This article is about the political and historical term. For other uses, see Empire (disambiguation).
Imperialism and colonization in 1900

An empire is defined as "an aggregate of nations or people ruled over by an emperor or other powerful sovereign or government, usually a territory of greater extent than a kingdom, as the former British Empire, French Empire, Brazilian Empire, Russian Empire, Ottoman Empire, Byzantine Empire or Roman Empire."[1] An empire can be made solely of contiguous territories such as the Austro-Hungarian Empire, or of territories far remote from the homeland, such as a colonial empire.

Aside from the more formal usage, the term "empire" can also be used to refer to a large-scale business enterprise (e.g. a transnational corporation), a political organisation controlled by a single individual (a political boss) or a group (political bosses).[2] The term "empire" is associated with other words such as imperialism, colonialism, and globalization. Empire is often used to describe a displeasure to overpowering situations.[3] The effects of imperialism exist throughout the world today[4]

An imperial political structure can be established and maintained in two ways: (i) as a territorial empire of direct conquest and control with force or (ii) as a coercive, hegemonic empire of indirect conquest and control with power. The former method provides greater tribute and direct political control, yet limits further expansion because it absorbs military forces to fixed garrisons. The latter method provides less tribute and indirect control, but avails military forces for further expansion.[5] Territorial empires (e.g., the Mongol Empire and Median Empire) tend to be contiguous areas. The term, on occasion, has been applied to maritime empires or thalassocracies, (e.g., the Athenian and British empires) with looser structures and more scattered territories. Empires are usually larger than kingdoms.

This aspiration to universality resulted in conquest by converting ‘outsiders’ or ‘inferiors’ into the colonialized religion. This association of nationality and race became complex and has had a more intense drive for expansion.[6]


An empire is a multi-ethnic or multinational state with political and/or military dominion of populations who are culturally and ethnically distinct from the imperial (ruling) ethnic group and its culture.[7] This is in contrast to a federation, which is an extensive state voluntarily composed of autonomous states and peoples. An empire is a large political party who rules over territories outside of its original borders.

Definitions of what physically and politically constitute an empire vary. It might be a state affecting imperial policies or a particular political structure. Empires are typically formed from diverse ethnic, national, cultural, and religious components.[8] Empire and colonialism are used to refer to relationships between powerful state or society versus a less powerful one.

Tom Nairn and Paul James define empires as polities that:

extend relations of power across territorial spaces over which they have no prior or given legal sovereignty, and where, in one or more of the domains of economics, politics, and culture, they gain some measure of extensive hegemony over those spaces for the purpose of extracting or accruing value.[9]

Sometimes, an empire is a semantic construction, such as when a ruler assumes the title of "emperor". That ruler's nation logically becomes an "empire", despite having no additional territory or hegemony. Examples of this form of empire are the Central African Empire, or the Korean Empire proclaimed in 1897 when Korea, far from gaining new territory, was on the verge of being annexed by the Empire of Japan, the last to use the name officially. Among the last of the empires in the 20th century were the Central African Empire, Ethiopia, Vietnam, Manchukuo, the German Empire, and Korea.

The terrestrial empire's maritime analogue is the thalassocracy, an empire composed of islands and coasts which are accessible to its terrestrial homeland, such as the Athenian-dominated Delian League.

Furthermore, empires can expand by both land and sea. Stephen Howe notes that empires by land can be characterized by expansion over terrain, “extending directly outwards from the original frontier” [10] while an empire by sea can be characterized by colonial expansion and empire building “by an increasingly powerful navy”.[11]


Empires originated as different types of states, although they commonly began as powerful monarchies. Ideas about empires changed throughout century varying from approval from the public to becoming universally distasteful. Empires are built out of separate units with some kind of diversity – ethnic, national, cultural, religious – and imply at least some inequality between the rulers and the ruled. Without this inequality, the system would be seen as commonwealth.

Many empires were the result of military conquest, incorporating the vanquished states into a political union, but imperial hegemony can be established in other ways. The Athenian Empire, the Roman Empire, and the British Empire developed at least in part under elective auspices. The Empire of Brazil declared itself an empire after separating from the Portuguese Empire in 1822. France has twice transitioned from being called the French Republic to being called the French Empire, while France remained an overseas empire.

Weaker states may seek annexation into the empire. An example is the bequest of Pergamon to the Roman Empire by Attalus III. The Unification of Germany as the empire accreted to the Prussian metropole was less a military conquest of the German states than their political divorce from the Austrian Empire. Having convinced the other states of its military prowess, and having excluded the Austrians, Prussia dictated the terms of imperial membership.

Politically, it was typical for either a monarchy or an oligarchy, rooted in the original core territory of the empire, to continue to dominate. If governmental authority was maintained by controlling water supplies, vital to colonial subjects, such régimes were called hydraulic empires.

Europeans began applying the designation of "empire" to non-European monarchies, such as the Qing Empire and the Mughal Empire, as well as the Maratha Empire, eventually leading to the looser denotations applicable to any political structure meeting the criteria of "imperium".

Some empires styled themselves as having greater size, scope, and power than the territorial, politico-military, and economic facts support. As a consequence, some monarchs assumed the title of "emperor" (or its corresponding translation, tsar, empereur, kaiser,shah etc.) and renamed their states as "The Empire of ...."

Empires were seen as an expanding power, administration, ideas and beliefs followed by cultural habits from place to place. Empires tend to impose their culture on the subject states to strengthen the imperial structure. This can have notable effects that outlast the empire itself, both positive and negative.

History of imperialism

Bronze and Iron Age empires

Early empires

The earliest known empire appeared in Egypt when King Narmer of the Upper Valley conquered the Lower Valley circa 3000 BC and laid the foundations for the Old Kingdom. The Akkadian Empire, established by Sargon of Akkad (24th century BC), was an early all-Mesopotamian empire. This imperial achievement was repeated by Hammurabi of Babylon in the 17th century BC. In the 15th century BC, the New Kingdom of Ancient Egypt, ruled by Thutmose III, was ancient Africa's major force upon incorporating Nubia and the ancient city-states of the Levant.

