The most powerful civilisations the world has ever seen face-off for the title of greatest empire of all time
The word ’empire’ can sometimes have negative connotations, conjuring up ideas of conquest, colonialism and oppression.
But from another perspective, empires can be seen as the engines that brought about modern civilisation. Since the dawn of the human race, people were looking beyond their own territory and conquering their neighbours.
As military technology and logistics progressed, empires emerged. No longer just a collection of local villages and fields, by the sixth century BCE empires could encompass vast areas of land.
Their increasing populations meant that standing armies could be bigger (making their next conquest easier to win), while increased revenues from farming and taxes funded the maintenance of those armies. Despite their faults -and all the empires here are guilty of some major atrocities along with their achievements — at their best, rich, well-fed and well-defended empires provided both the financial and physical security that allowed their citizens to enjoy more wealth, and for the fields of art and science to flourish.
In this feature, we take a closer look at ten world-changing empires — the superpowers of their day — but which one comes out on top?
10 Great Qjng empire
With nearly 300 years of unbroken supremacy to its name, the Qing Dynasty was the last of China’s imperial dynasties, with its rule replaced by the Republic of China in the early-20th century.
Originally made up of a social group of poor rebels called the Jurchen rather than the Han Chinese aristocracy and demographic majority, on seizing power the Qing Dynasty maintained many of the same political and civil structures put in place by their predecessors, while asserting the supremacy of their own social identity, which evolved under tribal leader Nurhaci and became known as Manchu. Later one of his successors — the regent Dorgon — introduced clothing and haircutting laws designed to oppress his Han subjects that have influenced the stereotypical view of Chinese costume and culture ever since. The long-held tension between the Han and the Manchu was key to the Asian conflicts of World War II, and saw both factions playing out battles whose lines had been drawn centuries before.
Nurhaci, Dorgon, Puyi
9 Achaemenid empire
At its height the Achaemenid Empire (or the First Persian Empire) was the largest the world had seen at the time. Founded by Cyrus the Great, it began in the Persian Gulf in the rich lands between the Euphrates and Tigris rivers (now Iraq), encompassed most of the Middle East and stretched from Thrace (Bulgaria) to Afghanistan, Pakistan and north-west India. Its second ruler, Cambyses II, took Egypt, which was the jewel in the crown of the empire, although his own courtiers spectacularly betrayed its last ruler, Darius III, and he eventually lost the empire to Alexander the Great. Herodotus (an Ancient Greek often considered to be the first historian) recorded its rise and fall as a key part of his Histories.
While its territory and military might is smaller than some other empires here, the Achaemenid Empire gave civilisation a legacy of practical and life-changing technical and logistic innovations: it had a postal system, a road network that was maintained by the state and an official language to help its citizens communicate. The Persians also invented a garment that is worn by millions of people around the world every day: trousers.
Cyrus the Great, Cambyses II, Darius III
8 Byzantine empire
It seems from the dates that the Byzantine Empire lasted over a thousand years, but in fact political manoeuvring, changes in leadership and outright war mean that it skips a few centuries here and there. Its capital city, Byzantium (now Istanbul in present-day Turkey) was originally a Roman outpost, before briefly becoming the capital of the Roman Empire itself and changing its name to Constantinople after the Emperor Constantine.
With the fracture of the Roman Empire in 285 CE, the Byzantine Empire set out on its own. The Emperor Justinian I reclaimed many of the lands Byzantium had lost in the breakdown of Rome, before taking on Persia, areas of northern Africa and even Italy itself. His aim was to restore the lost glory of Rome, but Byzantium was emerging as a distinct culture in its own right, and Justinian was actually the last emperor who spoke Latin as a first language; subsequent rulers would speak Greek. Under new Macedonian rulers in the tenth century, Emperor Basil II expanded the Byzantine Empire’s reach from Russia in the north to southern Italy and from present-day Israel to Germany to the east and west — however his golden age was the last before the empire collapsed and finally fell in 1453.
