The Roman Empire and Its Attempt to Create a Successful Heterogeneous Empire

If we search for an example of an empire which consisted of numerous different cultural, religious and language groups, and which nevertheless survived for a considerable length of time, we are invariably brought to the Roman Empire.  This heterogeneous imperial formation apparently solved some of the major issues confronting the imperial form, and may therefore provide some insight for future developments of a larger than simply national societal grouping.

Sri Aurobindo observes:  “But the imperial Roman had to face essentially the same problems as the moderns minus one or two very important complications and he solved them up to a certain point with a masterly success.  His empire endured through several centuries and, though often threatened with disruption, yet by its inner principle of unity and by its overpowering centripetal attraction triumphed over all disruptive tendencies.  Its one failure was the bisection into the Eastern and Western Empires which hastened its final ending.  Still when that end came it was not by a disruption from within but simply by the decaying of its centre of life.  And it was not till this central life faded that the pressure of the barbarian world without, to which its ruin is wrongly attributed, could prevail over its magnificent solidarity.”

The secret of the success of the Roman Empire lay in the fact that, although it conquered provinces and nations militarily and fused them together through military, economic and political force, it nevertheless took steps to encourage the internal unity of the empire and make of it a real, not simply a political, union.  “It was this sense of separate nationality which the Roman rule succeeded in blotting out wherever it established its own dominant influence.  And this was done not by the stupid expedient of a brutal force after the Teutonic fashion, but by a peaceful pressure.  Rome first compounded with the one rival culture that was superior in certain respects to her own and accepted it as part of her own cultural existence and even as its most valuable part; she created a Graeco-Roman civilisation, left the Greek tongue to spread and secure it in the East, but introduced it everywhere else by the medium of the Latin language and a Latin education and succeeded in peacefully overcoming the decadent or inchoate cultures of Gaul and her other conquered provinces…. she not only admitted her Latinised subjects to the highest military and civil offices and even to the imperial purple, so that within less than a century after Augustus, first an Italian Gaul and then an Iberian Spaniard held the name and power of the Caesars, but she proceeded rapidly enough to deprive of all vitality and then even nominally to abolish all the grades of civil privilege with which she had started and extended full Roman citizenship to all her subjects, Asiatic, European and African, without distinction.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Ideal of Human Unity, Part I, Chapter 6, Ancient and Modern Methods of Empire, pp. 44-46

The Concept of the Supra-National Homogeneous Empire and Its Limitations

As Nature attempts to break out of the limitation of the nation-state as the largest stable grouping of humanity, we see the rise of the idea of an Empire that is homogeneous by virtue of a common religious, cultural or racial characteristic despite geographically exceeding the natural borders of a single national entity.  This idea has been tested, at least briefly in the attempt by Soviet Russia to control both the Muslim states in asiatic Russia and the Balkans after World War II, as well as attempts to weld together the Muslim world into a cohesive bloc, and the initial phase of the Germanic expansion preceding World War II, to incorporate the various Germanic states or provinces into a larger pan-Germanic union.  Eventually each of these attempts failed, as Sri Aurobindo notes:

“…the actual arrangement of the world would lend itself with difficulty to a remodeling of empire on a racial or cultural basis.  Vast aggregates of this kind would find enclaes in their dominion inhabited by elements wholly heterogeneous to them or mixed.  Quite apart therefore from the resistance and refusal of kindred nations to renounce their cherished nationality and fuse themselves in combinations of this kind, there would be this incompatibility of mixed or heterogeneous factors, recalcitrant to the idea and the culture that sought to absorb them.”

“Thus it does not appear that this tendency towards vast homogeneous aggregates, although it has for some time played an important part in the world’s history and is not exhausted or finally baffled, is ever likely to be the eventual solution; for even if it triumphed, it would have to meet in a greater or less degree the difficulties of the heterogeneous type.  The true problem of empire therefore still remains, how to transform the artificial political unity of a heterogeneous empire, heterogeneous in racial composition, language and culture, into a real and psychological unity.”