Circa 1500 BC in China rose the Shang Empire which was succeeded by the Chou Empire circa 1100 BC. Both surpassed in territory their contemporary Near Eastern empires. The Chou Empire dissolved in 770 BC into feudal multi-state system which lasted for five and a half centuries until the universal conquest of Qin in 221 BC.

The first empire comparable to Rome in organization was the Neo-Assyrian Empire (916–612 BC). The Median Empire was the first empire within the territory of Persia. By the 6th century BC, after having allied with the Babylonians to defeat the Neo-Assyrian Empire, the Medes were able to establish their own empire, which was the largest of its day and lasted for about sixty years.

Classical period

Classical period

The Axial Age (mid-First Millennium BC) witnessed unprecedented imperial expansion in the Indo-Mediterranean region and China.[12] The successful and extensive Achaemenid Empire (550–330 BC), also known as the first Persian Empire, covered Mesopotamia, Egypt, parts of Greece, Thrace, the Middle East, much of Central Asia, and Pakistan. It is considered the first great empire of history or the first "world empire."[13] It was overthrown and replaced by the short-lived empire of Alexander the Great. His Empire was succeeded by three Empires ruled by the Diadochi—the Seleucid, Ptolemaic, and Macedonian, which, despite being independent, are called the "Hellenistic Empire" by virtue of their similarities in culture and administration.

Meanwhile, in the western Mediterranean the Empires of Carthage and Rome began their rise. Having decisively defeated Carthage in 202 BC, Rome defeated Macedonia in 200 BC and the Seleucids in 190/189 BC to establish all-Mediterranean Empire. The Seleucid Empire broke apart and its former eastern part was absorbed by the Parthian Empire. In 30 BC Rome annexed the Ptolemaic Egypt.

In India during the Axial Age appeared the Maurya Empire—a geographically extensive and powerful empire, ruled by the Mauryan dynasty from 321–185 BC. The empire was founded in 322 BC by Chandragupta Maurya, who rapidly expanded his power westward across central and western India, taking advantage of the disruptions of local powers following the withdrawal by Alexander the Great. By 320 BC, the Maurya Empire had fully occupied northwestern India as well as defeating and conquering the satraps left by Alexander. Under Emperor Asoka the Great, the Maurya Empire became the first Indian empire to conquer all Indian Peninsula—achievement repeated only twice, by the Gupta and Mughal Empires. In the reign of Asoka Buddhism spread to become the dominant religion in ancient India. It has been estimated that the Maurya dynasty controlled an unprecedented one-third of the world's entire economy, was home to one-third of the world's population at the time (an estimated 50 million out of 150 million humans), contained the world's largest city of the time (Pataliputra, estimated to be larger than Rome under Emperor Trajan) and according to Megasthenes, the empire wielded a military of 600,000 infantry, 30,000 cavalry, and 9,000 war elephants.

In China of the Axial Age, the era of the Warring States ended in 221 BC with the universal conquest of Qin. The King of Qin, Ying Zheng, became China's First Emperor and began the pattern of successive dynasties. Ying Zheng connected all the existing defense walls of northern China into what is known today Great Wall of China which marked the northern frontier of China. The Qin Dynasty was short lived and in 207 BC was overthrown by the Han Dynasty (207 BC - AD 220) which became one of East Asia's most long-lived dynasties. In the Second century AD the Han Empire expanded into Central Asia. By this time only three Empires stretched between the Pacific and the Atlantic—China, Parthia, and Rome.

The Romans were the first nation to invent and embody the concept of empire in their two mandates: to wage war and to make and execute laws.[14] They were the most extensive Western empire until the early modern period, and left a lasting impact on Western Europe. Many languages, cultural values, religious institutions, political divisions, urban centers, and legal systems can trace their origins to the Roman Empire. The Roman Empire governed and rested on exploitative actions. They took slaves and money from the peripheries to support the imperial center.[14] However, the absolute reliance on conquered peoples to carry out the empire's fortune, sustain wealth, and fight wars would ultimately lead to the collapse of the Roman Empire.[14] The Romans were strong believers in what they called their "civilizing mission". This term was legitimized and justified by writers like Cicero who wrote that only under Roman rule could the world flourish and prosper.[14] This ideology, that was envisioned to bring a new world order, was eventually spread across the Mediterranean world and beyond. People started to build houses like Romans, eat the same food, wear the same clothes and engage in the same cruel games.[14] Even rights of citizenship and authority to rule were granted to people not of Roman or Italian birth.[14] This authority given to people outside of Roman culture is an example of how its empire collapsed, with a strong dependence on "foreign" rulers.

The Latin word imperium, referring to a magistrate's power to command, gradually assumed the meaning "The territory in which a magistrate can effectively enforce his commands", while the term "imperator" was originally an honorific meaning "commander". The title was given to generals who were victorious in battle. Thus, an "empire" may include regions that are not legally within the territory of a state, but are under either direct or indirect control of that state, such as a colony, client state, or protectorate. Although historians use the terms "Republican Period" and "Imperial Period" to identify the periods of Roman history before and after absolute power was assumed by Augustus, the Romans themselves continued to refer to their government as a republic, and during the Republican Period, the territories controlled by the republic were referred to as "Imperium Romanum". The emperor's actual legal power derived from holding the office of "consul", but he was traditionally honored with the titles of imperator (commander) and princeps (first man or, chief). Later, these terms came to have legal significance in their own right; an army calling their general "imperator" was a direct challenge to the authority of the current emperor.[15]

The legal systems of France and its former colonies are strongly influenced by Roman law.[16] Similarly, the United States was founded on a model inspired by the Roman Republic, with upper and lower legislative assemblies, and executive power vested in a single individual, the president. The president, as "commander-in-chief" of the armed forces, reflects the ancient Roman titles imperator princeps.[17] The Roman Catholic Church, founded in the early Imperial Period, spread across Europe, first by the activities of Christian evangelists, and later by official imperial promulgation.

