Another look at imperialism through the lens of a classicst, by ​Solomon A Oyeleye, PhD


Imperialism is a name given by historians and other relevant academics to a particular phase of human history, which has had sever implications on human civilizations from ancient generations to our own modernity. Imperialism in various and many academic conversations describes historical events which naturally divide peoples in it; winners and losers, conquerors and the conquered, masters and servants, or slaves in some other instances. It is a demonstration of interactions of groups, of enemies, of needed friendships and compulsory relationships, which when resisted leads to death and destruction, as it has been witnessed even in Africa.
However, as it is often said, knowledge is evolutionary. And like a writer said, “there is no absolute black and white in human affairs”. This perhaps is what Moses Oyelade has demonstrated in his book, Reconceptualization of Imperialism in the Contexts of Ancient Rome and the US which is a classic review of perception of the histories of human international affairs. The book is an offshoot of the doctoral thesis of Oyelade, a former aide to the late Cicero of Esa Oke and Minister of Justice, Chief Bola Ige. Both the late Ige and Oyelade are products of the University of Ibadan school of Classics. The meat of the book is that contrary to the long held conclusion and general perception of imperialism as such evil and exploitation, it was rather an ease system for the leading States in that history.
The journey to his book began in 2006 at Kenneth Dike library, the main library of the University of Ibadan where he stumbled on a book on the shelf. According to Oyelade, currently a senior staff in the Federal Ministry of Information and Culture, the book was defaced with many handwritten objections to having the book placed in “an African Library”, because the defaced book was about the United States of America, ‘an imperialist country’. And so, for the piqued defacers who had been irritated by it, the book must suffer for it.
It is however, common understanding, that books are not like clothes, which one may know and judge their value on sight or by touch. You have to eat a book to know the its taste. Thus Oyelade took the defaced book, the contents of which he eventually found illuminating on the whole subject of imperialism. Imperialism is an academic concept which indeed, bears down on real human universe, according to Oyelade. It has historical existence which stretches from the past to the future through the present. He considered that those events which have been summed-up under the concept of imperialism were events which were enabled by the very first and core of humanity-human in nature- and it was from this prism that he has therefore chosen to assess the concept and offer a new probe into the concept of imperialism.
In such light, he has argued that, contrary to the age long concept of imperialism as a system of domination, inequality and exploitation, it is rather an ease system by which a particular state (nation, country) has been able to achieve environmental stability and which has enabled it (the state) to meet its obligations to its members (citizens). This perhaps would rhyme with the thinking of David Harvey whose 2003 work considered imperialism as the political, diplomatic and military strategies nations employ as they seek to assert their respective sphere of influence on the global scene.
Harvey’s understanding of imperialism are in terms of two conceptually distinct, though historically inextricably connected, logics of power, territoriality and economics/capitalism, according to Brenner (2006). Oyelade’s work falls within Harvey’s ‘territorial logic of power’, which, according to Brenner “is the logic of states, ‘long-lived entities’, which are as a rule ‘confined within fixed territorial boundaries’ and is pursued by state actors, statesmen and politicians, ‘whose power is based in command of a territory and the capacity to mobilize its human and natural resources’.
Deploying a qualitative method Oyelade’s work has applied Carr’s strand of the theory of realism , which emphasizes that human nature drives individuals and states to act in ways that place interests above any other considerations, again a typical Harvey argument. In the book under review, Oyelade suitably paired this theory with the principle of causality as it has been developed by philosophers from Plato, Aristotle down to Kant.
For a concept that naturally triggers negative emotion from Africans as depicted in the defaced books at Kenneth Dikke Library, Oyelade however claimed that he approached his work by adopting the Pythagoras principle of subdued emotion and therefore painstakingly removed himself from the subject to enable him discover what were external to past numerous scholars and researchers on the subject of imperialism.
According to him “Pythagoras moreover saw need to subdue emotions and bodily desires in order to enable the intellect to function at a higher plane… Pythagoras disposition to theory also provides validation for the method that was adopted for this work. Personal emotions were subdued in order to be able to take an uninvolved and neutral view of Imperialism. It is understood, as it has been said above, that this is particularly a hard venture for an African researcher. However, as Pythagoras believed, this manner of intellectual pursuit is needful as it is necessarily the way to reach the highest plane of existence. That assertion would be extended here as, ‘to the highest plane of understanding’“(pages 180- 181).
