The 10 Largest Empires in History
Throughout Earth's long history, several vast empires have come and gone. At the heights of their power, these huge territories often ruled over a diverse group of peoples, lands, and cultures. But inevitably, the Golden Ages for these great powers eventually ended.
Some were splintered by civil wars, while others gradually lost more and more land to native uprisings or political upheaval. In this piece, we'll take a look at the five largest empires in history, examining how they came to prominence and how they eventually fell.
The British Empire was one of the most famous empires in history. At its zenith, the British Empire ruled over a quarter of the world's total landmass and had 412 million subjects. From one tiny island in the Atlantic Ocean spanned a vast empire that ruled portions of Africa, Asia, the Americas, and several territories in the Pacific.
Often referred to as “the empire on which the sun never sets”, the origins of the British Empire were laid after the discovery of the New World in the 16th Century. Although initial colonies didn't last long, the network of British territories gradually grew throughout the 16th and 17th Centuries. However, the British Empire lost much of its American territory during the War for Independence in 1775.
In the 18th Century, the British Empire expanded faster than ever before. In 1857, India became the jewel in the crown of the British Empire and enabled Britain to launch further campaigns into Asia. Much of Britain's success came from its experienced and effective Navy, as well as the influence of the East India Company.
As one of the world's leading powers, the British Empire played pivotal roles in the two World Wars. During the First World War, British troops fought across the world as the empire called on the military forces of its subjects. But after heavy losses during World War Two, the British Empire began to rapidly decline.
In 1947, Mahatma Gandhi led a peaceful independence campaign in India, Britain's most valuable territory and one of the first to be granted its sovereignty. More and more countries broke away from British control, and in 1997, the British Empire was formally over with the ceding of Hong Kong to China.
One of the most unlikely empires in history, the Mongol Empire was the largest contiguous land-based empire the world has ever seen. Under the brilliant leadership of the infamous Genghis Khan, the nomadic tribesmen of the Mongolian steppes banded together to conquer vast swathes of territory throughout the Eurasian subcontinent and even overwhelmed the established civilization of China.
Before becoming the engineers of a massive empire, the Mongols were a loosely connected network of pastoral, nomadic tribes living on the steppes of Asia. They kept goats and yaks and were expert horsemen. In 1162, the man who would become known as Genghis Khan was born.
After uniting the warring tribes under one banner, Genghis was declared as the “Great Khan” by all the tribal leaders in 1206. Drawing together a mobile army mainly composed of mounted archers, Genghis Khan turned his attention to Northern China. Using lightning-fast tactics and maneuverability, the Mongols overwhelmed several Chinese dynasties and penetrated as far as Korea.
With control over parts of China, the Mongols then invaded Persia and Afghanistan and reached the Caspian Sea. Upon Genghis's death, his son Ogedai became the Mongol ruler. He further subjugated China and his armies also captured parts of Eastern Europe before his death.
Kublai Khan then took the throne and set about living up to the legacy of his grandfather, Genghis. Kublai defeated the Song Dynasty in China and named himself Emperor of China. He then invaded Burma, Japan, and Vietnam, but several of these campaigns were unsuccessful. The Mongol Empire eventually fractured into warring states, and its reign came to an end in 1368.
From 1721 to 1917, Russia became the heartland of a vast empire that controlled parts of Europe, Asia, and even North America. This territory was larger than the Soviet Union that succeeded it, and at its height ruled over 125 million subjects across a variety of ethnic groups.
Initially ruled by the Tsars of the Romanovs, Russia wasn't considered an advanced society in terms of technology. Up until the latter stages of the 19th Century, most of Russia's subjects were agricultural serfs laboring in a feudal system. During the reign of Catherine the Great (1762 to 1796), Russia's nobles grew in power and Russia continued to expand.
Over nearly two centuries, the Russians conquered territory in Asia and Eastern Europe. At its height, the empire controlled areas such as Armenia, Azerbaijan, Finland, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Ukraine, and parts of Poland. Russian control even extended to colonies in America, including Alaska and parts of Northern California.
In the 20th Century, the Russo-Japanese War kicked off as Russia clashed with Japan over ownership of Korea and Manchuria. This led to unrest within Russia and a decline in the Tsar's power. When the First World War broke out in 1914, Russia threw itself into the fray with enthusiasm, battling Austria and Germany throughout Eastern Europe. But popular support for the conflict quickly waned, and supplies were crippled by Axis control over sea routes.
