What is an Empire?
Contrary to popular belief, an empire is not necessarily a state ruled by an emperor or empress. The best way to define an empire is by simply saying that it is an aggregation of different nations all molded together under the rule of one power. Usually their great size is achieved through direct military conquest, on other occasions though, an empire can be built and strengthened through business and trade.
Most classical empires spread from a capital city and covered a fairly significant contiguous area of land. However, the last 500 years has seen the rise of colonial empires. These empires not only spread over land, but over the sea too, to remote territories far removed from the original homeland of the state.
Determining which of the many empires that have existed was the largest can be a little tricky. For example, do you go by the percentage of the world's population that lay under the rule of an empire, or do you go by either contiguous land area or total land area covered by an empire. Well, the greatest empires were built through conquest, so for the purposes of this article, it is the 10 empires that were able to acquire the greatest amount of total land across the face of the earth that will appear below. So without further ado, lets get started.
10. Portuguese Empire: 4.02 Million Square Miles
The Portuguese Empire like all on this list had rather humble beginnings, and it all began in 1415 with the capture of Ceuta on the North African coast and would morph into the first colonial empire in world history.
By 1815, it spanned some 4.02 million square miles and included total dominion over Brazil, Mozambique, Angola, Zambia and parts of Zimbabwe. However, the rest of the 19th century would see a decline in the size of the empire, culminating with the handover of Macau to China in 1999. As well as being the first colonial empire, the Portuguese empire was the longest lived, spanning more than 500 years and today its main legacy can be found in Brazil, where Portuguese is the official language.
9. Yuan Dynasty: 4.25 Million Square Miles
The Yuan dynasty actually grew out of another one of history's great powers, the Mongols, who had swept across much of Eurasia under the leadership of Genghis Khan. In China, Genghis' grandson, Kublai Khan helped establish the Yuan Dynasty, a powerful Chinese empire that covered some 4.25 million square miles. Khan helped to build the Pax Mongolica system that helped to promote commercial, cultural and scientific growth in the region. This era was also marked by a period of peace with neighboring Khanates in Mongolia.
The Yuan Dynasty was the first foreign power to rule over the whole of China and lasted for nearly 100 years until 1368, when its leaders were banished into northern Mongolia by a Chinese faction that would later become the Ming Dynasty.
8. Abbasid Caliphate: 4.29 Million Square Miles
The Abbasid Caliphate was a powerful empire that ruled over a total of 4.29 million square miles over much of what is now the Middle East, Central Asia and North Africa. They first arose in 750 AD after successfully revolting against the previous ruling power, the Umayyad Caliphate. The Abbasid's claimed to be directly descended from the prophet Muhammad and their rise to power ushered in a golden age for Islam. The caliph Al Mansur helped found the city of Baghdad, and over the centuries it became a beacon of high civilization and the hub of science, philosophy and invention.
However, by the 13th century AD the caliphate was in terminal decline, and the sacking of Baghdad in 1258 by the Mongols, would spell the end of the Abbasid caliphate as a political force. However, they did continue to enforce their authority in religious matters from their new capital Cairo until 1517 before finally being conquered totally by the Ottoman empire.
7. Umayyad Caliphate: 4.3 Million Square Miles
Coming at number 7 we have the predecessor to the Abbasid Caliphate, the slightly larger Umayyad Caliphate, which at 4.3 million square miles was the largest Islamic Caliphate in history and one of four Caliphates set up following the death of the prophet Muhammad in 632 AD. Stretching to the Caucasus in the east, right over to the Iberian peninsula in the west, it ruled over 62 million people, which was 29% of the world's population.
The Umayyad Caliphate came tantalizingly close to conquering western Europe, but a defeat at the Battle of Tours in 732 AD exposed the limits of conquest. This was a largely secular and tolerant empire, with both Christians and Jews allowed to worship freely whilst under their rule. The Umayyads were overthrown by the Abbasids in 750 AD, but surviving members of the Caliphate fled to Cordoba in southern Spain, where they set up a new Caliphate which lasted until 1031 AD.
6. Second French Empire: 4.44 Million Square Miles
The French Empire is considered to have consisted of two distinct eras. The first one began early in the 17th century with the establishment of a trading post in Nova Scotia, this would eventually result in rule over large swathes of modern Canada, Louisiana and territories in the Caribbean. However, by the end of the Napoleonic Wars much of this First French Empire had been lost, either through direct conflict with competing empires such as Britain, Spain, Portugal and the Netherlands, or through the sale of land in order to generate funds for conflicts elsewhere. The sale of Louisiana to the United States in 1803 allowed Napoleon Bonaparte to fund his war in Europe.
