An extraordinary system: Tsar Nicolas II (right) and his cousin, King George V (right) in 1913. Image: Shawshots / Alamy Stock Photo

The unhappy lives of the emperors

Emperors liked to pretend they had an infallible right to rule. But many rose from humble beginnings and were always on guard against fierce rivals
July 21, 2022
In the Shadow of the Gods: The Emperor in World History
Dominic Lieven
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Suleyman II remarked that when he was taken from the harem to ascend the Ottoman throne, he thought he was going to be executed. He had good reason to be alarmed. His ancestor Suleyman I had his eldest son and two of his grandsons murdered; the Mughal emperor Aurangzeb bumped off two of his brothers to secure the throne; as did the great Tang emperor, Taizong; Ivan the Terrible had swathes of the Romanov family liquidated. Back in 1479, Mehmed II even made fratricide legally compulsory for a new sultan, “in the interests of world order.”

When later Ottomans feared that they were running out of “heirs and spares,” they kept the sultan’s brothers under permanent house arrest instead, in a special section of the harem known as “the cages.” It was after 46 years in the cages that Suleyman II emerged blinking into the spotlight. But the incoming emperor—to be acclaimed as “Son of Heaven” or whatever fancy title the court spin doctors had dreamed up—could have just as likely been a terrified five-year-old, or a hard-bitten herdsman’s son from the steppes who had fought his way to the throne. For like all monarchs, they invented traditions as they went along. The idea of the caliphate, for example, had fallen into disuse and was only dusted down by Abdul Hamid II in the 1890s to woo Turkish peasants.

The Cambridge historian Dominic Lieven tells us firmly at the start of his fascinating book that he is writing not so much about the terrifying charismatics who founded imperial dynasties as about the actual experience of being an emperor. He exhorts us at the end of his amazing catalogue—split into 16 chapters briskly covering all types of empire from Hammurabi’s Babylon to the Kaiser’s Germany—that “there is no point in reading this book in a mood of sustained indignation.”

That wasn’t my mood at all. I read the book in a state of baffled wonder that such an extraordinary system could have dominated huge tracts of the world for most of recorded history. What struck me was not the brutality at court, familiar to us from the Roman Republic or the Tudors, but the sheer improvisatory nature of the whole thing. Few great empires had secure laws of succession or anything in the way of a constitution. Their so-called aristocracies were usually not hereditary but “service elites”—that is, the nobles could be deprived of their estates if they didn’t perform. Primogeniture was nowhere an iron rule; nor was possession of pure royal blood. The founders of both the Han and Ming dynasties were the sons of peasants. In imperial Rome, the throne never passed from father to son for three generations.

Nor was maleness an unbreakable rule—though obviously it was a strong preference in these patriarchal societies. There seemed to be no objection to the Empress Wu usurping the throne from her son, or to her campaign of torture and execution against potential rivals. Maria Theresa had little trouble enforcing the Pragmatic Sanction guaranteeing her right to rule over the Habsburg lands, which she did in no mean fashion, while giving birth to 16 children. Catherine the Great ruled Russia almost effortlessly, taking fresh lovers into old age and scooping up the monasteries and church lands for her own benefit in a style that makes Henry VIII seem almost altruistic.

And some of them ruled for a long time. The longest-serving Ming emperor, Wanli, reigned for 48 years, from 1572 to 1620. For his last 31 years, he never left Beijing and effectively gave up governing in despair at the obstructions of the eunuch-bureaucrats, spending his time in prayer and calligraphy instead. The emperor Qianlong reigned for 61 years, and abdicated only in order to avoid the filial impiety of reigning a moment longer than his grandfather had.

Lieven remarks that the secret of imperial rule was that it was “light touch.” As indeed it had to be, given the huge areas covered on horseback. Even so, there were great variations. Some emperors remind us of Gilbert and Sullivan’s House of Lords, which “throughout the war, / did nothing in particular / and did it very well.” But others were men of volcanic energy, like Suleyman the Magnificent, who reigned for 46 years, conquering Serbia, Hungary and Mesopotamia, devising a new legal code, founding a network of madrassas and building exquisite mosques.

Many emperors were also self-conscious, highly strung and reflective. Quite a few left behind testaments and advice manuals to their successors: Charles V to Philip II (adjuring him to prevent the Spanish settlers from being cruel to Native Americans); the memoirs of Louis XIV; Genghis Khan’s manual of instruction; Taizong’s Golden Mirror and Plan for an Emperor; and, of course, Marcus Aurelius. Lieven is respectful of all these, but much of the advice that he quotes amounts to no more than “please do listen,” “watch your back,” and Charles V’s “there are more exceptions than rules in politics.” Useful lessons no doubt, but you don’t need to have been an emperor to learn them.

I was struck too by how many emperors expressed remorse for their actions—rather more, I think, than the average modern politician. After coming out victorious from the long struggle to reunite the Chinese empire, Kangxi apologised for eight years of bitter war, whose “scars were not yet healed” and which “resulted from my miscalculations.” The attempts by officials to cover up the blunders were misguided: “The responsibility… all of it—was mine.” Ashoka, the first ruler to unite most of India, expressed profound regret for the conquest of Kalinga: “The slaughter, death and deportation of the people is extremely grievous to the Beloved of the Gods [ie himself] and weighs heavily on his mind.” When Joseph II died in 1790, after a lifetime of energetic political and agrarian reform, he had an inscription made on his tombstone stating that he had failed in everything he had attempted.

