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.
So which were the largest or most important ones, and which lasted the longest? I realize that how one defines “important” can be subjective; I define it to mean its impact upon history or, more precisely, the ways in which it shaped the geopolitical map we see today. With that in mind, then, below is my top ten list of the ten largest, most powerful and important Empires in history.
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 (see the Mel Gibson-directed film Apocalypto to get a good idea of what the Mayan Empire looked like at its height). 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.
Upon his death, it splintered into two smaller Empires, the Ptolemaic Kingdom and Seleucid Empire, as well as into other minor territories, many of which gained independence after its collapse. Perhaps its greatest contribution was in its creation of a centralized administration that kept it running efficiently and profitably for centuries, and served as a model for future and modern governments. So these are the folks that invented bureaucracy, is it?
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.
As is the case with most large empires, however, ethnic and religious tensions, and increasing competition from other emerging powers, whittled away at the Ottoman’s power until it finally began dissolving in the 19th century. In many ways, the circumstances surrounding the Ottoman Empire’s fall closely paralleled those surrounding the decline of the Roman Empire, particularly in regards to the ongoing tensions between the Empire’s different ethnic groups, and the various governments’ inability to deal with these tensions. Attempts to improve cultural rights and civil liberties came too late to reverse its demise, though it did lay the foundation for secularist governments in the Muslim world, as exemplified by modern-day Turkey.
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.
It would probably have been even larger—and possibly have lasted longer—had it managed to invade Japan, but its fleet lost bouts with first-class tsunamis in 1274 and 1281, ending Kublai Khan’s plans to expand eastward. By the middle of fourteenth century, the empire began slowly falling apart through infighting and political instability until it finally folded, with its far-flung territories breaking away or being absorbed by other emerging powers. While it existed, however, few Empires had as big an impact on trade, religion, and culture in Asia as did the Mongols.
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 (with colonies and possessions on every continent—including, believe it or not, Antarctica).
Alas, all good things must come to an end, and that end came in the twentieth century, when two World Wars drained England financially, making it cheaper to dissolve her empire than keep it. Of course, once they lost India in 1947 it was all over; except for a couple of small possessions (the aforementioned Falkland Islands and a few islands scattered around the globe), the sun really has set on the British Empire. Its most important possession remains Gibraltar, the gateway to the Mediterranean, and one that is supposed to remain in British hands as long as its population of Barbary Macaques—a type of obnoxious monkey—remains on the peninsula.
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 Augustus—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.
Others empires worthy of note: The Assyrian Empire (mentioned prominently in the Bible), the Byzantine Empire (the long-lived successor to the Roman Empire), The Holy Roman Empire (which owned Europe for nearly 900 years), the Egyptian Empire (regional but nearly as famous as the Roman Empire), and the Greek—or, more precisely—the Macedonian Empire (one of the shortest-lived but most powerful empires in the world, under Alexander the Great).
Jeff Danelek is a Denver, Colorado author who writes on many subjects having to do with history, politics, the paranormal, spirituality and religion. To see more of his stuff, visit his website at www.ourcuriousworld.com.
In a number of civilizations, the written word has been seen as an art form in itself—calligraphy. One may, for example, see ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs or Arabic inscriptions as attractive and meaningful even without an understanding of their contents. In the classical world, the use of the Greek and Latin alphabets, derived originally from Phoenician characters, has been taken to be much more functional, and it is the reading of the surviving texts that has been regarded as all-important. There are many more extant examples of Roman inscriptions than earlier Greek and Hellenistic ones, but not all Roman inscriptions are in Latin. In fact, probably as many Roman inscriptions are in Greek as in Latin, for Greek was the common language in the eastern half of the empire (see, for example, two marble reliefs showing Roman games, one from Rome (57.11.7), the other from Sardis in Asia Minor (26.199.63), both inscribed in Greek). In addition, many, principally official, inscriptions were put up in both languages. An example of a private bilingual inscription (in Latin and Greek) is the tombstone of a freedwoman (ex-slave) called Iulia Donata that forms part of the Cesnola Collection from Cyprus (74.51.2393). Some Roman inscriptions, however, are written in other languages; there are examples of inscribed Palmyrene funerary stelae, dating from the second to third centuries A.D. (02.29.1). Palmyrene is an ancient form of Aramaic. Many of these local languages eventually disappeared, but Hebrew, for example, continued to flourish during Roman times.
Relatively few inscriptions survive from the Roman Republic; the vast majority belong to the Imperial period—that is, from the time of the first emperor Augustus (27 B.C.–14 A.D.) until the third century A.D. The number of inscriptions set up in the late Roman period (fourth–sixth century A.D.) was much reduced but still much larger than in the following early medieval period (the so-called Dark Age). It is impossible to estimate the number of surviving Roman inscriptions, although this must run into the hundreds of thousands, and, of course, archaeologists and chance finds are continually bringing yet more to light. This ever-growing corpus of epigraphical material provides information about many different aspects of life in the Roman world. The inscriptions are thus valuable historical documents, shedding light on the political, social, and economic realities of the past and speaking directly to the modern reader across time.
The variety of media used for inscriptions (stone, metal, pottery, mosaic, fresco, glass, wood, and papyrus) is matched by the diverse ways in which the inscriptions themselves were used. At one end of the scale were large, formal inscriptions such as dedications to the gods or emperors, publications of official documents such as imperial letters and decrees, and, on a smaller scale, the names and titles of rulers minted on coins along with their portraits or the discharge papers, known as military diplomata, of Roman soldiers that are found on portable bronze tablets (23.160.32a,b; 23.160.52). At the other end are casual inscriptions such as the graffiti that have been found on street walls at Pompeii and private correspondence such as the papyrus letter containing a mundane shopping list (25.8).
The largest group of Roman inscriptions comprises epitaphs on funerary monuments. The Romans often used such inscriptions to record very precise details about the deceased, such as their age, occupation, and life history. From this evidence, it is possible to build up a picture of the family and professional ties that bound Roman society together and allowed it to function. In addition, the language of Roman funerary texts demonstrates the human, compassionate side of the Roman psyche, for they frequently contain words of endearment and expressions of personal loss and grief. A good example of the various aspects of Roman funerary art is the marble funerary altar of Cominia Tyche (38.27). In addition to a fine portrait of the deceased, in which she is depicted with the elaborate hairstyle that was fashionable among the ladies of the imperial court in the late first century A.D., there is a Latin inscription that records her precise age at death as 27 years, 11 months, and 28 days. Furthermore, her grieving husband, a certain Lucius Annius Festus, wished her to be known as “his most chaste and loving wife,” her qualities being emphasized by the use of superlatives in each case.
The most enduring legacy of Roman inscriptions, however, is not their content, regardless of how important that may be, but the lettering itself. For through the medium of carved inscriptions the Romans perfected the shape, composition, and symmetry of the Latin alphabet. Roman inscriptions thus became the model for all later writing in the Latin West, especially during the Renaissance, when the setting up of public inscriptions revived and the use of printing spread the written word farther than ever before. It was not just that the Latin language formed the basis of western European civilization, but it was also because the Latin alphabet was so clear, concise, and easy to read that it came to be adopted by many countries around the world. Those brought up in such a tradition perhaps find it hard to appreciate the beauty and grace of these letter forms, but at its best, as seen in innumerable ancient inscriptions in Rome and elsewhere around the ancient world, Latin may justly be described as calligraphy.
Department of Greek and Roman Art, The Metropolitan Museum of Art