Imperial Declines

In Spring 2014, UC Berkeley Social Science Matrix sponsored a seminar on “Imperial Declines,” looking at how and why empires reach a peak before inevitably diminishing in power and shrinking in reach. Coordinated by Carlos Norena, Professor, and Daniel Sargent, Assistant Professor, both from the UC Berkeley Department of History, this seminar sought to examine past lessons of imperial decline and how they might be applicable today.

“The seminar was conceived in the context of contemporary discussions of empire, and the ways in which the modern U.S. is—and is not—like earlier empires,” Norena explains. “The topic is critical not just for a better understanding of the problem of empire—the most common and widespread form of political and social organization in world history—but also for contemporary debates and discussions about international policy in the U.S. in the 21st century.”

The historians considered a range of case-studies, including ancient Rome, medieval China, the pre-modern Atlantic world, the British empire, and the 20th-century international order. They examined the nature of each imperial system in question; key themes included problems of definition (what is an “empire,” and how can we measure “decline?”) as well as method (what are the advantages and drawbacks of a comparative approach?)

“Previous attempts to investigate imperial declines in comparative perspective came from the gentleman scholars of an earlier era, writing outside the confines of the modern research university and approaching the problem from a subjective viewpoint,” Norena explains. “It was hoped that a collaborative approach could deliver new and important insights into this longstanding historical problem.”

The seminar brought together scholars with expertise in diverse historic empires, from the ancient Mediterranean to the modern world. “One key theme that emerged over the course of the seminar was the different ways in which empires have controlled, managed, and distributed natural resources across space and over time,” says Norena. “We hope to investigate this problem further, likely in the form of an academic conference during Spring 2015 and an edited volume.”