It is tempting to divide history neatly into good guys and bad guys, with all empires among the bad guys. For the vast majority of empires were founded on blood, and maintained their power through oppression and war.. . . There are schools of thought and political movements that seek to purge human culture of imperialism, leaving behind what they claim is a pure, authentic civilization, untainted by sin. [204]

To such naive beliefs, beliefs that often turn out to be what he terms “disingenuous window-dressing for crude nationalism and bigotry,” Harari responds with the following points:

1. “All human cultures are at least in part the legacy of empires and imperial civilizations, and no academic or political surgery can cut out the imperial legacies with out killing the patient” (204).

2. “Empire has been the world’s most common form of political organization for the past 2,500 years. Most humans during these two and a half millenia lived in empires” (191).

3. "Building and maintaining an empire usually required the vicious slaughter of large populations and the brutal oppression of everyone who was left. The standard imperial toolkit included wards, enslavement, deportation, and genocide” (195).

4. Nonetheless, “to color all empires black and to disavow all imperial legacies is to reject most of human culture” (195).

5. “Today most of us think, speak, and dream in languages that were forced upon our ancestors by the sword. For example about 10 million Zulus in South Africa hark back to the Zulu age of glory in the nineteenth century, even though most of them descend from tribes who fought against the Zulu Empire, and were incorporated into it only through bloody military campaigns” (193).

6. As early as the Emperor Cyrus the Great of Persia (550 BC), imperial powers have claimed to rule “for the benefit of all” (195), and surveying the great empires of China, Rome, the Muslim Caliphs, Spain, down to Britain and the United States, Harari explains that they introduce benefits, such as standardization, law enforcement, and urban planning as well as “taxes, conscription, emperor worship” (198).

7. “The imperial civilization may well have absorbed numerous contributions from various conquered peoples, but the hybrid result was still alien to the vast majority. The process of assimilation was often painful and traumatic” (199).

8. Eventually the conquered groups merge with the general imperial population in the process losing their original languages and customs.

9. There is no going back, no possibility of recovering the pre-imperial peoples and cultures, because after a generations of being absorbed into the empire they disappear into its cultural mix.

10. Finally, “Even if we were to completely disavow the legacy of a brutal empire in hopes of reconstructing and safeguarding the ‘authentic’ cultures that preceded it, in all probability what we will be defending is nothing but the legacy of older and no less brutal empire” (206).

Harari’s explanation of empire and its consequences provides a much-needed corrective to much naive postcolonial discussion of South Asia that treats its absorption into the British Empire as if it destroyed some pure untouched Hindu civilization. As some Indian scholars have pointed out, the British conquered an earlier group of conquerors, whose languages and religion, like those of the British, were foreign to the peoples of India. “Those who resent the mutilation of Indian culture by the British Raj,” Harari points out, “inadvertently sanctify the legacies of the Mughal Empire and the conquering sultanate of Delhi. And whoever attempts to rescue ‘authentic Indian culture’ from the alien influences of these Muslim empires sanctifies the legacies of the Gupta Empire, the Kushan Empire, and the Maurya Empire” (206).


Harari, Yuval Noah. Sapiens: A Brief History of Mankind. New York: Harper Perennial, 2018.

Last modified 2 October 2021