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Book Review


Peter Crooks and Timothy H. Parsons, Empires and Bureaucracy in World History: From Late Antiquity to the Twentieth Century. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2016. Pp. xxii + 474. Index. $34.99 (paper).


     High school and college students have little trouble grasping the relationship between empire and bureaucracy. From Gondor's musty basement archives to Harry Potter's Ministry of Magic, popular fiction's political empires are staffed by clerks, factotums, and functionaries in the thousands. Students also have an easy time understanding Max Weber's identification of modernity and administrative rationalization: they already have considerable experience with systematic oversight, hierarchical organization, and routinized decision-making not only in school but perhaps in their work and family lives.

     It is exactly the "abiding linkage between bureaucracy, 'modernity' and the state" that editors Peter Crooks and Timothy Parsons hope to "complicate and subvert" in this fine and provocative collection (19). They agree with Sam Whimster, who categorically rejects the idea of an acorn-to-oak transformation "from the successful patrimonial state to the European absolutist states…to the final centralization of power and the rationalization of bureaucracy in the modern state."1

     Together, these essays rewrite political history's longue durée. It's a pleasure to stitch together a fresh narrative of administrative change from the late Roman empire (Michael Whitby, ch. six) through Byzantium (John Haldon, ch. seven) and the Ottomans (Karen Barkey, ch. five) or from England's medieval transmarine kingdoms (John Gillingham on the Angevins, ch. nine; Peter Crooks on the Plantagenets, ch. eleven) through Britain's 18th and 19th century imperial ventures (Jack Greene on British North America, ch. thirteen; Deana Heath on the Raj, ch. fifteen), to the UK's last decades in colonial Africa (Timothy Parsons, ch. seventeen).

     Given the range of case studies considered in this volume, the terms "empire" and "bureaucracy" are potential stumbling blocks. Crooks and Parsons therefore address much of their introduction to those who question whether Angevin and Plantagenet kingdoms were really "empires" or doubt that Incan imperial administration remotely resembled "bureaucracy." The editors warn against "fruitless debate over classification," and so define their terms quite broadly. 2 Thus an empire is:

an extended and durable polity in which a core society exercises formal and authoritarian power over subordinated peoples of outlying territories gained or maintained by coercion.3

Focused solely on power relationships, this characterization is silent on territorial expanse or imperial grandeur. Their definition of bureaucracy is similarly broad-gauged:

routine administrative activity delegated to office holders (who are often, but not always, professional career administrators), conducted on the basis of records (though not always written records), with some differentiation and specialization of offices that are organized hierarchically and are reliant on systems of communication."4

     This list admits of bureaucracies without writing and makes no explicit distinctions among, say, 20th century civil servants, 19th century colonial subalterns, and 1st century patrimonial servitors. It generously allows for bureaucratic behaviors absent from Max Weber's ideal type: institutional coercion, arbitrary violence, corruption, inefficiency, and sheer ineptitude. To be clear: such semantic ambiguity is a good thing; this collection is richer for its conceptual breadth.

     There's one key term that Empires and Bureaucracy in World History does not define: world history. This collection may disappoint those who understand world history as a distinct field. Of sixteen regional studies, twelve focus on Europe, the Christian Mediterranean, and Europe's overseas empires. Only four contributions (on Song China, the Abbasid Caliphate, the Ottomans, and the Inca) venture further.

     In short, this is European history, a fact Crooks and Parsons affirm when they write that these four non-European case studies "place the dynamics of Western empires in world-historical perspective."5 Yet the collection is not "Eurocentric." None of the essays claim to discover in Europe a singularly ancient genesis of administrative innovation. Nor do the non-European case studies represent some kind of scholarly tokenism. To the contrary, each is essential to advancing some of the volume's arguments. Patricia Ebrey's essay on Song China, for instance, illustrates the diverse ways a complex state might administer its outlying territories – a useful point of comparison for later Spanish, British, and French overseas empires.6 Chris Given-Wilson's study of the Incan administration focuses on the knotted cords called quipu. Far from simply keeping inventories, the highly skilled masters of this textile media, called quipucamayocs, maintained the empire's administrative and, increasingly, cultural cohesion from their posts in villages throughout the Andes.7 Given-Wilson cautions against any facile association between administrative competence and modernity: far-flung Andean villages were "visible" to the Inca in ways James Scott's 20th century "high modernist" state-builders would have envied.8