The Second French Empire began in the 1830's and would see the French re-establish rule over much of their domain but not at all. The 19th Century would see the empire expand to 4.44 million square miles, and would include additions across North and Western Africa, as well as Madagascar and parts of the Far East including what is now Vietnam.
However, two devastating World Wars and economic hardship in the 20th century would see the Second French Empire gradually decline both peacefully and forcefully. Algeria, was the last major territory to be under direct French control, gaining independence in 1962 after an 8 year war with the imperial masters. The official end of the Empire came in 1980 when the tiny island of Vanuatu gained independence. The French Republic still rules over a few small territories though, including New Caledonia in the Pacific and the tiny island of Mayotte in the Indian Ocean, which, in 1974 voted to forgo independence and retain links with France.
5. Spanish Empire: 5.29 Million Square Miles
The Spanish Empire was one of the first colonial empires, establishing itself in 1492 when Christopher Columbus claimed a part of what is now the Bahamas on behalf of the Spanish crown. The Spanish Empire was the first truly global empire in history and at its greatest extent covered some 5.29 million square miles. It was once described as 'the empire in which the sun never sets,' a term that would later be used to describe the British Empire.
Under the rule of the Hapsburgs and later the Bourbons, the Empire ruled over large swathes of the modern Western United States, all of Central America, and virtually all of South America, apart from Portugal and territories in the East including The Philippines. The Spanish Empire also ruled over territories in Europe including the modern Netherlands, Belgium and parts of Southern Italy including Naples. The Spanish dollar, which was used across the Empire until 1869 was the first global currency in history, and modern currencies such as the US dollar can trace their origins back to the Spanish version.
However, this was an Empire that was at war with neighbors and rivals almost constantly, and much of the gold plundered from places such as Mexico was squandered either to fund these conflicts or to construct elaborate religious structures back on the Spanish mainland. The Empire fell into terminal decline in the 19th century starting with the French invasion of Spain itself by Napoleon Bonaparte in 1808. Whilst the Spanish mainland would be liberated fairly quickly, it would lose virtually all of its territories over the next few decades. By the beginning of the 20th Century the Empire had dwindled to just a few enclaves in what is now Morocco. The end of the Spanish Empire is generally accepted to be 1975 when the Spanish Sahara was handed over to Morocco. Spain still holds onto Ceuta and Melilla, but these are considered to be a part of Spain rather than an overseas colony. The future of these two tiny territories is in doubt though, as Morocco continues to claim both places as part of their country.
4. Qing Dynasty: 5.68 Million Square Miles
The Qing Dynasty was the last imperial ruler of China, ruling from 1644, where it replaced the Ming Dynasty right up to 1912, when the age of imperial rule of China finally ended, ushering the age of Republicanism and eventually Communism. The Qing Dynasty initially ruled over a relatively small part of what we now know as China, but quickly expanded across the whole of the country in 1683 under the Kangxi Emperor and then expanding further into Central Asia to reach its greatest extent of 5.68 million square miles under the Qianlong Emperor in 1765.
However, from the 19th century onwards, the Dynasty fell into a slow but irreversible decline. The ruling elite failed to keep pace with a changing world, corruption set in among officials and a series of revolts and rebellions weakened the Empire to the point where Western powers were able to wield their hand to effectively make the Qing Dynasty a puppet of not only Europe, but also Japan and the United States. An attempt at reform was made following the Boxer Rebellion in 1901, but the last Emperor would abdicate just 11 years later.
3. Russian Empire: 8.8 Million Square Miles
Into the top 3 now with the Russian Empire, the 2nd largest contiguous Empire in history, reaching an area of 8.8 million square miles. Although only officially proclaimed an Empire in 1721 by Peter the Great following victory over Sweden in The Great Northern War, much of the groundwork had been done by Ivan the Great who had conquered Novgorod in 1478 and Ivan the Terrible who conquered the Khanate of Kazan in 1552. But it was under Peter and Catherine the Great respectively that Russia expanded to become the country we recognise. Both rulers not only conquered large swathes of Eurasia but also brought Russia out of the Medieval Age, transforming it into a modern enlightened state.
However, the Empire would remain feudal right up until 1861, when all 23 million serfs were emancipated by Emperor Alexander II. Reform though, came slowly and Russia became the last remaining absolute monarchy in Europe, with the Tsars retaining direct control over the people until the first Russian Revolution in 1905, ignited by an embarrassing military defeat to Japan. From there on in, the Empire became a constitutional monarchy, but a series of defeats in The Great War sparked another revolution in 1917, and would see the Empire transformed into a Communist state called the Soviet Union.