In February 1917, a powerful far-left socialist group called the Bolsheviks, led by Vladimir Lenin, instigated a Revolution in Russia. This coup took Russia out of the war and caused Tsar Nicholas II to abdicate. The Bolsheviks assassinated the remaining Romanovs and the Russian Empire collapsed. From the ashes, the Soviet Union rose to prominence.
Throughout its history, China had seen several powerful dynasties rise and fall. The last and greatest of these was the Qing Dynasty, which ruled China from 1644 to 1912. The Qing rose from the region of Manchuria in northeast China to topple the ruling Ming Dynasty.
By 1790, the Imperial Qing had conquered all of China, Manchuria, Mongolia, and Taiwan to become the largest and most powerful dynasty in the history of China. Over the next century, the Qing faced several costly rebellions such as the Taiping Rebellion that raged from 1850 to 1864. During these uprisings, some 20 million people were killed.
But the Qing didn't just face threats from within. Their position on the global stage was increasingly threatened by the interests of foreign powers. These tensions culminated in the Opium Wars, which saw the Qing clash with both Britain and France on two separate occasions. After the hostilities had ceased in 1860, the Western nations levied restrictive trade agreements on the Qing, and Hong Kong was lost to the British.
Almost 40 years later, The First Sino-Japanese War broke out in 1894 as Qing China and the modernized nation of Japan fought for control over Korea and Taiwan. As part of the peace agreement, the Qing ceded Taiwan to Japan.
Following these humiliating wars, political tensions in China reached a breaking point. More revolutions broke out, ending with the 1911 Chinese Revolution. The Qing Dynasty fell and 2000 years of Imperial rule ended with the emergence of the Republic of China.
After Columbus reached the New World, Spain began to found colonies across South America and the Caribbean such as Cuba and Puerto Rico. In the 16th Century, Spanish Conquistadors began to penetrate South America itself. These military explorers encountered the Aztec Empire in 1521 and quickly attacked.
Despite their comparatively small force, the Spanish had superior technology in the form of muskets and steel plate armor. The Aztecs were no match for the Spaniards, and their empire was conquered in a matter of months.
Pushing on into South America, Spanish explorers reached the boundaries of the Inca Empire in 1528. After a long campaign against the Inca, Spain took control of much of South America in 1572. Diseases brought to South America by the Spaniards wiped out huge swathes of the native population.
In the 18th Century, the Spanish Empire reached its zenith as one of Europe's foremost colonial powers. Spain controlled much of South America from Mexico down to Peru and Chile and also had territory in the Philippines. They also controlled some parts of North America.
During the Napoleonic Wars, Spain sided with France. But after relations soured, Napoleon occupied Spain itself. Rebellion broke out as Spain fought to regain its sovereignty. With the Spanish monarchy weakened, countries across the empire began to fight for independence.
Over the next 25 years, Spain gradually lost most of its American territories. Cuba and Puerto Rico remained under Spanish control until 1898 when they were lost to the emerging United States during the Spanish-American War. The Spanish Empire was in tatters.
Second French Colonial Empire
Following the final defeat of Napoleon Bonaparte at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815, France recovered to enter a second stage of colonial expansion. Britain gave several confiscated territories back to France, which then expanded its overseas territories to their greatest ever extent.
At its peak, the Second French Colonial Empire spanned 11.5 square km and reasserted France's status as a global power. Although much of France's previous territory in North America was lost, this second wave of colonialism focused more on Africa and South East Asia.
During this time, France underwent more political turmoil. After brief spells under a constitutional monarchy and then a second French Republic, France was taken over by Napoleon III in 1852. The new Emperor colonized Senegal in Africa.
Napoleon III's reign lasted until 1870 when defeat in the Franco-Prussian War led to a Third Republic seizing power. Throughout the late 1800s, the Republic expanded French interests in Asia and took over Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam. These territories became part of French Indochina in 1887.
After prevailing with the Allies during the First World War, the French Republic gained several German and Ottoman colonial territories in Africa and the Middle East, including Lebanon and Syria. However, France was caught off guard by Hitler's Blitzkrieg invasion through the Ardennes in 1940 and was conquered in a matter of weeks.
After the Allied victory in 1945, the Fourth Republic regained much of France's former territories. However, its hold had been weakened and by 1980, most of France's overseas possessions had achieved independence.
The largest of the major Muslim caliphates that ruled the Arab world during the Medieval period, the Umayyad Caliphate represented the greatest extent of Muslim power. After a Muslim Civil War, the Umayyad dynasty took over as the rulers of Islamic territory. This dynasty replaced the Rashidun Caliphate, which had risen to power after the death of the prophet Muhammad in 632 AD.