Constantine the Great, Justinian I, Basil II
7 Otoman empire
The people that ousted the Byzantine Empire from its home base were the Ottomans, and this empire outdid its predecessor in both territory and staying power. Founded by Osman I in Anatolia (modern-day Turkey), Mehmed II’s conquest of Constantinople transformed the Ottoman from upstart to empire. Stretching across the width of the Mediterranean basin from Algiers to Baghdad and north to south from Budapest to the Arabian Gulf at its height, the Ottoman Empire lasted from the Middle Ages until well into the 20th century — and it was all thanks to the strategic location of its capital. This placed it in a crucial nexus between Europe and the East, allowing the Ottoman Empire to feed on territory and trade from both sides. Its longest-reigning and arguably most powerful ruler is remembered with the ostentatious title Suleiman the Magnificent, thanks to the wealth, culture, political traditions and peace his reign brought to the empire.
Osman I, Mehmed II, Suleiman the Magnificent
6 Russian empire
Although the Ottomans broke the Byzantine Empire, they didn’t break its spirit — some of its culture and traditions lived on in Russia. Exported to the Kievan Rus around the tenth century, Byzantine art and its Orthodox Christianity took root and grew into new forms, eventually culminating in the riches of the Russian Empire.
An absolute monarchy — meaning that the emperor wielded total political power — it was founded by Peter the Great (in reaction to the territory-grabbing of the Ottomans) and consolidated by Ivan III. Its territory encompassed huge tracts of Europe, Asia and even parts of North America from the Arctic to the Pacific.
Fuelled by the fruits of one of the largest imperial territories the world has ever seen, the imperial court’s culture of conspicuous consumption was its eventual downfall. Forced to become a less powerful constitutional monarchy in 1905, the last tsar, Nicholas II, had to abdicate in 1917 before being executed along with his family in the revolution.
Peter the Great, Ivan III, Nicholas II
5 Macedonian empire ninth century — 146 BCE
While some empires are built on landmass alone, some come together through sheer force of will. Macedonia was a small kingdom on the outskirts of the Greek heartlands and was considered somewhat backward and rural. But under a father-and-son team of rulers, it would rise to become the most powerful state of its time, dominating the ancient world with a reach from Egypt to India.
Philip II took the throne of Macedon in 359 BCE. He was originally intended to serve as regent for his nephew, but took the throne for himself and began expanding Macedonia’s territory outwards. After Philip’s assassination in 336 BCE, his son Alexander became king, and with his reign came the military unification of the Greek states, a ten-year campaign that broke the Persian Empire and expanded across the Mediterranean and beyond to India, as well as the conquest of Egypt. Alexander the Great was one of the most brilliant military commanders in history and he was the powerhouse that drove the Macedonian Empire. After his death in 323 BCE at the age of just 33, Alexander’s charisma-driven military machine largely fell apart. Without an heir, the empire soon followed it, although Antigonus III eventually re-established some of its local territory.
Philip II, Alexander the Great, Antigonus III Doson
04 Mongol empire
It might have been relatively short-lived but the Mongol Empire managed to get an awful lot done. Unusually for an empire, it was founded not in a land-grab for living space, but by a nomadic people. Despite this, it ended up as the largest contiguous empire (that is, made up of lands that border each other in an unbroken line) that the world has ever seen. It comprised all of present-day Mongolia and China, stretching from the Sea of Japan all the way to areas of Russia and eastern Europe.
An enforced peace among the nations in between increased trade and, for the first time, made Asian goods readily available in Western markets and vice versa, making the Mongol Empire an example of globalisation on a truly massive scale.
On conquering China the nomadic Mongols retained many of the traditions of the Chinese court. Genghis Khan’s grandson, Kublai, in particular was deeply enamoured with all things Chinese and took on the title of Emperor of China, founding the Yuan Dynasty. He was also instrumental in the European discovery of China; Marco Polo is alleged to have met him and even served as a diplomat on his travels to the East.
