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"Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism" (1917) by Lenin

Empire (Hardt and Negri book)

 The head of Elagabalus, one of the five "mad emperors" of ancient Rome
The head of Elagabalus, one of the five "mad emperors" of ancient Rome

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An empire (from the Latin "imperium", denoting military command within the ancient Roman government) is a state that extends dominion over populations distinct culturally and ethnically from the culture/ethnicity at the center of power. Scholars still debate about what exactly constitutes an empire, and other definitions may emphasize economic or political factors.

An empire involves the extension of a state's sovereignty over territories all around the world. For example, because of the British Empire's territories around the globe, it was often said in the 19th century that "the sun never sets on the British Empire." This article provides a list of the largest empires in world history.


Measurement details

The calculation of the land area of a particular empire is controversial. In general, the list centers on the side of including any land area that was explored and explicitly claimed, even if the areas were populated very sparsely or not at all. For example, a large portion of Northern Siberia is included in the size of the Russian Empire but not the Mongol Empire. The Mongol Empire's northern border was somewhat ill-defined, but in most places it was simply the natural border between the steppe and the taiga. Occupied areas north of this are included at the time the majority of the taiga and tundra were unexplored and uninhabited. This area was only very sparsely populated by the Russian Empire, but it had been explicitly claimed by the Russian Empire by the 1600s, and its extent had been entirely explored by the late 1800s. Similarly, the northernmost Canadian islands such as Ellesmere Island were explored and claimed by the British Empire by the mid 1800s (virtually the entire mainland was at least sparsely populated well before that).

The only claims on mainland Antarctica are included in the area of the British Empire.

Due to the historical trend of increasing population and GDP, the list of largest empires in these categories is highly dependent on which relatively recent political entities are defined as empires. The measures of population and GDP as a percentage of the world total take into account this historical growth, although decent GDP data is only available for the last few centuries, accurate only for the last decades.

Debates regarding definition of imperial domains

Compilations of history’s largest empires (in both geographical size and population) often vary due to differing definitions of imperial borders throughout history and across distinct historical traditions. Imperial domains have been variously defined in terms of direct administrative rule from a common ruling authority, military presence, colonization and settlement, collection of tribute, economic dependence, or even incorporation into a common trading or ideological network. Many imperial domains have therefore enjoyed varying degrees of autonomy, self-rule, or even outright independence (though sometimes with a dependent or protectorate relationship to a stronger power). Some regions claimed by an imperial authority have been large, yet arid and very sparsely populated lands without much administrative control whatsoever. Therefore, empires can vary in size according to these designations, often quite significantly.

For example in India, which experienced varying levels of European contact and imperial forays since Vasco da Gama’s expeditions in 1497-1498, French, Dutch, Portuguese and especially British authorities claimed authority over increasing portions of the Indian Subcontinent. This process culminated in the period of the British Raj (and its smaller French and Portuguese counterparts) after 1857. Nevertheless, even then approximately half of Indian territory consisted of Princely States under de facto and de jure rule of local rajas and maharajas. While the Indian princes often sought protection and mediation from the European maritime powers, they minted their own coins, issued their own edicts, and otherwise ruled of their own accord; furthermore, the Indian independence Act, which ended the British presence by 1948, did not apply to the Princely States, which required separate negotiations with the new Indian nation as independent states in themselves. Thus, although many European maps showed nearly the whole of India as a predominantly British colony in the late 1800’s, close to 50% was essentially independent, and the Indian historical tradition in particular does not consider the large and populous region ruled by these rajas to have been under Western rule.

Another issue is that many of history’s empires have ruled over vast and mostly uninhabited territorial expanses, sparsely populated by largely autonomous tribes, and with little in the way of direct administration or settlement by an imperial power. For example, various Mongol khanates from the 13th century established dominion over arid steppes in Central Asia and Siberia that were difficult to control from a central authority, as was the case with the expansionist Tsardom of Russia empires from the 17th century, which established control in the same regions. In both cases, administrative structures and settlements were gradually introduced into the regions—with Russian settlers, for example, initiating forts and frontier cities in the 19th century in particular—and so the size of each empire in any given decade would depend on how strict one’s criteria are in regard to the presence of true settlement and administration. Likewise, in more recent history, almost half the land expanse that is often regarded as part of the British Empire (and also much of the historical French Empire in North America), consisted of essentially barren and uninhabitable terrain in Canada and the interior of Australia, which was often difficult to even map, let alone settle and administer. Even today, the population of those regions (particularly in Nunavut and the Northwest Territories of Canada) consists largely of sparse settlements of self-governing indigenous peoples, with little in the way of submission to a central ruling authority.

During the Muslim conquests of the 7th and early 8th centuries, Rashidun armies established the Caliphate, or Islamic Empire, one of the largest empires in history. The seventh century saw the introduction of Islam in the Arabian Peninsula, where The Prophet Muhammad established a new unified political polity in the Arabian peninsula which under the subsequent Rashidun and Umayyad Caliphates saw a century of rapid expansion of Arab power well beyond the Arabian peninsula in the form of a vast Muslim Arab Empire with an area of influence that stretched from northwest India, across Central Asia, the Middle East, North Africa, southern Italy, and the Iberian Peninsula, to the Pyrenees. However, internal feuding among ruling figures in the empire led it to fragment into several states under separate administrations, such as the Umayyads (whose rule continued in Spain after it collapsed elsewhere), Abbasids, Ayyubids, Mamluks and many others. These were in addition to a variety of other Muslim states in Sudan, Indonesia and elsewhere that later arose outside of the main Islamic Empires, through trade and other contacts. Thus, the size of these empires vary depending on how “membership” in the empire is defined—as being under a single administration, accepting a particular ruler or following the dictates of the Caliph (which technically, Sunni Muslims in general were expected to do).

