15 of the World's Largest and Most Intense Empires
15 of the World’s Largest and Most Intense Empires

15 of the World’s Largest and Most Intense Empires

Larry Holzwarth - November 19, 2020

15 of the World’s Largest and Most Intense Empires
The Ottoman leader known in the West as Suleiman the Magnificent. Wikimedia

4. The Ottoman Empire linked Europe, Asia, and Africa for six centuries

The Caucasus and Southeastern Europe, Western Asia, and much of North Africa existed as a single state under the official name of The Sublime Ottoman State for six hundred years. In the mid-fifteenth century the Ottomans conquered Constantinople, bringing down the Byzantine Empire. By the 16th century the Ottoman Empire stretched along the North African Mediterranean coast from present-day Morocco to down the Nile below Cairo. On the other side of the Dead Sea it reached the Horn of Africa. Much of modern-day Eastern Europe came under its rule, including Greece, Hungary, the Caucasus, portions of Ukraine, and Crimea.

Over the course of its existence the Empire became a dominant naval power in the Mediterranean. Centuries of religious warfare between the Christian Europeans and Catholic Iberians against the Muslim Ottoman Empire became a global conflict. Ottoman forces were dispatched to Southeast Asia and fought Christian forces throughout the Indian Ocean and the Spanish Indies (today’s Philippines). Ottoman diplomats became major players during the many religious wars and wars of succession across Europe. In the late 18th century, a long period of peace in the Ottoman Empire caused them to lose much of their military strength. They failed to keep up technologically with the Christian Europeans, busily warring with each other.

The Empire was multinational, with numerous ethnic groups and though the official religion was Islam, Christianity was tolerated, with schools and churches prevalent throughout its lands. The Ottomans were among the first to use steam powered engines in industrial applications. They built many extensive libraries and observatories, and achieved numerous advancements in medicine and surgery. The Ottoman Empire did not survive the aftermath of the First World War, a partitioned Empire retained its Sultan until Ataturk succeeded in the Turkish War of Independence in 1922. The last Sultan left the country in November, 1922.

15 of the World’s Largest and Most Intense Empires
Catherine the Great, Tsarina of all the Russias, in 1787. Wikimedia

5. At its peak the Russian Empire straddled three continents

From the end of the Great Northern War in 1721 until the abdication of Tsar Nicholas II in 1917, the Russian Empire grew into the third largest in history. At its peak, it stretched from the Black Sea in the south to the polar regions of the Arctic, and from the Baltic to Alaska and Northern California. Under Peter the Great, the Russian Empire became a dominating influence in the politics of Western Europe. Peter moved the capital of his empire to a model city, designed to resemble the great cities of Europe, St. Petersburg. Throughout the empire’s long history, political intrigues, palace coups, and assassinations altered its line of succession. Until its last decade of existence it was ruled by the Tsar or Tsarina in an absolute monarchy.

Among its most famous leaders was Catherine the Great. She seized the throne by plotting a coup d’etat which led to the murder of her husband, Tsar Peter III. She then had several other claimants to the throne assassinated. Her reign included several wars of conquest through which she expanded the borders of the empire. Though her economy was largely agriculture based, still using the feudal system in which peasants worked on the vast estates of the nobility, she modernized much of the empire’s cities and military. By the time of the accession of Tsar Alexander I during the Napoleonic Wars, the Russian Empire was a feared military power.

The serfs were bound to the land within the empire until they were emancipated by Alexander II in 1861. In 1914 Russia entered World War I on the side of the Allies, primarily interested in reducing the Ottoman Empire and expanding further west into Europe. By then it was bankrupt, bad harvests added to discontent, and in 1917 the Russian Revolution ended Tsarist rule. From the ashes of the Empire rose the Soviet Union and communist control of the government. In the United States, the Russian establishment of Fort Ross is memorialized as a State Park. A reconstructed fort and outbuildings mark where a Russian trading post and fort once stood. Many of the Spanish presidios and forts in California were built to counter the Russian presence there.

