For alternative meanings, see Empire (disambiguation)

An empire (also known technically, abstractly or disparagingly as an imperium, and with powers known among Romans as "imperium") comprises a set of regions locally ruled by governors, viceroys or client kings in the name of an emperor. By extension, one could classify as an empire any large, multi-ethnic state ruled from a single center. Like other states, an empire maintains its political structure at least partly by coercion. Land-based empires (such as Russia or Achaemenid Persia) tend to extend in a contiguous area; sea-borne empires, also known as thalassocracies (the Athenian and British empires provide examples), may feature looser structures and more scattered territories.

Compare the concept of "empire" with that of a federation, where a large, multi-ethnic state — or even an ethnically homogeneous one like Australia or a small area like Switzerland — relies on mutual agreement amongst its component political units.

Also, one can compare physical empires with potentially more abstract or less formally structured hegemonies, which add cultural influences to their power repertory within their spheres of influence, and also compare empires with superpowers.

Ethnicities within the , from William R. Shepherd, Historical Atlas, 1911: compare
Ethnicities within the Austro-Hungarian Empire, from William R. Shepherd, Historical Atlas, 1911: compare Nation state

Empires throughout history

The modern term "empire" derives from the Latin imperium, a word coined in what became possibly the most famous example of this sort of political structure, the Roman Empire founded in 31 BC. For many centuries, the term "Empire" in the West applied exclusively to states which considered themselves to be successors to the Roman Empire, such as the Byzantine Empire, the Holy Roman Empire, or, later, the Russian Empire ruled from the "Third Rome" (Moscow). Over time, other monarchies which viewed themselves as greater in size and power than mere kingdoms used the name or its translation. In 1056, king Ferdinand I of Leon, king also of Castile (peripheral principalities in Europe at the time) proclaimed himself "Emperor of Spain," beginning the Reconquista. Bulgaria furnishes another example). Europeans came to apply the term "empire" to large non-European monarchies, such as the Empire of China or the Moghul Empire, and to extend it to past polities. The word eventually came to apply loosely to any entity meeting the criteria, whether kings governed or not, even whether a monarchy or not. In some cases synonyms of empire such as tsardom, realm or reich occur.

The actual political concept predates the Romans by several hundred years: empires began to appear soon after the first cities made the necessary administrative structures possible. The Akkadian Empire of Sargon of Akkad furnishes one of the earliest known examples.

Empires can accrete around different types of state. They have traditionally originated as powerful monarchies under the rule of a hereditary (or in some cases, self-appointed) emperor, but the so-called empires of Athens, Britain and the United States developed under democratic auspices. Brazil leapt from colonial to self-declared empire status in 1822. France has twice made the transition from republic to empire.

Historically, most empires came into being as the result of a militarily strong state conquering other states and incorporating them into a larger political union. Typically, a monarchy or an oligarchy rooted in the original core territory would continue to dominate this union. Many ancient empires maintained control of their subject peoples by controlling the supply of a vital resource, usually water; historians refer to such régimes as "hydraulic empires". The introduction of a common religion also often strengthened empires, as occurred (pace Edward Gibbon) with the adoption of Christianity under Constantine I of the Roman Empire. And cultural influence played a large part in the survival of the Chinese empire and of its semi-imperial sphere of influence.

An empire can mutate into some other form of polity. Thus the Bernese empire of conquest no longer appears so imperial, but its territories have become absorbed into the canton of Bern or become cantons or parts of cantons elsewhere in the Swiss Confederation. The Holy Roman Empire, itself in a sense a re-constitution of the Roman Empire, underwent many transformations in its long history, fissuring extensively, experimenting with federalism and re-constituting itself as the Austrian Empire - vastly different in nature and in territory. The former second British Empire has spawned a loose multi-national Commonwealth of Nations, and the old French colonial empire has also left traces of its existence in cultural networks and associations. The Soviet Empire leaves behind it the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS).

An Emperor-based empire can readily become (say) a republic by means of a coup (Brazil, 1889; Central African Empire, 1979); or it can become a republic with its dominions reduced to a core territory (Germany (1918 - 1919), Ottoman Empire (1918 - 1923)). The breakup of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1918 provides an example of a multi-ethnic superstate fissuring into multiple constituent or new parts: the republics, kingdoms or provinces of Austria, Hungary, Transylvania, Croatia, Slovenia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Czechoslovakia, Ruthenia, Galicia...

