Numerous empires in the history of the world have shaped the modern world in more ways than we can imagine. This article describes some of the largest, most powerful, and most influential empires in world history.
|Did You Know?
The first empire in the world, the Akkadian Empire, flourished in Mesopotamia (present-day Iraq). It was established in the 3rd century BC, and carried on for more than a hundred years.
Before the onslaught of nationalist movements all over the world in the 19th and 20th century, imperialism was virtually the only mode of governance in the world. In the race to establish global supremacy, European heavyweights such as Britain, Spain, France, and Portugal, spread out in every direction, claiming newfound lands in the name of their Emperor, and adding precious volume to their nation’s maps and coffers.
Even before the medieval European rush, there had been many vast, prosperous, and mighty empires in human history. Some, such as the Mongol Empire, are remembered for the sheer ruthlessness of their expansion; some, such as the Achaemenid and Maurya Empires, are remembered for the prosperity and peace they managed to establish; and some, such as the Roman and the Spanish Empires, are remembered for their seminal contributions to modern culture.
This is a list of the greatest empires in the history of the world, based primarily on these three criteria.
British Empire ║ Mongol Empire ║ Russian Empire ║ Spanish Empire║ Umayyad Caliphate ║ Qing Empire ║ Yuan Empire ║ French Empire║ Portuguese Empire ║ Achaemenid Empire ║ Sassanid Empire ║Roman Empire ║ Maurya Empire ║ Macedonian Empire ║ Mughal Empire
NOTE: The depictions of empires are anachronous, and include all territories ever held by the relevant nation. The sizes of the empires have been rounded off, since perfect measurement of ancient empires is impossible.
Strongest Era: 19th and 20th Century
Land Area: 33 million sq. km.
The largest empire in human history, the humungous British Empire spanned all 6 habitable continents, as well as the British Antarctic Territory. Due to its size and importance, the sun famously never set on it, both allegorically, signifying its everlasting strength, and practically, because it would always be daytime in at least one of its territories.
The British Empire can be divided in two distinct eras. The first was when Britain was focused on America, and was battling Spain and France for the domination of the two western continents. After the USA became independent in 1783, having first declared independence in 1776, Britain focused on Asia, Africa, and Australia. After Britain quelled the first Indian Rebellion in 1857, the Asian nation became the jewel in Britain’s imperial crown, while their influence in Africa grew without respite. At its height in the 1920s, Britain controlled almost the entire world through military and economic strategy.
After the Second World War, an increasingly strong nationalist movement forced British Prime Minister Clement Attlee to concede its main asset, the Indian subcontinent. The 1950s and ’60s also saw the decolonization of Africa. The British left lasting imprints on their territories, including numerous social and technological advancements, and the English language, which is now considered the language of the world.
Strongest Era: 13th Century
Land Area: 33 million sq. km.
The largest contiguous empire ever created by mankind was borne out of one man’s furious desire to conquer the world. Genghis Khan, born as Temujin, stretched the borders of Mongolia to the Mediterranean, creating an unbroken link from the Pacific to the Mediterranean (and thus the Atlantic), and violently conquered the flourishing kingdoms in China, Korea, Persia, and Russia in the process.
The nomadic Mongol hordes relied on their lightning-fast cavalry attacks, developing a terrible reputation after their victory over the strong Persian Empire. Their march to Europe didn’t just etch Genghis Khan’s name in history, but also helped transmit Asian technology to Europe, chief among which was the Chinese invention of gunpowder.
After Genghis Khan’s death, the empire was divided among his sons. The factions couldn’t survive for long without the fierce vision of the Great Khan, but yielded considerable power over Eurasia for a number of years.
Strongest Era: 19th Century
Land Area: 23 million sq. km.
The Tsardom of Russia, renamed as the Russian Empire by Peter the Great, stretched from eastern Europe to Alaska. It is the second-largest contiguous empire in history, and third overall.
It was reduced in 1867, when Alaska was sold to the USA. It became a constitutional monarchy after the 1905 Russian Revolution, and eventually became the Soviet Union after the second Russian Revolution in 1917. Russia, the principal nation of the Soviet Union, is the largest country in the world.
Strongest Era: 17th-18th Century
Land Area: 20 million sq. km.
The first truly global empire, the Spanish Empire was the original land of the eternal sunshine. In its heyday, Spain held South America’s entire Western seaboard, continuing on into North America up to present-day California, Florida, Philippines, and numerous small colonies in Africa.
By the end of the 19th century, Spain was a shattered reflection of its glorious past. Its South and Central American colonies had become independent, and Cuba, Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Philippines had been taken over by the US. Only its African colonies remained, the last of which was liberated in 1975.
