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The 5 Most Powerful Empires in History

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Of all the empires that arose and thrived on the face of this earth, which were the five most powerful? And how is it even possible to select five empires from among the hundreds that have flourished over the past five thousand years? Truth be told, any formulation of the “five most powerful empires” will always be subjective, because all empires were glorious and influential in their own ways.

But there are some empires that were simply so powerful, large, and influential over the grand sweep of history that they deserve to be called the greatest, no matter the criteria. The reader may note that I left out empires from China and India. While I would be the first to acknowledge the importance and legacy of empires from these regions, the overall global legacy of empires from these regions tends to be regional.

The (First) Persian Empire

The Achaemenid Persian Empire was founded by Cyrus the Great around 550 B.C.E., who went by the title of King of Kings (Shahanshah). Although the Persian Empire came to an inglorious end at the hands of Alexander the Great in 330 B.C.E., it had a lasting legacy on the subsequent development of world civilizations and future empires. Indeed, the Persian Empire was a pivotal empire because it was the first true empire that set the standard of what it meant to be an empire for future ones.

The Persian Empire existed at a unique time in history, when most of the oikumene, or civilized, settled, populated world was concentrated in or near the Middle East. As a result, the Persian Empire, which dominated most of the Middle East, ruled over a greater percentage of the world’s population than any other empire in history. Indeed, in 480 B.C.E., the empire had a population of approximately 49.4 million people, which was 44 percent of the global population at that time. The Persian Empire was the first empire to connect multiple world regions, including the Middle East, North Africa, Central Asia, India, Europe, and the Mediterranean world. It jumpstarted the concept of empires in places like Greece and India.

Such a large empire could only have been put together by military might, and the Persian Empire’s military achievements were significant, though they are often forgotten by its sudden demise at the hands of Alexander’s armies. Various Persian campaigns succeeded at subjugating most of the world’s advanced civilizations at the time including the Babylonians, Lydians, Egyptians, and the northwestern Hindu region of Gandhara, in today’s Pakistan. It should not be forgotten that, notwithstanding exaggeration and misinterpretation, the Persians believed that they achieved their goals in Greece and that more Greeks lived in the empire than not. The Persian Empire ushered in a period of harmony and peace in the Middle East for two hundred years, a feat that has seldom been replicated.

The Persian Empire’s legacy to the world in terms of imperial ideas include the use of a network of roads, a postal system, a single language for administration (Imperial Aramaic), autonomy for various ethnicities, and a bureaucracy. The Persian religion, Zoroastrianism, influenced the development of key concepts like free will and heaven and hell in Abrahamic religions through Judaism.

The Roman Empire

This one should be obvious. The Roman Empire has long been the empire par excellence for the Western world. But its importance is not the product of Western bias: the Roman Empire was truly one of history’s greatest empires. The Romans displayed the awesome ability to conquer and hold large swathes of territory for hundreds or even thousands of years, if the Eastern Roman Empire (Byzantine Empire) is accounted for. But it was not held together by brute force alone; once conquered, people aspired to become Roman, which meant participating in a sophisticated, urbane, classical culture.

Several important features of the modern world are the result of the Roman Empire. The Romans took over and expanded upon the Hellenistic (Greek) culture, passing down Greek architecture, philosophy and science to future generations. Later, the Roman embrace of Christianity helped elevate that religion from a minor cult to one of the world’s great religions.

Roman Law also influenced all subsequent legal systems in the West. Roman institutions also helped inspire the governance systems of modern democracies. Despite Greece’s reputation as the “birthplace of democracy,” the American Founding Fathers were primarily influenced by British and Roman practices. In fact, many of them frequently spoke of their distaste for the Athenian experiment in democracy and their admiration for the Roman form of mixed government, where monarchical, aristocratic, and democratic elements shared power. The American political system— with its separate branches of government— approximate this Roman institutional division. Once the Roman Republic transitioned into the Roman Empire, the idea and majesty of Caesar served as an inspiration for future rulers.

The Romans were a tenacious people. They were able to bounce back from numerous setbacks against improbable odds to pull together and defeat their enemies. Though the Carthaginian general Hannibal almost destroyed the Romans after the Battle of Cannae in 216 B.C.E., the Romans were able to land an army at Carthage to defeat it a mere fourteen years later. The Roman legions were militarily dominant for centuries, enabling Rome to rule over nearly all other civilized peoples in the Mediterranean and Near East except the Persians for hundreds of years and facing only minor raids by disorganized tribes. When the empire did collapse, it was due more to continued crisis and civil war rather than its invasion by Germanic tribes. And the Eastern Empire lasted until 1453 C.E., giving the political history of the Roman state a whopping two millennia span.