     István T. Kristó-Nagy's assessment of Caliphal administrative development explores the emergence of a "new cultural synthesis" in the early Arab-Persian Islamicate, "the outcome of the gradual mutual assimilation of the conquerors and the vanquished."9 As Richard Bulliet has argued, this assimilation took many decades to resolve, but ultimately created institutions whose foundations survived Abbasid fragmentation and collapse.10  Caliphal precedent powerfully influenced the Ottoman Empire; Karen Barkey's discussion of Ottoman administrative capacities reinforces a point highlighted by Crooks and Parsons: that "premodern empires could have strong bureaucratic features while retaining a degree of institutional flexibility that enabled imperial, patrimonial, and bureaucratic forms of rule to interact with one another."11

     Adding more non-European case studies would be pointless if they merely underscored the collection's current arguments. I expect, though, that some omissions would have illuminated issues and advanced ideas absent from this collection. There is nothing, for instance, on Porfirian Mexico or the Empire of Brazil, whose administrative systems consciously embraced a version of Comtean positivism. To what degree were these "European offshoots" addressing issues familiar in European contexts? Certain African states – 19th century Buganda or 20th century Ethiopia, for instance – might have invited comparisons between European and indigenous imperial structure. An essay on late 19th century Japan, Russia, Korea, or Thailand could suggest ways in which defensive modernization led to certain kinds of administrative change. This would be useful when weighing Karen Barkey's reassessment of Ottoman tanzimat reform as "a necessary and important step in the process of bureaucratization and centralization," achieved "without inciting anti-state rebellions."12

     To add more to this book's nearly five hundred pages would ask too much of the editors and publisher, and I would not want to cut any of the essays already collected here. Even so, when I finished with the book, I imagined myself as a hungry Oliver Twist, carrying an empty bowl to the two editors at the high table: Please sirs, I want some more!

     Taken on its own terms, Empires and Bureaucracy is an exceptionally successful collection. I can easily imagine incorporating some of these essays, in whole or in part, into a custom-published reader for college and advanced high school students. Of the many themes developed in this collection, six will, I think, serve students especially well. The first is simple: administrative systems matter. Students learn this, of course, from their experiences with national exams, FAFSA forms, Title IX enforcement, college admissions, course catalogues, juvenile justice, and schooling itself. It is perfectly possible in a history class to introduce students to imperial administrative systems and, at the same time, ask that students reflect on their own experience with large institutions. 

     A second theme is teleology. Crooks and Parsons are emphatic that political systems do not progress ever upwards towards an efficient modernity:

The wider realm of the Plantagenet kings of England in the late Middle Ages was, for instance, arguably more intensively supervised by the Crown and its ministers than the early modern British empire in North America or, for that matter, the archaic chartered companies that 'modern' nation-states of Europe revived as means of governing on the cheap in the era of the new imperialism.13

     To illustrate the point, it is worth comparing Charlemagne's 9th century continental realm to Britain's 18th century American colonies. In Bernard Bachrach's telling, and contrary to student expectations of "dark age" empire, Carolingian administration was highly organized by a "vast force of literate, trained and loyal men… [who] administered the bureaux of the central government. Additionally, thousands of men administered more than a thousand government installations at the local level."14 This administrative hierarchy enjoyed wide legitimacy. Jack Greene, meanwhile, characterizes Britain's 18th century trans-Atlantic colonial administration, as "undermanned, underpowered, and under-supported." Greene adds that for most of the 18th century, elites on both sides of the Atlantic considered this a strength, not a flaw, contributing to imperial wealth and durability.15