From its center of power in Syria and the capital of Damascus, the Umayyad Caliphate extended Muslim power even further, conquering territory in Central Asia, the Maghreb region of Africa, and even Spain. At its height, the Umayyad Caliphate controlled 11.1 square km of land and ruled several ethnic groups.
The heartland of this Muslim empire was the Arabian Peninsula, which grew to incorporate the coastline of the Levant and then down into Egypt and North Africa. During the Umayyad period, Arab armies pushed further across the North African coast, capturing Algeria, Morocco, and Tunisia. The Umayyads also took over parts of modern-day Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan.
But the jewel in the crown of the Umayyad Caliphate was Al-Andalus, the Muslim name for its conquered Spanish territory. This roughly corresponds to most of modern Spain, Portugal, and even parts of Southern France. It was here that the Islamic Golden Age ushered in advances in literature, philosophy, and science.
In 750 AD, the Umayyads were overthrown by a rebellion of the Abbasid dynasty, which took over most of the Caliphate. The Umayyads fled to Al-Andalus, where they remained in control until 1031 AD.
For a brief period after displacing the Umayyads, the Abbasid Caliphate ruled over the whole of Muslim territory. The Umayyads ruled over a vast territory as well as several distinct ethnic groups, but non-Muslim citizens were treated poorly. This discontent led to the Abbasid Revolution in 750 AD.
Drawing support from different ethnic groups who were tired of being repressed by the Umayyads, the Abbasids rapidly overthrew the ruling caliphate and established their own. The Abbasids transferred the seat of power to Baghdad in Iraq and changed their culture to follow Persian traditions.
The Abbasids controlled all of the former Umayyad territories for six years, but in 756 AD the surviving Umayyads snatched the province of Al-Andalus away from Abbasid control. Over the next two centuries, the Abbasids lost even more territories to other smaller Muslim caliphates. Morocco, Central Asia, and Egypt had all been given up by 969 AD.
Abbasid influence gradually declined as the Turks began to claim more territory. In 1258, their power was largely broken for good due to a Mongol invasion and the sacking of Baghdad. The surviving Abbasids fled to Egypt, where they would rule the Islamic world in name only until the Ottoman Empire conquered Egypt in 1517.
One of China's most powerful dynasties, the Yuan dynasty was established as a result of the Mongol conquest of China. In 1259, the vast territory of the Mongol Empire was divided into four Khanates, each ruled by a different Khan and tribe.
In 1271 Kublai Khan, the grandson of the great Genghis Khan, declared himself as the Emperor of China and founded the Yuan dynasty. By 1279, Kublai had defeated the surviving native Song dynasty. Kublai then failed in two attempts to invade Japan and also had to deal with rebellions in the north. He died in 1294.
During the reigns of Kublai's successors, the Yuan dynasty reached its territorial height in 1310 but also began to experience financial woes as well as a rising tide of discontent among its people. Famines began to sweep across the land, and the Yuan dynasty lost its prime position among the Khanates. Political struggles disintegrated the Yuan's control over China, and the remaining Yuan were overthrown by the Ming dynasty in 1368 AD. The survivors fled back to Mongolia and the Ming overcame the last pockets of Yuan resistance in Manchuria in 1387 AD.
The Portuguese Empire was one of the most enduring empires in world history, lasting over 600 years from 1415 AD to 1999 AD. The growth of this vast maritime empire was spearheaded by Portuguese explorers in the 15th Century.
As the Portuguese explored more waters along the coasts of Africa, Asia, and South America, they founded colonies and trading posts. Brazil was conquered in 1500. Five years later, Portugal established a colonial state that controlled parts of India until 1961.
Portugal battled rival European nations throughout much of its history as the empire's fortunes waxed and waned. The Dutch-Portuguese War saw Portugal defend its overseas territories against Dutch interests. Portugal had been ruled by Spain since 1580 but secured its independence in 1668.
During the Napoleonic Wars, Portugal resisted French invasions and took part in several coalitions against Napoleon. Brazil was Portugal's most lucrative colony, but the country overthrew Portuguese rule in 1822. Portugal then gained land during the Scramble for Africa in the 19th Century.
A revolution in 1910 overthrew Portugal's monarchy and a Republic rose in its place. During the First World War, Portugal's territories in Africa were coveted by the Germans. After the armistice, Portugal kept control of all the areas the Germans had captured.
During the 1960s a series of independence movements swept across the remaining Portuguese colonies, culminating in the Portuguese Colonial War that raged from 1961 to 1974. Portugal's African and Indian territories were lost. In 1999, the last vestiges of the Portuguese Empire were dissolved with the ceding of Macau to China.