The Caliphate

The Arab Empire, also known as the Caliphate, was a political entity founded by the Muslim Prophet Muhammad that encompassed most of Arabia by the time of his death in 632 C.E. It is more reasonable to call this the Arab Empire rather than the Muslim Empire because while Islam originated and spread because of this empire, there were many subsequent empires that were legally Muslim or ruled by Muslims but were not Arab.

Muhammad was succeeded by the four Rightly-Guided Caliphs (“successors”) who were selected by consensus and acclimation (though not undisputed) until 661 C.E. The hereditary Umayyad Caliphate then ruled until 750 C.E., followed by the Abbasid Caliphate, though conquests had ended by this point. The Arab Empire effectively ended around 900 C.E., although the Abbasids maintained their religious role as figurehead Caliphs in Baghdad until the destruction of that city by the Mongols in 1258 C.E. After 900 C.E., the empire began to crumble politically with the rise of rival dynasties, many of them Turkic and Persian in origin, as well as rival Caliphates in Spain and Egypt.

Nonetheless, in its own time the Arab Empire was extraordinary, both because of its military successes, and because of its legacy. It is amazing that a loosely organized, tribal people on the fringes of world civilization defeated the Byzantine Empire and overthrew the Sassanid Persian Empire, both of whose populations and resource bases dwarfed the Arabian Desert. The Arab conquests are a good example of how ideological zeal can sometimes make up for technological and organizational deficiencies, and Arab generals from this period deserve to be ranked among the world’s greatest military geniuses, especially the third Caliph Omar, who conquered the region from Egypt to Persia in ten years. In a hundred years, the Arab Empire grew to be several times larger than the Roman Empire at its height.

Because of its location, the Arab Empire, like the Persian Empire before it, connected the other centers of world civilization in Africa, Europe, Central Asia, India and China. As a result, goods and knowledge from all these regions were able to mix for the first time, giving rise to new concepts like algebra.

The ultimate legacy of the Arab Empire, of course, is the religion of Islam, followed by more than a billion people today.

The Mongol Empire

The Mongol Empire was another empire that originated on the periphery, and against all odds, defeated enemies much more powerful and populous than it. It was the world’s largest contiguous land empire, one that struck terror into all its enemies. Founded by the Mongol warlord Temujin, who assumed the title of Genghis Khan in 1206 C.E., the Mongol Empire first grew by picking off parts of China, as many previous steppe tribes had done.

But the defining moment of the Mongol Empire was when its ambassadors were killed by leaders of the neighboring Khwarazmian Empire, which included Iran, Afghanistan, and Central Asia. This was perceived as a grievous affront to the Great Khan and the subsequent Mongol revenge completely wrecked Central Asia and ended its Golden Age. Combined with the subsequent establishment of European sea routes that bypassed the Silk Road, the Mongol Invasions spelled the doom of Central Asia as an important region.

Although there were only about two million Mongols in the whole world, they subsequently conquered most of the Middle East, Russia, and China under Genghis Khan’s descendants. During their heyday, they suffered few setbacks except for their failed invasion of Japan and the 1260 C.E. Battle of Ain Jalut against the Egyptian Mamluks. How were the Mongols able to accomplish these feats? Despite their small population, the Mongols were able to field large and mobile armies against their enemies because they carried their herds with them and could sustain themselves off of horse blood. In an era before refrigeration, it was logistically difficult for a Chinese rules to field a comparable army.

The Mongol conquests killed millions of people but afterwards established a brief era of peace and prosperity as trade spread across their large expanse. In the long run, however, the Mongols proved inefficient at administering their empire, which eventually split into four khanates before each one eventually fell apart or further split.

The British Empire

The British essentially made the modern world. British institutions of representative democracy inspired French Enlightenment philosophers such as Montesquieu to devise theories of modern government that influenced other modern European states. The main characteristics of the United States— a commitment to liberalism, the rule of law, civil rights, and trade— were inherited from the British and spread throughout the world. Most of these characteristics evolved organically throughout the long history of England, rather than being the result of some master plan.