15 of the World’s Largest and Most Intense Empires
Charles deGaulle attempted to restore the French Colonial Empire after World War II, with disastrous results for several nations. Wikimedia

6. The French attempted to reestablish their Second Colonial Empire following World War II

When Napoleon abdicated for the second time in 1815, a defeated France lost most of the Empire he had built. A few overseas colonies remained, mostly islands in the Caribbean. Beginning in 1830, France moved to establish a Second Colonial Empire, in the Pacific and Indian Oceans. They also gained possessions in North Africa, and even for a time in North America, via the French Intervention in Mexico. The French moved to subjugate populations not always welcoming. It took them nearly 17 years to fully pacify Algeria, for example. A five-year war with Polynesian natives brought Tahiti under French control. Under Napoleon III, the French established colonies in Indochina, expanding their foothold in Southeast Asia.

The French built the Suez Canal, failed in an attempt to build another in Panama, and obtained territories, called Concessions, in China. France’s colonization everywhere operated under the principle of Mission Civiliatrice. The idea reflected their belief it was their God-given duty to spread French culture and civilization to those so unfortunate as to not have been born French. During the World Wars, colonial troops served with the French Army, and with the Free French Army during World War II. Many of them fought within their own homelands, such as in Africa, to free them of Germans and Italians. After the war, the French leadership under Charles DeGaulle attempted to restore the French Empire.

“…the possible constitutional self-government in the colonies is to be dismissed”, DeGaulle insisted in the Brazzaville Manifesto of 1944. The French determination to retain the Empire post-World War II led to bloody and protracted conflicts in Africa and in French Indochina. France sustained a humiliating defeat in the latter. Vietnam emerged as a divided nation, and American support of South Vietnam gradually dragged the United States into the Vietnam War. Some remnants of the Second French Colonial Empire remain today, such as French Polynesia, New Caledonia, and the Indian Ocean island of Mayotte.

15 of the World’s Largest and Most Intense Empires
A camel square in the Manchu capital of Peking (Beijing) in the latter days of the Qing Dynasty. Wikimedia

7. The Qing Dynasty ended the Imperial dynasties ruling China

The Qing Dynasty ruled an empire in China for nearly three centuries, from 1644 until the creation of the Republic of China in 1912. In terms of land area, it became the fourth largest in history. Multiethnic, with over fifty distinct ethnic groups within its borders, its leaders were Manchu, its efficient bureaucracy mostly Han. Throughout its existence it suffered from western attempts to establish influence and a sustained presence in China. Britain, France, the United States, Germany, the Russian Empire, and the Japanese, all exploited the Qing for various reasons.

Trade offered the primary golden ring for the westerners. The Opium Wars led to significant suffering in China, which was often plagued with poor harvests, or poor distribution of foodstuffs in good years. Rebellions and uprisings, often supported by the western powers (or opposed, depending on self-interests) ravaged the population. China expanded during the early Qing period, but by the end of the 19th century its power in the Korean Peninsula and Taiwan was stripped from it by Japan.

The Manchu leaders of the Qing Dynasty applied Confucian philosophy to their rule. New technologies, such as steam powered railroads, were often opposed through fear of their potential negative impact on feng shui. A railroad line built by the British connecting Shanghai with Woosung was destroyed by Qing officials in the mid-19th century for just such a reason. Not until late in the Qing period did the Chinese government attempt to build modern railroads, borrowing money from the French and British for their construction. In 1900, with European and American railroads entering their Golden Age, less than 300 miles of completed track existed in all of China. China’s undeveloped status under the Qing led to many of its humiliations in the first decades of the 20th century.

15 of the World’s Largest and Most Intense Empires
Napoleon, seen here at the Battle of Eylau, built his empire through wars against the opponents of Revolutionary France. Wikimedia

8. The First French Empire of Napoleon changed Europe forever

As Napoleon’s troops fought battle after battle against the Coalitions formed across Europe, his victories brought most of the continent under French control. In the lands newly occupied by the French the ideas of the Revolution took hold. The Napoleonic Code altered the legal and social systems across Europe. Trial by jury and equality before the law replaced star chambers and the right of the nobility to impose legal punishments on their whims, a process known as seigneurial justice. The legal power of the “lord of the manor”, a remnant of feudalism, declined.

