In their long history, many empires arose and fell, each leaving a mark on the path of human civilization. Their enormous territories, impressive military might, and mutual diversity fascinated the world and influenced the the destiny of millions. From ancient eras to recent epochs, these empires sprawled across vast regions encompassing continents far and wide. They conquered lands, established trade routes, fostered technological advancements, and forged cultural exchanges between distant civilizations. Most have crumbled into smaller regions and countries over time. Yet, their legacies endure as an integral part of our shared history. Here are the 15 largest historical empires that stunned the world with their power and influence:
#1. The Roman Empire
Roman Empire, which existed from 27 BCE to 476 CE, is widely considered one of the greatest empires in history. Founded by Emperor Augustus with its capital at Rome, it grew through vast conquests across Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East. At its height, its land area covered roughly 2.5 million square miles—making it the largest empire of its time.
Their achievements include building grand architectural wonders such as the Colosseum and aqueducts, advancements in engineering and military tactics, and spreading the Latin language and culture. More so, their influence on governance/law shapes modern systems until today.
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#2. The Byzantine Empire
Following the fall of the Western Roman Empire, the Byzantine Empire emerged in the eastern part of the Mediterranean and was founded by Emperor Constantine I. It existed from 330 to 1453 CE and encompassed most parts of the Mediterranean Sea over several periods. Under Emperor Justinian I in the 6th century, the territory attained its greatest imperial extent.
With Constantinople (present-day Istanbul) as its capital, the Byzantine Empire ruled over some of Europe’s most important trade routes. Its influence went across Eastern Europe, the Balkans, in addition to being present in the eastern Mediterranean. Despite facing numerous challenges, they contributed to architecture, art, science, and law. Their legacy also includes the preservation of Christianity and laying a foundation for medieval European culture.
#3. The Mongol Empire
The Mongol Empire began its ascent in the early 13th Century when Genghis Khan united various nomadic tribes. He organized them into a disciplined and highly efficient military force, which he used to cross the steppes of Central Asia and seize entire nations. The empire stretched from the Pacific Ocean in the east to the Caspian Sea in the west covering over 22% of the total Earth’s area. Besides, it bordered northwardly upon the Arctic Ocean.
The Mongols achieved extraordinary military feats through the use of tactics like superior horsemanship and fierce archery skills. They conquered vast territories and established an extensive trade network, promoting economic growth and cultural exchange. Their expansion also stimulated cultural diffusion and paved the way for modern globalization.
#4. The British Empire
The British Empire, which emerged between the 16th and second half of the 18th century, resulted from the unification of the Kingdom of England and the Kingdom of Scotland. At the core of its global impact was the extensive colonization of vast territories across the planet. The empire’s remarkable journey started with a historic expedition organized in 1496 by King Henry VII, crossing the North Atlantic in search of new trade routes and connections with Asia.
By the 19th century, the British Empire had attained unprecedented size and power. It included influence that spanned regions across the world. The “legacy” of the imperial past for modern Britain is the 14 territories outside the British Isles that remain under the country’s rule. While it contributed to modern society through its infrastructure projects, educational institutions, and legal frameworks that still exist in many former colonies today, it also left a complicated legacy of imperialism and exploitation.
#5. The Russian Empire
The Russian Empire is a historical state that was formed from the Muscovite Empire, with continued continuous expansion into neighboring countries and territories. Its roots can be traced back to the 16th century when Ivan IV, also known as Ivan the Terrible, expanded the territories of the Grand Duchy of Moscow. It got its name in the process of Peter’s reforms of 1708-1721, also known as “cutting a window to Europe”.
From the late 17th to early 18th century, it extended its control over vast European territories, including parts of Finland, the Baltics, and Ukraine. Later on, the empire stretched into Siberia, Central Asia, as well as a region of Caucasus. Russia had a presence far and beyond vital trade routes linking Europe with Asia. Due to access to the Baltic Sea, the Black Sea, and the Pacific Ocean, it developed trade networks spreading from Europe to the Far East. Additionally, through political centralization, it contributed a lot towards modernizing its country, especially with an autocratic regime that influenced later dictatorships.