After the death of Kublai Khan, the Mongol Empire fractured into several smaller groups, bringing its brief but glorious rule to an end.
Genghis Khan, Mongke Khan, Kublai Khan
03 The Holy Roman empire
With over a thousand years to its name, the Holy Roman Empire differs from some of its peers due to its structure. Unlike other empires that imposed common languages and a totalitarian government, the Holy Roman Empire spent much of its time as a confederation of European states, united by the royal dynasty that were otherwise free to speak their own tongue and follow their own customs.
It was founded in the early-Middle Ages by Charlemagne, who wanted to re-create the power of the Byzantine Empire in central Europe.
At its height under Emperor Henry III, the Holy Roman Empire encompassed much of France, Germany, Bohemia (the Czech Republic and Slovakia) and Italy. Between 1438 and 1740 it was ruled by the Habsburg Dynasty — the monarch’s of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The first Habsburg ruler of the Holy Roman Empire was Frederick III and the Habsburgs kept familial control of the Holy Roman Empire until the 18th century, until the genetic consequences of the frequent intermarrying between cousins in the family led to their eventual demise. The Holy Roman Empire fell to Napoleon less than 100 years later.
Charlemagne, Henry III, Frederick III
02 British empire
Famously, the Sun never set on the British Empire, thanks to the sheer amount of territory it possessed at its pinnacle. From humble beginnings on one of the world’s smallest island nations, the British Empire eventually comprised parts of America, Africa, India, Australia, New Zealand, Asia and the Middle East. It was established, arguably, by Elizabeth I, who sent out explorers such as Francis Drake — ostensibly to find new lands but also to harry Britain’s enemies at sea.
With the Industrial Revolution beginning in Britain, it was perfectly poised to use its new technologies to extend its sphere of influence. Steam-powered ships made crossing oceans easier, while trains made transcontinental journeys possible. Communications innovations such as Morse code and later radio and telephone connected the great cities, while distinctly British foods and sports made their way around the world. English is still one of the planet’s most widely spoken languages to this day. The British Empire gradually gave up many of its territories or amalgamated them into the current Commonwealth. It is considered to end in 1997 with the return of Hong Kong to Chinese rule.
Elizabeth I, Queen Victoria, Winston Churchill
01 The Roman empire
27 BCE — 476 CE
It might be smaller than some of the others included here, but the Roman Empire casts a long shadow over history — one that persists to this day. In its time it was the world’s largest empire — in fact, it was pretty much Europe’s only empire, and it encompassed almost every area of the European continent together with Britain and parts of Africa, modern-day Turkey and the Middle East.
Rome’s influence on the world simply can’t be overstated. Its crack troops — the legions -were a fighting force to be reckoned with, and successive Roman emperors deployed them in search of more and more conquests, expanding the empire outwards. But Rome wasn’t just interested in seizing territory for goods and profit. The Romans genuinely believed that their society and technology represented the high point of civilisation, and they exported many of their technical innovations and traditions to the nations that they conquered. Straight, flat roads made travel and trade easier. Viaducts sprang over valleys and between hills to facilitate travel, while aqueducts channelled water to inland areas without wells and springs. Central heating system brought warmth to homes — this was especially important as the Romans moved northwards into France and Britain. A common language — Latin -made communication easier.
Rome’s technical innovations made many aspects of life better for its populace both inside the city and in the wider empire, but it’s Rome’s legacy that really makes it the most important empire in history. Byzantium was its home-from-home, and the Roman ideology that flourished there inspired the Byzantines to build their own empire. The Holy Roman Empire saw itself as the last bastion of the Roman civilisation right up until the 19th century. Rome’s imperial line — the caesars — gave their name to both the Russian ruler’s title — tsar — and to our modern word for a powerful overseer, particularly in politics: czar.
From the territories it unified to the languages and political systems it influenced to its array of technical innovations that have stood the test of time, Rome was truly the empire that most changed the world and left a lasting impact.
Julius Caesar, Augustus (Octavian), Emperor Hadrian