When it comes to the largest empires in history, it’s important you first understand the definition of the word “empire”.
The word is simple enough. The Oxford English Dictionary defines it as “an extensive group of states ruled over by a single monarch.”
Simple enough, but it’s when you get to the politics and history that it can get a bit confusing. Does the United States of America have an empire?
Some people would say yes. What we today call China was once – like almost every recognized state on Earth – a collection of much smaller states that were conquered and subsumed into the whole.
What’s the original state, and what’s the empire?
And for that matter, what came first…the chicken or the egg???
Just kidding. I couldn’t resist.
Anyway, here are the ten largest empires in history, organized by their size at the height of their power!
#10: The Portuguese Empire
At 4.02 million square miles, nearly 7% of the world’s land surface, the Portuguese Empire ranks 10th of the largest empires in history.
The longest-lived of the European empires of the great age of discovery lasted for six centuries. It is called the first global empire, its conquests can be found in 53 modern sovereign states.
It grew by sea and reflected the Portuguese mastery of the waves during the 15th and 16th centuries, until the arrival of the Dutch and then the British as great maritime powers.
Finding itself at peace after long years of conflict in the early 15th century, the Portuguese – stuck at Europe’s western extreme – good only expand by sea.
Prince Henry the Navigator
First, they headed for North Africa, conquering Cueta in 1415. Prince Henry the Navigator helped inspire a push around the African coast, picking up territory as the explorers went south, until, in 1488, Bartolomeu Dias made it round the Cape of Good Hope, opening up the Indian Ocean.
Vasco da Gama
Vasco da Gama landed in India in May 1498, and two years later, Pedro Álvares Cabral, apparently heading for India too, landed in Brazil and planted a flag.
The Far East was next, with Malaysia reached in 1515, around the same time as China, where a trade deal for Macau was reached in 1557. Japan followed, where the Portuguese founded Nagasaki.
Brazil was so important to Portugal that the capital of the empire was briefly moved to Rio de Janeiro in 1815.
But by 1822, Brazil was independent, and attempts to exploit and expand their African possessions later in the 19th century was stymied by the growing British Empire.
António de Oliveira Salazar
After World War II, independence movements helped to sweep away Portugal’s remaining possessions. The right-wing dictator Salazar tried to cling on though – still keeping a seat in the national assembly for Goa until 1974, 13 years after India had claimed it as its own.
Today, the Azores, Madeira, and the Savage Islands are Portugal’s only overseas territory, though the Community of Portuguese Language Countries serves as a talking shop for former territories.
#9: The Abbasid Caliphate
With an area of about 4.29 million square miles, over 7% of the land on the planet, and around 20% of the world population, the Abbasid Caliphate was the world’s ninth-largest empire, surviving in some form from the eight to the 13th century and beyond.
The Abbasid Empire was a religious state, one of a succession of Islamic Caliphates which the modern militants of Islamic State would like to emulate.
Its rulers claimed direct descent from the Prophet Muhammad’s uncle Abbas. This, they said, was a closer tie than the Umayyad rulers they replaced. And, of course, they would be purer, better rulers.
They swept to power in 747, mobilizing 10,000 rebels under a black flag.
The Abbasids had support from non-Arab Persians (in modern Iran) and moved the empire’s capital to Baghdad to be closer to them. They set up the secular post of the vizier, a role that was to become powerful enough to reduce the Caliph to a ceremonial role.
The rule of the Abbasid is thought of as the Islamic Golden Age. The House of Wisdom in Baghdad was a world center of knowledge, welcoming scholars from around the world and translating many of the ancient Greek and Roman authors that would later inspire the European Renaissance.
Science blossomed, particularly medicine, and this is one of the greatest periods in Arabic literature, spreading on paper newly arrived from China.
While they were welcoming to international scholars and tolerant of non-Arab subjects, the Abbasid Empire saw the forging of an Arabic, Islamic identity.
The size of their territories would soon prove too much for the Abbasids, and even where the Caliph was recognized, independent states started to spring up in those places.
The Seljuk Turks threatened to overthrow the Caliphs, but they clung on.
They had no answer to the Mongols, who arrived in the Middle East in the early 13th century.