The world's largest contiguous land empire was the Mongol Empire (the British Empire being the largest overall), created by Genghis Khan in 1206. It encompassed huge portion of Eurasia under Mongol rule. The Mongol Empire was governed by specific written code by Genghis Khan called Yasa. The Mongol Empire was governed by kurultai, and there was freedom of religion, tax exemption and extensive trade routes that were nurtured by the Khan. For example, the Mongol Empire provided political stability to the Silk Road.


The discovery of the New World provided an opportunity for many European states to embark upon programs of imperialism on a different model, colonization. Under this model (previously trialled in the Old World in the Canary Islands and in Ireland), subject states became de jure subordinate to the imperial state, rather than de facto as in earlier empires. This led to a good deal of resentment in the client states, and therefore probably to the demise of this system by the early- to mid-twentieth century.

The heyday of imperialism, the 19th century, co-incided with a boom in the setting up of empires: from Haiti, France and Austria through Mexico to India and Germany. In contrast, the 20th century saw many empires demolished or dismembered: for example those of Russia, Austria-Hungary, Germany, Italy, France, Britain and the Central African Empire.

One might describe one problem with the European imperial model as gerrymandering. In the interest of expediency, an imperial power tended to carve out a client state based solely on convenience of geography, while ignoring extreme cultural differences in the resulting area. An example of the attendant problems occurred in the Indian sub-continent. Formerly part of the British Empire, when the sub-continent gained its independence it split along cultural/religious lines producing modern India and the two-part country of Pakistan, which later split yet again resulting in the independence of Bangladesh.

Overt ideologies of empire

Naked aggression and sadistic greed, no more than theoretical imperialism, provide little in the way of comforting justifications for the growth and continuation of empires. Geopolitical strategy does not always arouse popular enthusiasm. But more high-minded goals can help in building imperialistic solidarity, perceived in terms such as:

Modern "empires"

The concept of "empire" in the modern world, while still present politically, has begun to lose cohesion semantically. The only remaining country nominally ruled by an Emperor, Japan, comprises a constitutional monarchy with a population of approximately 99% ethnic Japanese. Just as monarchies (as opposed to constitutional monarchies) have largely fallen out of favour in modern times, the term "empire" itself may now become somewhat of an anachronism.

The former Soviet Union had many of the criteria of an empire, but nevertheless did not claim to be one, nor was it ruled by a traditional hereditary "emperor" (see Soviet Empire). Nevertheless, historians still occasionally classify it as an empire, if only because of its similarities to empires of the past and its sway over a large multi-ethnic bloc of Eurasia.

Most modern multi-ethnic states see themselves as voluntary federations (Switzerland, for example, or Belgium) or as unions (United Kingdom, Spain), and not as empires. Most have democratic structures, and operate under systems which share power through multiple levels of government that differentiate between areas of federal and provincial/state jurisdiction. Where separatist groups exist, internal and external observers may disagree on whether state action against them represents legitimate law-enforcement against a violent or non-violent fringe group, or state violence to control a broadly unwilling population. A list of multi-ethnic states with ongoing violence by and against separatists might swamp this article, although China, Russia, Indonesia and India distinguish themselves by sheer size.

The United States of America, widely categorized as a federation, offers another example. The North used coercion to keep the Union together during the American Civil War, which made this characterization more ambiguous in the minds of many. In the aftermath of the Cold War, the United States has emerged as an unrivaled superpower, and although the country has not engaged in formal territorial expansion since the acquisitions of Hawaii, of the Philippines and of the Virgin Islands, many suggest its powerful military and economic influences allow it to exert a sort of informal neo-imperial hegemony on much of the modern world (see American Empire, corporate colonialism).

Historical empires (with approximate dates)

* De facto, The British Empire ended in the 1960's

See also

External links

da:Imperium es:Imperio eo:Imperio ja:帝国 lv:Impērija nl:Rijk (staat) nn:Kolonimakt pl:Imperium pt:Império sl:Imperij


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