Similarly, the Mongol Empire lost its unity upon the death of the Great Khan Möngke during fighting in China in 1259, with the Golden Horde’s Berke Khan and the Il-Khanate’s Hulegu Khan even taking up arms against each other and supporting rival factions for selection of the Great Khan. However, upon the death of Berke—a Muslim—the religious impetus for conflict among the khanates subsided, with the Mongols again supposedly loyal to the new Great Khan Kublai before fragmenting yet again later. If the khanates are considered to have been a unified Mongol Empire under Kublai—stretching from Korea and China in the east through Siberia and Central Asia and into Persia and Eastern Europe in the west—it would easily be the world’s largest in terms of both land area and population (as a percentage of the world total). A related question arises with the granting of dominion and commonwealth statuses among former imperial domains, in which the domains acquire a high degree of self-rule, equivalent to independence in some estimations. For example, Australia attained dominion status in 1901 which may or may not have indicated a departure from the British Empire, depending on interpretation of the status.

Finally, many of history’s empires have had unusual arrangements among multiple powers, such as joint rule by several authorities, layers of rule (with different powers assuming different levels of administrative authority), territorial division with blurred boundaries or other forms of empire without a single obvious central authority. For example, the Manchus, who established the Qing Dynasty in 17th-century China, also conquered nomadic lands to the north, including Mongolia. The Manchus increasingly merged with the Chinese population over the centuries, so that the administration took on both Manchu and Chinese features with no clear division among them. The Mongol chieftains of Outer Mongolia in particular, pledged loyalty to the Manchus but retained substantial autonomy, and when the Qing Dynasty collapsed in the early 1900s, the status of Outer Mongolia relative to the new Chinese state became unclear. Britain had a very complicated arrangement with Egypt and Sudan. Egyptian forces battled the British in the Alexandria Expedition in 1807, but in the wake of this, British officials exerted varying degrees of sway in Egypt especially by the late 1800’s, with the French also assuming a role in the Suez Canal territory. Sudan, in turn, was technically a colony of the Egyptians, but the British exerted de facto sway on Sudan indirectly via Egypt. Thus, accounts vary on the imperial status (or lack thereof) of both Egypt and Sudan. Lastly, in the wake of the Bolshevik Revolution, many nations took on a Communist character and attached themselves to the global Communist center of the Soviet Union. Mongolia, North Korea, and China following Communist victory in the Chinese civil war, all took guidance from the Soviet Union especially in the years just after their Communist transformations. The Soviet Union also exercised varying control over Eastern Europe via the Warsaw Pact even though the Pact countries were formally independent, while Communist nations in Africa and Latin America also sought Soviet guidance. Therefore, the lists of largest empires below represent merely a sample of possible rankings depending on the specific criteria used to define an empire.

European colonial empires

The first global empires were a product of the European Age of Exploration that began with a race of exploration between the then most advanced maritime powers, Portugal and Spain, in the 15th century. The initial impulse behind these dispersed maritime empires and those that followed was trade, driven by the new ideas and the capitalism that grew out of the European Renaissance. Agreements were also done to divide the world up between them in 1479, 1493, and 1494.

Portugal began establishing the first global trade network and empire under the leadership of Henry the Navigator. Portugal would eventually establish colonial domains from Brazil, in South America, to several colonies in Africa (namely Portuguese Guinea, Cape Verde, São Tomé and Príncipe, Angola and Mozambique), in Portuguese India (most importantly Bombay and Goa), in China (Macau), and Oceania (most importantly Timor, namely East Timor), amongst many other smaller or short-lived possessions (see Evolution of the Portuguese Empire).

During its Siglo de Oro, the Spanish Empire had possession of the Netherlands, Luxembourg, Belgium, most of Italy, parts of Germany, parts of France, and many colonies in the Americas, Africa, Asia and Oceania. With the conquest of inland Mexico, Peru, and the Philippines in the 16th century, Spain established overseas dominions on a scale and world distribution that had never been approached by its predecessors (the Mongol Empire had been larger but was restricted to Eurasia). Possessions in Europe, Africa, the Atlantic Ocean, the Americas, the Pacific Ocean, and the Far East qualified the Spanish Empire as attaining a global presence in this sense.

From 1580 to 1640 the Portuguese Empire and the Spanish Empire were conjoined in a personal union of its Habsburg monarchs, during the period of the Iberian Union, though the empires continued to be administered separately.

Subsequent global empires included the French, Dutch, and British empires. The latter, consolidated during the period of British maritime hegemony in the 19th century, became the largest empire in history by virtue of the improved transportation technologies of the time. At its height, the British Empire covered a quarter of the Earth's land area and comprised a quarter of its population. By the 1860s, the Russian Empire — continued as the Soviet Union — became the largest contiguous state in the world, and the latter's main successor, Russia, continues to be so to this day. Despite having "lost" its Soviet periphery, Russia has 12 time zones, stretching slightly over half the world's longitude.

See also


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