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Author: Alain Le Pichon


As far as Position of the problem

As far as we consider the history of Euro-Chinese relations, through the vast conceptual, historical, political and philosophical field it covers, the notion of empire is probably one of the most important yet also the most heavily charged with misunderstandings. This is for three main reasons:

  • The Western concept of empire is vague, as it refers to multiple and very different historical events and episodes, covering a vast polysemic field full of ambiguity that is easily amphibological. Perhaps its strength and coherence come more from its dreamlike characters: Alexander, August, Napoleon or Charlemagne, heroes of legend who transcend Western history. It is a matter of the extraordinary and the fable rather than of logic and factual actuality despite the rigorous legal dressing of a concept stemming from Roman law. One may wonder “whether its particularly effective character is not precisely due to its ambiguous and complex nature, and to the blurring effect that it creates” . It lends itself, therefore, to all the ideological constructions that Western thought has been indulging in since the Greeks, making this fabulous word one of the most powerful weapons and conceptual tools in history.
  • The Chinese word for empire is conventionally translated as Di-guo, “literally: country governed by an emperor, or state dependent on an imperial institution, a rather late invention, referring to the Western model, and reinterpreted with reference to the context of contemporary knowledge,” (Zhao Tingyang). For centuries, what in the West was called Middle Kingdom seems to be designated in the Chinese language and culture by a moving diversity of terms depending on places, times, and circumstances. It, therefore, does not belong to the “conceptual heritage” of classical Chinese thought, while the one that Zhao Tingyang proposes for our consideration, Tianxia or “Everything Under the Sky”, covers a different field of meaning and historical reality that is specifically Chinese and foreign to Western culture and history, belonging to the category of “untranslatable”, in the sense of Barbara Cassin’s dictionary of untranslatables.
  • This debate on the concept of empire refers to a passionate context of tensions, confrontations and suspicions, found throughout history or still today in current events. On both sides it leads to imaginary and speculative projections, based much more on models peculiar to each culture than on a reality from which it is difficult to escape.

Empire and the search for the universal

The “dream of empire” extends to the whole world and the notion of universality is at the heart of this debate. The following account from Herodotus’ Stories, with two episodes, one at the beginning and the other at the end, frames this fresco of the Greek world’s confrontation with the Persian Empire, as the two poles, East and West, of a political vision of the world.

  • The first, in Book 1, Clio, is the story of Cyrus’ dream: “sleeping on the land of the Massagetae … [he] thought he saw during his sleep the eldest son of Hystaspe (Darios) with wings on his shoulders, whose one shaded Asia and the other Europe”, announcing the advent of the empire of Darius
  • The second, in Book VIII, Urania, 110, is the speech of Themistocles to the Athenians after the defeat of the Persians at Salamis and their retreat to the East: “It is not we who have accomplished this feat, it is the gods and heroes whose jealousy did not want a single man to reign over Asia and Europe, an impious and criminal man, who treated the same shrines and private buildings, torching and overthrowing the statues of gods, a man who even castigated the sea and threw shackles on it,” denouncing the absolute hubris of the imperial project threatening the Greek city.

Reversing the meaning of this confrontation, starting from the median situation of Macedonia at the foot of the Persian empire, Alexander made this alternative vision of the world, which was until then foreign and alienating, a Greek reality. By merging the contradictions and reducing the antinomy through the conquest of Asia, he thus transformed Greece and opened it up to the world, creating the Hellenistic world with its future developments from the Hellenistic kingdoms to the Byzantine Empire.

Rome, conquered by the culture of its captive, Greece, took up this model of the empire in the heritage of Hellenistic culture, making it the ideal framework for its project of military expansion. The Romans, as in everything else, left its mark on it, combining the cult of imperial power with the perfect management and administration.

We could say that at both ends of the Eurasian continent, the European Union and China find themselves today in a situation which could be compared to that observed by Herodotus. The European Union as the heir to the Greek world, whose values it still claims as the only universal ones, facing off against China who assumes in the eyes of the Western world the potential role of the hegemonic imperial power invested with the virtue of universality and centrality inherent in the image of the Middle Kingdom.

