Being an imperial power doesn’t impress people the way it used to. A century ago, countries strived to be a dominating world power and were willing to fight wars to either acquire an Empire, or hold on to the one they already had.
Nowadays, of course, in this “kinder, gentler” world, imperialism is considered politically incorrect. As a result—and because maintaining an empire is prohibitively expensive—they are basically no more, though a few remnants hang on (such as the Falkland Islands for the British and the Comoro Islands for France).
At one time, however, they were all the rage, with some of them extending around the globe and a few of them lasting for hundreds and, in a few cases, even thousands of years.
10. The Mayan Empire (ca. 2000 BCE-1540 CE)
How does the Mayan Empire make it onto the list alongside such well-known empires like the Roman, British, and Mongol Empires? Easy. It holds the record for the longest running empire—almost 3500 years! That’s more than twice as long as the Roman Empire, and 1500 years longer than the various Chinese dynasties combined! While very little is known about its first 3,000 years, its demise and brief interaction with the Spanish in the 16th century is the stuff of legends . Today, all we have left of the Mayans is their impressive pyramid-like structures scattered across the Yucatan peninsula, and a doomsday calendar that seems to have everybody up in arms nowadays.
9. The French Empire (1534-1962)
Eventually becoming the second-largest empire in history (second only to the British Empire), at its zenith the French Colonial Empire extended over 4.9 million square miles, and covered almost 1/10 of the Earth’s total land area.
Its influence made French one of the most widely-spoken languages in the world for a time, and brought French architecture, culture, and cuisine to the four corners of the globe.
Alas, like all the great European empires, its collapse came about incrementally over a long period of time, as it lost territories to other emerging nations—especially to the British—and it suffered through two World Wars, which drained it financially.
Though it continued to hold onto to some of its territories well into the 20th century (and still does to this day), by 1962, with the granting of independence to rebellious Algeria, the French Empire was basically no more, bringing a close to a long and cultured era in human history.
8. The Spanish Empire (1492-1976)
One of the first global empires, at its height it possessed territories and colonies in Europe, the Americas, Africa, Asia and Oceania, making it one of the most important political and economic powers in the world for several hundred years. Its establishment in the 15th century also ushered in the modern global era, and five centuries of European dominance of global affairs before competition from other European powers—particularly the French and British—weakened Spain to the point that, by the end of the 19th century, it was but a shadow of its former greatness. The end didn’t finally come until the 1970s, however, when it granted its last colonies in Africa and South America their independence, spelling finito to 600 years of Spanish colonialism. Its chief contribution came in its discovery of the New World in 1492 and the spread of Christianity to the western world, both of which was to dramatically change the geo-political dynamics of the planet and lay the foundation for the modern western world.
7. The Qing Dynasty (1644-1912)
This was the last ruling dynasty of China before the country became a Republic, bringing an end to many hundreds of years of imperial rule. Preceded by the better-known Ming Dynasty, the Qing dynasty was founded by the Manchu clan Aisin Gioro in what is today Manchuria in 1644. It grew quickly until, by the 18th century, it covered all of what is today’s modern China, Mongolia, and even parts of Siberia—an area of over 5.7 million square miles (and making it the 5th largest empire in history, according to land mass.) The Qing Dynasty was finally overthrown following the Xinhai Revolution, however, when the Empress Dowager Longyu abdicated on behalf of the last emperor, Puyi, in February of 1912, bringing an end to a long line of Emperors stretching back over 1500 years. Not a bad run by any standards!
6. The Umayyad Caliphate (661-750)
I bet you’ve never heard of this one, but it proved to be one of the fastest growing—though shortest-lived—Empires in history. Organized in the aftermath of the death of the venerated prophet Muhammad, it was the mechanism by which Islam was spread across the Middle East and into North Africa, sweeping aside everything in its path. Actually, the Umayyad Caliphate was the second of the four Islamic caliphates established after the death of Muhammad but, at its height, it would cover more than five million square miles, making it the largest empire the world had yet seen (modern Arab nationalism regards the period of the Umayyads as part of the Arab Golden Age of Islam). Though it was eventually superseded by various other caliphates and empires (including the Ottoman Empire), it laid the foundation for what was to be a nearly unbroken string of Muslim control in the region, that continues to this day.
5. The Achaemenid Empire (ca. 550-330 BCE)
More commonly referred to as the Medo-Persian Empire, this Asian Empire was the largest one in ancient history which, at its height, extended from the Indus valley of modern day Pakistan to Libya, and into the Balkans. Forged by Cyrus the Great, it is best remembered as the chief foe of the Greek city states during the Greco-Persian Wars, for emancipating its slaves and releasing the Jews from their Babylonian captivity, and for instituting the usage of official languages throughout its territories. It wasn’t very long, however, before it fell victim to Alexander the Great in the 4th century BCE, and was quickly defeated and absorbed into Alexander’s own vast, but short-lived, Empire.
4. The Ottoman Empire (1299-1922)
The Ottoman Empire was one of the largest and longest lasting empires in history. During its height (under Suleiman the Magnificent) in the 16th century, it stretched from the southern borders of the Holy Roman Empire to the Persian Gulf, and from the Caspian Sea to modern day Algeria, giving it de facto control of much of southeast Europe, Western Asia and North Africa. At the beginning of the 17th century the empire contained no fewer than 32 provinces, along with numerous vassal states, making it one of the truly great empires whose influence continues to be felt to this day.
3. The Mongol Empire (1206-1368)
Though short-lived as Empires go—it lasted a mere 162 years—while it was around, few were as frightening, or grew as quickly, as this one. Under the leadership of Ghengis Khan (1163-1227), it started small—basically just present-day Mongolia—but within seventy years it had grown into the largest contiguous land Empire in human history, eventually stretching from Eastern Europe to the Sea of Japan. At its height, it covered an area of 9 million square miles, and held sway over a population of 100 million.
2. The British Empire (1603 to 1997)
Though it lasted a mere 400 years, no empire was larger than the one the comparatively-small island nation of Great Britain was able to maintain until fairly recently. How big was it? At its zenith in 1922, the British Empire held sway over nearly half a billion people (a fifth of the world’s population at the time) and covered more than 13 million square miles (almost a quarter of the Earth’s total land area)! Not bad for a country slightly smaller than the state of Oregon. In fact, at one point the sun never set on the British Empire, not because God couldn’t trust an Englishman in the dark, but because of its global reach.
1. The Roman Empire (27 BCE to 1453)
This is a no-brainer, as absolutely no Empire is as well known and has been as thoroughly studied as is the one that owned the Mediterranean and much of Europe for almost 1,500 years.
Founded in 27 BCE, when the Roman senate granted Octavian the title of —thereby ending the old Roman Republic (which itself had already stood a good 500 years)—it ended nearly 1500 years later when the Ottoman Turks, under Mehmed II, sacked the last vestiges of the old Empire’s capitol, Constantinople, in 1453.
Of course, by that time it was a mere shadow of its former glory (and was no longer even ruled from Rome) but, at its zenith in 117 CE, it was the most powerful nation on the planet, bar none. While it wasn’t the largest, or even the longest-lasting Empire in history, its influence on western culture—especially in regards to architecture, language, literature, art, and science—cannot be underestimated.
In fact, it’s difficult to imagine how the world would look today if there hadn’t been a Roman Empire those many centuries ago.
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