We may see this very issue illustrated in the United States of the present day.  Initially begun as a relatively homogeneous union with a common language and background, as conquest and pressure expanded the union westward across the continent, as slavery brought people from a vastly different background, and an influx of immigrants from all over the world came in wave throughout the 19th and 20th century, the homogeneous nature of the United States became much more heterogeneous with a vast array of racial and cultural groupings, religions and an assortment of languages.  Eventually, the differences in culture, background, expectation and access to the levers of power and economic control has led to political polarization and gridlock and clearly a solution to the issues of heterogeneous empire, as now exemplified in the United States of the 21st century, remain unsolved and intractable.  This provides an example of the difficulty of extending the concept of a homogeneous empire to incorporate peoples and cultures that are not aligned precisely with the core of that empire at its foundation.

Sri Aurobindo, The Ideal of Human Unity, Part I, Chapter 6, Ancient and Modern Methods of Empire, pp. 43-44

The Homogeneous Empire Model

Sri Aurobindo, looking at the underlying psychological unity of any societal formation, makes a clear distinction between two types of imperial units.  The first is what he defines as homogeneous in nature, comprised of units or sub-units that have a relatively strong common bond, such as language, culture, customs, or racial grouping.  The second is comprised of disparate elements brought together under an outer political or economic force.

Sri Aurobindo references examples of the homogeneous form (albeit not in its total purity) with the Japanese empire before it expanded beyond the purely Japanese language/culture area, and the Germanic form as he notes here:   “Germany again would have been a purely national empire if it had not burdened itself with three minor acquisitions. Alsace, Poland and Schleswig-Holstein which were not united to it by the sense of German nationality but only by military force.  Let us suppose this Teutonic aggregate to have lost its foreign elements and at most have acquired instead the Teutonic provinces of Austria.  Then we should have had an example of a homogeneous aggregate which would yet be an empire in the true and not merely in the honorific sense of the word; for that would be a composite of homogeneous Teutonic nations or, as we may conveniently call them, sub-nations, which would not naturally harbour any sentiment of separatism, but rather, drawn always to a natural unity, would form easily and inevitably a psychological and not merely a political unit.”

Sri Aurobindo raises the United States as a potential model for the expansion beyond the nation unit to a larger, quasi-imperial unit through the aggregation of the individual states, still retaining substantial local governance into a larger, yet relatively stable imperial unit, through the federal union that was effected between and among the individual states.  This was begun while the United States was relatively homogeneous in its background, and the basis was used to incorporate culturally and racially diverse populations into this larger unity, albeit with some major issues still unresolved.  This could however provide a template or form for attempts at larger units of human grouping, and in fact, we may see evidence of this attempt in the later development of the European Union and the modern state of India, with its wide diversity of language and religions and regional differences of culture, diet and habit.

Sri Aurobindo notes regarding the form of the United States as a model:  “…if the imperial aggregate is to be changed from a political to a psychological unit, it would seem that it must be done by reproducing mutatis mutandis something of the system of the United States, a system in which each element could preserve a sufficient local State independence and separate power of legislative and executive action and yet be part of an inseparable greater aggregate.   This could be effected most easily where the elements are fairly homogeneous as it would be in a federation of Great Britain and her colonies.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Ideal of Human Unity, Part I, Chapter 6, Ancient and Modern Methods of Empire, pp. 42-43

Exploring the Development of Real Unities That Exceed the Nation Unit

While we observe that the nation appears in most instances to be a stable form of societal organisation, and that the empire has thus far failed to produce a form that is stable over the long term, it is nevertheless true that if humanity is to achieve a greater formation of human unity, a way must be found either to overpass the nation with a larger form that can succeed while supporting the growth and development of the individual, or to integrate the nation into a wider unity that both harmonises the different nations together while accepting the basic elements of the nation and the needs of the individuals within those nations.   That this is an intended purpose of Nature in evolution can be inferred from the repeated attempts to surpass the nation with the imperial form through human history.  While those past attempts generally failed and broke apart, the repeated and varied attempts represent a striving to achieve that tends to signal a future development that will be able to learn from the experience of the past to achieve the intended result in the future.  This is not to imply that the empire is the actual future form, and during the 20th Century we observed the rise of another potential solution, namely the confederation of independent nation states into a cooperative relationship, first with the failed attempt of the League of Nations, and then later, a renewed attempt which remains active (although also imperfect) today in the United Nations.