     A third theme is that imperial projects intended to improve efficiency and accountability risked disaster. This, Crooks and Parsons write, is the "paradox of power": an empire that behaves like – well, imperiously – can easily destroy itself. Imperial authorities learn this lesson in one essay after another. Byzantium, for instance, sparked armed resistance with its "heavy-handed attempt to monetize the local provincial economies, which had hitherto been largely dependent on exchange and taxation in kind." Though the empire "rapidly crushed" the rebellion, the Byzantine state also reversed the policy.16 A thousand years later, ambitious officialdom in late 18th century Bavaria and Piedmont provoked local opposition against a policy of administrative rationalization associated with cameralism. Napoleon sought to enforce his own brand of enlightened authoritarianism in Bavaria, Piedmont, and throughout Europe and encountered the same resistance.17 Christopher Storrs writes that the "bureaucratic 'efficiency'" pursued through Bourbon reforms in Spanish America "was counterproductive, undermining imperial stability" and fatally undermining support for Spain's trans-Atlantic empire. In the last decades before independence swept Africa, British and French policy makers saw administrative reform as a way to better organize colonial economies and, not incidentally, co-opt nationalist and labor union leaders. Instead, their policies helped consolidate and accelerate indigenous political activism.18

     Some of these essays might prompt students to ask whether decentralization was the more rational, durable, and "modern" choice. The Holy Roman Empire offers some support for such an idea. I have had history mavens in my classes who laugh (literally: they laugh) at the Holy Roman Empire's 2,000 principalities, some so small they could only be inhabited by hobbits. Len Scales explains the conditions that made HRE centralization "impossible" after the 13th century. More importantly, he explains why centralization wasn't desirable. For most of its history, the HRE was a "large, loosely structured, polycentric formation." This fact preserved the Empire: it was in the interests of most constituent states to protect it against ambitious centralizers within or beyond the HRE's shifting boundaries. While it existed, it was no mere fiction. Though the HRE's modest chancery produced nothing akin to cadastral, legal, and regulatory archives being assembled in England or China, it endured.19

     How did the Holy Roman Empire last for centuries? How did the British manage to maintain North American loyalty for 150 years? Scales suggests that, though its output of formal written documents was relatively paltry, these documents, distributed throughout the HRE, were "performances" which "contributed, through their existence and their actions, to the public myth of their masters' power and effectiveness." Greene writes that "metropolitan charisma, not force, was what principally bound colonial polities throughout the Americas to their respective European centres."20 Most students come to world history classes believing that empires and other centralized states cohere thanks solely to centurions, starship troopers, and calculated self-interest. It is worth discussing whether legitimacy and loyalty also grow from less tangible sources, those "mystic chords of memory" that Lincoln invoked.

     Given the risks involved, it took existential threats to move some empires to shore up their administrative capacities. Michael Whitby describes the early Roman Empire's provinces as surprisingly "undergoverned," a consequence, he writes, of a political system that rewarded political aspirants for military victories, not organizational efficiencies. The Principate standardized neither taxation nor coinage, and it provisioned its army from private suppliers rather than state warehouses. Change came in the fourth through sixth centuries as invasion, plague, and succession crises revealed the state's eroding capacity to guarantee the "trinity of security, finances, and justice." Over time the Tetrarchy centralized military supply, imposed more regular taxation, and elaborated hierarchical systems of official control.21

     Even the most centralized empires generally refrained from imposing a single legal and administrative system throughout their diverse territories. The Chinese case is well known: starting with the Han, dynasts rejected the unyielding legalism of the Qin and instead brokered power carefully among the varied ethnic and kin groups on their peripheries.22 Islamic administrative practice, while built on a Persian and Roman inheritance, governed through tribe and clan as well as through province. Kristó-Nagy asks that we imagine caliphal power structures not as a cone (broad base, narrowing sharply at the top), but as "built up from a network of smaller cones," each arranged around some local patrimonial authority.23 Rather than distinguish between "direct" and "indirect" rule of subject peoples, Crooks and Parsons suggest instead that we imagine a "continuum" of bureaucratic, personalist, and kin-based systems, sometimes existing simultaneously in various parts of the empire.24

     These essays collectively explore a fourth theme that can engage students: the critical role of oversight and accountability. There is, writes John Haldon, a tendency for "functionaries… to evolve, however gradually, their own independent power base." One common solution: rotate imperial officials from one province to the next. Another: ensure that career advancement depends as much on merit as on family and political connections, a feature of Chinese and Byzantine systems. A third: structure incentives that remind administrators of their "vested interest in the maintenance of those social and economic relations to which they owe their positions."25 For example, as knowledge and skills became more specialized, an official's opportunities for promotion lay increasingly within the imperial hierarchy, a fact as significant for highly trained readers of Inca quipu as for China's successful examination candidates.26

