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Toward a Frontier-Centered Perspective of Empires

Imperial frontiers were dynamic and vibrant zones of interaction, exchange, and confrontation, where the power of the empire was constantly challenged, asserted, and negotiated. Consequently, the study of ancient imperial frontiers provides a unique opportunity to understand the ways in which empires affirmed their presence in the regional and global arenas, and to appreciate the agency of frontier communities in the localities confronted with imperial expansion. A frontier-centered perspective is useful for the analysis of the configuration of ancient empires. Since these spaces were the critical interface between an empire’s territory and that outside of it, they were the nexus for the multidirectional transfer of resources, information, and technology. Thus, the study of ancient imperial frontiers privileges an assessment of the basis of imperial power and the mechanics of control in remote and unstable locales. This approach calls for the interrogation and analysis of the ways in which ancient empires maintained control despite social, ecological, and political challenges. In addition, frontier-focused research allows for a more in-depth analysis of native and transborder populations’ responses to imperial state poli- cies—ranging from conflict, rebellion, and acculturation to ethnogenesis. Furthermore, it allows us to understand how, in this process, ancient empires, in this case the Inka, were also transformed.

Before delving into the discussion of the variability of imperial frontiers, let us briefly turn our attention to the terms “frontier” and “boundary.” Although the term “frontier” is used to define the limits or boundaries of different systems, objects, and even social organizations, boundaries and frontiers are heuristically different concepts. Distinguishing between these two terms is crucial for exploring the kinds of processes involved in the dynamics of ancient frontiers. Overall, the term “boundary” is used to define the limits of a bounded entity or system. Because sociopolitical organizations are not simple objects, they are often formed by a set of overlapping boundaries of various natures (ethnic, economic, political, military, religious, and/or linguistic), which may or may not coincide in space. In short, a boundary may be formed by a sharply defined space, or, alternatively, it may be formed by broader spatial areas with overlapping features.

Similar to boundaries, frontiers can be conceived as the limits of a sociopolitical system. Yet an important distinction between the two terms is that, unlike boundaries, frontiers are places of encounter, confrontation, and interaction. Viewed in this way, frontiers are the interfaces from which a system can engage with its surrounding social, political, or ecological environment (Luttwak 1976; Rice 1998). In other words, whereas the terms “boundary” and “border” highlight the circumscribed nature of a system, frontier is a concept that underscores the ways in which the system actually interacts with its respective social and natural environments.

Moreover, the location of an imperial frontier is a strategic decision. Usually, imperial frontiers have been established across important corridors of communication intersected by natural or political barriers. This deliberate location can be certainly useful in minimizing state expenditures, while also maximizing the display of control. Often, frontier segments stretched along high-peaked mountains, deep rivers, turbulent rapids, arid deserts, dense jungles, or any kind of impassable geography that could be used as a natural buffer.

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