For any nation that has given in to the impulse of imperial ambitions, there are several stages of the building of an empire. First comes the stage of conquest and control, whether this is done through military force or economic control eventually leading to political domination, with the threat of force always there. The real issue for the long-term success of an imperial formation, however, lies in the ability to assimilate the people and bring about a real unity, not just a political or economic unity or a purely military domination. The Roman Empire’s success in this line led to the creation of a “Roman world” of Europe and the Middle East with both the economic and political institutions working to deliver benefit to the far-flung Roman citizenry of the empire, and a common sense of unity that developed for these disparate peoples to consider themselves “citizens of Rome” and look to Rome for cultural guidance as well.
Sri Aurobindo observes: “All these empires have at first carried with them the idea of imposing their culture along with the flag, first simply as an instinct of the conqueror and as a necessary adjunct to the fact of political domination and a security for its permanence, but latterly with the conscious intention of extending, as it is somewhat pharisaically put, the benefits of civilisation to the “inferior” races. It cannot be said that the attempt has anywhere been very prosperous.”
As a result of numerous attempts along these lines, imperial powers began to recognize the difficulty of creating cultural domination that wipes out the indigenous culture: “Accordingly there began to rise everywhere a growing sense of the inutility of the endeavour and the necessity of leaving the soul of the subject nation free, confining the action of the sovereign State to the enforcement of new administrative and economic conditions with as much social and cultural change as may be freely accepted or may come about by education and the force of circumstances.”
Sri Aurobindo, The Ideal of Human Unity, Part I, Chapter 6, Ancient and Modern Methods of Empire, pp. 47-48