Post-classical period

In western Asia, the term "Persian Empire" came to denote the Iranian imperial states established at different historical periods of pre–Islamic and post–Islamic Persia. In East Asia, various Celestial empires arose periodically between periods of war, civil war, and foreign conquests. The greatest of them was the Tang Empire (AD 618-907).

The 7th century saw the emergence of the Islamic Empire, also referred to as the Arab Empire. The Rashidun Caliphate expanded from the Arabian Peninsula and swiftly conquered the Persian Empire and much of the Byzantine Roman Empire. Its successor state, the Umayyad Caliphate, expanded across North Africa and into the Iberian Peninsula. By the beginning of the 8th century, the Umayyad Caliphate had become the largest empire in history, it would not be surpassed in size until the establishment of the Mongol Empire in the 13th century. In 750 the Caliphate clashed with the Tang China at Talas. By this time only these two Empires stretched between the Atlantic and the Pacific.

In the 7th century, Maritime Southeast Asia witnessed the rise of a Buddhist thallasocracy, the Srivijaya Empire, which thrived for 600 years and was succeeded by the Hindu-Buddhist Majapahit Empire that ruled from the 13th to 15th centuries. In the Southeast Asian mainland, the Hindu-Buddhist Khmer Empire was centered in the city of Angkor and flourished from the 9th to 13th centuries. Following the demise of the Khmer Empire, the Siamese Empire flourished alongside the Burmese and Lan Chang Empires from the 13th through the 18th centuries. In Eastern Europe, during the year of 917, the Byzantine Empire was forced to recognize the Imperial title of Bulgarian rulers (who were called Tsars). The Bulgarian Empire remained a major power in the Balkans until its fall in the late 14th century.

Post-classical period

At the time, in the Medieval West, the title "empire" had a specific technical meaning that was exclusively applied to states that considered themselves the heirs and successors of the Roman Empire. Among these were the Byzantine Empire, which was the actual continuation of the Eastern Roman Empire, the Carolingian Empire, the largely Germanic Holy Roman Empire, and the Russian Empire. Yet, these states did not always fit the geographic, political, or military profiles of empires in the modern sense of the word. To legitimise their imperium, these states directly claimed the title of Empire from Rome. The sacrum Romanum imperium (Holy Roman Empire), which lasted from 800 to 1806, claimed to have exclusively comprehended Christian principalities, and was only nominally a discrete imperial state. The Holy Roman Empire was not always centrally-governed, as it had neither core nor peripheral territories, and was not governed by a central, politico-military elite. Hence, Voltaire's remark that the Holy Roman Empire "was neither holy, nor Roman, nor an empire" is accurate to the degree that it ignores[18] German rule over Italian, French, Provençal, Polish, Flemish, Dutch, and Bohemian populations, and the efforts of the ninth-century Holy Roman Emperors (i.e., the Ottonians) to establish central control. Voltaire's "... nor an empire" observation applies to its late period.

In 1204, after the Fourth Crusade conquered Constantinople, the crusaders established a Latin Empire (1204–1261) in that city, while the defeated Byzantine Empire's descendants established two smaller, short-lived empires in Asia Minor: the Empire of Nicaea (1204–1261) and the Empire of Trebizond (1204–1461). Constantinople was retaken in 1261 by the Byzantine successor state centered in Nicaea, re-establishing the Byzantine Empire until 1453, by which time the Turkish-Muslim Ottoman Empire (ca. 1300–1918), had conquered most of the region. The Ottoman Empire was a successor of the Abbasid Empire and it was the most powerful empire to succeed the Abbasi empires at the time, as well as one of the most powerful empires in the world.[19] The Ottoman Empire centered on modern day Turkey, dominated the eastern Mediterranean, overthrew the Byzantine Empire to claim Constantinople and it would start battering at Austria and Malta, which were countries that were key to central and to south-west Europe respectively mainly for their geographical location.[19] The reason these occurrences of batterings were so important was because the Ottomans were Muslim, and the rest of Europe was Christian, so there was a sense of religious fighting going on.[20] This was not just a rivalry of East and West but a rivalry between Christians and Muslims.[21] Both the Christians and Muslims had alliances with other countries, and they had problems in them as well.[22] The flows of trade and of cultural influences across the supposed great divide never ceased, so the countries never stopped bartering with each other.[23] These epochal clashes between civilizations profoundly shaped many people's thinking back then, and continues to do so in the present day.[24] Modern hatred against Muslim communities in South-Eastern Europe, mainly in Bosnia and Kosovo, has often been articulated in terms of seeing them as unwelcome residues of this imperialism: in short, as Turks.[25] Moreover, Eastern Orthodox imperialism was not re-established until the coronation of Peter the Great as Emperor of Russia in 1721. Likewise, with the collapse of the Holy Roman Empire in 1806 during the Napoleonic Wars (1803–1815), the Austrian Empire (1804–1867) emerged reconstituted as the Empire of Austria–Hungary (1867–1918), having "inherited" the imperium of Central and Western Europe from the losers of said wars.

In the thirteenth century, Genghis Khan expanded the Mongol Empire to be the largest contiguous empire in the world. However, within two generations, the empire was separated into four discrete khanates under Genghis Khan's grandsons. One of them, Kublai Khan, conquered China and established the Yuan Dynasty with the imperial capital at Beijing. One family ruled the whole Eurasian land mass from the Pacific to the Adriatic and Baltic Seas. The emergence of the Pax Mongolica had significantly eased trade and commerce across Asia.[26][27]

In the pre-Columbian America, two Empires were prominents—the Azteca in Mesoamerica and Inca in Peru. Both existed for several generations before the arrival of the Europeans. Inca had gradually conquered the whole of the settled Andean world as far south as today Santiago in Chile.

In Oceania, the Tonga Empire was a lonely empire that existed from the Medieval to the Modern period.