Sri Aurobindo observes, in relation to the idea that the empire could replace the nation as the eventual unit for a greater human unity:  “The mere fact that at present not the empire, but the nation is the vital unity can be no bar to a future reversal of the relations.  Obviously, in order that they may be reversed the empire must cease to be a mere political and become rather a psychological entity.”

“Nature has long been in travail of the imperial grouping, long casting about to give it a greater force of permanence, and the emergence of the conscious imperial ideal all over the earth and its attempts, thought still crude, violent and blundering, to substitute itself for the national, may not irrationally be taken as the precursory sign of one of those rapid leaps and transitions by which she so often accomplishes what she has long been gradually and tentatively preparing.”

“Two different ideals and therefore two different possibilities were precipitated much nearer to realisation by the European conflict (n.b. 1st World War);– a federation of free nations and, on the other hand, the distribution of the earth into a few great empires or imperial hegemonies.  A practical combination of the two ideas became the most tangible possibility of the not distant future.  It is necessary to pause and consider whether, one element of this possible combination being already a living unit, the other also could not under certain circumstances be converted into a living unit and the combination, if realised, made the foundation of an enduring new order of things.  Otherwise it could be no more than a transient device without any possibility of a stable permanence.”


Sri Aurobindo, The Ideal of Human Unity, Part I, Chapter 5, Nation and Empire: Real and Political Unities, pp. 40-41

The Nation Is the Current Focus of Nature’s Evolutionary Pressure for Societal Unities

Over the long progression of human history, people have joined together into a series of collective social groupings, from the family, to the clan, the tribe, the town or village, the city, and the state.  Eventually the nation developed which had the size, the “critical mass” so to speak, to provide for the citizens effectively in their basic needs and general safety requirements, while also having sufficient homogeneity to hold together under pressure.  (note: these statements are intended as generalities and are not intended to speak to every conceivable case or circumstance throughout history).  Larger groupings have, of course, been attempted, such as empires, or religious spheres of influence, yet they have generally weakened over time and dissolved back to the stable nation basis.  When we look to the idea of the unity of the entire human race, it is essential that we take note of the natural and solid foundation provided by the nation form, even as we look toward the development of potentially larger organic unities in the future.

Sri Aurobindo observes:  “Thus the nation is a persistent psychological unit which Nature has been busy developing throughout the world in the most various forms and educating into physical and political unity.  Political unity is not the essential factor; it may not yet be realised and yet the nation persists and moves inevitably towards its realisation; it may be destroyed and yet the nation persists and travails and suffers but refuses to be annihilated.”

“All modern attempts to destroy by force or break up a nation are foolish and futile, because they ignore this law of the natural evolution.  Empires are still perishable political units; the nation is immortal.  And so it will remain until a greater living unit can be found into which the nation idea can merge in obedience to a superior attraction.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Ideal of Human Unity, Part I, Chapter 5, Nation and Empire: Real and Political Unities, pp. 39-40

Nature’s Use of Foreign Dominating Power to Awaken or Solidify National Unity

It has been frequently noted throughout history that the imposition of a foreign threat or foreign rule on a people has led to the solidification of the national identity and spirit.  Frequently we have seen those that are closest to one another in terms of culture, background, language or religious tenets dispute with one another vociferously on what can, from the standpoint of history, be seen as relatively minor differences.  In many cases this has prevented a national unity from arising spontaneously, and it has only been the imposition of a foreign yoke or domination that has caused these people to recognize their oneness and join forces to defeat, or in some cases assimilate, the common enemy.

