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The term empire derives from the Latin imperium. Politically, an empire is a geographically extensive group of states and peoples (ethnic groups) united and ruled either by a monarch (emperor, empress) or an oligarchy. Geopolitically, the term empire has denoted very different, territorially-extreme states — at the strong end, the extensive Spanish Empire (16th c.) and the British Empire (19th c.), at the weak end, the Holy Roman Empire (8th c.–19th c.), in its Medieval and early-modern forms, and the Byzantine Empire (15th c.), that was a direct continuation of the Roman Empire, that, in its final century of existence, was more a city-state than a territorial empire.

Etymologically, the political usage of “empire” denotes a strong, centrally-controlled nation-state, but, in the looser, quotidian, vernacular usage, it denotes a large-scale business enterprise (i.e. a transnational corporation) and a political organisation of either national-, regional-, or city scale, controlled either by a person (a political boss) or a group authority (political bosses).

An imperial political structure is established and maintained two ways: (i) as a territorial empire of direct conquest and control with force (direct, physical action to compel the emperor’s goals), and (ii) as a coercive, hegemonic empire of indirect conquest and control with power (the perception that the emperor can physically enforce his desired goals). The former provides greater tribute and direct political control, yet limits further expansion, because it absorbs military forces to fixed garrisons. The latter provides less tribute and indirect control, but avails military forces for further expansion. Territorial empires (e.g. the Mongol Empire, the Median Empire) tended to be contiguous areas. The term on occasion has been applied to maritime empires or thalassocracies, (e.g. the Athenian , the British Empire) with looser structures and more scattered territories.

Empire defined

An empire is a State with politico-military dominion of populations who are culturally and ethnically distinct from the imperial (ruling) ethnic group and its culture — unlike a federation, an extensive State voluntarily composed of autonomous states and peoples. As a State, an empire might be either territorial or a hegemony, wherein the empire’s sphere of influence dominates the lesser state(s) via divide and conquer tactics, i.e. “the enemy of my enemy is my friend”, (cf. superpower, hyperpower).

What physically and politically constitutes an empire is variously defined; it might be a State effecting imperial policies, or a political structure, or a State whose ruler assumes the title of “Emperor”, thus re-denominating the State (country) as an “Empire”, despite having no additional territory or hegemony, e.g. the Central African Empire or the Korean Empiremarker (proclaimed in 1897 when Korea, far from gaining new territory, was on the verge of being annexed by Japan). The terrestrial empire’s maritime analogue is the thalassocracy, an empire comprehending islands and coasts to its terrestrial homeland, e.g. the Athenian-dominated Delian League.

Unlike a homogeneous nation-state, a heterogeneous (multi-ethnic) colonial empire usually has no common tongue, thus, a lingua franca is most important to governing (administratively, culturally, militarily) to establish imperial unity. To wit, the Macedonians imposed Greek as their unifying, imperial language, yet most of their subject populations continued speaking Aramaic, the lingua franca of the previous, Persian Empire, overlord. The Romans successfully imposed Latin upon Western continental Europe, but less successfully in Britain and in Western Asia; in the Middle East, the Arab Empire established politico-cultural unity via language and religion; the Spanish Empire established Spanish in most all of the American continent, but less so in Paraguaymarker and in the Philippinesmarker; the British Empire established itself with English in northern North America; much of the former Russian Empiremarker still uses Russian as a means of inter-ethnic communication.

History of Imperialism

Early empires

The Akkadian Empiremarker of Sargon the Great (24th century BC), was an early large empire. 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. The first empire, comparable to Rome in organization, was the Assyrian empire (2000–612 BC). The successful, extensive, and multi-cultural empire that was the Persian Achaemenid Empire (550–330 BC), absorbed Mesopotamia, Egypt, Greece, Thrace, the rest of the Middle East, much of Central Asia, and Northern India.

Classical Antiquity

The Roman Empire was the most extensive Western empire until the early modern period. Prior to the Roman Empire the kingdom of Macedonia, under Alexander the Great, became an empire that spanned from Greece to India. After Alexander's death, his empire fractured into four, discrete kingdoms ruled by the Diadochi, which, despite being independent, are denoted as the "Hellenistic Empire".In the East, the term Persian Empire denotes the Iranian imperial states established at different historical periods of pre–Islamic and post–Islamic Persia. And in the Far East, various Celestial Empiresmarker arose periodically in China between periods of civil war and foreign conquests. In the far east the Han Empire became one of China's most long lived dynasties.