Colonial empires

In the 15th century, European landings in the so-called "New World" (first, the Americas, and later Australia), along with Portuguese travels around the Cape of Good Hope and along the coast of Africa bordering the southeast Indian Ocean, proved ripe opportunities for the continent's Renaissance-era monarchies to establish colonial empires like those of the ancient Romans and Greeks. In the Old World, colonial imperialism was attempted and established on the Canary Islands and Ireland. These conquered lands and people became de jure subordinates of the empire, rather than de facto imperial territories and subjects. Such subjugation often elicited "client-state" resentment that the empire unwisely ignored, leading to the collapse of the European colonial imperial system in the late 19th century and the early and mid-20th century. Spanish discovery of the New World gave way to many expeditions led by England (later Britain), Portugal, France, the Dutch Republic, and Spain. In the 18th century, the Spanish Empire was at its height because of the great mass of goods taken from conquered territory in the Americas (nowaday Mexico, parts of the United States, the Caribbean, most of Central America, and South America) and the Philippines.

Modern period

Modern period
  1. ^ Wilbur, Marguerite Eyer; Company, The East India. The East India Company: And the British Empire in the Far East. Stanford University Press. pp. 175–178. ISBN 9780804728645. Retrieved 16 February 2014. 

The French emperors Napoleon I and Napoleon III (See: Premier Empire, Second French Empire, and French colonial empire) each attempted establishing a western imperial hegemony centered in France. The German Empire (1871–1918), another "heir to the Holy Roman Empire", arose in 1871.

The Ashanti Empire (or Confederacy), also Asanteman (1701–1896), was a West African state of the Ashanti, the Akan people of the Ashanti Region, Akanland in modern-day Ghana. The Ashanti (or Asante) were a powerful, militaristic and highly disciplined people in West Africa. Their military power, which came from effective strategy and an early adoption of European firearms, created an empire that stretched from central Akanland (in modern-day Ghana) to present day Benin and Ivory Coast, bordered by the Dagomba kingdom to the north and Dahomey to the east. Due to the empire's military prowess, sophisticated hierarchy, social stratification and culture, the Ashanti empire had one of the largest historiographies of any indigenous Sub-Saharan African political entity.

The Sikh Empire (1799–1846) was established in the Punjab region of India. The empire collapsed when its founder, Ranjit Singh, died and its army fell to the British. During the same period, the Maratha Empire (also known as the Maratha Confederacy) was a Hindu state located in present-day India. It existed from 1674 to 1818, and at its peak, the empire's territories covered much of Southern Asia. The empire was founded and consolidated by Shivaji. After the death of Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb, it expanded greatly under the rule of the Peshwas. In 1761, the Maratha army lost the Third Battle of Panipat, which halted the expansion of the empire. Later, the empire was divided into a confederacy of states which, in 1818, were lost to the British during the Anglo-Maratha wars.[28]

The British established their first empire (1583–1783) in North America by colonising lands that made up British America, including parts of Canada, the Caribbean and the Thirteen Colonies. In 1776, the Continental Congress of the Thirteen Colonies declared itself independent from the British Empire, thus beginning the American Revolution. Britain turned towards Asia, the Pacific, and later Africa, with subsequent exploration leading to the rise of the Second British Empire (1783–1815), which was followed by the Industrial Revolution and Britain's Imperial Century (1815–1914). It became the largest empire in world history, encompassing one quarter of the world's land area and one fifth of its population,[29] the impacts of which are still widespread in the current age.[30]

The term “American Empire” refers to the United States’ cultural ideologies and foreign policy strategies. The term is most commonly used to describe the U.S.’s status since the 20th century, but it can also be applied to the United States’ world standing before the rise of nationalism in the 20th century.[31] The United States is not traditionally recognized as an empire, in part because the U.S. adopted a different political system from those that previous empires had used. Despite these systematic differences, the political objectives and strategies of the United States government have been quite similar to those of previous empires.[32] For example, one academic, Krishna Kumar, argues the distinct principles of nationalism and imperialism may result in common practice; that is, the pursuit of nationalism can often coincide with the pursuit of imperialism in terms of strategy and decision making.[33] Throughout the 19th century, the United States government attempted to expand their territory by any means necessary. Regardless of the supposed motivation for this constant expansion, all of these land acquisitions were carried out by imperialistic means. This was done by financial means in some cases, and by military force in others. Most notably, the Louisiana Purchase (1803), the Texas Annexation (1845), and the Mexican Cession (1848) highlight the imperialistic goals of the United States during this “modern period” of imperialism. The U.S. government has stopped pursuing additional territories since the mid 20th century. However, some scholars still consider U.S. foreign policy strategies to be imperialistic.[34] This idea is explored in the “contemporary usage” section.

Transition from empire

In time, an empire may change from one political entity to another. To wit, the Holy Roman Empire, a German re-constitution of the Roman Empire, metamorphosed into various political structures (i.e., federalism), and eventually, under Habsburg rule, re-constituted itself as the Austrian Empire, an empire of much different politics and vaster extension.

An autocratic empire can become a republic (e.g., the Central African Empire in 1979), or it can become a republic with its imperial dominions reduced to a core territory (e.g., Weimar Germany (1918–1919) and the Ottoman Empire (1918–1923)). The dissolution of the Austro–Hungarian Empire after 1918 is an example of a multi-ethnic superstate broken into its constituent states: the republics, kingdoms, and provinces of Austria, Hungary, Transylvania, Croatia, Slovenia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Czechoslovakia, Ruthenia, Galicia, et al.

After the Second World War (1939–1945), the process became commonly known as decolonisation. The British Empire evolved into a loose, multinational Commonwealth of Nations, while the French colonial empire metamorphosed to a Francophone commonwealth. The French territory of Kwang-Chou-Wan was given back to China in 1946. The British gave Hong Kong back to China in 1997 after 150 years of rule. The Portuguese territory of Macau was given back to China in 1999. Macau and Hong Kong were not incorporated into the provincial structure of China; they have an autonomous system of government as Special Administrative Regions of the People's Republic of China.

France still governs colonies (French Guyana, Martinique, Réunion, French Polynesia, New Caledonia, St Martin, Saint-Pierre-et-Miquelon, Guadeloupe, TAAF, Wallis and Futuna, Saint Barthélemy, and Mayotte) and exerts hegemony in Francophone Africa (29 francophone countries such as Chad, Rwanda, et cetera). Fourteen British Overseas Territories remain under British sovereignty. Sixteen countries of the Commonwealth of Nations share their head of state, Queen Elizabeth II, as Commonwealth realms.

