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Intermediaries in Empire: The Ottoman and Roman Examples

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Intermediaries in Empire: The Ottoman and Roman Examples

        As empires throughout history have expanded and enhanced their spheres of influence, they have all encountered one similar problem. That problem being the role of intermediaries in empire. Intermediaries have served empires in helping to establish the authority of the metropole and prioritizing the interests of the empire in these foreign territories. However the demise of many empires was due to intermediaries themselves.When not properly controlled intermediaries could seek to prioritize their own self interests over those of the empire as a whole. The role of intermediaries in empire while in itself is a major theme throughout the history of empire, has also been vital in affecting various other aspects of empire itself. The different repertories of rule of empire as well as how empires have dealt with difference can be traced by analyzing the role of intermediaries. Two distinct examples on the intermediary conundrum are the Ottoman and the Roman Empire. Whereas the Ottomans depended on a system of extracting and training young boys to become officials as well as using soldiers, the Romans often relied on indigenous and Roman elites to serve as their intermediaries.  Although the differences between these two diverging uses of intermediaries proves to be representative of the distinctions amongst the empires on a greater scale, such as the repertories of rule, there is also an inherent similarity and mixing of ideologies in terms of the Ottoman and Roman sense of ruling different peoples differently.

        Prior to understanding how the role of intermediaries translated to other areas of empire, it is important to inherently understand the actual role of the intermediaries. Like all empires the utilization of intermediaries in the Ottoman Empire was multi-faceted. Initially in conquered territories, the Ottomans employed a system- known as the Timar System- of providing their soldiers with land in these territories to establish an Ottoman presence(Burbank and Cooper 139). The benefit in such a system is the reliance of the intermediary directly on the Sultan, because the power that the intermediaries had was reliant on the Sultan. Initially a system of distributing land, the practice also grow to include tax farming, or allowing these soldiers to collect taxes from the district where they occupied in return for a payment to the empire(Burbank and Cooper 139). The concept of tax farming as well as that of rewarding military service with land incentivized many elites to commit themselves to the military for the incumbent benefits. By doing so the Sultan was able to in turn shift the interests of the elites into the best interests of the empire, as their interests were in the hands of the Sultan.

Another institution that the Ottomans relied on for their intermediaries differed from the Timar system in that it didn’t incorporate elites. Rather the devshirme, relied on a system of slaves who had been recruited from conquered lands at a young age, for the service of the Sultan   (Burbank and Cooper 138). Often taken from christian families, the system consisted of moving these children to the Capital and converting them to Islam. In turn these children were recruited and trained for one of two purposes; they were meant to either join the janissaries as the Sultan’s personal protectors or to serve as Eunuch’s in the empire’s administrative aspects(Burbank and Cooper 138).  The advantage in the devshirme was similar to the Timar system a reliance on the empire, and in this case more directly to the Sultan, rather than an individual’s own power. However, perhaps a distinguishing factor between the two systems was the fact that while the soldiers were reliant upon the Sultan, the devshirme had been cut-off from their families and thus have no familial ties or past alliances to adhere to. Because of this and the close proximity to the Sultan and his family many of the devshirme were able to gain positions of great power, such as the vizier(Sultan’s highest advisor). However, given that the “Each great minister (...) was the sultan’s creation(...)”(Burbank and Cooper 138), the Sultan was able to control this power and keep it such that the power was used only in the empire’s best interests.

While the Ottoman’s structure of  intermediaries was reliant on the Sultan for power, the Romans used a system in which Roman as well as indigenous elites were charged with the task. The Romans primary repertoire of rule in controlling their newly found territories was that of a province, which they had given control to military commanders (Burbank and Cooper 30). Along with military commanders, many Roman elites  travelled to these conquered territories such that they may occupy positions, “as governors, as commanders of legions and fleets, and as supervisors of taxation and imperial property”(Woolf 75). These conquered territories offered Romans to further their influence and power within the empire, that they may not be able to achieve in Rome itself. This played an integral role in cultivating the Roman Empire for not only those who were apart of it, but also those who had seeked to join it as well. This was evident in the case of Divictatus, in Caesar’s War Commentaries(Warrington 9). The Roman system of empowering the elites of their society, directly opposes the Ottoman system of seeking to control its elites. While beneficial at first in engaging the elite in cultivating Roman culture and society abroad, the massive power that intermediaries held, especially as military commands eventually led to the downfall of the Roman Empire. As the military might and influence of these intermediaries grew over time, they began to prioritize their own interests in gaining power rather than their original intent of facilitating Roman culture(Burbank and Cooper 41).

Having analyzed the role of intermediaries in both empires, analyzing how the intermediaries were used is important in addressing the differing repertoire of rule for the Ottoman and Roman Empires. The Ottomans in dealing with their intermediaries sought to directly control them such that there would be no outside influence on the intermediaries in terms of attempting to gain power. Similarly in their reproduction of the empire, they relied on a system of concubinage know as the harem(Burbank and Cooper 135). In this system of keeping the dynasty going, the Ottomans were able to bring various bloodlines into the mix for power as the Sultan would have many concubines. This mix was useful in that it limited the downside of the earlier Ottoman practice of marrying into elite families. Marrying into elite families presented the primary challenge of the bride’s family now being a contender for power within the empire. Contradicting the policy regarding intermediaries in which the Sultan wished to limit the power of elites, the Harem system was more in-line with the ideology of the Ottomans. The system by eliminating a linear dynastic structure limited various contenders for power in the empire and rather spurned competition within the Sultan’s family and specifically his sons who fought for power( Burbank and Cooper 135). In Rome, where the elites were empowered to be intermediaries and have military power supports the earlier Roman principle which seeked to limit the power an individual person held. While, the presence of an emperor violated that principle, the repertoire of rule of having military power in the hands of many individuals( the magistrates of the various provinces) provides a control in which  the Emperor does not have all the power(Burbank and Cooper 30). The role of intermediaries can be important in understanding an empire’s repertoires of rule.



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