“Names designate, they do not describe. There is no reason to expect states which we happen - say - to call the British or Roman or Chinese empires to have any more in common than a series of individuals whom we happen to call "John". When we use the term "empire" other than as part of a proper name, its meanings are equally various. Henry VIII used it to mean a sovereign kingdom. For most Japanese, it means a state, irrespective of other considerations, ruled by a soi-disant emperor. Ronald Reagan used it as a mere term of abuse. Jean-Bedel Bokassa used it without apparently thinking of its meaning at all, in a fit of Napoleonic megalomania. Between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries, a period often referred to as an age of empires, there were at least thirty states in the world that historians denote as such. They had no common characteristics that collectively distinguished them from other states of the time. So there can be no restrictive theory of empire, and the current vogue for comparative and general histories of empire is doomed to failure if pegged to an attempt to define the indefinable. Yel historians and political scientists persist in hunting this Snark.” — Felipe Herández-Armesto, “Imperial Measures,” TLS (9.24.10): 8.

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Last modified 1 April 2014