While the notion of "formal empire" may have ended, it is important to note that many of these former colonial populations still continue to face the historical legacy of colonialism. While traditional sovereignty has been granted to these political units, one must not forget the economic, political and cultural entanglements that continue to affect these subject populations. Therefore, discursive practices of Empire are still present in countries today.

Contemporary usage

Contemporaneously, the concept of empire is politically valid, yet is not always used in the traditional sense. For example, Japan is considered the world's sole remaining empire because of the continued presence of the Japanese Emperor in national politics. Despite the semantic reference to imperial power, Japan is a de jure constitutional monarchy, with a homogeneous population of 127 million people that is 98.5 percent ethnic Japanese, making it one of the largest nation-states.[35]

Characterizing some aspects of American foreign policy and international behavior as "American Empire" is controversial but not uncommon. This characterization is controversial because of the strong tendency in American society to reject claims of American imperialism. The initial motivations for the inception of the United States eventually led to the development of this tendency, which has been perpetuated by the country-wide obsession with this national narrative. The United States was formed because colonists did not like being under control of the British Empire. Essentially, the United States was formed in an attempt to reject imperialism. This makes it very hard for people to acknowledge America’s status as an empire. This active rejection of imperialist status is not limited to high-ranking government officials, as it has been engrained in American society throughout its entire history. As David Ludden explains, “journalists, scholars, teachers, students, analysts, and politicians prefer to depict the U.S. as a nation pursuing its own interests and ideals.”[36] This often results in imperialist endeavors being presented as measures taken to enhance national security. Ludden explains this phenomena with the concept of “ideological blinders”, which he says prevent American citizens from realizing the true nature of America’s current systems and strategies. These “ideological blinders” that people wear have resulted in an “invisible” American empire of which most American citizens are unaware.[36]

Stuart Creighton Miller posits that the public's sense of innocence about Realpolitik (cf. American Exceptionalism) impairs popular recognition of US imperial conduct since it governed other countries via surrogates. These surrogates were domestically-weak, right-wing governments that would collapse without US support.[37] Former President G.W. Bush's Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld, said: "We don't seek empires. We're not imperialistic; we never have been."[38] This statement directly contradicts Thomas Jefferson who, in the 1780s while awaiting the fall of the Spanish empire, said: "...till our population can be sufficiently advanced to gain it from them piece by piece".[39][40][41] In turn, historian Sidney Lens argues that from its inception, the US has used every means available to dominate other nations.[42]

Since the European Union began in 1993 as a west European trade bloc, it has established its own currency, the Euro (1999), established discrete military forces, and exercised its limited hegemony in parts of eastern Europe and Asia. The political scientist Jan Zielonka suggests that this behaviour is imperial because it coerces its neighbouring countries into adopting its European economic, legal, and political structures.[43][44][45][46][47][48]

In his book review of Empire (2000) by Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Mehmet Akif Okur posits that since the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks in the US, the international relations determining the world's balance of power (political, economic, military) have been altered. These alterations include the intellectual (political science) trends that perceive the contemporary world's order via the re-territorrialisation of political space, the re-emergence of classical imperialist practices (the "inside" vs. "outside" duality, cf. the Other), the deliberate weakening of international organisations, the restructured international economy, economic nationalism, the expanded arming of most countries, the proliferation of nuclear weapon capabilities and the politics of identity emphasizing a state's subjective perception of its place in the world, as a nation and as a civilisation. These changes constitute the "Age of Nation Empires"; as imperial usage, nation-empire denotes the return of geopolitical power from global power blocs to regional power blocs (i.e., centred upon a "regional power" state [China, Russia, U.S., et al.]) and regional multi-state power alliances (i.e., Europe, Latin America, South East Asia). Nation-empire regionalism claims sovereignty over their respective (regional) political (social, economic, ideologic), cultural, and military spheres.[49]

Timeline of empires

The chart below shows a timeline of polities that have been called empires. Dynastic changes are marked with a white line.

Theoretical research

Empire versus nation state

Empires have been the dominant international organization in world history:

The fact that tribes, peoples, and nations have made empires points to a fundamental political dynamic, one that helps explain why empires cannot be confined to a particular place or era but emerged and reemerged over thousands of years and on all continents.[50]

Empires … can be traced as far back as the recorded history goes; indeed, most history is the history of empires... It is the nation-state—an essentially 19th-century ideal—that is the historical novelty and that may yet prove to be the more ephemeral entity.[51]

Our field’s fixation on the Westphalian state has tended to obscure the fact that the main actors in global politics, for most of time immemorial, have been empires rather than states ... In fact, it is a very distorted view of even the Westphalian era not to recognize that it was always at least as much about empires as it was states. Almost all of the emerging European states no sooner began to consolidate than they were off on campaigns of conquest and commerce to the farthest reaches of the globe… Ironically, it was the European empires that carried the idea of the sovereign territorial state to the rest of the world…[52]

Similarly, Anthony Pagden, Eliot A. Cohen, Jane Burbank and Frederick Cooper estimate that “empires have always been more frequent, more extensive political and social forms than tribal territories or nations have ever been.”[53] Many empires endured for centuries, while the age of the ancient Egyptian, Chinese and Japanese Empires is counted in millennia. “Most people throughout history have lived under imperial rule."[54]

Empires have played a long and critical part in human history... [Despite] efforts in words and wars to put national unity at the center of political imagination, imperial politics, imperial practices, and imperial cultures have shaped the world we live in ... Rome was evoked as a model of splendor and order into the Twentieth century and beyond… By comparison, the nation-state appears as a blip on the historical horizon, a state form that emerged recently from under imperial skies and whose hold on the world's political imagination may well prove partial or transitory… The endurance of empire challenges the notion that the nation-state is natural, necessary, and inevitable….[55]

Political scientist Hedley Bull wrote that "in the broad sweep of human history…the form of states system has been the exception rather than the rule."[56] His colleague Robert Gilpin confirmed this conclusion for the pre-modern period:

The history of interstate relations was largely that of successive great empires. The pattern of international political change during the millennia of the pre-modern era has been described as an imperial cycle… World politics was characterized by the rise and decline of powerful empires, each of which in turn unified and ordered its respective international system. The recurrent pattern in every civilization of which we have knowledge was for one state to unify the system under its imperial domination. The propensity toward universal empire was the principal feature of pre-modern politics.[57]

Historian Michael Doyle who undertook an extensive research on empires extended the observation into the modern era:

Empires have been the key actors in world politics for millennia. They helped create the interdependent civilizations of all the continents… Imperial control stretches through history, many say, to the present day. Empires are as old as history itself… They have held the leading role ever since.[58]

Universal empire

Expert on warfare Quincy Wright generalized on what he called "universal empire"--empire unifying all the contemporary system:

Balance of power systems have in the past tended, through the process of conquest of lesser states by greater states, towards reduction in the number of states involved, and towards less frequent but more devastating wars, until eventually a universal empire has been established through the conquest by one of all those remaining.[59]

A later group of political scientists, working on the phenomenon of the current unipolarity, in 2007 edited research on several pre-modern civilizations by experts in respective fields. The overall conclusion was that the balance of power was inherently unstable order and usually soon broke in favor of imperial order.[60] Yet before the advent of the unipolarity, world historian Arnold Toynbee and political scientist Martin Wight had drawn the same conclusion with an unambiguous implication for the modern world:

When this [imperial] pattern of political history is found in the New World as well as in the Old World, it looks as if the pattern must be intrinsic to the political history of societies of the species we call civilizations, in whatever part of the world the specimens of this species occur. If this conclusion is warranted, it illuminates our understanding of civilization itself.”[61]

Most states systems have ended in universal empire, which has swallowed all the states of the system. The examples are so abundant that we must ask two questions: Is there any states system which has not led fairly directly to the establishment of a world empire? Does the evidence rather suggest that we should expect any states system to culminate in this way? …It might be argued that every state system can only maintain its existence on the balance of power, that the latter is inherently unstable, and that sooner or later its tensions and conflicts will be resolved into a monopoly of power.[62]

Fichte, having witnessed the battle at Jena in 1806 when Napoleon overwhelmed Prussia, described what he perceived as a deep historical trend:

There is necessary tendency in every cultivated State to extend itself generally... Such is the case in Ancient History … As the States become stronger in themselves and cast off that [Papal] foreign power, the tendency towards a Universal Monarchy over the whole Christian World necessarily comes to light… This tendency ... has shown itself successively in several States which could make pretensions to such a dominion, and since the fall of the Papacy, it has become the sole animating principle of our History... Whether clearly or not—it may be obscurely—yet has this tendency lain at the root of the undertakings of many States in Modern Times... Although no individual Epoch may have contemplated this purpose, yet is this the spirit which runs through all these individual Epochs, and invisibly urges them onward.”[63]

Fichte's later compatriot, Geographer Alexander von Humboldt (1769 –1859), in the mid-Nineteenth century observed a macro-historic trend of imperial growth in both Hemispheres: "Men of great and strong minds, as well as whole nations, acted under influence of one idea, the purity of which was utterly unknown to them."[64] The imperial expansion filled the world circa 1900.[65][66] Two famous contemporary observers—Frederick Turner and Halford Mackinder described the event and drew implications, the former predicting American overseas expansion[67] and the latter stressing that the world empire is now in sight.[68]

Friedrich Ratzel, writing at the same time, observed that the “drive toward the building of continually larger states continues throughout the entirety of history” and is active in the present.[69] He drew "Seven Laws of Expansionism." His seventh law stated: "The general trend toward amalgamation transmits the tendency of territorial growth from state to state and increases the tendency in the process of transmission." He commented on this law to make its meaning clear: "There is on this small planet sufficient space for only one great state."[70]

Two other contemporaries—Kang Yu-wei and George Vacher de Lapouge—stressed that imperial expansion cannot indefinitely proceed on the definite surface of the globe and therefore world empire is imminent. Kang Yu-wei in 1885 believed that the imperial trend will culminate in the contest between Washington and Berlin[71] and Vacher de Lapouge in 1899 estimated that the final contest will be between Russia and America in which America is likely to triumph.[72]

The above envisaged contests indeed took place, known to us as World War I and II. Writing during the Second, American geopolitical scientists Derwent Whittlesey and Robert Strausz-Hupé concluded: “Now that the earth is at last parceled out, consolidation has commenced.”[73] In "this world of fighting superstates there could be no end to war until one state had subjected all others, until world empire had been achieved by the strongest. This undoubtedly is the logical final stage in the geopolitical theory of evolution."[74] Writing in the last year of the War, German Historian Ludwig Dehio drew a similar conclusion:

[T]he old European tendency toward division is now being thrust aside by the new global trend toward unification. And the onrush of this trend may not come to rest until it has asserted itself throughout our planet… The global order still seems to be going through its birth pangs … With the last tempest barely over, a new one is gathering.[75]

The year after the War and in the first year of the nuclear age, Bertrand Russell, known as prominent pacifist, outlined a perspective for the near future:

In the near future, a [Third] World War, however terrible, would probably end in American victory without the destruction of civilization in the Western Hemisphere, and American victory would no doubt lead to a World Government under the hegemony of the United States…[76]

Russell's contemporary compatriot, Toynbee, further developed the subject of World War III leading to world empire:

The outcome of the Third World War ... seemed likely to be the imposition of an ecumenical peace of the Roman kind by the victor whose victory would leave him with a monopoly on the control of atomic energy in his grasp... This denouement was foreshadowed, not only by present facts, but by historical precedents, since, in the histories of other civilizations, the time of troubles had been apt to culminate in the delivery of a knock-out blow resulting in the establishment of a universal state...[77]

The year this volume of A Study of History was published, US Secretary of State John Foster Dulles announced "a knock-out blow" as an official doctine and a detailed Plan was elaborated.