     Fifth, the collection casts fresh light on long-distance communication between imperial core and periphery. Chinese canals, Roman roads, Inca relay runners, and Britain's 19th century "tools of empire" are standards of introductory world history classes. Students rarely think of legal procedure as part of a communications infrastructure. However, Haldon and Barkey both report cases of disgruntled locals successfully appealing for imperial justice over the head of some provincial official, apparently without fear of reprisal.27 Islamic jurisprudence asserts that the law preceded and constrained political claims, a view that often prevailed in both Abbasid and Ottoman empires. Nationalists in French West Africa, labor organizers in British West Africa and creole elites in Spanish America all availed themselves of courts as well as other means to amplify their grievances.28 That said, it was the empire that controlled the means of communication. Where few people could read, Sam Whimster writes,

The bearer of the media of communication… is rendered into a figure of power, terror and awe by virtue of the technology of communication. The lead seal of a charter from the chancery of the seat of the Holy Roman Empire, the breaking of the wax seal and unfurling of the medieval writ written on parchment, the calligraphy on paper, the deployment of the quipu, the missive from the civilized metropole – all these media command respect.29

     Every empire has placed hard and brutal limits on "speaking truth to power." The small British minority atop the Indian system would do what was necessary to protect ill-paid and ill-supervised colonial police, who might well torture anyone unlucky enough to be held for questioning. Courts might hear all sorts of cases, but judges would likely find a way to summarily dismiss accusations of police malfeasance, brutality, and murder.30

     One last theme is worth sharing with students: bureaucracy sometimes succeeds. A successful bureaucracy, John Haldon writes, will "lend 'resistance' (that is, flexibility in responding to stress) to the system it supports;" it is the "cement which binds a political entity together."31  In this context, Haldon reflects on the 7th century Byzantine state:

when, in spite of massive losses of territory and resources (some 70 per cent of its territory and an even higher percentage of its annual revenues in a period of about twelve years), a series of political crises, a serious decline in morale, and a long string of military defeats, the state and its institutions were able to survive and evolve during the eighth century in new directions.32

     A work this ambitious inevitably has its disappointments. The first goes back to an issue Crooks and Parsons raise in their introduction: "male dominance within imperial bureaucracies should not obscure the fact that women played an integral role in most systems of imperial rule."33 Yet only one essay, Michael Broers' study of Napoleonic administration really supports that view. Broers arguing persuasively that that that the wives of the youthful administrators serving Bonaparte not only lobbied on behalf their husbands' professional advancement but played "far from a passive role" in advancing the Napoleonic project itself.34 I would like to have seen more on the same issue elsewhere in the collection.

     Crooks and Parsons never promise a discussion of slavery, so I should not complain that it's nowhere to be found. Too bad. I have sometimes had students read a bit of Orlando Patterson's Slavery and Social Death. Students are struck – as am I – by the extraordinary power granted in certain empires to eunuchs and palace slaves, some of whom rose to occupy the highest offices in the realm. The best-known example is probably divshirme, in which the Ottoman state requisitioned Christian boys from their parents, trained them in the palace and placed them as adults in the military or imperial administration. Cut off from their clan, village, and family, these servitors died "social death." Uniquely vulnerable in a world of local affiliation, only through imperial service they use their talents and hope to realize their ambitions (or, for that matter, to survive). It's been more than thirty years since Slavery and Social Death appeared, and I opened Empires and Bureaucracy half-hoping for an update. It looks like I'll have to wait a bit longer.35

     Good books raise more questions than they can answer. By this measure and others, Empires and Bureaucracy succeeds fully.

Tom Laichas is Senior Editor at World History Connected and teacher emeritus at Crossroads School in Santa Monica, California. He may be reached at



1 Sam Whimster, "Empires and Bureaucracy: Means of Appropriation and Media of Communication," Empires and Bureaucracy, 441.

