There are some historians who still believe in writing about the expansion of human civilization over time in an honest fashion. While some might like to romanticize it, the fact of the matter is that specific civilizations conquered others and either bended them into society or wiped them out altogether. This still happens in today’s world, whether society wants to admit it or not. Author Anthony Pagden writes People and Empires: a Short History of European Migration, Exploration and Conquest from Greece to the Present to reflect this very idea to the reading audience. Pagden shows an open, honest history of human kind as conquerors from ancient Greece throughout history.
In the first few chapters, Pagden examines the ideas of the heroic conquerors from the pages of the very books that modern day scholars still use as a point of reference to study these ancient civilizations. One such important statement in the book is about the role of ancient epic poets such as Homer. “The Homeric poems are the mythical celebration of the emergence of a people…But they all celebrate the moment when a group acquires the means to impose itself on the world” (Pagden, p. 5). This specific quote is referring to how the Greeks learned how to fashion weapons so they could conquer other civilizations in the known world, which could be added to a vastly expanding empire. These epic poems chronicle, in short, the advancement of a civilization that wanted to dominate the known world. There are, of course, other epic poems in other ancient civilizations such as Rome that function the same as Homer. They leave behind a type of blueprint as to how they conquered the known world.
Pagden does point out, however, that the conquering of a civilization by another does not necessarily have to be accomplished by military means. Rome is one of the first civilizations that used a strong democratic system of government that allowed citizens the freedom to have elections and designate representatives to supposedly function with the best interests of the people in mind. This, throughout history, though, has not always been the case. One such quote from Pagden’s book that supports this idea is “Even modern societies, with all the immense power available to the state, can be ruled for prolonged periods of time only with the consent of their members-as numerous autocrats, both ancient and modern, have discovered to their cost” (p. 25). While government can control for a period of time, it can fuel the idea that the people should rise up and conquer the system that has oppressed them for so long. Government can conquer a people with good intentions from the ruling body of leadership, but it usually does not last.
Religion was also another tool that was extensively used to conquer and rule over those areas conquered by a specific civilization. There are countless examples of how different religious groups throughout history have conquered others and forced their beliefs upon others who did not necessarily share them. In Europe, there has always been tension between Muslims, Catholics and Protestants. In the words of Pagden, “Charles’ claims…were matched only by…the rulers of…what had once been the ancient Hellenic and Roman worlds: the Ottoman-the Habsburg’s immediate rival…and the Safavid and the Mughal” (p. 45). These empires constantly conquered one another’s land all in the name of their religious beliefs. This is yet another reason why mankind has been so anxious to conquer and expand their civilization.
In summary, this book is almost like a how-to manual for civilizations to conquer one another using various reasons to justify it. The main concept that the reader takes from this book is that conquering and expanding is a part of human nature that will never be changed. Even in today’s world human beings are curious to expand their territory and explore what is out there. Pagden shows the reader this is a recurring pattern throughout history.