Middle Ages



The 7th century saw the emergence of the Islamic Empire, or 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, it had become the largest empire in history at that point, until it was eventually surpassed in size by the Mongol Empire in the 13th century.

For centuries, in the West, “empire” was exclusively applied to States that considered themselves the heirs and successors of the Roman Empire, e.g. the Byzantine Empire, the German Holy Roman Empire, the Russian Empiremarker, yet, said states were not always technically — geographic, political, military — empires. To legitimise their imperium, these states directly claimed the title of Empire from Rome. The sacrum Romanum imperium (800–1806), claimed to have exclusively comprehended Christian German principalities, was only nominally a discrete imperial state. The Holy Roman Empire was not always centrally-governed, as it had neither core nor peripheral territories, was not multi-ethnic, and was not governed by a central, politico-military élite — 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 German rule over Italian, French, Provençal, Polish, Flemish, Dutch, and Bohemian populations, and the efforts of the eighth-century Holy Roman Emperors (i.e. the Ottonians) to establish central control; thus, Voltaire’s “. . . nor an empire” observation applies to its late period.

In 1204, after the Fourth Crusade sacked Constantinoplemarker, 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 Minormarker: the Empire of Nicaea (1204–1261) and the Empire of Trebizond (1204–1461). Constantinople was retaken by the Byzantine successor state centered in Nicaea in 1261, re-establishing the Byzantine Empire until the 1453, by which time the Muslim Ottoman Empire (ca.1300–1918), had conquered most of the region. Moreover, Eastern Orthodox imperialism was not re-established until the coronation, in 1682, of Peter the Great as Emperor of Russia. Like-wise, with the collapse of the Holy Roman Empire, in 1806, during the Napoleonic Wars (1803–1815), the Austrian Empiremarker (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.

The Mongol Empire, under Genghis Khan in the thirteenth century, was forged as the largest contiguous empire in the world. Genghis Khan's grandson, Kublai Khan, was proclaimed emperor, and established his imperial capital at Beijing; however, in his reign, the empire became fractured into four, discrete khanates.

Colonial empires

European landings in the so-called "New World" (first, the Americas and later, Australasia) in the 15th century, proved ripe opportunities for the continent's Renaissance-era monarchies to launch colonial empires like those of the ancient Romans and Carthaginians. In the "Old World", colonial imperialism was attempted, effected, and established upon the Canary Islandsmarker and Irelandmarker, wherein, the conquered lands and peoples became de jure subordinates of the empire, rather than de facto imperial territory and subjects. In the event, 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-nineteenth century and the early- and mid-twentieth century.

An inherent problem of European colonial imperialism was the matter of the arbitrary territorial boundaries of the colonies. For administrative expediency, discrete colonies were established solely by convenient geography — while ignoring the sometimes extreme cultural differences among the conquered populace(s); effective in the short-term control of the subject peoples, but politically, militarily, and economically ineffective in the imperial long-term. For the British Empire, this occurred with the populaces of the colony of “India” — the Indian sub-continent — who, on partition and independence, in 1947, divided themselves by culture and religion, not geography, and established the modern countries of India and Pakistan (the geographically-distant states of West Pakistan and East Pakistan), which later became Pakistanmarker (The Islamic Republic of Pakistan), in 1947, and Bangladeshmarker (The People’s Republic of Bangladesh), in 1971. Moreover, in Africa, said arbitrary imperial borders remain, and define the contemporary countries, because the African Union’s explicit policy is their preservation in avoiding political instability and concomitant war.

Modern period

In general governments styled themselves as having greater size, scope, and power than the territorial, politico-military, and economic facts allow. As a consequence some monarchs assumed the title of “Emperor” (or its corresponding translation: Tsar, Empereur, Kaiser, et cetera) and re-named their states as “The Empire of . . . ”.

The French emperors Napoleon I and Napoleon III (See: Second Mexican Empire [1864–1867]) each attempted establishing a Western imperial hegemony based in France. The German Empiremarker (1871–1918), another “heir to the Holy Roman Empire” arose in 1871. Europeans began applying the name of “empire” to non-European monarchies, such as the Manchu Dynastymarker and the Mughal Empire, and then to past polities, leading, eventually, to the looser denotations applicable to any political structure meeting the criteria of imperium.