These characteristics were also instrumental in helping the British Empire grow, thrive and hold whatever territory it controlled. Moreover, its example was widely emulated, whether for its financial prowess or its naval strength. At its peak in the early 20th century, the British Empire stretched across almost a quarter of the world— the largest of any empire in history. This feat was made possible more because of England’s organizational feats and financial prowess rather than through a huge army. For example, the British conquest of India was mostly undertaken by Indian troops in British pay who choose to serve the British because of the regular salaries and benefits offered by them. London also demonstrated a remarkable ability to handle multiple wars at once. And while they sometimes lost battles the British rarely lost wars.

Conclusion

So how does the United States of America match up with all these behemoths? The United States is certainly the world’s most powerful nation ever, militarily speaking. It combines the British ingenuity for trade with a more deeply held liberalism and continent-sized resources. Like the Romans, it has an attractive culture. Like the Mongols, it can wield total destruction. Like the Arabs, it has spread a universal ideology across the globe. Like the Persian Empires, America combines different cultures and links together regions.

For all these reasons, America has a long future ahead of it as a great power. Yet, America also needs to keep in mind the faults of previous empires if it is not to repeat them. Despite its overwhelmingly strong military, Rome fell. Internal divisions and squabbling can kill even the most powerful empires. The Persians were conquered not because they were weak but because their leadership failed. Although the Mongols could win wars, they could not win the peace and ultimately they failed to establish themselves permanently anywhere. The Arabs spawned a successful civilization, but the positive aspects of it were taken over by newcomers who relegated the Arabs to subservience. And finally, the British were exhausted in trying to uphold their interests, global order, and European system, trying to do too many things at once, while also burning themselves out.

In the triumphs and faults of previous empires, there are lessons for America today.

national interest



18 Comments on "The 5 Most Powerful Empires in History"

  1. dolanbaker on Sun, 22nd Feb 2015 5:01 am 

    the second Chinese empire is revving up the pit lane as we speak, using many of the tactics that the British empire used.

    For example, setting up Chinese owned businesses in many foreign countries and importing Chinese management, then controlling the produce of such businesses as in it is only for export to China. Not too much of a step into having a major influence in the national governments, followed by providing “security” to protect their interests in the country.

    Finally the head of state will be answering to China.

  2. Makati1 on Sun, 22nd Feb 2015 6:05 am 

    “…America has a long future ahead of it as a great power.”

    At this comment my bullshit barometer burst through the cap and erupted all over my keyboard!

    dolanbaker, you are correct. China is an empire in the making and is already in most countries of the world economically and slowly, also militarily. What large city does NOT have a Chinatown? If you are in Asia, it is even more obvious. Last week was the Chinese New Year. All of the banks, government offices and many business’ were closed for the holiday, in the middle of the week.

  3. Dredd on Sun, 22nd Feb 2015 6:21 am 

    Arnold J. Toynbee, a famous historian who studied empires, pointed out:

    In other words, a society does not ever die ‘from natural causes’, but always dies from suicide or murder — and nearly always from the former, as this chapter has shown.”

    (Civilization Is Now On Suicide Watch, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7). None of them expected what happened to them … more suddenly than not.

  4. Davy on Sun, 22nd Feb 2015 6:39 am 

    China has no future and it is too late for an empire. China faces the worst of carrying capacity overshoot and by extension Asia. I have no illusion how bad it is going to be in North America but the degree of overshoot is nowhere near as bad as Asia. Economically if you think China is an empire in the making then you fail to understand the mal-investment that has come out of China.

    The headlong drive for growth has destroyed China ecologically and socially. The environmental degradation is all too apparent. The social cost are hidden at the moment. These costs are mass urbanization at the end of the fossil fuel era. This is exactly the wrong thing for a country to do. China’s economy is based upon exports that are based upon BAU. Bau has a shelf life and so does China’s economic export model.

    China was once the model of sustainability with its cities and countryside. There were age old traditions of sustainable agriculture. The people were poor but resilient. The high population has always been kept in check by periodic famines and upheavals. The Chinese cities were once much smaller. People got around by bike and walking. Now these cities have expanded with high rises, highways, and industry all with no future. China has destroyed her water and soils. Some of China’s best land has been destroyed by dirty factories producing cheap products for export or large industry in over capacity. These large industries have produced products for a construction boom that is the largest mal-investment in the history of man. China has produce a building boom with no future.

