Eli5: What’s the difference, conceptually between ancient empires like Rome and modern nation states.


In my world history class we just reached the development of the first “nation states” such as France, which so far don’t seem all that different from other, older, civilizations. I am mainly curious why historians refer to France as developing into a “nation state”, while earlier empires like Rome and Persia weren’t considered to be nation states.

In: 7

First, although the words are used synonymously in at least American English, there’s a difference between nations and states. There’s a Kurdish nation, for example, but not a Kurdish state. At least one not widely recognized. It’s an ethnic thing.

Places like the US, Canada, and Australia don’t really have “nations” and are instead “states”, so that’s why it’s common in those places to use the terms interchangeably. France has most of the French “nation” inside the French “state”. Rome had all the Italic Latin, the “Romans” as included in their nation, but later Roman went in to mean anyone who was a citizen of Rome, which included a shit ton of people that weren’t ethnically Roman or Latin.

Secondly, the Treaty of Westphalia is commonly thought to be the advent of the modern international system, wherein European countries recognized the sovereignty of each other. Before that, it was more loosey and goosey and if you could flip a prince or duke or something into the service of your king, well now their land is party of your country. This was 1648, so most textbooks work from there.

People part of a nation, in theory, have a bond between them beyond their shared state. Their culture and language are same/similar, and nation states are just them trying to organize themselves into a country.

Compare that with likes of Romans, which conquered places, called others Romans and was otherwise expansion-lusted.

A nation state is a state (political entity) that closely overlaps a nation (ethnocultural population).

An empire is a political entity that encompasses many states and/or nations.

The Frankish people organized the state of France, making it a nation state.

The Roman Empire started as a city-state and expanded outward to envelop a vast multicultural empire that integrated and/or replaced the preexisting political entities of the regions (states) it conquered.

A nation is more a less a collection of people that agree to form a group. That can be some kind of tribe, people who speak a similar language, that have gone through similar shit or that simply agree that that would be a cool thing to do.

If these people then occupy a piece of land as their own, they can declare themselves a state. What exactly a state is is kinda disputed. Some argue it’s the combination of people + land + government, but often enough it comes down to whether states that are already recognized as states agree that you’re also one. Though that leaves the question what made them states in the first place.

An empire on the other hand is just the area of effect by a ruler. The people being in the empire might not consider themselves part of the empire, they don’t form the basis of the state, they might not even like each other in the first place and don’t want to form a group with any of the other. They just happened to end up in the empire because the emperor thought it’s cool to snatch their land. Which they might also “respectfully disagree” with.