#6. The Spanish Empire
The Spanish Empire of 1492 was one of the most powerful empires in history. It emerged through the union between Ferdinand II of Aragon and Isabella I of Castile, which led to their kingdom’s unification to form Spain. The empire attained great military conquests under the reigns of Charles V, who ruled from 1519-1546, and Philip II, from 1556-1621. These two monarchs instituted colonies in the Americas as well as explorations for new trade channels.
Created trade routes brought vast wealth to Spain through silver and gold mining, resulting in a period known as the “Golden Age” of Spanish art and literature. The Spanish Empire further led to forming a cultural impact by spreading Catholicism together with the Spaniard language in its territories. All these actions contributed significantly to the religious heritage of the modern world and its linguistic variety.
#7. The Umayyad Caliphate
The Umayyad Caliphate was a historical empire that rose to power after the death of Prophet Muhammad in 632 CE. Founded by Umayyad ibn Abd Shams, the empire expanded rapidly and reached its height during the reign of Caliph Abdul Malik. The Umayyads established their capital in Damascus and created one of history’s largest empires which extended from Spain in the west to India in the east.
They promoted trade, constructed architectural marvels like the Dome of the Rock, and introduced administrative reforms that laid the foundation for modern bureaucracy. Umayyads left behind a legacy of architecture with the construction of magnificent buildings, such as the grand mosque in Damascus, showcasing their appreciation for intricate designs and geometric shapes.
#8. The Qing Dynasty
The Qing Dynasty, colloquially known as the Manchu Dynasty, was the last imperial dynasty in China’s long history. It was founded in 1636 by the Manchu people and lasted until 1912. The creator of this dynasty, Nurhaci, solidified a solid central government along with military power. Under Emperor Kangxi and Emperor Qianlong, the Qing Dynasty expanded its territory bringing stability in China while also overseeing its economic growth.
The dynasty contributed significantly to Chinese architecture with iconic landmarks such as Summer Palace in Beijing and Potala Palace in Lhasa. The Qing Dynasty also advanced towards the modern world when they successfully handled Western colonization attempts whilst preserving Chinese traditions when interacting under several foreign powers.
#9. The Ottoman Empire
The Ottoman Empire was a long-lasting and powerful empire founded in 1299 by Osman I. It emerged in Anatolia – modern-day Turkey – and ultimately expanded to become one of the largest empires. With a headquarter in Constantinople (present-day Istanbul), it covered three continents– Europe, Asia, and Africa.
The Ottomans achieved great military conquests and created a highly organized administrative system. They were known for their architectural achievements, cultural brilliance, and religious tolerance. The empire’s influence on trade, art, literature, and science significantly contributed to the modern world. The Ottoman Empire’s decline would eventually trigger geopolitical shifts that shaped history.
#10. The Byzantine Empire
In 1557, the German historian Hieronymus Wolf used the word “Byzantine Empire” in referring to the Greek-speaking Roman Empire with its center in Constantinople. In some historical texts, this empire is also called as Eastern Roman Empire. The beginning of the history of the Byzantine Empire is usually associated with the foundation in 330 by Constantine the Great of a large fortress city on the Bosphorus. This city grew on the spot of the small town Byzantium and was subsequently given a new name Constantinople (modern-day Istanbul), after its founder.
During its existence, the Byzantine Empire attained remarkable achievements in culture, architecture, and diplomacy. It embraced Christianity as its official religion and helped save ancient Greek knowledge through extensive libraries and educational institutions. Its legal code, called Justinian’s Code, shaped legal systems worldwide. In addition, acting as a bridge between Europe and Asia, Byzantium facilitated trade and intellectual exchange in medieval times.
#11. The French Empire
The French Empire was one of the largest and most influential historical empires. It was founded in the late 18th century by Napoleon Bonaparte following the latitude his country achieved after the French Revolution. Under his rule, France expanded its territory across Europe, reaching its apex between 1804 and 1814. Napoleon’s stunning military campaigns and strategic alliances set France up to dominate the continent shakingly.