    It is a pity China has chosen a failed western model to stake her future on. The US Empire is over. The last vestiges of this empire are unraveling by the day. As long as BAU remains the US will be important. Anyone here that thinks the US will disappear and the rest of the global world can decouple from a collapsed US believe in fantasy. We are all in this together and none of us know how this is going to unravel. I can tell you this China has no future as an empire. It is a significant player in BAU and the world cannot decuple from this but bragging about Asia or China is laughable.

  5. dave thompson on Sun, 22nd Feb 2015 6:43 am 

    By not saying the USA inc. is the sixth empire currently ruling, this article is worthless.

  6. Rodster on Sun, 22nd Feb 2015 7:38 am 

    What can b said is that every Empire collapses. The USSA came cloto collapse se several times in the last 30-40 years.

    The problem today is that the entire globe is tied to the hip this time both financially and economically. The BRICS is a joke and will always be. I can’t take the BRICS seriously when all those Nations either have major problems financially, environmentally or resource constraints.

    So when the time comes that the USSA goes the way of the Dodo bird, it will cause a massive chain reaction and everything will go with it.

  7. Rodster on Sun, 22nd Feb 2015 10:10 am 

    That typo should have read: “What can be said is that every Empire collapses. The USSA came close to collapse several times in the last 30-40 years.

  8. Revi on Sun, 22nd Feb 2015 10:31 am 

    We are really trying to lose our empire. We have made all the classic late empire mistakes, but have not fallen yet. In the past few decades there has been Afghanistan and Baghdad, and now we are going to try to stir up a winter war with Russia. That might do it…

  9. BobInget on Sun, 22nd Feb 2015 10:53 am 

    Currently, China because of its world-wide trade expansion, has the advantage.

    While the US sent it’s future middle class into
    a MiddleEast maelstrom to be chewed up and spit out deranged or worse, China was busy
    as Dolanbaker writes: ” setting up Chinese owned businesses in many foreign countries, importing Chinese management, then controlling produce of such businesses for export to China”.

    I’ll add, propping up corrupt (oil) regimes regardless of political inclination. The most blatant example being Venezuela. Venezuela with second largest proven oil reserves world-wide also happens to be pivotal to America’s crude oil imports. Without Venezuelan imports US will undergo chronic oil shortages.
    The Right will howl “Obama lost Venezuelan oil to China!” China has been lending to Venezuela for over a decade encouraging Cuba
    to trade medical and educational resources
    for discounted crude oil.

    Today, all eyes are on a self proclaimed “Islamic State”. The obvious threat to US interests in those nations targeted by “IS”
    is of course oil. Iraq, Iran, Saudi Arabia.

    Without firing a shot or a single drone, China by stepping up, preserving a failed government has usurped that nation’s entire production for decades to come. All to the US empire’s detriment.

    US goes 17,000 miles, giving blood and treasure, killing hundreds of thousands to destroy then prop-up failing Islamic regimes.

    China brings affordable goods to poor people,
    in the process, locks in decades of crude oil
    supplies from Ecuador and Venezuela in the Americas.

    It’s estimated all out ‘war’ on a half dozen fronts will cost at minimum a million barrels per day.

    History will show it would have been cheaper
    HELPING Ecuador, Peru, and Venezuela through hard times. Ignoring Left leaning governments we could have simply bolstered
    trade relations rather then following the Cuban
    trade embargo model.

    What am I’m driving at here?
    Military intervention is an Empire Killer..

    Every single US Mideast oil inspired intervention ended in failure. This endless Iraq ver. 3.0 will only end with long lines at US ‘gas’ stations.

    Because China manages to coral more imported oil in exchange for trade goods,
    China wins this round of empire building.

  10. Rodster on Sun, 22nd Feb 2015 11:15 am 

    “What am I’m driving at here?
    Military intervention is an Empire Killer..”

    It always has been the case.

  11. Plantagenet on Sun, 22nd Feb 2015 12:16 pm 

    The Persian Empire was not the first Empire.

    Older Empires include the Egyptian Empire, the Kushite Empire, The Hittite Empire, the Babylonian Empire, and the Akkadian Empire.

  12. dolanbaker on Sun, 22nd Feb 2015 12:38 pm 

    The title is “The 5 Most Powerful Empires in History”, not all the empires in history, that’s also why the current US empire isn’t mentioned.
    It’s not history, yet!