Terminology and etymology: imperator and imperium

The concept of Empire, the Roman “imperium”, is definitely marked by its warlike origins. The French term empereur comes from the Latin word imperator which belongs to the family of imperare (commander) or imperium (command, power). The word imperator designates a victorious general, acclaimed by his troops and having thus entitled to the triumph, this title being granted by the Senate. Julius Caesar is the first Roman ruler to bear the title of the first emperor followed by Augustus.

A synthetic definition of the imperium is given by Mommsen: “Imperium (…) designates, in its most general technical sense, the highest public power, including jurisdiction and military command, as opposed to the exclusive power to defend as the people’s tribunals have it and, on the other hand, to the subordinate power to order which belongs to the lower magistrates and the delegates of the higher magistrates.”

The Imperium is thus an essential term in the political conception of the Roman State with this term being intimately linked to a city, Rome “which has always been conceived as a city, even when extended to the limits of a very vast space” . “The Imperium populi Romani is the land on which the powers of magistrates or promagistrates are exercised. They are powers resulting from the legal horizon of the city Rome which extends little by little on the world” . This imperium has two forms: the imperium domi and the imperium militiae, depending on where the imperium is exercised. The imperium domi had authority over the city of Rome and stopped at a border marked by milestones, beyond which the magistrate became a warlord. The imperium militiae of the Imperator was exercised outside beyond the limit of one mile from the city gates.

From the preceding observations, the following constants can be identified which constitute the conceptual model of empire:

  • The Roman Empire was the result of an exponential extension of the city’s domination to the surrounding known world. The City, the sacred space attributed by the gods to the Roman community and governed by the immutable rules of supreme political power: the imperium domi, remains the universal model of the Empire.
  • The city delegates this power of conquest, the imperium militiae, to a military chief elected by its troops, leading him to the “triumph” by which he is recognized as imperator.
  • From Augustus, the imperator cumulates then the two powers: the imperium domi and the imperium militiae, military power of absolute conquest.

These two functions are both marked by a sacred character; they proceed from the gods and accomplish a divine project in which the sacred nature of the emperor is revealed The encounter with Christianity brings about a profound paradigm shift, linked to monotheism and its universal outlook. Two paradigms will confront each other:

  • The first, which is imposed with Constantine’s conversion, leading to the confusion of the religious model and the political model. The emperor is then the all-powerful representative of the one God, thus justified in his project of universal domination.
  • The second, on the contrary, theorized by St. Augustine, clearly distinguishes the two models: the purely terrestrial one and the political one, accommodating the imperfection of the things of this world within the terrestrial City. The other of a heavenly nature “is not of this world”. According to the words of Christ, it is the City of God from which the first must nevertheless draw inspiration. These two paradigms will then confront each other, marking, at times one more so than the other, the form and spirit of the successive avatars that the concept of Empire has taken on in the West.

Permanence and evolution of the concept in history

The model took very different forms according to the ages of history and the different European nations and depending on the specific genius of their language and culture… In Germanic cultures and lands, under the name of Reich, while claiming to be based on the Roman model, it has taken on a clearly different physiognomy and meaning. Carl Schmitt sees the Reich as an area susceptible to domination, not so much by a city as by a people: “a great spatial order dominated by certain ideas and ideological principles, which excludes the intervention of powers foreign to that space and which has as its guarantor and protector a people equal to the task. […] The new concept of order of a new international law represents our concept of the Reich, that of a great spatial order based on the people, carried by the people.”[1]

Consubstantially, however, to the history of the formation of German identity, intimately linked to the Holy German Empire, as to that of the Orthodox world, through the Byzantine Empire, it is undoubtedly more heterogeneous to the history of France, from its Very Christian Kings to the Republic, to the point that J. Le Goff tells us that empire is not a European concept[2]. But it inspired, in depth, the French Revolution, just as it was the explicit reference of the colonial project. Different may have been the forms in history, one constant remains nevertheless : the constancy of its first principle: domination by arms.