In 1258, Baghdad was destroyed by a Mongol army, and the Caliph was killed, wrapped in a carpet, and trampled by horses to avoid spilling his blood.
#8: Second French Empire
At 5.02 million square miles, some 9% of the world’s land area, the Second French Empire is the eighth largest empire in history.
It’s called the “Second Empire” to distinguish it from the earlier conquests, most of which, like Canada, had been lost by the time of Napoleon’s overthrow in 1814.
The Second French Empire’s most important possession was Algeria, conquered in 1830, and the independence of that country in 1962 is usually taken as the empire’s end. By 1938 around 110 million people were living in French governed territories.
European colonialists often carried moral baggage, along with their desire for raw materials, new and novel pleasures, and markets for their industry.
The French were no different, talking of a duty to “civilize the inferior races.”
Napoleon III reignited the nation’s love for empire, and France conquered territories in Africa and the Far East.
Senegal became something of a model for relatively benign occupation; slavery was abolished, and education, health, and agricultural reforms improved life for many people.
France had interests in China, Korea, and Japan, but its big territorial gain was in Vietnam. Catholic missionaries came first, and when they and their converts were oppressed, the troops started to arrive.
By 1864, Cochinchina the Emperor was forced to open treaty ports in Annam and Tonkin, and all of Cochinchina (as southern Vietnam was called) became a French territory in 1864.
France also had interests in Lebanon and Syria.
Emperor Napolean III
Napoleon III’s intentions for Algeria were good. He saw the country as a kingdom in its own right and its people as his subjects on something like the same terms as the French themselves were.
Algeria was the only French colony to see large-scale settlements.
Expansion in the South Pacific and Africa continued after Napoleon III’s downfall, and by the time of the First World War, France could call on large numbers of colonial troops, particularly from West Africa.
The largest extent of the empire was reached in 1938, just before its downfall in the Second World War.
As France was defeated by Germany, its overseas territories were lost to both Allied and Axis powers. After the war, imperialism was a fading force, and movements for self-determination were on the march.
Vietnam was humiliatingly lost by 1954, and a long, bloody, and vicious war that still plays a destructive role in French politics today was just beginning in Algeria.
By 1960, almost all the French overseas territories had been relinquished, and those that remained were considered overseas departments of France itself.
#7: The Yuan Dynasty
At 5.41 million square miles, 9.4% of the Earth’s land surface, the Yuans controlled 17.1% of the world’s population at their height in 1290.
If Yuan isn’t ringing any bells, you’ve certainly heard of Kublai Khan, the Mongol conqueror who adopted the name as he proclaimed his family a ruling Chinese dynasty.
Kublai’s grandfather Genghis Khan (literally, and almost correctly Ruler of the World) had stormed across Eurasia with his fearsome mounted horde amassing a vast territory that he divided between his sons and grandsons.
Kublai was to turn his inheritance into the Yuan Empire, the first foreign conquest of China in its history.
Kublai Khan came to his throne in 1260 and seemed set on expanding his territories across China. In 1271 he made his capital at Dadu, where Beijing now stands, and adopted the Yuan name.
Then, he set about removing the Song rulers from most of southern China.
Battle of Xiangyang
In one of history’s longest and most famous sieges, Kublai imported military engineers from Iraq to destroy the Song’s great fortresses at Xiangyang in 1273.
By 1276, the Song were defeated.
How Did Kublai Khan Organize Mongol Rule in China?
Kublai Khan then set about becoming a Chinese ruler. The Mongol horde was fantastic at winning territory but had little successful experience of the boring, day-to-day business of government.
The Khan employed Chinese bureaucrats and did the last things you might expect of a Mongol ruler – he built thousands of schools, sponsored scholars and artists literally, and engaged in public works.
His territory stretched from Mongolia and Siberia in the North to the South Sea. Tibet was the south-western extreme of lands that stretched to the Xinjiang Province in the North.
Unified Yuan China prospered for a while with reformed and flourishing agriculture and industry. To the other descendants of Genghis Khan, however, Kublai was something of a traitor who was turning his back on his tribe’s traditional way of life.
