Reshared excerpt from Sapiens

Empires have played a decisive part in amalgamating many small cultures into fewer big cultures. Ideas, people, goods and technology spread more easily within the borders of an empire than in a politically fragmented region. Often enough, it was the empires themselves which deliberately spread ideas, institutions, customs and norms. One reason was to make life easier for themselves. It is difficult to rule an empire in which every little district has its own set of laws, its own form of writing, its own language and its own money. Standardisation was a boon to emperors.

A second and equally important reason why empires actively spread a common culture was to gain legitimacy. At least since the days of Cyrus and Qín Shǐ Huángdì, empires have justified their actions – whether road-building or bloodshed – as necessary to spread a superior culture from which the conquered benefit even more than the conquerors.

The benefits were sometimes salient – law enforcement, urban planning, standardisation of weights and measures – and sometimes questionable – taxes, conscription, emperor worship.

The cultural ideas spread by empire were seldom the exclusive creation of the ruling elite. Since the imperial vision tends to be universal and inclusive, it was relatively easy for imperial elites to adopt ideas, norms and traditions from wherever they found them, rather than to stick fanatically to a single hidebound tradition. While some emperors sought to purify their cultures and return to what they viewed as their roots, for the most part empires have begot hybrid civilisations that absorbed much from their subject peoples. The imperial culture of Rome was Greek almost as much as Roman. The imperial Abbasid culture was part Persian, part Greek, part Arab. Imperial Mongol culture was a Chinese copycat. In the imperial United States, an American president of Kenyan blood can munch on Italian pizza while watching his favourite film, Lawrence of Arabia, a British epic about the Arab rebellion against the Turks.

Not that this cultural melting pot made the process of cultural assimilation any easier for the vanquished. The imperial civilisation may well have absorbed numerous contributions from various conquered peoples, but the hybrid result was still alien to the vast majority. The process of assimilation was often painful and traumatic. It is not easy to give up a familiar and loved local tradition, just as it is difficult and stressful to understand and adopt a new culture. Worse still, even when subject peoples were successful in adopting the imperial culture, it could take decades, if not centuries, until the imperial elite accepted them as part of ‘us’. The generations between conquest and acceptance were left out in the cold. They had already lost their beloved local culture, but they were not allowed to take an equal part in the imperial world. On the contrary, their adopted culture continued to view them as barbarians.

Imagine an Iberian of good stock living a century after the fall of Numantia. He speaks his native Celtic dialect with his parents, but has acquired impeccable Latin, with only a slight accent, because he needs it to conduct his business and deal with the authorities. He indulges his wife’s penchant for elaborately ornate baubles, but is a bit embarrassed that she, like other local women, retains this relic of Celtic taste – he’d rather have her adopt the clean simplicity of the jewellery worn by the Roman governor’s wife. He himself wears Roman tunics and, thanks to his success as a cattle merchant, due in no small part to his expertise in the intricacies of Roman commercial law, he has been able to build a Roman-style villa. Yet, even though he can recite Book III of Virgil’s Georgics by heart, the Romans still treat him as though he’s semi-barbarian. He realises with frustration that he’ll never get a government appointment, or one of the really good seats in the amphitheatre.

In the late nineteenth century, many educated Indians were taught the same lesson by their British masters. One famous anecdote tells of an ambitious Indian who mastered the intricacies of the English language, took lessons in Western-style dance, and even became accustomed to eating with a knife and fork. Equipped with his new manners, he travelled to England, studied law at University College London, and became a qualified barrister. Yet this young man of law, bedecked in suit and tie, was thrown off a train in the British colony of South Africa for insisting on travelling first class instead of settling for third class, where ‘coloured’ men like him were supposed to ride. His name was Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi.

In some cases the processes of acculturation and assimilation eventually broke down the barriers between the newcomers and the old elite. The conquered no longer saw the empire as an alien system of occupation, and the conquerors came to view their subjects as equal to themselves. Rulers and ruled alike came to see ‘them’ as ‘us’. All the subjects of Rome eventually, after centuries of imperial rule, were granted Roman citizenship. Non-Romans rose to occupy the top ranks in the officer corps of the Roman legions and were appointed to the Senate. In AD 48 the emperor Claudius admitted to the Senate several Gallic notables, who, he noted in a speech, through ‘customs, culture, and the ties of marriage have blended with ourselves’. Snobbish senators protested introducing these former enemies into the heart of the Roman political system. Claudius reminded them of an inconvenient truth. Most of their own senatorial families descended from Italian tribes who once fought against Rome, and were later granted Roman citizenship. Indeed, the emperor reminded them, his own family was of Sabine ancestry.