This is a tale of frustration, despair, and – frankly – misunderstanding. Frustration, because it does not come to a satisfactory conclusion; despair, because the ubiquitous quotation that forms our subject matter is verging on becoming an annoying cliché; and misunderstanding, because it begs a question that is left unanswered: do empires have an edge?
Let’s make this easy: hands up who hasn’t written a book, made a film, or baked a cupcake and not used the phrase Edge of Empire in relation to it? Thought so: not many of you. The phrase seems to have spread amongst both academic and popular writers like the common cold. It is everywhere (no hyperbole in that statement, naturally); just try googling “edge of empire” (if nothing else, a lot of Star Wars references turn up). Apart from finding it slightly annoying, I have become intrigued by its origins and set about trying to track them down.
It looks like it ought to be a quote from one of the usual suspects, but it turns out it is not Shakespeare, or Roger, Francis, or even Danish Bacon to whom it can be attributed. There is, perhaps, a Kiplingesque quality to it, but even that instinct proves wrong.
After you’ve waded through the plethora of volumes on frontier studies dealing with various periods that have been produced in the last two decades, mostly touting sexy terms like ‘interaction’ and ‘exchange’ (and mostly deploring the role of whichever oppressor they decry), you get back into the barren wastelands of the 1960s, when nobody seems to have worried whether empires were edgy. How did scholars (and publishers, who have special bandwagon-adhesive-coated-boots) manage? Well, they got by. But do all these modern writers know the source of the phrase? It seems unlikely. I asked a few I know (and, yes, I know more than one) who have used it and they did not, and none of the others seem to quote the Urquelle for their label. The mystery deepens. Let’s venture a little further back in time.
In 1906, it turns out, Mills and Boon (that made you sit up!) published The Edge of Empire, a piece of romantic fiction by Joan Sutherland – no, not that one; this is the pen name of Joan Collings (1890–1947) – set in, you will not be surprised to learn, Imperial India. You famously can’t copyright a title, which is probably just as well, when we look only a few years earlier and find On The Edge of Empire by Edgar Jepson and David Beames. Again, it is set in India and of its time (as fiction usually is). So, we are getting closer, but can the phrase really have originated with one or other romantic historical fiction author?
Unfortunately, at that point the trail peters out. Novelists have a habit of using quotations as titles and ‘The Edge of Empire’ has the feel of a quote, but I have been unable to trace the source. If you know it, do let me know and put me out of my misery. Actually, you can only really put me out of that misery by banning anybody from using it again for a period of, say, a century. Yes, that should do it.
The truth is, of course, that most of the frontiers so spectacularly plastered with the label Edge of Empire were very far from the edge of anybody’s empire. Hadrian’s Wall was always accompanied by its outpost forts at Birrens, Netherby, Bewcastle, Risingham, and High Rochester. Even without them, we might have suspected that Roman material culture would have oozed over the frontier, but with them there, it seems fairly certain. Even the Antonine Wall had contemporary forts to the north (Strageath, Ardoch, and Bertha spring to mind), so that too was far from the edge of anything. The areas outwith the frontiers were nevertheless under Rome’s sway to some extent and certain areas, Caledonia and Germania for instance, could be seen as handy ‘big game parks’, in which emperors hungry for a bit of military glory could venture out, defeat some barbarians and garner some captives, before returning home, issuing some self-congratulatory coins and perhaps putting up an arch somewhere more-or-less obscure to wrap things up nicely. Frontiers, it seems, tend to be two-way ticket barriers, not edged weapons, and as we are all discovering in 2014, they can have an afterlife as political footballs.