New Internationalist

Power Pax

Issue 330

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Power Pax: a brief history of megalomania
Despots claim that if order were not imposed people
would live in chaos, so they're the only peacemakers.
The historical record suggests otherwise.

Rome
The mother of every imperial pax (the Latin word for peace), the ‘Pax Romana’ in fact lasted little more than 200 years, from the beginning of the reign of Augustus in 27 BC to the end of the reign of Marcus Aurelius in AD 180. The tranquility was only relative to the violence that had preceded it – in 146 BC the Romans destroyed their rivals in Carthage, killing 200,000 and selling the remaining 50,000 into slavery. Rome imposed brutal penalties, tribute, slavery and military service on subjugated peoples. The eventual result was the collapse of Rome under its own weight, followed by a prolonged ‘Dark Age’ in Europe.

China
Of all the peoples in the world, perhaps none has been so afflicted by emperors – nor staged so many revolts against them – as the Chinese. From about 1,700 BC nomadic Shang conquerors set up a feudal system of military tribute that eventually covered a quarter of a million square miles. In the 500 years prior to 221 BC – when China was unified – there were only 120 years of peace. Imperial dynasties came and went for two thousand years thereafter. The Great Wall was intended to provide a defence against the Mongols (see ‘Central Asia’), but became known as ‘the longest cemetery in the world’ because its construction claimed so many labourers’ lives.

India
An empire was founded by Chandragupta Maurya in 322 BC – his grandson Asoka converted to Buddhism and remains unique in history for having renounced warfare altogether. Indians then invented the decimal system and the concept of zero. From 1526 the cultured Muslim Mughal dynasty lived from taxing 150 million Hindu farmers – and collapsed when the ambitious military campaigns of Aurengzeb provoked rebellions by Sikhs and Hindus alike.

Central Asia
The nomadic Mongols, led by the legendary Genghis Khan, ravaged Beijing in 1216 before turning west and conquering Persia, Armenia, northern India and southern Russia. Genghis Khan’s successors devastated Poland and the rest of Russia. By the middle of the thirteenth century they had defeated the Sung empire and become the effective rulers of China. In 1280 Kublai Khan formally assumed the title of emperor. Much like the Romans, the Mongols enslaved anyone who surrendered – and killed everyone else.

Africa
From around the year 1100 the Shona people began to develop small kingdoms in what is now Zimbabwe. Trade increased the wealth of the kings and they built palaces, the largest of which was known as Great Zimbabwe, constructed around 1300. This was abandoned in 1425 by King Mutota, who moved to a new capital and started conquering the people around him, so that he became known as Mwana-Mutapha, or ‘lord of ravaged lands’.

Mexico
In 1325 Aztec mercenaries from the arid north of Mexico moved south and founded Tenochtitlán – modern Mexico City. They began to extend their power through a series of treacherous alliances and religious take-overs, as well as military conquest. Tribute was often in the form of captives for blood sacrifice. At the consecration of a new temple in 1487, 20,000 people are said to have had their hearts ripped out. Crop failures and relentless demands for tribute weakened the Aztec empire even before the arrival of the Spanish.

Peru
The Inca kingdom in the High Andes in what is now Peru expanded with extraordinary speed from 1438 until it controlled almost the whole of the Andean region. Recent archaeological evidence seems to confirm that children, after making long pilgrimages, were sacrificed on mountain peaks where the gods were believed to reside. Civil war broke out over the succession to the god king in 1525. The Inca, like the Aztec, were seriously weakened by internal conflicts before they encountered the Spanish invaders, who also brought diseases to which they had no resistance.

Turkey
The Muslim Ottoman Empire began at the start of the fourteenth century and steadily expanded, so that Christians raised a crusading army against it, which was annihilated in 1396. By the sixteenth century, under Suleiman the Magnificent and after a long sequence of bloody battles, the Ottomans, from their capital in Istanbul, ruled the whole of North Africa, all the Muslim holy cities and much of Eastern Europe. The expansion halted when an army of 200,000 was beaten back from the siege of Vienna in 1683. By the nineteenth century Turkey had become known as ‘the sick man of Europe’.

Russia
The first Russian given the title of Tsar (‘Caesar’) was the 16-year-old Ivan, a certifiable psychopath called ‘The Terrible’. Peter the Great (1685-1725) established the ‘Empire of All Russias’ by making the army his instrument of power and brutally suppressing all opposition. Catherine the Great (1762-96) expanded the Russian Empire further to the South and East, so that it swallowed a huge number of cultures and ‘nationalities’. The degeneration of the Tsarist regime led to revolution in 1917. In many of its practices the Stalinist Soviet Union replicated the tyrannical Tsarist regime.

Spain
In the sixteenth century, the Spanish crown used the wealth it extracted from its new ‘Latin’ American colonies as a means to enhance its own power in Europe. In April 1609 the Spanish King Philip III negotiated an agreement with rebellious Dutch subjects that resulted in a 12-year period sometimes known as the ‘Pax Hispanica’. As it turned out, this was ‘war by other means’ – the Spanish hoped to lull the Dutch into a false sense of security while building up a stockpile of armaments. War resumed thereafter with renewed ferocity.

France
The European obsession with absolute monarchy reached its zenith with the insane ‘Sun King’, Louis (‘I am the state’) XIV, who lived in splendour in Versailles, sowing the seeds of eventual revolution in 1789. Though it succeeded in overthrowing the ‘old regime’ and implanting new political concepts, the revolution itself degenerated into terror. This opened the way in 1799 for a military coup by Napoleon Bonaparte, who went on to become the role model for all subsequent megalomaniacs. Napoleon conquered most of Italy and Spain, defeated Prussia and Austria, spent a decade threatening Europe, crowned himself Emperor, saw the whole thing collapse and was exiled in disgrace – all within 20 years.

Britain
The British Empire reached its fleeting climax with the Diamond Jubilee of Queen Victoria in 1897. By then Britain – using sea power and ‘gunboat diplomacy’ much as cruise missiles are used today – had placed a quarter of the world’s land surface and peoples under a ‘Pax Britannica’ on which ‘the sun never set’. Within two years the vicious Boer War broke out in South Africa, and in 1914 the Great War began. In fact, there were few times when Britain was not directing military campaigns of repression or conquest somewhere in its empire.

Germany
After the collapse of the Roman Empire, the Papacy remained in Western Europe as the only token of superior authority. Particularly in Germany, feudal warlords tried to blend the ‘spiritual’ authority of the Papacy and the ‘temporal’ brute force of Rome into a ‘Holy Roman Empire’. Centuries later, ancient semi-mystical aspirations and growing economic power propelled the German Kaiser (‘Caesar’) into the Great War of 1914 and humiliation in 1918 – followed by the rise of Hitler and the ‘thousand-year Reich’. Six million Jews, twenty million Russians and many millions more around the world (including Germans themselves) were killed.

America
The US is the only former European colony to have created its own empire. In Central America it stages regular military invasions (the Dominican Republic, Grenada, Panama); in Latin America generally it subverts democratic government (Chile) and promotes war (Nicaragua, Guatemala, El Salvador, Colombia). It tries to enforce an embargo on trade with Cuba. With the end of the Cold War, other regions of the world (Iraq, the Balkans) are finding out what the ‘Pax Americana’ means – according to President Bush during the Gulf War: ‘Do as we say.’ This is the first serious attempt by one nation to police the entire – as opposed to the ‘known’ – world.

Next stop: outer space

Source: A history of the world, NI 196


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