One of the most sweeping universal conquests in world history was performed by Qin in 230-221 BC. Chinese classic Sima Qian (d. 86 BC) described the event (6:234): "Qin raised troops on grand scale" and "the whole world celebrated a great bacchanal." Herman Kahn of the RAND Corporation criticized to an assembled group of SAC officers their war plan (SIOP-62). He did not use the term bacchanal but he invented on the occasion an associating word: "Gentlemen, you do not have a war plan. You have a wargasm!"[78] History did not completely repeat itself but it passed close.

Circumscription theory

According to the circumscription theory, "the more sharply circumscribed area, the the more rapidly it will become politically unified."[79] The Empires of Egypt,[80][81] China[82] and Japan are named the most durable political structures in human history. Correspondingly, these are the three most circumscribed civilizations in human history. The Empires of Egypt (established by Narmer c. 3000 BC) and China (established by Cheng in 221 BC) endured for over two millennia. Sinology does not recognize the Eurocentric view of the “inevitable” imperial fall;[83][84] Egyptology[85][86] and Japanology pose equal challenges.

Carneiro explored the Bronze Age civilizations. Stuart J. Kaufman, Richard Little and William Wohlforth researched the next three millennia, comparing eight civilizations. They conclude: The "rigidity of the borders" contributed importantly to hegemony in every concerned case.[87] Hence, "when the system’s borders are rigid, the probability of hegemony is high."[88]

The circumscription theory was stressed in the comparative studies of the Roman and Chinese Empires. The circumscribed Chinese Empire recovered from all falls, while the fall of Rome, by contrast, was fatal. "What counteracted this [imperial] tendency in Europe … was a countervailing tendency for the geographical boundaries of the system to expand." If "Europe had been a closed system, some great power would eventually have succeeded in establishing absolute supremacy over the other states in the region."[89]

The ancient Chinese system was relatively enclosed, whereas the European system began to expand its reach to the rest of the world from the onset of system formation… In addition, overseas provided outlet for territorial competition, thereby allowing international competition on the European continent to … trump the ongoing pressure toward convergence.[90]

His 1945 book on the four centuries of the Euroean power struggle, Ludwig Dehio titled The Precarious Balance. He explained the durability of the European states system by its overseas expansion: “Overseas expansion and the system of states were born at the same time; the vitality that burst the bounds of the Western world also destroyed its unity.”[91]

The opportunity for any system to expand in size seems almost a necessary condition for it to remain balanced, at least over the long haul. Far from being impossible or exceedingly improbable, systemic hegemony is likely under two conditions: "when the boundaries of the international system remain stable and no new major powers emerge from outside the system."[92] With the system becoming global, further expansion is precluded. The geopolitical condition of "global closure"[93] will remain to the end of history. Since "the contemporary international system is global, we can rule out the possibility that geographic expansion of the system will contribute to the emergence of a new balance of power, as it did so many times in the past."[94] As Quincy Wright had put it, "this process can no longer continue without interplanetary wars.”[95]

One of leading experts on world-system theory, Christopher Chase-Dunn, noted that the circumscription theory is applicable for the global system, since the global system is circumscribed.[96][97] In fact, within less than a century of its circumscribed existence the global system overcame the centuries-old balance of power and reached the unipolarity. Given “constant spatial parameters” of the global system, its unipolar structure is neither historically unusual nor theoretically surprising.[98]


Main article: American empire
See also: Pax Americana

Chalmers Johnson argues that the US globe-girding network of hundreds of military bases already represents a global empire in its initial form:

For a major power, prosecution of any war that is not a defense of the homeland usually requires overseas military bases for strategic reasons. After the war is over, it is tempting for the victor to retain such bases and easy to find reasons to do so. Commonly, preparedness for a possible resumption of hostilities will be invoked. Over time, if a nation’s aims become imperial, the bases form the skeleton of an empire.[99]

Kenneth Pomeranz and Harvard Historian Niall Ferguson share Johnson's view: "With American military bases in over 120 countries, we have hardly seen the end of empire.” This “vast archipelago of US military bases … far exceeds 19th-century British ambitions. Britain’s imperium consisted of specific, albeit numerous, colonies and clients; the American imperial vision is much more global…”[100]

Conventional maps of US military deployments understate the extent of America's military reach. A Defense Department map of the world, which shows the areas of responsibility of the five major regional commands, suggests that America's sphere of military influence is now literally global … The regional combatant commanders—the 'pro-consuls' of this imperium—have responsibility for swaths of territory beyond the wildest imaginings of their Roman predecessors.[101]

Another Harvard Historian Charles S. Maier opens his Among Empires: American Ascendancy and Its Predecessors with these words: "What a substratum for empire! Compared with which, the foundation of the Macedonian, the Roman and the British, sink into insignificance."[102]

One of the most accepted distinctions between earlier empires and the American Empire is the latter’s “global” or “planetary” scope.[103] French former Foreign Minister Hubert Vedrine wondered: "The situation is unprecedented: What previous empire subjugated the entire world...?"[104]

Times Atlas of Empires numbers 70 empires in the world history. Niall Ferguson lists numerous parallels between them and the United States. He concludes: “To those who would still insist on American exceptionalism, the historian of empires can only retort: as exceptional as all the other 69 empires.”[105]


In 1945, Historian Ludwig Dehio predicted global unification due to the circumscription of the global system, although he did not use this term. Being global, the system can neither expand nor be subject to external intrusion as the European states system had been for centuries:

In all previous struggles for supremacy, attempts to unite the European peninsula in a single state have been condemned to failure primarily through the intrusion of new forces from outside the old Occident. The Occident was an open area. But the globe was not, and, for that very reason, ultimately destined to be unified… And this very process [of unification] was clearly reflected in both World Wars.[106]

Fifteen years later, Dehio confirmed his hypothesis: The European system owed its durability to its overseas outlet. “But how can a multiple grouping of world states conceivably be supported from outside in the framework of a finite globe?”[107]

During the same time, Quincy Wright developed a similar concept. Balance-of-power politics has aimed less at preserving peace than at preserving the independence of states and preventing the development of world empire. In the course of history, the balance of power repeatedly reemerged, but on ever-wider scale. Eventually, the scale became global. Unless we proceed to “interplanetary wars,” this pattern can no longer continue. In spite of significant reversals, the “trend towards world unity” can “scarcely be denied.” World unity appears to be “the limit toward which the process of world history seems to tend.”[108]

Four Anthropologists—Hornell Hart,[109] Raoul Naroll,[110] Louis Morano,[111] and the author of the circumscription theory Robert Carneiro[112][113]—researched expanding imperial cycles. They worked with historical atlases but the advent of YouTube provided us with a better visualization.[114][115] They reached the same conclusion that a world empire is not only pre-determined but close at hand and attempted to estimate the time of its appearance.