Regular revolts were put down while Kublai was in power, but when his favorite wife and then his nominated heir died, he withdrew from public life in sorrow and died in 1294.
None of his successors were anywhere near as successful as the empire’s founder, and in less than 50 years, it was crumbling. The government coped poorly with a series of natural disasters, and some odd military decisions were made.
Emperor Toghun Temür weakened the central authority rapidly and retreated north back to Mongolia as Zhu Yuanzhang’s Ming forces approached.
By 1368, the Yuan era was finished, giving rise to the new Ming Dynasty.
#6: The Qing Dynasty
With 5.68 million square miles under its control (9.87% of the world’s land) the Qing Dynasty controlled the fifth largest empire in history. By population, with 36% of the world’s population in 1820, this empire is history’s largest.
The last hereditary Chinese dynasty was not established by China’s most numerous ethnic group, the Han, but was an arrival from the country’s North-East, where a Man leader (from Manchu) rose to replace the Ming Dynasty.
The Rise of Nurhaci
Nurhaci rose from minor tribal power via minor tribal disputes, first unifying his fellow Man tribes in 1582. In 1616, he was powerful enough to proclaim himself Khan, and a couple of years later proceeded to renounce his allegiance to the Ming dynasty.
He signed up Mongol allies for their military expertise. Han Chinese defectors started to join up, often tempted with the offer of Manchu wives.
On one particularly memorable occasion, a mass marriage united 1,000 couples simultaneously!
Nurhaci died before he could complete his conquest of China, but his successor Hong Taiji carried on his work, and the last Ming ruler, the Chongzhen Emperor, committed suicide in 1644 when Beijing was captured by another rebel general.
The Manchus arrived and proclaimed their dynasty when the Shunzhi Emperor was crowned “Son of Heaven” later that same year.
Qing Dynasty & the Manchus
The first 17 years of the Qing Dynasty rule were spent wiping out remaining Ming resistance and establishing a small ethnic minority as superior over a much larger population, often adopting Ming practices to ensure continuity.
It was not without problems. A 1645 order enforcing Manchu style haircuts (on pain of death!) was so unpopular that a bloody rebellion was put down with many massacres.
The Emperors Kangxi, Yongzheng, and Qianlong ruled over a Golden Age in the 18th century, with literature particularly flourishing.
Later rulers tended to be corrupt and internal strife was matched by the loud knocking of western imperial powers at China’s closed door.
Some attempts at reform were unsuccessfully made before Sun Yat-Sen’s 1911 revolution threw empires out of China for good.
#5: The Umayyad Caliphate Empire
The Umayyad Caliphate’s 5.79 million square miles of territory make it history’s fourth-largest empire. It grew from 661 to 750, when the Abbasids took its place. In its day, the Umayyad Empire was the largest the world had yet seen.
The Umayyads were a family from Mecca in modern Saudi Arabia, Islam’s holiest city. They took control of the Muslim caliphate in 661, using their descent from Muhammad’s grandfather as their claim to power.
Uthman Ibn Affan (644–656) was the first Umayyad caliph. His power base was in Syria, and Damascus was the Umayyad capital.
The history of the Umayyad caliphate is complex, wrought with tribal and personal rivalries, civil wars, and religious disputes.
It was an empire of expansion as well. After North Africa had been taken, Muslim rule was established in most of Spain, outlasting the rest of the Umayyad caliphate.
In 712, after expansion through central Asia, large parts of modern Pakistan were taken, but further expansion into India was halted.
The Byzantine Empire was an almost constant opponent. Rhodes and Crete were conquered, but attempts to take Constantinople never succeeded.
The Battle of Tours in 732 saw the Umayyad army halted by a Frankish force led by Charles Martel – it’s a battle that has been seen as having an epochal significance, guaranteeing Christian rule in Europe for centuries to come.
Fall of the Umayyad Dynasty
The Umayyad dynasty was ended by the Abbasid revolution. The new regime, under its black flag, wiped out most of the Umayyad family, massacring some after tricking them with promises of pardon.
The Spanish conquests remained the only surviving Umayyad territory.
The Umayyad dynasty was the first Muslim government in history to mint its own coins. They centralized and reformed the government, using a postal service that was very advanced for its time.