2. Mongol Empire: 9.27 Million Square Miles
We come to number 2 now, and the largest contiguous Empire in history. At its zenith, the Mongol Empire covered an area of 9.27 million square miles and included virtually all of Central Asia, extending East to the Sea of Japan and westwards to Central Europe. The Empire also extended into the Middle East, famously sacking Baghdad in 1261 AD, northwards to Siberia and even onto the Indian subcontinent in the South.
What’s truly remarkable about this empire was its humble origins, the speed of its growth and equal speed of its decline. The Mongol Empire originated from a number of nomadic Mongolian tribes all brought under the rule of Genghis Khan in 1206 AD. Under Genghis’ rule, the Empire expanded rapidly, but upon his death in 1227 AD, fractures began to emerge as Genghis’ grandchildren over who among them had the right to rule exclusively. By the time of Kublai Khan, the founder of the Yuan Dynasty, the Mongol Empire had fractured into 4 separate Khanates, all of which were either conquered by neighbors or simply disintegrated. The generally accepted end date for the Mongol Empire is 1368 AD when the Ming Dynasty of China gained the sovereignty of the Yuan Dynasty and actually claimed the Mongol capital as their own. However, the Crimean Khanate was able to survive until 1783 and the Kazakh Khanate survived into the 19th century, only becoming a part of the Russian Empire in 1848. The Mughal Empire who ruled over almost all of the Indian subcontinent until 1857 was a Muslim Dynasty but with Mongol roots. Its founder Babur was a direct descendant of Genghis Khan.
1. British Empire: 13.71 Million Square Miles
Finally we come to number 1, and with a land area of 13.71 million square miles the British Empire was by far the largest empire the world has ever seen. Like so many empires it had rather humble beginnings starting out as a series of small overseas possessions and trading posts established by the then independent nation of England from the late 16th century to the early 18 century. The Act of Union in 1707 with Scotland helped establish the United Kingdom of Great Britain (later to be joined by Ireland) and the now British Empire became one of the most dominant colonial powers in the world, particularly in North America where a series of conflicts between themselves and the French and Dutch, had seen the latter two powers largely expelled from the continent.
The loss of the Thirteen Colonies (later the United States) in 1783 was the first blow for the Empire, but victory over Napoleon in 1815 would leave Britain as the unrivaled dominant power in the world. Its Navy in particular enjoyed unparalleled control over almost all maritime trade routes for pretty much the entire 19th century. The loss of the Thirteen Colonies was consoled by the retention of Canada and the gaining of territories such as Australia, New Zealand, India, Burma, Singapore, Sudan, Nigeria, Kenya and South Africa. All of which would come under direct rule from London during the course of the 1800s.
By the beginning of the 20th century, Britain's Empire was still the dominant superpower, but it now faced serious competition from Germany, a relatively new nation with designs for an empire of its own and the United States, an old enemy that had greatly expanded its territories since gaining independence from Britain in 1783. Two devastating World Wars and an economic depression in the 1930s severely weakened the British economy, and after the Second World War, a rapid decolonisation process ensued. Countries such as Australia, New Zealand, Canada and South Africa had all become fully independent before the Great War, and they would be followed by the likes of India, Pakistan, Singapore, Nigeria, Kenya, Zimbabwe and Burma. The official end of the British Empire came in 1997 when the sovereignty of Hong Kong was transferred back to China. Britain still does, however retain control over 14 overseas territories including Gibraltar and the Falkland Islands, both of which are subject to claims from others nations, namely Spain and Argentina respectively.
© 2018 James Kenny
James Kenny (author) from Birmingham, England on August 22, 2018:
I know! In the case of the Islamic Caliphates I'd never really heard of them, plus I had no idea that France had '2' Empires. With the Romans, whilst the size of their Empire was relatively small, if I did a top 10 of Influential Empires then they would be up there with the British and the Spanish.
Heidi Thorne from Chicago Area on August 22, 2018:
What's interesting is that some of these early empires are barely remembered now. Also interesting is that the ancient Roman empire didn't even make the Top 10. Yet that's one we are enamored with.
Fascinating. Thanks for sharing!
James Kenny (author) from Birmingham, England on August 22, 2018:
Cheers Liz. I was amazed that the Roman Empire failed to make the list, but there's covered less then 2 million square miles.
Liz Westwood from UK on August 22, 2018:
This is a very interesting article. I often find former empires referred to when visiting museums abroad.