The Napoleonic Code became the basis of law in Spain, Portugal (and their empires), the Netherlands, the Italian Provinces and Principalities, and the mass of German states. It also became the basis for much of the legal code in the American state of Louisiana, making it unique among the United States in many areas. Napoleon’s Empire lasted less than a dozen years. At its peak, in 1812, it stretched from the Portuguese border with Spain to the Russian steppes, from Italy in the South to the Baltic. By 1815 his realms were reduced to the small British island of St. Helena in the South Atlantic. But his influence remained very much in place in Europe, and in emerging countries around the world.

The First French Empire led to the development of nationalist sentiment across Europe, which in turn led to the unification of both Italy and Germany in the 19th century. Within its borders the Emperor supported complete emancipation of the Jews of Europe, liberal public education for both men and women, and civil equality. All were ideas born in the Declaration of the Rights of Man, a product of the French Revolution. At its height, Napoleon ruled as Emperor over 44 million subjects, no longer burdened with supporting aristocratic privileges with the sweat of their brow. His conquerors did what they could to restore the old order, but the die had been cast.

15 of the World’s Largest and Most Intense Empires
A statue of Augustus, the first Roman Emperor, from the Vatican Museums. Wikimedia

9. The Roman Empire impacted successors through law, architecture, and science

Much of the Napoleonic Code was based on elements of codified law from the Roman Empire. Napoleon adopted many other aspects of the Ancient Romans during his reign. His troops marched beneath standards bearing eagles, as had the Roman Legions. During his Italian campaigns, his armies often traveled on roads built 1,800 years earlier by Roman engineers. In many places across Europe, Roman aqueducts still carried water, baths still offered refreshment, numerous fortifications and guard towers still stood. After unifying Italy under French hegemony, Napoleon named Rome as its capital.

Rome continued to dominate much of Europe despite its fading from the scene over a millennium before the French Empire. Due to Rome’s adoption of Christianity as the official religion of the Empire, church hierarchy held considerable power in France, Spain, and the Italian States. The very language of the French, Italians, and Spanish had evolved from the Latin spoken by the Romans over the centuries of their empirical rule. The Roman Empire reached its peak in approximately 117 CE (in terms of land area). Yet its influence on the rest of Europe continued throughout the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, and the Age of Reason.

Across the Atlantic, it influenced the new United States of America. Its Founding Fathers studied much of Roman democracy and republicanism while debating the documents establishing their republic. They also studied the architecture, adopting many Roman forms and designs for their new capital city. The dome of the Capitol, pillars and columns, window adornment, colonnades and porticos, and other Roman features appeared in the government and educational buildings in the United States. Thomas Jefferson, who designed the State Capitol in Richmond, Virginia, modeled it on a Roman temple built during the reign of Augustus, the first of the Roman Emperors.

15 of the World’s Largest and Most Intense Empires
Showa Emperor Hirohito circa mid-1930s, a period of rampant Japanese nationalism and militarism. Wikimedia

10. The Empire of Japan had a meteoric existence

When American Commodore Matthew Perry first demanded Japan open its ports to Western trade, he encountered a nation still engulfed in feudal practices. A little over a decade later Japan entered a period known as the Meiji Restoration. Beginning in 1868, Japan entered a time of industrial development and growth unmatched by any other nation in history. By 1900, the Japanese had a world-class modern navy, a powerful army, and a strong and flexible industrial base. Nationalism and militarism ensued. The Empire of Japan took its place on the world’s stage, defeating the Tsarist Russians in the Russo-Japanese War, and fighting on the side of the Allies in World War I.

In the 1920s and 1930s Japan’s military strength continued to expand, watched with growing concern by the United States Navy, its principal rival in the Pacific. The Empire expanded as well. When the Second Sino-Japanese War began, the United States used diplomatic and trade pressures to try to convince Japan to cease its aggression. Finally, in December, 1941, Japan attacked the United States Fleet at Pearl Harbor, and then ran riot across the Pacific. They seized the Dutch East Indies, the Philippines, Singapore, Hong Kong, Wake Island, Guam, and more. By mid-1942 the Empire of Japan achieved its peak in size, military power, and wealth.

