A Correction on Lists of Empires
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Categories: Ancient, Medieval, Modern

A Correction on Lists of Empires

Two peacocks with their tails down walking across gravel with a snowbank and a holly or ivy hedge in the background
Somebody’s tail is not very flufffy this February

I would like to make two corrections to my post on Rein Taagepera’s study of the size of empires.

When I compared the 2006 and 2009 updates to Taagepera’s lists, I missed one new empire in the 2009 article: Scythia. I have added it to the original post.

I said that the 2006 article added eight empires to Taagepera’s lists. I was wrong. I trusted a note on page 221 of the 2006 article by Turchin, Adams, and Hall:

Our list of large historical states was based on the compilation by Taagepera, which has been systematized and posted on the web by Chase-Dunn and coworkers http://irows.ucr.edu/. We checked the Taagepera list with all major historical atlases in the library of the University of Connecticut and found eight additional empires that fit our criteria (Axum, Hsi-Hsia, Kara-Khitai, Srivijaya, Maurian, Kushan, Gupta, and Maratha).

Four of their eight empires (Axum/Aksum in the Horn of Africa, Srivijaya in Indonesia, the Hsi-Hsia/Western Xia who were rivals of the Song Dynasty in China, and Maratha in South Asia) appear to be absent from Taagepera’s articles, but the other four are present and accounted for: Kara-Khitai (as W. Liao in Taagepera 1997), Gupta (Taagepera 1979 p. 132), Kushan (Taagepera 1979 p. 132), Maurian (as Maurya in Taagepera 1979 p. 132).

One of the empires in the 2009 article but not the 2006 article, Hephthalite Huns, already appeared as “White Huns” on page 133 of Taagepera’s 1979 article.

My only explanation goes like this:

  1. Taagepera writes his list of empires in three stages
  2. A team at the University of California at Riverside combines Taagepera’s three lists, deletes some empires, and publishes the consolidated list at https://irows.ucr.edu/research/citemp/data/empsizes.xls
  3. Three authors check the UCR spreadsheet against atlases at their university and add eight empires, some of which were already in Taagepera’s list
  4. Turchin checks several sources, including Taagepera’s articles and the three-author article, and adds two more empires to the three-author list, deletes one, and splits another into two entries.

It is not at all good academic practices to rely on an intermediary source instead of the original source for data which is central to your argument, but academics are human and sometimes they take shortcuts.

Also, the article from 2006 silently changes the area of some empires. Presumably, this was done after studying historical atlases, but how they decided which atlas to trust is not explained. So students can choose between Taagepera’s old but carefully footnoted articles, and the newly revised lists which don’t explain what most of their numbers are based on. There is no way to reproduce their work, and that is a shame, because the 2006 article asks an interesting question and gives a plausible answer, and because someone else might want to use their data-set to ask different questions about empires. If they had just included a column with the map of each empire which they considered most reliable, it would be possible for readers to do many more things with their data set. Even a list of “all major historical atlases in the library of the University of Connecticut” would give readers something to work with!

So my current best estimate is that Turchin, Adams, and Hall added four empires to Taagepera’s lists in 2006, and Turchin added one more and split another into two entries in 2009. That would imply that 59 of the 65 empires in at least one of the later articles already appeared in Taagepera’s lists. I still believe that one of his empires, the Median empire, does not fit the criteria for inclusion in the later articles. People have proposed big changes to his estimates for at least seven ten eleven empires and small changes to two others [1]. And I just do not know whether the revised lists represent the state of knowledge in 2009, or if an expert in different empires would see different problems. Every time I look at the three lists, I find a new difference.

A table comparing Taagepera's estimates of the greatest size of various empires with estimates by other researchers
Most of these empires change ±50% or so in area depending on who is measuring them, but one tripled in area and one lost 6/7 of its area … and was East Roman a typo or a deliberate change?

Further Reading:

  • Anne-Wil Harzing, “Are Our Referencing Errors Undermining Our Scholarship and Credibility? The Case of Expatriate Failure Rates.” Journal of Organizational Behavior, Vol. 23, No. 1 (Feb., 2002), pp. 127-148 {excellent list of best practices in citation}
  • Wikipedia, “Version Control”

[1] The articles from 2006 and 2009 changed the area controlled by the Maurya, Kushan, Gupta, and Hephthalite Huns in India; Khazar, Second Ghaznavid, W. Liao/Kara-Khitai, and Khwarizm/Khorezm in Central Asia; Ayyubids (Saladin), Almoravid (in Africa and Iberia), and East Roman (possibly a missprint?); the field of Achaemenid studies decided that the Median empire was not vast or centralized from the 1980s onwards; I have not seen Norkus’ comments on Lithuania-Poland or a Chinese book on the area controlled by various Chinese dynasties. ⇑ back to top ⇑

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