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Note- Empires, in the traditional sense, are large tracts of land, connected by land. A good example of an empire this question is not based on is Russia. Russia is connected and fairly culturally consistent. Britain is a closer example of the empire being examined here- spread far across the world.

Imagine a world of empires. It isn't that hard- Europe at any point in the last, say, two millenia. Let's say there are... six contiguous empires. Six Russia, French, or German style empires. However, there are three other empires.

The empires are all based inside random buildings and fortresses, and embassies in other empires. There is a recognized power structure, and recognized areas of administration. Essentially, there are specks of land here and there that make up, as a whole, the empires, but no appreciable tracts of land. An empire of specks of land. A good example would be The Corbettite Order From Girl Genius, which is a sovereign order of train-obsessed monks. They have fortresses and a railway stretching across Europe, but no land owned.

In these empires there are laws, and everything that is recognizably an empire. They do not follow the laws of their host empires, so they are sovereign nations within other sovereign nations. This already exists in the world, in the form of monasteries, convents, etc. But could their culture be homogeneous across their spread empire? Or would their culture be dictated by the empires that they would be in if they as much as stepped outside their doors?

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  • $\begingroup$ Do I understand it correctly that each Empire is a patchwork of land parcels, and parcels of different empires are interlaced? $\endgroup$ – Alexander Jun 27 '17 at 17:05
  • $\begingroup$ @Alexander- yes, culturally- each Empire owns some land, but that land is not physically connected in any way. $\endgroup$ – Imperator Jun 27 '17 at 17:06
  • $\begingroup$ but you have a continent in mind, not an archipelago? I don't think much interlacing is possible between the land empires. $\endgroup$ – Alexander Jun 27 '17 at 17:26
  • $\begingroup$ @Alexander, I'm not sure what you mean- the Empires are not physically connected in any manner. Why do you say archipelago rather than continent? If it's so travel is unimpeded, travel can be very impeded by the whims of the host empires. $\endgroup$ – Imperator Jun 27 '17 at 17:28
  • $\begingroup$ you said there 6 contiguous empires and 3 (if I understand it correctly) "patchwork" empires. I'd say it's unrealistic for an empire to survive if its enclaves are surrounded by hostile lands. $\endgroup$ – Alexander Jun 27 '17 at 17:35
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It can be done with a change in what is considered Empire. An empire with a territory is not going to tolerate a second "empire" within its borders which poses a clear existential threat. No mounted cavalry for this landless empire.

One could think about worldwide Judaism as a sort of empire and use it as a template for your fictional world. Judaism definitely has culture which is and remains homogenous in important ways - through the sustained efforts of that culture's members. Of course local culture influences people as well. There are definitely centers of religious authority and scholarly thought, although not one centralized authority. It is an empire not in the sense of conquest but very similar to what happens after conquest. Interconnected individuals within the empire use their common culture and connections to prosper within the different populations and lands that encompass them - prosper through commerce and finance, but also medicine and other professional endeavors.

Even without the presence of a mounted cavalry, this "empire" of Judaism has from time to time been regarded as an existential threat by various of the populations around them, and persecuted accordingly. I was interested to read that the extremely ancient jewish populations in India have apparently never been persecuted.

I was very much hoping to find a map showing the extent of the Jewish populations at some historic time. Nothing I found does it justice - plenty of European maps but nothing which also shows the far flung populations in Africa, India, and central asia.

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    $\begingroup$ Another good example of this not-quite an empire empire would be the historical status of the Catholic Church. They were independent, with a central leader and authority (and even an army). They also had substantial land holdings "in" other countries where they operated substantially more independently of their host country than their host country would always have liked. They also sponsored/held lands outside of other countries (usually through religious orders or some other loyal intermediary. $\endgroup$ – Joel Boulet Jun 27 '17 at 18:12
  • $\begingroup$ Catholics are an even better example. $\endgroup$ – Willk Jun 27 '17 at 18:27
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As mentioned in Will's answer (and alluded to in your question) such a thing already exists; we call them religions.
Make no mistake, the purpose of organised religion has rarely had anything to do with belief and is basically a governmental system akin to an Empire.

The reason they are tolerated (though history shows they are not always tolerated, there were many power struggles between church and state in European history) is that they supposedly represent a different form of power and govern a different element of human life (they also tend to support and prop up the secular state to a degree).

So you have to ask the question; why do these Empires survive? Are they powerful mages who can destroy the armies of those who seek to wipe them out?
Maybe they are priesthoods or churches and are protected by a combination of faith and fear.
Perhaps they are masters of technology far beyond any other civilisations on the planet.
If they are literally supposed to just be a nation state without land then they can only survive on the mercy of the larger landed empires, which is only likely to happen if there is some positive reason to allow them to continue to exist.

As for your actual question of whether they could have a continuous culture, the real world example of religion (or even the British Empire, which was fairly fragmented across the world) suggests that it is indeed possible to have a common culture when separated in this way.

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I would say you should look at Jewish Diaspora in Europe: since dispersion they were able to maintain a high cohesion among it's people, develop distinct philosophical thought, and for long time maintain certain level of self-governance within host nation's. Not exactly empire, but still enormous achievement for exiled nation, and it answers the question whether people disperse among other nation's can maintain cultural identity.

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If these speck empires are within an another empire and are providing government services for taxation, or tribute than what we have is subversion of the other empire unless they occupy a niche of government service not controlled by the larger host empire.

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  • $\begingroup$ I’m not sure that this is an answer to the question. $\endgroup$ – Peregrine Rook Mar 13 at 3:19
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The obvious example mentioned by others was the Catholic Church. Some mercantile houses such as the Medicis or the Fuggers got fairly close. Chivalric and religious orders within the catholic church also could work like that the Templars, the Teutonic Order and other crusading orders had land, military forces, and were fairly independent operators. Many other orders have been rich, influential, and had their own political agenda. Some international organizations have special status as intergovernmental organizations (IGO). In fiction you often see large corporations following the same pattern.

I am not going to details of any of the above because they are not really relevant to the question. But all of the above have many things in common.

They operate internationally. While they might have national branches that may be controlled by the national government to varying degree and may be based within the borders of a nation, no single can extend its sovereignty over the whole organization without directly violating the sovereignty of other nations.

They provide a service valued by the nations they operate in that cannot easily be replaced by an organization restricted to a national border. For example while most countries have their organizations for standardizing measurements, none of them can really replace International Bureau of Weights and Measures without some very unusual and unlikely politics. Similarly your national and nicely controlled branch of the Catholic Church cannot realistically replace the Vatican. It has been actually done several times but the Vatican and the Pope are still here, they just lost the specific branches which are now separate entities with their own identity.

Which is the last thing they have in common and that is actually relevant to the question. They have a clear defined purpose and single defined identity. Their privileges and special status come from legal documents that explicitly state what is what and why. Every single thing people of the organization do as a member of the organization comes from there. They all have clear and well defined "job to do". For example, the Templars, the Medicis and the Fuggers provided financial services on international scale.

Organizations like this would have a common culture derived from their common purpose and identity. Individual members would additionally have various other cultural influences. Typically the result would be cosmopolitan. These are also the people who are likely to travel internationally and transport cultural influences with them. Organization that operates across religious borders would lean towards syncretism and spread religious ideas across those borders.

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