Empires accreted to different types of states, although, they traditionally originated as powerful monarchies. The Athenian Empire, the Roman Empire, and the British Empire developed under elective auspices. The Brazilian Empiremarker declared itself an empire after breaking from the Portuguese empire in 1822. France has twice transited from being called the French Republic to being called the French Empire; while France remained an overseas empire. To date it still governs colonies (French Guyanamarker, Martiniquemarker, Réunionmarker, French Polynesiamarker, New Caledoniamarker) and exerts an hegemony in Francophone Africa (Chadmarker, Rwandamarker, et cetera).

Historically, empires resulted from military conquest, incorporating the vanquished states to its political union. A state could establish imperial hegemony in other ways. A weak state may seek annexation, into the empire. For example, the bequest of Pergamon, by Attalus III, to the Roman Empire. 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 Empiremarker. Having convinced the other states of its military prowess — and having excluded the Austrians — Prussia dictated the terms of imperial membership.

The Sikh Empire (1799–1846) was established in the Punjab. It collapsed at the founder, Ranjit Singh’s death when their army fell to the British.

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 government was maintained via control of water vital to the colonial subjects, such régimes were called hydraulic empires.When possible Empires used a common religion or culture to strengthen the political structure.

In time, an empire may metamorphoses to another form of polity. 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 Empiremarker — an empire of much different politics and vaster extension. After the Second World War (1939–1945) the British Empire, evolved into a loose, multi-national Commonwealth of Nations; while the French colonial empire metamorphosed to a Francophone commonwealth.

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 Germanymarker, 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 Austriamarker, Hungarymarker, Transylvania, Croatiamarker, Sloveniamarker, Bosnia and Herzegovinamarker, Czechoslovakiamarker, Ruthenia, Galicia, et al.

Empire from 1945 to the present

  • Etymology and semantics; Contemporaneously, the concept of Empire is politically valid, yet is not always used in the traditional sense; for example Japan, the world’s sole empire, is an empire because there is a Japanese Emperor. In fact it is a constitutional monarchy, with an homogeneous population of 123 million people that is 97 per cent ethnic Japanese, making it one of the largest nation-states.


  • Communist Empire; the USSRmarker (1922–1991) met the imperium criteria, but had no hereditary emperor (though was ruled by dictators, cf. Soviet Empire), and never identified itself as such. Anti-Communist opponents, notably the US President Ronald Reagan and the UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, labeled it The Evil Empire. Academically the USSR was called imperial, given its likeness to empires past. .


  • American Empire; identifying the USA’s American Empire, by its international behavior, is controversial. 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 — domestically-weak, right-wing governments that collapse without US support. G.W. Bush's Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld said: “We don’t seek empires. We’re not imperialistic; we never have been” — directly contradicts Thomas Jefferson, in the 1780s, awaiting the fall of the Spanish empire: “. . . till our population can be sufficiently advanced to gain it from them piece by piece [sic]”. Which indicates that countries goals can change over 200 years. In turn, historian Sidney Lens confirms Jefferson, noting that, from its British imperial independence, the US has used every means to dominate other nations.


  • European Empire redux; Since the European Union began, in 1993, as a west European trade bloc, it established its own currency, the Euro, in 1999, established discrete military forces, and exercised its limited hegemony in parts of eastern Europe and Asia. This behaviour which the political scientist, Jan Zielonka, suggests is imperial, because it coerces its neighbour countries to adopt its European economic, legal, and political structures.


  • The Age of Nation Empires as the Order of the World in the twenty-first century; 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 by 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, US, et al.]), and regional multi-state power alliances (i.e. Europe, Latin America, South East Asia), thus nation-empire regionalism claims sovereignty over their respective (regional) political (social, economic, ideologic), cultural, and military spheres.


Timeline of European emperors

The chart below shows a timeline of the European states claiming the imperial title. Dynastic changes are marked with a white line.