History is replete with examples, as Sri Aurobindo notes:  “There is none of the modern nations in Europe which has not had to pass through a phase more or less prolonged, more or less complete, of foreign domination in order to realise its nationality.  In Russia and England it was the domination of a foreign conquering race which rapidly became a ruling caste and was in the end assimilated and absorbed, in Spain the succession of the Roman, Goth and Moor, in Italy the overlordship of the Austrian, in the Balkans the long suzerainty of the Turk, in Germany the transient yoke of Napoleon.  But in all cases the essential has been a shock or a pressure which would either waken a loose psychological unity to the necessity of organising itself from within or would crush out, dispirit or deprive of power, vitality and reality the more obstinate factors of disunion.  In some cases even an entire change of name, culture and civilisation has been necessary, as well as a more or less profound modification of the race.  Notably this has happened in the formation of French nationality.  The ancient Gallic people, in spite of or perhaps because of its Druidic civilisation and early greatness, was more incapable of organising a firm political unity than even the ancient Greeks or the old Indian kingdoms and republics.  It needed the Roman rule and Latin culture, the superimposition of a Teutonic ruling caste and finally the shock of the temporary and partial English conquest to found the unequalled unity of modern France.  Yet though name, civilisation and all else seem to have changed, the French nation of today is still and has always remained the old Gallic nation with its Basque, Gaelic, Armorican and other ancient elements modified by the Frank and Latin admixture.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Ideal of Human Unity, Part I, Chapter 5, Nation and Empire: Real and Political Unities, pp. 38-39

The Example of India

When we read the Ramayana or the Mahabharata we get the sense that although there were many independent states or kingdoms in the Indian subcontinent, there was both a general commonality of understanding and a number of attempts to cobble them together into a wider national or imperial form.  Various empires rose, and fell, during the long historical record of the Indian subcontinent, including both internally developed and externally enforced empires, the last being the long rule of the British Raj which ended with India’s independence in 1947.  We observe many forces trying to divide and pull apart the various attempts at the wider unity, but each time we see that a new unity arises that speaks to the inner, psychological oneness that underlies all the superficial differences.  Sri Aurobindo uses India as an illustration of the process that leads to wider unity, despite outer obstacles, when there is that inner oneness operating behind the scenes.

“Nowhere else have the centrifugal forces been so strong, numerous, complex, obstinate.  The mere time taken by the evolution has been prodigious; the disastrous vicissitudes through which it has had to work itself out have been appalling.  And yet through it all the inevitable tendency has worked constantly, pertinaciously, with the dull, obscure, indomitable, relentless obstinacy of Nature when she is opposed in her instinctive purposes by man, and finally, after a struggle enduring through millenniums, has triumphed.  And, as usually happens when she is thus opposed by her own mental and human material, it is the most adverse circumstances that the subconscious worker has turned into her most successful instruments.”

“…it is a significant circumstance that the more foreign the rule, the greater has been its force for the unification of the subject people.  This is always a sure sign that the essential nation-unit is already there and that there is an indissoluble national vitality necessitating the inevitable emergence of the organised nation.  In this instance, we see that the conversion of the psychological unity on which nationhood is based into the external organised unity by which it is perfectly realised, has taken a period of more than two thousand years and is not yet complete. (n.b. Sri Aurobindo wrote this between 1914 and 1920, before the 1947 independence of India)   And yet, since the essentiality of the thing was there, not even the most formidable difficulties and delays, not even the most persistent incapacity for union in the people, not even the most disintegrating shocks from outside have prevailed against the obstinate subconscious necessity.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Ideal of Human Unity, Part I, Chapter 5, Nation and Empire: Real and Political Unities, pp. 37-38

The Importance of the Distinction Between Real and Political Unity

Sri Aurobindo poses the question as to the importance of distinguishing real internal unity of a societal formation from one that is purely based on some external form cobbled together either for a temporary economic or political convenience, or through the exercise of some kind of force.  The answer lies in the internal coherence and consistency found in the real unity, which tends to keep the people joined together, as opposed to the political unity with little commonality among the disparate parts, which will tend to disintegrate or drift apart when the force that is acting to hold it together weakens.

We can see a similar reality in the world of science and chemistry, with strong atomic bonds holding together while weak atomic bonds are subject to being broken apart, and the elements dispersed or joined elsewhere.

Sri Aurobindo observes:  The distinction “…must be made because it is of the greatest utility to a true and profound political science and involves the most important consequences.  When an empire like Austria, a non-national empire, is broken to pieces, it perishes for good; there is no innate tendency to recover the outward unity, because there is no real inner oneness; there is only a politically manufactured aggregate.  On the other hand, a real national unity broken up by circumstances will always preserve a tendency to recover and reassert its oneness.  The Greek Empire has gone the way of all empires, but the Greek nation, after many centuries of political non-existence, again possesses its separate body, because it has preserved its separate ego and therefore really existed under the covering rule of the Turk.”