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World conqueror: Mughal emperor Jahangir lords it over the Ottoman Sultan and a grumpy King James. Bichitr, 1615-1618

Quite a few emperors were extremely devout. Ashoka spread Buddhism across Asia. The Counter-Reformation emperors were tireless in their efforts to push back the Protestant tide. Others were notorious sceptics, such as Julian the Apostate and Joseph II. Like all sorts of rulers, emperors were often inclined to astrology, hoping to hear good news from the future. In any case, most empires were gilded more by the myth of a golden imperial past than by the state religion. They could seldom be described as theocracies. It was only in the early modern period that generalised ancestor worship gave way to a more focused concentration on heredity and quarterings. On his deathbed, after being given the last rites, Maximilian summoned his court genealogist to recite aloud his family tree.

In most empires, alas, flashes of imperial intelligence and seriousness of purpose left behind few legal or constitutional structures. In the Song dynasty, in 1069, the emperor put forward “New Policies” of state intervention that had an almost Keynesian ring, but they dribbled into the sand in the face of Confucian traditionalists. The same thing happened eight centuries later to the ambitious reforms of tsar Alexander II.

Confined within their courts and harems, with only a small central apparat, emperors frequently found it hard to make an impact on the far-flung societies over which they theoretically ruled. The enclosed nature of these courts is alien to the style of European display-courts, like Louis XIV at Versailles. Imperial ceremonies were often carried out behind closed doors. Imperial children in Japan were too sacred to be examined or even viewed by doctors—and so died like flies. The most poignant illustration of this isolation are the tales of frustrated emperors sneaking out at night, often in disguise, to talk to their subjects: Akbar and Harun al-Rashid were both celebrated for these excursions. Akbar’s famous “house of worship” at Fatehpur Sikri set up inter-faith discussions between Muslims, Brahmins, Jesuits and Zoroastrians; but unfortunately the emperor turned out to be more broad-minded than the dogmatic clerics.

But all these are little more than endearing gestures. The overwhelming impact of most empires was thumpingly military, not aristocratic or religious and certainly not democratic. In the early 12th century, over four-fifths of the Song government budget went to maintain an army of more than a million men. In Augustus’s reign, roughly half the state budget went on the armed forces, supporting 300,000 troops. The million-strong armies of the 20th century have plenty of precedents.

Lieven’s remarkable book sometimes feels rambling, but it’s more cunning and focused than it seems. Because what it conveys is something so strange to us that it is hard to grasp. To put it crudely: world history turns out to be largely about nomads. We are aware of the terrifying force of the Mongol military machine: the thundering hooves of the tireless steppe horses, the equally tireless archers with their composite bows, deadly at ranges of 300m and more, and the blitzkrieg tactics that paralysed enemy commanders. We are less aware of the logistics that enabled these enormous empires to function, such as the huge ranches of the 8th century, where 430,000 horses and 336,000 pack animals were bred and trained on the endless grasslands north of the Yellow River, to provide transport for the nomad Turks and Mongols who conquered China. The southern Chinese might regard their conquerors as barbarians, just as the Romans did the Goths and Huns. But the process of nomad conquest and subsequent fusion with the sedentary locals continued all over Eurasia, producing the Ottoman, Mughal, Manchu and Russian empires. And were the Habsburgs in their heyday so very different, migrating as they did from Switzerland to Hungary over a millennium? Charles V had no capital and lived only a fraction of his life in the supposed German heartland of his enormous empire. After a lifetime’s campaigning, he reflected in his last public speech that “my life has been one long journey.”

The effort to secure the restless border provinces and to reclaim the -territory that ought to be part of the empire—all this becomes a nagging obsession. If Aurangzeb spent the last 25 years of his long life in tented cities trying to secure the Deccan, what about the struggle of his British successors to secure the Punjab and North-West Frontier? Throughout the 19th century, the menfolk of my grandmother’s family in India spent half their lives under canvas, returning to their bungalows and cantonments only when the campaigning season was over. The Great Game was not an invention of the British Raj—it was the game that all emperors played.

Today, self-proclaimed empires have vanished from view. The ethnically homogeneous and sedentary nation state appears a better fit with modernity. But is this quite true? Lieven reminds us repeatedly that the People’s Republic of China occupies a unified space not so different from that occupied by the great Chinese empires of two millennia ago. Are the ambitions and tactics of the PRC so very different from theirs?

Then there is Russia. Lieven is a Russian specialist and a descendant of the Baltic princes who played key roles in the high politics of the Russian Empire. His book ends with the murder of the last emperor, Nicholas II, in 1918. Stalin hardly gets a look-in, Vladimir Putin is not mentioned and Ukraine only fleetingly. But in the perspective of history, Putin looks much like any other tsar, trying to rebuild his empire with the utmost brutality, egged on by the Orthodox Church. Any tsar of the past would have regarded Ukraine as an intrinsic part of Russia and Kyiv as the cradle of Russianness. The wishes of its present inhabitants would have seemed secondary. But ah, the difference in military zip! The Cossacks and the Tatar cavalry of old would have been in Kyiv within days. By comparison, those miserable columns of Russian tanks wallowing in the mud look like an essentially sedentary force sent to do a job for nomads. Lieven’s book was obviously finished before the Russian invasion, but if you want to know what it is all about, In the Shadow of the Gods is not a bad place to start.