ImageSize = width:1000 height:550PlotArea = width:850 height:450 left:50 bottom:50

DateFormat = yyyyPeriod = from:-336 till:2009TimeAxis = orientation:verticalScaleMajor = unit:year increment:100 start:-300

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  2. so shift texts up or down manually to avoid overlap


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Define $dx = 25 # shift text to right side of barDefine $dy = -5 # adjust height

PlotData=

 bar:Alexandrian color:red width:25 mark:(line,white) align:left fontsize:7


 from:-336  till:-323 shift:($dx,-2)    color:red


 bar:Roman color:red width:25 mark:(line,white) align:left fontsize:7


 from:-27  till:476 shift:($dx,-2)    color:red
 at:68 mark:(line,white)
 at:69 mark:(line,white)
 at:96 mark:(line,white)
 at:192 mark:(line,white)
 at:235 mark:(line,white)
 at:284 mark:(line,white)
 at:364 mark:(line,white)
 at:392 mark:(line,white)
 at:455 mark:(line,white)


 bar:Byzantine color:red width:25 mark:(line,white) align:left fontsize:7


 from:306  till:1204 shift:($dx,-2)    color:red
 at:363 mark:(line,white)
 at:364 mark:(line,white)
 at:457 mark:(line,white)
 at:518 mark:(line,white)
 at:602 mark:(line,white)
 at:610 mark:(line,white)
 at:711 mark:(line,white)
 at:717 mark:(line,white)
 at:803 mark:(line,white)
 at:813 mark:(line,white)
 at:820 mark:(line,white)
 at:867 mark:(line,white)
 at:1056 mark:(line,white)
 at:1057 mark:(line,white)
 at:1059 mark:(line,white)
 at:1081 mark:(line,white)
 at:1185 mark:(line,white)
 from:1261  till:1453 shift:($dx,$dy)    color:red


 bar:Holy Rоman color:red width:25 mark:(line,white) align:left fontsize:7


 from:962  till:1024 shift:($dx,-2)    color:red
 from:1027  till:1125 shift:($dx,$dy)    color:red
 from:1133  till:1137 shift:($dx,$dy)    color:red
 from:1155  till:1197 shift:($dx,$dy)    color:red
 from:1209  till:1215 shift:($dx,$dy)    color:red
 from:1220  till:1250 shift:($dx,$dy)    color:red
 from:1312  till:1313 shift:($dx,$dy)    color:red
 from:1328  till:1347 shift:($dx,$dy)    color:red
 from:1355  till:1378 shift:($dx,$dy)    color:red
 from:1433  till:1437 shift:($dx,$dy)    color:red
 from:1452  till:1740 shift:($dx,$dy)    color:red
 from:1742  till:1806 shift:($dx,$dy)    color:red
 at:1745 mark:(line,white)
 at:1765 mark:(line,white)


 bar:Nicaea color:red width:25 mark:(line,white) align:left fontsize:7


 from:1204  till:1261 shift:($dx,-2)    color:red


 bar:Latin color:red width:25 mark:(line,white) align:left fontsize:7


 from:1204  till:1261 shift:($dx,-2)    color:red


 bar:Trebizond color:red width:25 mark:(line,white) align:left fontsize:7


 from:1204  till:1461 shift:($dx,-2)    color:red


 bar:Ottoman color:red width:25 mark:(line,white) align:left fontsize:7


 from:1299  till:1922 shift:($dx,-2)    color:red


 bar:Serbian color:red width:25 mark:(line,white) align:left fontsize:7


 from:1345  till:1371 shift:($dx,-2)    color:red


 bar:Russian color:red width:25 mark:(line,white) align:left fontsize:7


 from:1480  till:1917 shift:($dx,-2)    color:red
 at:1598 mark:(line,white)
 at:1605 mark:(line,white)
 at:1606 mark:(line,white)
 at:1610 mark:(line,white)
 at:1612 mark:(line,white)


 bar:Swedish color:red width:25 mark:(line,white) align:left fontsize:7


 from:1611  till:1718 shift:($dx,-2)    color:red


 bar:French color:red width:25 mark:(line,white) align:left fontsize:7


 from:1804  till:1814 shift:($dx,-2)    color:red
 at:1815 mark:(line,red)
 from:1852  till:1870 shift:($dx,-2)    color:red


 bar:Austrian color:red width:25 mark:(line,white) align:left fontsize:7


 from:1804  till:1918 shift:($dx,-2)    color:red


 bar:German color:red width:25 mark:(line,white) align:left fontsize:7


 from:1871  till:1918 shift:($dx,-2)    color:red


 bar:British color:red width:25 mark:(line,white) align:left fontsize:7


 from:1877  till:1947 shift:($dx,-2)    color:red
 at:1901 mark:(line,white)
 at:1910 mark:(line,white)




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