This must have been a painstaking and difficult intellectual enterprise for the author, being himself an African, whose fatherland had suffered effects of such international activities as of what have been conceptualized as ‘imperialism’, both of the territorial and economic logics. Thus in the first chapter he reminds his readers that imperial events were not necessarily racial, as there were so many empires in African history and raising his shoulders that the biggest empire in human history was the Songhai Empire, an African empire, which has produced the world’s richest man in history, Mansa Musa, an African emperor. He therefore, argues that the evident cultural irritation towards the subject of imperialism has been caused by mere emotive approach to an understanding of imperialism; the approach and understanding, which he argues were tested and enabled by African post-colonial writers including Wole Soyinka, Ngugi, Wathiongo, Alex Laguma, etc. who, he argues created the motifs for their literary works from the (limited) experiences of Africans such as slave trade and colonialism under the then receding European Colonial States powers in Africa. Slave trade was not a blame on Imperialism, according to Oyelade, because it didn’t start with that political development. Slave trade predates imperialism. And in any case, slavery was cultural even to Africans, and both the Africans, for instance, were as guilty as their European, slave traders both as facilitators and beneficiaries. The author was hard on European international behavior as offshoot of their aggression and not from any necessities.
To the author, however, reducing a mega historical phenomenon to such an ‘emotive state’ is underserving towards studies of history. He argues that when and if a historical subject is viewed and studied from the standpoints of the dramatic personae of each events of history there is bound for scholars to gain enriched knowledge from such historical events. He therefore tried to revisit the concept of imperialism from the perspectives of the imperialist Romans and of the United State of America. He idealized imperialism as a historic and historical factor that has saved and protected human civilization, a disposition that is consistent with the nature of our world, which will always return.
Adopting this approach, the author says he has found that the extant conceptualization of imperialism was grounded on faulty foundation of non-differentiation or in-differentiation between empire and imperialism and this he argued, does not truly represents, but rather misrepresents imperialism which he argues is the function of cause and effect (causality) that the early history of the ancient Rome and the United State of America manifest. He argues that what the histories of empire and imperialism manifest are different. While he agrees that empire indeed represents domination, inequality, and stands for exploitation, imperialism was on the other hand a system of responses to these similar effects of empire, becoming instead, a model of strength, resilience and growth. He stresses further these differences between empire and imperialism by describing empire as a function of ability but imperialism as a function of necessity, stating that “imperialism was not intended but evolved through responses to threats to their (the states)right of existence as a sovereign state and pursuit of security in their anarchic environment”. The author thereby took a bold action to give two new definitions for imperialism, a new theory, a new typology, and a brand new model of imperialism, which he states could be adapted as a model for National development by any state. It is interesting however that the author has tried to separate empire from imperialism. This approach may assuage his African readers, who had experienced and still have reminiscences of the European empires and colonization, which as the author argues, do not represent imperialism when viewed from both the ontology and teleology of such history of ancient Rome and the United States of America.
Nevertheless, adopting social scientific methodological approach to research of a subject in historical field promises to break new grounds in many of the liberal Arts disciplines. This 261 page book represents what is regarded in the academic world as ‘drive against the grain’ by its courageous attempts to change our perception of this historical phenomenon and the ways we have been studying, understanding and using history. The technical division of the book into five chapters is in itself scientific, as it ensure that many likely contrary arguments against the book were pre-seen and preempted.
Although the book treats a historical subject, it is essentially and generally analytical than narrative, examining rather than judgmental. This is, indeed, a book which will interest both students and scholars across disciplines, from history to philosophy, to political science, especially in political philosophy, international relations, incipient internal politics as well as students and scholars in strategy studies. It is a fact that history of the ancient Rome is a history of sublime international politics, which is capable of yielding many new insights when approached with critical and applied scholarship as this author has done.
All said, if his arguments would stand and his new theory succeeds that imperialism is not exploitative, and it was necessitated, it would depend on his readers. Thus, it will be a good step to check up the book, which was published in Europe by Lambert of Academic Publishers, and is now available worldwide through many online book stores, including
*Oyeleye teaches at Caleb University, Imota, Lagos.(


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