2 Crooks and Parsons, "Paradox of Power," 15.

3 Crooks and Parsons, "Paradox of Power," 15.

4 Crooks and Parsons, "Paradox of Power," 17-18.

5 Crooks and Parsons, "Paradox of Power," 9.

6 Patricia Ebrey, "China as a Contrasting Case: Bureaucracy and Empire in Song China," Empires and Bureaucracy, 31-53.

7 Chris Given-Wilson, "Bureaucracy without Alphabetic Writing: Governing the Inca Empire, c.1438-1532," Empires and Bureaucracy, 81-101.

8 James Scott, Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed (Yale University Press, 1998).

9 István T. Kristó-Nagy, "Conflict and Cooperation between Arab Rulers and Persian Administrators in the Formative Period of Islam, c. 600-c.950 CE," Empires and Bureaucracy, 66-69.

10 Richard Bulliet, Islam: The View from the Edge (Columbia University Press, 1995).

11 Karen Barkey, "The Ottoman Empire (1299-1923): The Bureaucratization of Patrimonial Authority," Empires and Bureaucracy, 102.

12 Barkey, "The Ottoman Empire," 125-126.

13 Crooks and Parsons, "Paradox of Power," 19.

14 Bernard S. Bachrach, "Charlemagne and Carolingian Military Administration," 195.

15 Jack P. Greene, "Britain's Overseas Empire before 1780: Overwhelmingly Successful and Bureaucratically Challenged," Empires and Bureaucracy, 342.

16 John Haldon, "Bureaucracies, Elites and Clans: The Case of Byzantium, c. 600-1100," 158-159.

17 Michael Broers, "'Les Enfants due Siècle': An Empire of Young Professionals and the Creation of a Bureaucratic, Imperial Ethos in Napoleonic Europe," Empires and Bureaucracy, 351-352.

18 Frederick Cooper, "From Chief to Technocrat: Labour and Colonial Authority in Post-World War II Africa," Empires and Bureaucracy, 391-411; Timothy H. Parsons, "The Unintended Consequences of Bureaucratic 'Modernization' in Post-World War II British Africa," Empires and Bureaucracy, 412-433.

19 Len Scales, "The Parchment Imperialists: Texts, Scribes and the Medieval Western Empire, c. 1250-c. 1440," Empires and Bureaucracy, 224-225.

20 Scales, "Parchment Imperialists, 249; Greene, "Britain's Overseas Empires," 343.

21 Whitby, "Late Roman Empire," 130-132, 136-138.

22 Ebrey, "China as a Contrasting Case," 32.

23 Kristó-Nagy, "Conflict and Cooperation,"62.

24 Crooks and Parsons, "Paradox of Power," 24.

25 Haldon, "Byzantium," 151-153.

26 The South Korean film Chunhyang (Im Kwon-taek, 2000) is a great resource for introducing students to the challenges of bureaucratic accountability. Students love its combination of romance with the vicissitudes of imperial administration. It is based on a 17th century pansori, a uniquely Korean genre in which a performer sings a story accompanied by a drummer. Scenes from an actual performance of the pansori give the film its narrative coherence. Chunhyang includes sexual scenes (though no nudity) and may be inappropriate for some classrooms.

27 Haldon, "Byzantium," 157; Barkey, "Ottoman Empire," 111-112.

28 For a fine graphic novelization of an 1876 case tried in the Britain's Gold Coast, see Trevor Getz and Liz Clarke, Abina and the Important Men: A Graphic History (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012). For more on the book, see Maryanne Rhett's review in Journal of World History, 23 (4), 2013, 942-943.

29 Sam Whimster, "Empires and Bureaucracy: Means of Appropriation and Media of Communication," Empires and Bureaucracy, 454.

30 See Deana Heath's description of Hriday Nath Bose's arrest, torture, and death in Heath, "Bureaucracy, Power, and Violence in Colonial India: The Role of Indian Subalterns." 383-390.

31 Haldon, "Byzantium," 149-150, 168.

32 Haldon, "Byzantium," 168.

33 Crooks and Parsons, "Paradox of Power," 25.

34 Broers, "'Les Enfants du Siècle'," 359-362.

35 See Orlando Patterson, "The Ultimate Slave," in Slavery and Social Death: A Comparative Study (Harvard University Press, 1982), 299-333.



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