The Spanish Empire’s success introduced the Americas to Christianity, and also promoted the Spanish language. Spanish is now the second-most widely spoken mother tongue in the world, and the third-most widely spoken language. Christianity is now the major religion on both American continents.
Strongest Era: 8th Century
Land Area: 15 million sq. km.
The Umayyad Caliphate created the largest empire the world had ever seen, stretching from Persia, to Andalucia, through North Africa.
Despite their Islamic origin, the Umayyad Caliphate is said to have twisted and bent the tenets of Islam to their benefit. They converted a religious institution (the caliphate) into a dynastic, tyrannical empire. This is best explained by the Umayyad rulers’ referring to themselves as ‘deputies of God’, rather than the traditional (and humbler) ‘successors of the messenger of God’.
Umayyad rule raised the popularity of the Arabic language, and they were also responsible for some famous constructions, such as the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem. Their rule initiated the dominance of Islam in North Africa, seen even today.
Strongest Era: 18th Century
Land Area: 15 million sq. km.
The Qing Dynasty comprised the last emperors of China. This dynasty was formed by the Aisin Gioro tribe of Jurchen people in Manchuria. The tribe formed an alliance with the divided – but still powerful – Mongol tribes in the west, and united Jurchen clans to create a united Manchu political entity. The confederation overpowered the ruling Ming Dynasty in the mid-17th century.
The Manchu Qing Dynasty was successful in mixing the Han-dominated population with the united Manchu people. It was overthrown in 1912, and was replaced by the Republic of China.
Strongest Era: 14th Century
Land Area: 14 million sq. km.
The Yuan Dynasty was formed by Kublai Khan, a grandson of Genghis Khan. This dynasty was the link between the divided and weakened Mongol forces in the rest of Asia, and the imperial system of governance that would continue in China until 1912. It is considered a successor of the 13th-century Mongol Empire, as well as the first royal dynasty of China.
Kublai Khan’s rule was popularized in Europe by the annals of the famous traveler Marco Polo. Kublai Khan was a smart ruler, bringing back the old Chinese system of royal governance, with modifications that made him an absolute monarch. He was a supporter of the exchange of mercantile and technology between the Orient and Europe, and strongly backed the Silk Road. The Yuan Dynasty, notably, was the first Chinese dynasty to use paper notes as the main form of currency.
The dynasty was plagued by infighting as well as discontent among the populace after Kublai Khan’s death, and were usurped by the Ming Dynasty. The Yuan, meanwhile, emigrated to Mongolia, and became known as the Northern Yuan Dynasty.
Strongest Era: 19th Century
Land Area: 13 million sq. km.
The French Colonial Empire was one of the largest empires in the world at its height, only being hindered first by Spain’s and then Britain’s dominance.
In its first era, France established colonies in North America, India, and the Caribbean, in response to the increasing British influence in the same regions. Thanks to diplomatic ties with the First Nations, France was able to extend a web of influence far beyond their actual territory of Eastern Canada and Louisiana (central North America). After the Napoleonic Wars, France was left with little colonial hold on either American continent, and joined the ‘Scramble for Africa’. The second era of the French Colonial Empire consisted of their large North and sub-Saharan African colonies, Madagascar, small colonies in India, Indochina, and French Guiana which remains an overseas region of France.
Many French colonies were occupied by Axis powers in the Second World War, but were restored afterwards. France was involved in two fierce wars over decolonization, the First Indochina War and the Algerian War. Both regions eventually became independent.
Like the British and Spanish Empires, the large spread of the French Empire helped the French language spread beyond Europe. Today, French is spoken by a significant percentage of the population in Canada, Gabon, Senegal, Algeria, Mauritius, Ivory Coast, etc.
Strongest Era: 16th Century
Land Area: 10.5 million sq. km.
The Portuguese Empire was the very first intercontinental empire in the world. The empire depended largely on Brazil, which even served as the seat of administration of the empire when Napoleon entered Portugal itself. The empire was crippled by Brazil gaining independence in 1825, and turned to Africa as the only other option. In this second era, the Portuguese didn’t call their enterprise an ’empire’, but a ‘pluricontinental nation’. Its African territories, namely Angola, Mozambique, and Benin, were freed in 1975.
Despite being the first Europeans to arrive in the lucrative land of India, Portugal was never the most dominant power in India, and were kept in check first by the Maratha Empire, and then by Britain. Even so, Portugal retained the territory of Goa until 1961, when it was reclaimed through military action by India.
Largely due to Brazil’s large population, Portuguese is among the most-spoken languages in the world, and both Angola and Mozambique have Portuguese as their official language.