There were different rights for Arab and non-Arab Muslims and for non-Muslims, and these stresses contributed to the fall of the dynasty.
#4: The Spanish Empire
The Spanish colonial empire, with a territory of 7.49 million square miles, just over 13% of the world’s land surface, is the fourth- largest empire in history.
The Iberian Peninsula finally saw the end of centuries of internal rivalry and Moorish colonization in the 15th century. Like their neighbors, the Portuguese, the united Spanish kingdoms of Castille and Aragon started to look outwards.
Their first view was of the Atlantic and what might lie beyond the horizon.
The first great Spanish discoveries were those of Christopher Columbus, a Genoese sailor looking for a western route to the great riches of the east.
In doing so, he stumbled upon the West Indies, staking a claim for the Spanish crown that employed him.
Spanish Empire Expands to New Territories
The Spanish quickly expanded their territories. Arriving on the South American continental mainland and establishing their control over the West Indies by 1515.
By 1521, they had defeated the Aztecs in Mexico. Guatemala and Nicaragua were added by 1526. The Inca were overthrown in Peru in 1533, and by the 1540s, Chile was being added to the Spanish Empire.
In Europe, dynastic marriages put soon-to-be Holy Roman Emperor Charles V on the Spanish throne in 1516. In fact, Charles was the first King of Spain, uniting the kingdoms of Castile, Leon, and Aragon under the same crown.
Charles’ Hapsburg inheritance was vast (as was his jaw), including territories in the Low Countries, Italy, and central Europe. Spain was now undoubtedly the world’s superpower.
The Seven Years War, which ended in 1763, helped Spain get its hands on what was called the Louisiana Territory from France. It held it until 1800.
In Africa, there had been Spanish territories since 1497. Many were lost to Ottoman and related forces from the 16th century.
Fall of the Spanish Empire
The sun started to set on the Spanish empire as Britain rose to replace it. The Battle of Trafalgar in 1805 is marked as a defeat for Napoleon, but his Spanish allies lost most of their fleet, and with it, the ability to administer and defend their far-flung territories.
Napoleon’s subsequent invasions of Spain fatally weakened the central power. Independence movements in Latin America, many of them interested in reforming the Spanish monarchy too, started to make headway.
Spain’s vast South, Central, and North American territories set out on their own – Argentina in 1810, Paraguay (1811), Uruguay (1815), Chile (1818), Peru (1821), and so on.
The vast Spanish Empire has left a lasting legacy. Spanish is still the second most widely-spoken language on the planet, and Spanish-style Catholicism marched along with it.
#3: The Russian Empire
Now let’s say privyet to the famous Russian Empire! The Russian Empire’s area of 8.8 million square miles and a population of 176.4 million people in 1913 make it history’s third largest empire.
The foundation date of the Russian Empire is disputed, but Peter the Great’s declaration of empire following the defeat of Sweden in 1721 is an often-cited founding point.
The Great Northern War gave Russia access to the Baltic Sea and large territorial gains. Peter built his new capital, modestly named St Petersburg, in his new lands.
Further expansion into the Persian-held Caucasus followed before Peter died in 1725.
The only overseas territories of the empire were discovered in the 1740s as Russian traders and explorers established colonies in America, most notably Alaska (which was sold to the United States in 1867) but also in California and Hawaii.
Catherine the Great, from 1762, also added to Russian territory at the expense of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. She then took on the Ottoman Empire to win for Russia a Black Sea border and established control over Georgia.
Alexander I added Finland, a Bessarabia, to a nation that was now recognized as a major European power.
Napoleon’s misjudged invasion of Russia ended his empire and put Tsar Alexander I in a powerful position at the Congress of Vienna, which divided France’s territory and redrew the map of Europe.
Russia was about to add Poland to its many domains.
The Persians fought again in 1826, and Armenia, Nakhchivan, Nagorno-Karabakh, Azerbaijan, and Iğdır came under the Tsars of St Petersburg.
Despite its military confidence, Russia was still backward by European standards. While the countries of Western Europe went through industrial revolutions, Russia’s economy remained agrarian, and serfs (near slaves) were not liberated until 1861.
