Imperialism, according to the 11th edition of the Merriam Webster Collegiate Dictionary, is “the policy, practice, or advocacy of extending the power and dominion of a nation, especially by direct territorial acquisition or by gaining indirect control over the political or economic life of other areas.” Its meaning is closely tied to that of empire, imperious, and by extension, the concept of command. It appropriately stems from the Latin root for empire, imperium, since the Romans established the first true empire of the ancient world and set the model for empires to come for centuries. It has been used most frequently to refer to the dramatic expansion of British dominion during the mid-19th century.
Imperialism is the “policy, practice, or advocacy” of certain actions. “Policy” refers to the belief that certain actions are right or correct. “Practice” means that those actions are actually implemented. “Advocacy” refers to the furtherance of such ideals through publicity and explanation often accompanied by personal practice. The actions and ideals referenced by the definition include power and dominion through either direct territorial acquisition or indirect control. Direct territorial acquisition refers most often to a military takeover. Indirect control refers to political, economic, or social influence without specific authority which nonetheless directs the course of affairs in a nation.
The term “imperialism” is derived from the Latin root imperium, meaning “empire” or “dominion.” It shares a stem with “imperator,” meaning emperor, or one who exercises authority. It has a sense of domination, and, appropriately, imperiousness. It has negative connotations when one considers the effect of territorial acquisition on the inhabitants. The word evokes greed and avarice, but at the same time a sense of order and regimentation. Like wooden pillars holding up a stone vault, the empire rests on uncertain colonies whose core may be rotting despite the marble exterior.
The term applies to ancient Rome, but not to ancient Egypt. Why is this true? The answer lies in the definition. Egypt was geographically only interested in the land along the Nile, not in direct territorial acquisition. She was not invested in direct control of other territories either. She did trade with other countries, but she was typically content to let the other countries rule themselves and send tributes. Rome, on the other hand, began as a small village, grew to a republic, and eventually became an empire which directly dominated the areas surrounding the Mediterranean Sea, extending east as far as the Black Sea and west as far as France and Britain. Rome maintained direct control and believed strongly in the peacekeeping duty of the empire, which the citizens believed represented civilization and order. People called this doctrine the Pax Romana, or peace of Rome. Those emperors most distinctly Roman were those most motivated toward direct territorial acquisition and expansion.
Since the relative complacency of the Middle Ages, the idea of imperialism has manifested itself in the Ottoman Turks, the Spanish, the French, the British, and many others especially in the 20th century. It was most notable in the British as they expanded into the East Indies and China. Imperialism depends on the idea of domination and land acquisition but not just conquering. An empire is not an empire without a certain diversity in the conquered people. The identifying ethnic characteristic of an empire is a wide range of people and tribes being joined together under the control of one strong nation. This is another reason that the Egyptian civilization does not qualify as an empire. Egyptians, as a people, were fairly homogenous. The Romans, however, were a people united only by language and dress. Their heritages differed from Celtic paganism and ritualism to Judean Christianity. Any common culture was an adopted one, which is the essence of an empire.
Americans derive the word signifying territorial ambition and domination from the Latin, and we derive the meaning from the Romans. Our own civilization has an unusual distinction in this context. Subsequent to the conclusion of the Westward Expansion, America has not moved to acquire any new territory except Hawaii, and we make motions to help any countries with which we have militarily interfered to regain self-rule. We cannot avoid the fact that America has progressed through the stages of colony, confederation, and republic, and only awaits a revolution in our form of government to make it an empire. However, with acceptance of the values of an empire comes rejection of the democratic values held by Americans to this day. When we become an empire, we are no longer America.
Nathaniel is a homeschooled senior, preparing to enter college to study mechanical engineering next fall. His favorite school subjects are Calculus and Greek. He’s a folk musician who performs at small venues locally, and he is also part of his church’s worship band (playing electric guitar, keys, and occasionally banjo, when the opportunity arises). Nathaniel is also involved in Civil Air Patrol. For further socialization he works part-time at a taco shack.