International Relations scholar Alexander Wendt in his article “Why the World State is Inevitable…” supposed the pathway of universal conquest and subsequent consolidation provided the conquering power recognizes all conquered members.[116] Wendt’s predecessor in the teleological theory of World State, Toynbee, had emphasized that the world is ripe for conquest: "…Hitler's eventual failure to impose peace on the world by the force of arms was due, not to any flaw in his thesis that the world was ripe for conquest, but to an accidental combination of incidental errors in his measures…" But "in falling by so narrow a margin to win the prize of world-dominion for himself, Hitler had left the prize dangling within the reach of any successor capable of pursuing the same aims of world-conquest with a little more patience, prudence, and tact." With his "revolution of destruction," Hitler has performed the "yeoman service" for "some future architect of a Pax Ecumenica... For a post-Hitlerian empire-builder, Hitler derelict legacy was a gift of the Gods."[117]

The next “architect of a Pax Ecumenica,” known more commonly as Pax Americana, demonstrated “more patience, prudence, and tact.” Consequently, as President Dwight Eisenhower put it, the NATO allies became “almost psychopathic” whenever anyone talked about a US withdrawal.[118] According to a much debated thesis, the United States became “empire by invitation.”[119] The period discussed in the thesis (1945-1952) ended precisely the year Toynbee theorized on "some future architect of a Pax Ecumenica.”

Chalmers Johnson regards the global military reach of the United States as empire in its “initial” form.[120] Some scholars concerned how this empire would look in its ultimate form. The ultimate form of empire was described by Michael Doyle in his Empires. It is empire in which its two main components—the ruling core and the ruled periphery—merged to form one integrated whole. At this stage the empire as defined ceases to exist and becomes world state. Doyle exemplifies the transformation on the example of the Roman Emperor Caracalla whose legislation in AD 212 extended the Roman citizenship to all inhabitants of the Mediterranean world.[121]

Replying on criticism of his World State theory, Wendt invoked the example of the Roman Empire: A "world empire would be an unstable equilibrium, still subject to the struggle for recognition." However, conquest can "produce a proper ‘state’ if, as a result of internal reform, the world empire eventually recognizes all of its members (like the Roman Empire did, for example).”[122]

To the case of Caracalla, Toynbee added the Abbasid cosmopolitan reformation of 751 AD. Both "were good auguries for the prospect that, in a post-Modern chapter of Western history, a supranational commonwealth originally based on the hegemony of a paramount power over its satellites might eventually be put on the sounder basis of a constitutional partnership in which all the people of all the partner states would have their fare share in the conduct of common affairs.”[123]

Historian Maks Ostrovski finds above mentioned cosmopolitan reformations to be the characteristic fate of persistent empires. When such a reformation occurs in our world, he writes, the green card would be abolished since all earth inhabitants would have it by birth. This cosmopolitan World State, as the records of earlier circumscribed civilizations suggest, will persist for millennia.[124]

See also



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  100. Kenneth Pomeranz, "Empire & ‘Civilizing’ Missions, Past & Present, Daedalus, 134/2, (2005): p 43, 45.
  101. Niall Ferguson, Colossus: The Rise and Fall of the American Empire, (New York: Penguin Books, 2005), p 17.
  102. (Massachusetts & London: Harvard University Press, 2006), p 1.
  103. Neil Smith, American Empire: Roosevelt's Geographer and the Prelude to Globalization, (Berkeley & Los Angeles & London: University of California Press, 2003), p XIII.
  104. Hubert Vedrine & Dominique Moisi, France in an Age of Globalization, (tr. Gordon, Philip H., Washington: Brookings Institutions Press, 2001), p 2.
  105. "The Unconscious Colossus: Limits of (Alternatives to) American Empire," Daedalus, 134/2, (2005): p 20-21.
  106. Ludwig Dehio, The Precarious Balance: Four Centuries of the European Power Struggle, 1945, (tr. Fullman, Charles, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1962), p 234.
  107. Ludwig Dehio, “Epilogue,” The Precarious Balance: Four Centuries of the European Power Struggle, 1960, (tr. Fullman, Charles, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1962), p 279.
  108. Quincy Wright, A Study of War, (Chicago & London: The University of Chicago Press, 1964), p 92-93, 228, 234.
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  114. "50 Centuries in 10 Minutes," (2014)
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  117. A Study of History, (London: Oxford University Press, 1954), vol IX, p 502.
  118. Cited in Marc Trachtenberg, A Constructed Peace: The Making of the European Settlement, 1945-1963, (Princeton & New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1999), p 152-153.
  119. Geir Lundestad, “Empire by Invitation? The United States and Western Europe, 1945-1952,” Journal of Peace Research, 23/3, (1986), p 263-267.
  120. The Sorrows of Empire: Militarism, Secrecy and the End of the Republic, (New York: Henry Hobt and Company, 2004), p 187.
  121. Empires, (London: Cornell University Press, 1986,, p 12).
  122. Alexander Wendt, "Agency, Teleology and the World State: A Reply to Shannon," European Journal of International Relations, 11/4, (2005): p 595, https://www.researchgate.net/publication/274287534_Agency_Teleology_and_the_World_State_A_Reply_to_Shannon.
  123. A Study of History, (London: Oxford University Press, 1954), vol IX, p 554-555.
  124. The Hyperbole of the World Order, (Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 2007), p 350, 367.


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