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Empire and Imperialism


An empire presupposes an unequal relationship between an elite of an ethnicity, or polity and the peoples of a dependent and subservient ethnicity or polity, the periphery, on issues such as service or tribute and dominant language and culture, as shown by unequal material or service exchanges and the spread of art styles, architectural forms, and politico-religious practices.

The Americas have a long history of empires, although archaeologists argue fiercely about when the incipient civilizations that can be identified in Mesoamerica and the Andean regions thousands of years before the arrival of Europeans became imperial powers. What is uncontested, however, is that when Columbus, and later Cortés and Pizarro, arrived in the New World, it had long been a region in which empires rose and fell. The ancient Maya are thought by many to represent the pinnacle of Native American civilization, but their political structure was largely one of independent city-states that struggled against one another in a long succession of internecine wars.

In contrast, the Inca and Aztec empires, both of which were flourishing at the time of Spanish contact, were highly successful, rapidly expanding, centralized systems adept at collecting taxes and tribute, with mobile armies, mathematicians and bureaucrats well versed in the intricacies of keeping accounts, and a state cult that harnessed ancient religious traditions in the service of empire. Amazingly, both of these empires were new phenomena, only a few hundred years old when the Spanish arrived, although both rested upon long political and cultural traditions that made their rapid growth possible.

In North America, Hernán Cortés made contact with and, after two years of struggles, conquered the capital of the Nahuatl-speaking Mexica city-state, Tenochtitlán, the center of a tributary empire that stretched from what is now northern Mexico to the Isthmus of Tehuantepec and from the Gulf of Mexico to the Pacific Ocean. In western South America, Francisco Pizarro led several expeditions further and further south until he made contact with the expanding Inca armies and captured the Inca emperor, called the Cuzco, one afternoon in November of 1532.

Both the Aztec and Inca empires originated when a relatively small ethnicity began to expand. In Central Mexico, the Mexica allied with two other city-states to form the Triple Alliance, which they would come to dominate. This alliance began to conquer other city-states. Subject peoples gave tribute in the form of foodstuffs, clothes, and other items that subsidized the elaboration of the dominant cult and the Mexica elite. Such imperial success over time made the cult of Huitzilopochtli, the god and patron of war, the dominant one in their pantheon. The Mexica, content with such tribute, did not impose their gods on subject peoples and did not force them to speak their language or follow their cultural lead. So the Mexica empire remained a loose confederation of city-states under the control of an elite that ruled from the island capital of Tenochtitlán in the middle of Lake Texcoco.

Like the Mexica, the Inca were a relatively small people and polity in the southern Andes. Their expansion dates from a challenge by another group, the Chancas, for the claim to be called the People of the Sun. The Inca won the military struggle that followed and, once triumphant, began to subjugate independent groups forcefully and persuaded others in their path to ally with them. They promised aid in times of need and, implicitly, peace. At the time of Spanish contact, the Inca dominated peoples who lived in what are the twenty-first century countries of Colombia, Chile, Peru, Bolivia, and Argentina. All subject peoples contributed labor service to their Inca rulers. Inca delegates organized this labor to build roads and bridges that united the far-flung ethnic groups of the empire, to terrace mountainsides to win additional agricultural lands for the farmers, and to build ceremonial centers for ritual purposes. Scattered storehouses filled with food, clothes and blankets, and weapons also announced the capability of the Inca state to supply local needs in times of crisis or to subjugate peoples again in case of disobedience or revolt.

But in contrast to the Mexica, the Incas forced their subjects to adopt their language, Quechua, and worship their gods, most importantly the sun god. In so doing, subject peoples were venerating the Inca emperor, who claimed to be the son of the sun god. The Incas also rewarded cooperating local leaders with gifts of women, intending to form a mega-lineage. In these ways, the Incas planned to meld the various groups they subjugated into a homogeneous whole—of one birth under one law. Perhaps for this reason the Inca emperor was called the Cuzco, which can be translated as "navel," literally the center, an earthly representative of a bloodline that extended back to their miraculous descent from the sun.

In the sixteenth century, the devastating plagues and disease that had already ravaged the New World native populations and the seemingly easy Spanish victory over the Inca emperor in 1532 largely discredited the native theocratic regime, as local folk interpreted the illnesses and defeat as signs of the coming of a more powerful Spanish god who had been victorious over their own. But if the initial victories over the highly centralized Inca and Aztec empires were relatively easy, the conquest of the entire continent was not. The Maya region, with its dozens of larger and smaller polities, was the scene of decades of bloody, inconclusive struggle, while the Amazon region, with its dense tropical forest and hundreds of scattered, independent tribes, was still largely unconquered when the Spanish empire itself came to an end. And even in the Inca and Aztec heartlands, insurrections large and small continued throughout the colonial period, some of which, such as the Tupac Amaru rebellion of 1780 and 1781 in Peru, came close to toppling the new imperial power.

Ironically, many historians trace the final defeat of the Native American societies to the new American republics established in the nineteenth century, which, fueled by a sense of invincible racial superiority, dismantled the protections that the Spanish Empire had granted to its Indian subjects.


Brundage, Burr Cartwright. Empire of the Inca. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1963.

Keen, Benjamin. A History of Latin America. 4th ed. 2 vols. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1991.

Ramirez, Susan E. The World Upside Down: Cross-Cultural Contact and Conflict in Sixteenth-Century Peru. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1996.

Susan Elizabeth Ramirez

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Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Electrophoresis (cataphoresis) to Ephemeral