Great social forces were starting to move, while Russian troops kept marching on. They succeeded in taking Outer Manchuria from China by 1860.
The last Tsar, Nicholas II, failed to react to a changing world. Russia’s long-delayed industrial revolution was creating an unhappy army of urban workers.
When the Russian imperial steamroller finally hit the buffers, it was devastating. The Russo-Japanese War of 1904-05 was a humiliating disaster and was just one trigger for a domestic revolution that saw Nicholas making some concessions towards democracy.
If the Russo-Japanese war had shaken the empire, World War I crushed it. Russia’s military now discovered what the rest of Europe had been up to.
Russia Leaves WWI
The “Russian Juggernaut” of an almost endless supply of poorly trained manpower that had been invincible for so long collapsed going head-to-head against the machine gun, and the other technological advancements of the battlefield.
In 1917, the German enemy chose to help a former revolutionary return from exile. His given name was Vladimir Ulyanov, though he was better known as Vladimir Lenin.
The Tsar was overthrown in 1917, and then the Bolshevik socialist party seized power when Lenin encouraged an insurrection against the provisional military government that had replaced the fallen Tsar.
Russia quickly withdrew from the war, not because of a final military defeat – though that was probably coming – but because the empire collapsed from within following the rise of the Bolshevik party.
#2: The Mongol Empire
The 12.74 million square miles of the Mongol Empire makes it the second-largest empire in history and the largest contiguous land empire ever.
More than a quarter of the population of the world was living under Mongol rule at the height of the empire’s power in the 13th-century.
It is an extraordinary, even implausible, story of how nomadic tribal horsemen poured out of their homelands in every direction, compiling an astounding list of victories and a mind-boggling amount of territory.
From 1206 to 1260, the Mongols were never stopped on the battlefield – defeats were inevitably followed by a stronger, vengeful return.
Genghis Khan was the driving force behind this aggressive, expansionist explosion. He united the Mongol tribes, not without much blood-letting, taking the title Genghis Khan or “universal leader” along with his new power.
It’ll be no surprise to learn that Genghis set about a massive military reform program to create a disciplined, organized army. Now some of the best cavalry warriors on the planet had the potential to be world-beaters.
It might be more of a surprise to learn that he allowed freedom of religion in his domains, recognized the importance of trade, exempted the poorest from taxation, and encouraged literacy.
These reforms were vital to ruling a vast empire.
Genghis’ armies were soon on the march in all directions – in China, Tibet, Central Asia, Russia, and the Caucasus. No one could match them.
By the time Genghis Khan died in 1227, the Pacific Ocean had lapped on the eastern shore of his territories and the Caspian Sea on the western.
His nominated successor Ogedei simply picked up the baton, and the empire continued to grow, into China, Korea, and Persia and further west towards Europe.
Close enough for the Pope to send an envoy to the conquered territories in Russia, where he discovered a picture of devastation.
European history might be very different had Ogedei not died in 1241. Mongol armies were charging into Europe and were poised to take Vienna when the Khan died.
Mongol tradition called for a great council, so the army returned to the east to help elect a successor.
In 1258 the Abbasid Caliphate was toppled by the Mongol capture of Baghdad, and Mongol horsemen rode on into the Middle East, joined in anti-Muslim alliance by subdued Crusader kingdoms.
The western expansion of the Mongol Empire was halted at Ain Jalut in 1260. Mamluks from Egypt, a truce temporarily agreed with their Crusader neighbors, defeated the Mongols, in part thanks to the pioneering use of black powder weapons.
For once, the Mongols did not return in greater numbers.
The empire’s only apparent weakness was its regular succession disputes. Kublai Khan only took power after a long civil war.
Once in charge, he managed to set up complete Mongol rule of China, naming his ruling family the Yuan Dynasty, the first non-Chinese rulers of China.
The sheer size of the Mongol territories meant it split into competing territories ruled by four Khans. The Black Death wiped out millions and strained the empire’s stretched communications, and new powers started to rise as Mongol power declined.
#1: The British Empire
With a land area of 13.01 million square miles, 22.63% of the Earth’s surface, the British Empire is the largest empire in history. Around 1938, 20% of the world’s population lived in the British Empire.
