Accepted paper:

The Power of the Foreign in Pre-Modern West Eurasia


John Latham Sprinkle (University of Ghent)

Paper abstract:

Among early state and non-state polities of the Western Eurasia, the importance of access to the outside world has been widely observed. Foreign prestige goods and titles granted by foreign empires became extremely important in the reproduction of power structures, and were avidly sought out by elites of both nomadic and sedentary polities. Examples abound, from the Bulgarian Khanates of the ninth century seeking Byzantine prestige goods, seals and titles, to the Kalmyk Khans of the seventeenth century legitimating their rule by acquiring titles from the Tibetan Dalai Lama. In many cases, the reason for this phenomenon is obvious: militarily weaker neighbours of large empires sought support from their neighbours, a co-operation signified by their placement in an outside imperial hierarchy. However, in many cases the reason is less obvious. Why, for example, did the rulers of the North Caucasian Sarir Kingdom claim that they possessed the golden throne of the Sassanian shahanshahs in the ninth to twelfth centuries, when the Sassanian Empire had fallen centuries before? This paper will analyse this ideological co-optation of foreign symbols of prestige, with particular reference to the North Caucasian Kingdom of Alania. Alan rulers depicted themselves as Byzantine rulers and used Byzantine titles in their self-presentation, but never came under the rule of the Byzantine Empire, nor faced a military threat from it. It will suggest that this phenomenon demonstrates the long past of a very current phenomenon: cultural appropriation. It will argue that the adoption of a different ideological form of power, and having that appropriation recognised as legitimate, constituted a potent form of legitimation in its own right. This paper will suggest continuities between this form of legitimation and other social constructions of power, which can be ultimately reduced to the recognition by others of claims to an authoritative status.

panel HIS-01
Strands of Power in Medieval Eurasia