Strongest Era: 5th Century BC
Land Area: 8 million sq. km.
The Achaemenid Empire, or the Persian Empire, was the largest empire in history at the time, and lay across three continents – Asia, Africa, and Europe. It was established in the 6th century BC by Cyrus the Great, and prospered till the reign of Darius III in the 4th century BC, when it was defeated and assimilated by the Alexander-led Macedonian Empire.
At its height in the 5th century BC, the Achaemenid Empire housed 44% of the world’s population, the largest percentage of any empire in human history.
Strongest Era: 7th Century
Land Area: 6.5 million sq. km.
The Sassanids, which flourished in the same period as the Romans, was the major power in Caucasus and western Asia. Stretching from Egypt to the outskirts of India, the Sassanids were an important cultural bridge between Europe and the Orient, and were vital in the development of medieval art.
The prosperous empire was defeated and assimilated into the Abbasid Caliphate within 5 years, 632 – 637 AD. The population wasn’t forced to convert to Islam, but gradually accepted it, as the Islamic Caliphate began to exert more influence.
Strongest Era: 2nd Century
Land Area: 6.5 million sq. km.
Centered around the Mediterranean Sea, the Roman Empire became the strongest power in Europe and western Asia. Before its division into the East and West Roman Empires, the unified Roman Empire, under Trajan, stretched from Portugal to Mesopotamia, and from Britain to Egypt.
After the division, the Eastern Roman Empire, better known as the Byzantine Empire, flourished for another 1,000 years, before finally collapsing after the fall of Constantinople in 1453.
The Roman Empire arguably had the most impact on modern culture when compared to contemporaneous empires. Roman law was adapted and adopted in many countries, while Roman art and architecture, which influenced centuries of artistic evolution, is still popular.
Strongest Era: 3rd Century BC
Land Area: 6 million sq. km.
The Maurya Empire is the largest empire in the history of the Indian subcontinent, and was one of the largest and most powerful in the world at the time. Founded by Chandragupta Maurya, it was expanded by Bimbisara and Ashoka the Great, before collapsing after the latter’s reign.
At its peak, the Maurya Empire had a population of 68 million – more than 43% of the global population at the time.
The Mauryan Empire – Emperor Ashoka in particular – played an important role in the spread of Buddhism across Asia. Saddened by the gore and violence in the Kalinga War, Ashoka the Great embraced Buddhism, and sent Buddhist emissaries to all major kingdoms in Asia, as well as some in Europe.
Strongest Era: 4th Century BC
Land Area: 5 million sq. km.
Despite the association of the Macedonian Empire with Alexander the Great, its rise actually began with Alexander’s father, Philip II. He defeated Macedon’s local enemies, a coalition of various Greek city-states, consolidating Macedon’s position in the region, and laying the groundwork for Alexander’s famous march into Asia.
Under Alexander, the Macedonian army conquered Egypt, founding the city of Alexandria in the process, and defeated the impregnable, and numerically superior, Persian army. They conquered various kingdoms on the outskirts of India, but were forced to retreat due to the soldiers being tired and homesick. After Alexander’s death, various regional heads of his empire, called satraps, rebelled against the central Macedonian powers, and declared independence. These fiefdoms were later conquered by the Parthian Empire and the Maurya Empire.
Strongest Era: 17th Century
Land Area: 5 million sq. km.
The history of the Mughal Empire is inextricably linked to the history of India. The empire’s founder, Babur Begh, was a descendant of Timur and Genghis Khan, and ruled the Farghana (Fergana) region in Uzbekistan. After being driven out by treacherous relatives and soldiers in the early 1500s, he came to India, where he beat Ibrahim Lodi in the first battle of Panipat, and established Mughal rule in Delhi and Agra.
The Empire was expanded by a succession of rulers, viz. Humayun, Akbar, Jahangir, Shah Jahan, and Aurangzeb. It reached its zenith under Aurangzeb, stretching from Central Asian plateaus to Assam and Bengal. After Aurangzeb’s death, the Mughal Empire was overrun by the Maratha Empire, who conquered much of India, and was ended after the 1857 Indian Rebellion at the hands of the British.
The Mughal style of architecture, art, and cuisine was crafted through a mutually beneficial cultural exchange with Indian traditions. Traditional Indian music underwent a stunning metamorphosis and assumed its present form, many famous Indian architectural landmarks were constructed in the Mughal period, and Mughlai-Indian cuisine, including the universally popular chicken tikka masala and tandoori chicken, is an evergreen favorite all over the world.
These were 15 of the greatest empires ever. All of these left indelible footprints on the sands of time, and influenced history in more ways than one can imagine.