That the once-tiny island of Britain should attain such power is perhaps as extraordinary as any of the stories here.
The British Empire was the last of the great empires (claims of American imperialism aside), and its legacy is still very much with us today: in the prevalence of English as a global language, in British-style institutions around the world, and in lines drawn on maps in London that are now hotly disputed.
The first colonies of the empire were won, while mainland Britain was still divided between England and Scotland.
England’s adoption of the Protestant religion put it at odds with Catholic Spain, Europe’s dominant power in the 16th and 17th centuries, with its own growing possessions in the Americas and Africa.
English privateers – legitimized pirates – attacked Spanish ships and ports but weren’t yet seeking to establish land settlements. That was happening closer to home, though, where English Protestants were settling in Ireland.
Elizabeth I granted the first patents to set up overseas colonies, and Sir Walter Raleigh landed in North Carolina in 1584.
Once peace with Spain had been concluded in the early 17th century, the speed of American and Caribbean expansion soon stepped up.
A series of Anglo-Dutch wars failed to establish English dominance of the sea but did open the door to further American expansion.
Much of the early British Empire was won by semi-private companies. The most famous is the East India Company, but the Hudson’s Bay Company took Canada, and the Royal African Company started to ship slaves from Africa to the West Indies.
Scotland’s South American colonial adventure in Panama collapsed disastrously, and the financial consequences were a major spur to the unification of the two kingdoms in 1707.
When William of Orange, the Dutch ruler, was invited to take the British throne in 1688, rivalry with the Netherlands was settled – the Dutch kept the spice trade, and the British took the textile trade that would soon play a crucial role in the rise of the Industrial Revolution.
The War of the Spanish Succession gave Britain even more territories from the defeated French and Spanish empires, including Gibraltar, the gateway to the Mediterranean.
By the middle of the 18th century, Britain’s Indian possessions were growing at the expense of France. After winning the Seven Year’s War, the British also took Spanish and French possessions in North America.
The 13 colonies of America rebelled and won independence, but trade between the new United States and Britain kept the money from the New World pouring into British banks.
When the US sided with France in the Napoleonic Wars, British attention in North America switched to Canada and globally towards the Pacific and Asia.
In 1770, James Cook claimed Australia for Britain. At first, it was a penal colony, but the discovery of gold made Australia vastly wealthy.
New Zealand also joined the British Empire during this time.
The end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815 saw the start of yet another century of massive British expansion. No one could challenge the Royal Navy, and Britain was the world’s superpower and the global police force.
By 1914, 10 million square miles and 400 million people had been added to an Empire, connected by steamships and telegraph wires.
“The Sun Never Sets on the British Empire”
In 1858, India was taken from the East India Company to become the empire’s “Jewel of the Crown.” In Africa, South Africa was settled throughout the century, and Egypt was occupied in 1882.
Sudan soon followed, and the dream of establishing a north-south corridor from Cairo to Cape Town led to the birth of Rhodesia.
While the empire grew, the ties were loosening for white-settled colonies, Canada, New Zealand, and Australia, which were largely self-governed after 1907.
The First World War confirmed the push to the independence of these dominions, while troops and materiel from the empire were vital in defeating Germany.
The Treaty of Versailles pushed the empire to its greatest extent as Middle Eastern and African territories were granted to Britain.
The Age of Empire was coming to an end, however. Colonies were granted more and more freedom to govern themselves.
By 1926, the Balfour Declaration declared the nations of the “British Commonwealth of Nations” to be of equal status.
The Second World War was the final blow. Again, Britain’s overseas possessions were vital to support in beating Germany, but in a global war, it became apparent that Britain could no longer protect its empire.
There was a new world order with the United States and the Soviet Union as the two new superpowers, both of them anti-colonial.
In the decades following, Britain slowly withdrew from empire – often leaving bloody conflict in its place, not least in India and Pakistan and the Middle East, that we still live with today.
The handover of Hong Kong to China in 1997, the end of the 99-year lease, is often seen as the end of the British Empire.
Britain still has 14 overseas territories, and the Commonwealth of Nations comprises 53 states. Queen Elizabeth II is head of state of 16 countries, including Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and most of the West Indies.