“This truth of a real unity is so strong that even nations which never in the past realised an outward unification, to which Fate and circumstance and their own selves have been adverse, nations which have been full of centrifugal forces and easily overpowered by foreign intrusions, have yet always developed a centripetal force as well and arrived inevitably at organised oneness.”

There are a number of examples that illustrate this principle, including the Greek nation and the development of the Germanic nation.  “In both of these historic instances, as in so many others, the unification of Saxon England, mediaeval France, the formation of the United States of America, it was a real unity, a psychologically distinct unit which tended at first ignorantly by the subconscious necessity of its being and afterwards with a sudden or gradual awakening to the sense of political oneness, towards an inevitable external unification.  It is a distinct group-soul which is driven by inward necessity and uses outward circumstances to constitute for itself an organised body.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Ideal of Human Unity, Part I, Chapter 5, Nation and Empire: Real and Political Unities, pp. 35-37

Distinguishing Between Political and Real Units of Human Collectivities

When we look at the units of societal organisation, we can see a difference between the nation state, which is the predominant form that maintains internal consistency today, and the multi-national empire, which exists, not because of internal consistency necessarily, but because of the use of some form of external force or power to hold disparate national units together in a larger unity.  The national unit tends to maintain a cultural homogeneity within its borders, and is, for the most part, held together by common language, culture, religion or economic and political systems within its borders. The result is that imperial units tend to be less stable and are subject to dissolution when the central force holding them together weakens enough to allow the nation units contained within to spin off.

This is an issue that impacts the development of larger formations as it is the core of agreement within the nation state that makes it a much more stable form than the empire.

Sri Aurobindo, writing in the period between 1914 and 1920, commented on this issue:  “At the present stage of human progress the nation is the living collective unit of humanity.  Empires exist, but they are as yet only political and not real units; they haev no life from within and owe their continuance to a force imposed on their constituent elements or else to a political convenience felt or acquiesced in by the constituents and favoured by the world outside.”

When the British Empire eventually dissolved, it morphed into the British Commonwealth of Nations, a looser confederacy based on the independent nation states developing certain cooperative, primarily economic, relations among and between each other.  The key concept emphasized by Sri Aurobindo is the internal unity of the people and culture which binds them together into a stronger unit than a purely external political, economic or mechanical form of unification.  The political unit is clearly a less favored form for developing true human unity than the development of a real sense of oneness, based on the spiritual development of humanity, among all beings regardless of culture, race, language, religion or other secondary characteristics.

Sri Aurobindo, The Ideal of Human Unity, Part I, Chapter 5, Nation and Empire: Real and Political Unities, pp. 34-35

Three Difficulties for the Unification of Mankind

When we reflect on the question of human unity, we can recognize that there is no simple or perfect solution yet visible to us.  We view the existing forms of collectivity, and see both the benefits and the limitations of each successively larger formation.  In today’s world, we see the political and economic life of humanity managed through a series of interacting nations.  Within each nation there are smaller, more local forms of collectivity–states, counties, districts, municipalities, precincts, etc.  In many cases, these nations consist of a relatively uniform citizenry of homogeneous cultural or ethnic groups, although there are clearly examples where a heterogeneous citizenry is in evidence.  Taking this complexity as the basis, Sri Aurobindo identifies three issues that must be resolved in order to achieve the eventual unification of the largest grouping, the unity of all of humanity.

Sri Aurobindo first observes:  “There is the doubt whether the collective egoisms of humanity can at this time be sufficiently modified or abolished and whether even an external unity in some effective form can be securely established.  And there is the doubt whether, even if any such external unity can be established, it will not be at the price of crushing both the free life of the individual and the free play of the various collective units already created in which there is a real and active life and substituting a State organisation which will mechanise human existence.  Apart from these two uncertainties there is a third doubt whether a really living unity can be achieved by a mere economic, political and administrative unification and whether it ought not to be preceded by at least the strong beginnings of a moral and spiritual oneness.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Ideal of Human Unity, Part I, Chapter 5, Nation and Empire: Real and Political Unities, pg. 34