Thus, coming from Asia, from the Assyrian model, introduced in Persia by the Medes, adopted by Alexander and installed in the Hellenistic world, taken up and amplified by Rome, the model of empire has not stopped haunting the memory and the spirit of the West, defining its history and its grip on the world despite its ideological references and the formal appearances of its political models. It animates, in depth, its vision of the world. Beyond appearances it inspires its strategy.

This idea is constantly alive in political philosophy where, from Dante to Vico and Machiavelli, the Empire is seen as the best way to ensure peace. Dante himself in his treatise on Monarchy legitimizes this warlike origin of imperial power. It is God who conferred on Romulus the legitimacy of power through the trial of the battle from which he emerged victorious, The victory entitled him with the mission to federate the universal empire by bringing it the Pax Romana, the prelude to Christian Peace.

Vague as it is, the concept does not refer to a precise form of organization, whether republics like Athens or later Venice, monarchies like Austria in the 19th century, or confederations like the Holy Roman Empire in the Middle Ages. Similarly, it sometimes refers to democracies such as France or the British Empire, the American Empire of today, or more generally the “global pyramid of authority” of the “liberal empire” described by Toni Negri.[3]

Nevertheless, the idea remains that the West’s vocation is to extend the system and the universal values it represents to the rest of the world, or even to intervene militarily to re-establish them in the states or political systems that reject them. Taking over from the ideal model of Christianity, whose paradigm remains Saint Augustine’s City of God, these values are today those of democracy and human rights, just as they could once have been those of the Marxist revolution and popular democracy.

With China today, having recovered its greatness, appearing as the second world power, if not, potentially, as the first, the field seems open for these two deeply different conceptual models, those of the Western Imperium (even if clothed in a democratic appearance) and of Tianxia, confront each other on the scene of international political debate.

[1] Carl Schmitt, Sur la notion de Rich en droit international 1939

[2] Jacques Le Goff, in Le Renversement du Ciel, ouvrage collectif Transcultura A. le Pichon, Moussa Sow, CNRS Ed. 2006

[3] Michael Hardt, Antonio Negri, Empire. Paris, Éd. Exils, 2000, 559 p.


This post is also available in: Chinese (Simplified) French

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Nicolas Chapuis, Ambassador of the European Union to China

Mutual understanding is the foundation of international relations. If globalization leads us to use a common lexicon, we often tend to forget that meanings differ from one culture to the other. Lack of understanding or, sometimes, confusion in meaning, breaks communication.

When China speaks in a foreign language, it uses a lexicon that is more often than never not on par with its own history and culture. It uses words to which it may assign, consciously or unconsciously, different meanings. No dialogue can be effective if interlocutors disagree on the very meaning of what they say to each other.

More than 2000 years ago, Confucius noted the imperative “to assign proper meanings to concepts”, zheng ming 正名. That is precisely what this digital platform offers by attempting to bridge the gap of cultural differences, while respecting the essential value of cultural diversity without falling in the trap of cultural relativism. This initiative aims thus to confront key concepts between Europe and China by designing a methodical guide to handle and solve eventual misunderstandings.

Remarkably, the origin of this project stems back to the 1980’s when a number of dialogues contributed to create a trustworthy network of scholars in Europe and in China. With the renewed support of the European Union, the ‘EU-China Forum on Cultural Misunderstandings’ gathers a group of high level European and Chinese intellectuals who share the awareness that cultural misunderstandings impede mutual comprehension and positive interactions between the EU and China at all levels.

The digital platform ambitions to be a constant, accessible and tangible instrument for uploading contributions and conducting initial debates in preparation of the November 2021 Forum.

The contributions of all participating authors will be included in the EU-China Dictionary of Misunderstandings, published digitally and eventually also in a physical form. It intends to be a meaningful, scientific and literate instrument for the benefit of mutual understanding between Europe and China.

It is certainly my hope that this editorial project of a Europe-China Dictionary of Misunderstandings may constitute a reference tool for further research and exchanges.


Nicolas Chapuis
Ambassador of the European Union to the People’s Republic of China 
May 2021

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