discussion of Raubwirthschaft would have been helpful here.

In an essay about another military adventurer by Giorgio Rotta, we see that Nader Shah of Iran’s short-lived regime (1736-1747) has much in common with Napoleon’s career. Ironically, Napoleon noted that Nader “did not have the wisdom that thinks about both the present and the future; his descendants did not succeed him.” He could have been talking about himself.


Ultimately the successful empires make the fiscal burden seem more like taxes and less like plunder or tribute. This speaks to a well-trained bureaucracy and well-accepted rules for taxation. Short term empires either never reach this phase, because of bad luck, like the Timurids, who had very aggressive neighbors, or they can’t reach this phase like Nader because their exactions get worse and worse every year.

Readers will find tantalizingly short pieces of recent historical thinking on the Indo-Iranian Hephthalites and the Medes, about whom scholarship is scarce, as well as much provocative thinking about contingency or inevitability in the rise and fall of empires. The book’s opening essay by Michael Gehler talks about the European Union. The author must have delighted in the provocation inherent in being included in a collection on short-term empires but concludes not unexpectedly that the EU is neither an empire nor is it doomed in the short run.

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.