The empire achieved significant military victories and introduced a series of reforms across the conquered lands, including legal reforms like the Napoleonic Code. Furthermore, it promoted nationalism and spread principles of equality and meritocracy throughout Europe, influencing modern political systems. Despite its eventual collapse, the French Empire played a pivotal role in shaping current concepts of governance and diplomacy.
#12. The Persian Empire
In the middle of the 6th century BC, a little-known tribe – the Persians – appeared on the historical stage, who, by the will of fate, soon managed to create the largest empire at that time. The history of ancient Persia as a great state of the past begins in the middle of the 6th century BC. when, under the leadership of the talented leader (later the Persian king) Cyrus II, the Persians first completely conquered Media, one of the great states of the East at that time. And then they began to threaten Babylon itself, which was at that time the largest state of antiquity.
The territory of Persia at the time of its greatest prosperity stretched from the borders of India in the East to modern Libya in North Africa and part of mainland Greece in the West. In their conquests, the Persians were active and insatiable, and only the courage and bravery of the ancient Greeks during the Greco-Persian wars managed to stop their further expansion into Europe.
The Persian Empire attained several notable milestones, a highly efficient administration system, as well as the creation of a common currency. Additionally, the empire’s infrastructure projects, like the Royal Road, contributed to trade development and communication networks that laid a foundation for future civilizations.
#13. The Atztec Empire
The Aztecs are the largest Amerindian people of Mexico, who came to the central part of the country from the north in the 12th century. It is believed that in 1325 they began to build their capital – Tenochtitlan (on the site of modern Mexico City). Tenochtitlan gradually became the capital of the empire. According to legend, the Aztecs came to the Valley of Mexico from a place called Aztlan – hence the name of the people. The Aztec Empire was destroyed during the Conquista, an invasion by the Spanish led by Hernán Cortés in 1521.
Several powerful epidemics in the 16th century, the so-called cocolizli epidemics, which caused the death of 22-25 million Aztecs, played a big role in this. The Aztecs achieved tremendous accomplishments in agriculture, architecture, and governance, including building the magnificent capital city of Tenochtitlan. Their societal structure and religious practices have also greatly enriched modern Mexican culture. However, their brutal human sacrifices stain their legacy.
#14. The Inca Empire
The Inca Empire, also called Tawantinsuyu, was the largest empire in pre-Columbian America. It encompassed a vast stretch of land along the western coast of South America. The rise of the Inca Empire is dated back to the early 13th century, and its influence extended up to the arrival of Spanish conquistadors in the 16th century. Its vast territory ran about 2,500 miles integrating present-day Peru, Ecuador, Bolivia, and parts of Colombia, Chile, and Argentina.
One of the remarkable features of the Inca Empire was its highly centralized authority and efficient organizational structure. The empire was governed by a divine king, known as the Sapa Inca, who was regarded as the son of the sun god Inti. Their accomplishments include remarkable feats, including sophisticated agricultural terracing, incredible stone masonry skills showcased at Machu Picchu, and an extensive road network known as the Inca Trail.
#15. Arab Empire
The existence of this empire marked the so-called “Golden Era of Islam” – the period from the 7th to the 13th century. The Caliphate was founded immediately after the death of the founder of the Muslim faith, Muhammad, in 632, and the Medina community founded by the prophet became its core. The unification of the Arabs was facilitated by the emergence of a new religion – Islam.
Muhammad claimed that the main provisions of the new faith were transmitted to him by God. His disciples and followers wrote down his words. After the death of Muhammad, all these records were collected in one book – the Koran. Centuries of Arab conquests increased the area of the empire to 13 million square kilometers, covering territories in all three parts of the Old World.
By the middle of the 13th century, the Caliphate, torn apart by internal conflicts, was so weakened that it was easily captured first by the Mongols and then by the Ottomans, the founders of another tremendous Persian empire.