3.II. Overview Of Empires And World Religions

The four world religions Christianity (cross), Islam (crescent), Hinduism (text), and Buddhism (wheel) are arguably the largest institutions in human history. This map shows their range as of 1500. 1

A.  Autocracy and Unregulated Competition

B.  Church and State

C.  Citations

A. Autocracy and Unregulated Competition

In the Chapter 3 timescale, some civilizations and cultures spread far beyond their local homelands and exerted wide influence.  The strongest states grew into empires and competed on the global stage.  An empire is a state that has grown beyond its own nation of origin. It crosses frontiers into the lands of “foreign” peoples and asserts land ownership, legislative power, tax collection, and / or military authority over them.  Empires dominated geopolitics with their size, strength, and cultural carrying capacity.  Though the age of empires has passed, like a retreating ice age it carved the terrain into the national and religious maps that we know today. 

Empires were small and rare before 3 TYA, when nations were still too few and far between to subsume one another.  As states grew and came into contact, they competed for further growth.  There was no body of international law at the time.  It was an unregulated competition, a contest of brute force.

Autocracy was another guiding principle.  Empires often behaved anthropomorphically, because at the head of each empire was the one man who effectively owned it. 2 Empires were the pinnacle of super-ambitious or -fortunate men becoming as wealthy as possible.  Once a single man was in control of a government’s military and treasury, his empire became the instrument of his personal incentives.  As with any form of wealth, an emperor’s concerns were primarily to protect his domain and secondarily to enlarge it.  These objectives required military activity at the fringes.  Expansionist war was justifiable when its benefits exceeded its costs from the emperor’s perspective 3 – and war was common, if not nearly constant.  When emperors were not at war over territory, warlords were throwing their armies against each other over succession to a throne.  Almost without exception, these motives were the impetus of war.  

Since WWII, global society has rejected imperialism.  Empires were not entirely evil, though.  At their best, they provided stability, civilization, and multicultural cities.  Moreover, their place in history was essential.  Empires accelerated change and created a more unified planet.  They even helped reintegrate the global family tree.  If you choose any living human at random, you and that person probably share a common ancestor within these last few thousand years. 4

B.  Church and State

Within the same time frame as the ancient empires, the religious map also changed dramatically.  Of course, this is no coincidence.  It is difficult to discuss the history of civilizations apart from the history of religions.  They were virtually inseparable.  Every small nation had its own religious traditions, and religion was a state function.  As empires grew, diverse beliefs collided and consolidated.  In this way, religions passed from one people to another, and some of them spread very rapidly.

There were numerous models for religious practice within an empire.  On the active extreme, many governments sought to spread their religion by force or persuasion.  This was especially the case with Christians and Muslims, 5 a major factor behind these religions’ growth to the world’s largest.  At other times, emperors permitted native religions to continue or new religions to grow.  Tolerance could be a good way to minimize disruption and maintain peace, an effective strategy for Alexander’s empire.  More passively, the invading force occasionally assimilated itself into its acquired territories.  Seljuk Turks, for example, adopted Islam after conquering Arab lands.  

Empires were extremely effective at homogenizing religious beliefs worldwide.  In the long run, a few religions outperformed the empires that had served as their vessels.  Today, just four large religions – Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism – account for ¾ of the global population. 6

Up to Chapter 3

Back to Section 3.I: Introduction And Timelines

Top of this page: Section 3.II: Overview Of Empires And World Religions

Continue to Section 3.III: The Ancient Mediterranean

C.  Citations

  1. Map Medieval-World-Religions by Fährtenleser (10/31/2016), CC BY-SA 4.0 (accessed, saved, and archived 10/18/19).
  2. Stephen Howe, Empire: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford University Press, 2002), 38.
  3. Surprisingly few books discuss monarchs’ motivations in a rational way.  See Leo J. Blanken, Rational Empires: Institutional Incentives and Imperial Expansion (University of Chicago Press, 2012), and Philip T. Hoffman, Why Did Europe Conquer the World? (Princeton University Press, 2015).
  4. Douglas L.T. Rohde, Steve Olson, and Joseph T. Chang, “Modelling the recent common ancestry of all humans”, Nature vol. 431 pp. 562-566 (9/30/2004), http://www.stat.yale.edu/~jtc5/papers/CommonAncestors/NatureCommonAncestors-Article.pdf (accessed and saved 9/08/19).
  5. Howe, op. cit. at 14.
  6. Conrad Hackett et al., “The Global Religious Landscape”, Pew Research Center (12/18/2012), http://www.pewforum.org/2012/12/18/global-religious-landscape-exec/ (accessed and saved 9/08/19, archived 10/13/19).
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