  13. GregT on Sun, 22nd Feb 2015 2:56 pm 

    The Achaemenid Empire (550–330 BC), is also called the “First Persian Empire”. It was later followed by the Parthian Empire (247 BC–224 AD, which was also called the “Arsacid Empire”. Then finally the Sasanian Empire (224–651 AD), also called “Neo-Persian Empire” and “Second Persian
    Empire”.

  14. Makati1 on Sun, 22nd Feb 2015 7:26 pm 

    FYI:

    http://www.globalresearch.ca/is-china-the-worlds-new-industrial-super-power-obamas-pivot-to-asia-and-the-military-encirclement-of-china/5432534

    …”As the Economist magazine observed: “China’s international trade in goods did indeed lead the world in 2013. Its combined imports and exports amounted to almost $4.2 trillion, exceeding America’s for the first time.”…

    …An ever-increasing proportion of the worlds manufactured goods are produced: each year in China: hundreds of millions of socks to cover the worlds feet; the majority of clothing worn in the U.S. while most-often bearing U.S. brands, is China-made; computers and mobile phones such as the Apple products are primarily produced in China, as are the notebook computers sold worldwide by Chinese computer company Lenovo….

    …As the worlds’ new industrial super-power, trying to encircle or catch China is at best an arduous task. “The train.” one might say, “has already left the station.”…

    And the beat goes on.

  15. redpill on Sun, 22nd Feb 2015 7:55 pm 

    There’s no need to encircle China Mak. So long as she keeps providing for her people, the Party membership can sleep at night and her influence will grow.

    However, if the Party chooses to start wielding “a big stick” as we did in Teddy R’s day but this time in the South China Sea, we might see a lot of folks looking to India for their production.

    “Brand China” can be hurt far more easily than “Brand USA”. We fuck up, but enough of the world believes in our ability to “come to our senses” than is the case with a new nuclear superpower with a much shorter history of playing on a world stage.

    That said, I respect what Xi has gotten done so far. Though I do wonder what, with his big push against corruption, he thinks when he’s in the same room as Putin?

  16. Davy on Sun, 22nd Feb 2015 8:22 pm 

    China is doing all the wrong things and when I here our Asian agendist brag about it a laugh. I can’t figure out why he has this dual personality. He loves to boast about China with BAUtopian talk like we hear from the talking heads on MSM. But then our resident Asian agnedist talks about all the doom and prep issues. He talks about all the things that are wrong with BAU and all the things that need to be done to transition out of BAU. The two do not add up. China is an example of BAU on steroids not a country that is moving in the right direction. China is doing absolutely everything wrong a country could do wrong. How can one brag about that? How can one have this double standard unless it is just agenda pushing. Our resident Asian agendist wants to brag about the BAU achievements when they relate to China but then he want to talk about how awful BAU is. You can’t have it both ways.

  17. Makati1 on Sun, 22nd Feb 2015 9:08 pm 

    Pretty bad when a small band of rebels can terrorize 300 million armed people, 12,000 miles away…or is it just more Police State BS from their own government?

    http://www.zerohedge.com/news/2015-02-22/department-homeland-security-issues-warning-after-mall-america-terror-threat

    I am laughing my ass off at all of the frightened sheeple in America. You are thousands of times more likely to be killed by a car than any ‘terrorist’.

  18. Makati1 on Sun, 22nd Feb 2015 9:24 pm 

    redpill, India is not in China’s league as far as production/distribution. Not even close. India is closer to starvation than successful competition with China. Besides, you don’t move factories overnight on a whim. Nor do you build them quickly. It took the US two decades to ship most of it’s factories to Asia. They are not coming back.

    As for corruption, there is no difference in the UFSA or Russia or China or any other country in the world today. They are all corrupt, with the UFSA leading the pack. Perhaps, you need to shed some old-time prejudices about the non-Western world? If you are an American, you are drowning in anti-Putin BS these days that only fool Americans.

    Has anything really changed regarding Russia or Putin in the last few years besides the US military coup of the Ukraine’s elected government? Think about how the USMSM ‘news’ seems to shift from one ‘axis of evil’ to another as the Empire’s goals shift: Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Egypt, Syria, North Korea, Venezuela, ISIS, Russia, etc.. China knows they are next if Russia caves. Do you think the rest of the world doesn’t see this or understand?

    LMAO!

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