Three years of hard fighting reduced them to occupying islands and fortresses they could no longer defend or resupply. Their fleet and air forces were all but destroyed. Their home islands were bombarded by ships and aircraft. After the surrender in 1945, American troops occupied the home islands, enforcing martial law, while a new constitution creating a democratic government came into being. The new constitution restricted the Japanese military to defense forces. Today, the Japanese Naval Defense Force is the fourth largest Navy in the world, based on tonnage afloat. The Empire of Japan officially dissolved in 1947, though its Showa Emperor, Hirohito, remained as a figurehead only.

15 of the World’s Largest and Most Intense Empires
How the Inca people built Machu Picchu and their empire without the wheel, pulley, or even iron tools remains a mystery. Wikimedia

11. The Inca built a vast empire without knowledge of the wheel or iron

The largest of the native empires in the Americas before the arrival of the Europeans, the Inca were in many ways baffling. They built massive architecture, including the famed Machu Picchu, though they lacked iron for cutting and shaping stones. They built an intricate system of roads, though they did not use draft animals, nor possess the wheel to facilitate movement and travel. Records were kept through a system of stringed knots, in lieu of a written alphabet. They were tolerant of religious beliefs of the various tribes absorbed into their empire, through conquest or alliance. The empire, which centered in the Peruvian Andes at its beginning, lasted an estimated two and a half centuries.

Exchanges of goods and labor substituted for hard currency, even in the paying of tribute and taxes. The size of the empire and the varying tribes subdued led to a polyglot of languages spoken throughout the Incan lands. At its height, at the time of the arrival of the Conquistadores, the Incan Empire ran down nearly the entire west coast of South America. Its capital, Cusco, contained numerous buildings constructed of huge stones. How they were quarried, transported, and erected remain mysteries to archaeologists and historical scholars. The Spanish arrived in Inca territory in 1526, Conquistadores led by Francisco Pizzaro.

They found the Inca armed with weapons of wood, stone, and bronze. Another weapon wielded by the Inca was the lasso. The Spanish delivered an ultimatum; conversion to Christianity or war, the Inca chose the latter. Their last stronghold in the formerly vast empire fell to Spain in 1572. The destruction of the Inca Empire, greatly facilitated by the spread of smallpox and other diseases to which they had no immunity, kept many of their secrets from history. Among them were their highly productive farming methods, their construction techniques, and the engineering techniques building their road systems.

15 of the World’s Largest and Most Intense Empires
The flag of the Dutch East Indies Company, which built a trade empire across the globe. Wikimedia

12. Trade rather than conquest built the Dutch Colonial Empire

Although there were some exceptions (America’s New Amsterdam comes to mind) the global Dutch Colonial Empire was built to facilitate trade with other nations, rather than to establish permanent settlement colonies. Dutch colonies usually consisted of a fort and trading post, a small garrison, and the business facilities of the traders. Shipbuilding and rigging facilities, and wharves and warehouses, added to the brisk appearance of Dutch ports. Beginning in the 16th century, the colonies were established and administered by the Dutch East Indies and Dutch West Indies Companies, which competed against similar organizations in Britain and France. Colonies were, in essence, company towns.

The commerce minded Dutch were more interested in trade than in establishing hegemony over the indigenous people of other lands. This model continued through and after the Napoleonic Wars, though by then controlled by the Dutch Government rather than the commercial companies. During the late 18th century, the British seized many of the overseas Dutch posts, especially when the Dutch provided support for the rebellious colonists during the American Revolution. Still, throughout the 19th and 20th century, Dutch posts in the Southwest Pacific and in the Caribbean traded in pepper, tea, molasses, sugarcane, silks, spices, and other goods.

By the time of the Second World War, the Netherlands East Indies in the Pacific produced some of the finest oil in the world, as well as latex, making them prime targets for the Japanese. Japanese occupation during the war led to an Indonesian independence movement in its aftermath. The Dutch attempted to retain control of the economically valuable colony. A guerilla war erupted, and Dutch officials bowed to international pressure and recognized Indonesian Independence in 1949. Six islands in the Caribbean, including Aruba and Sint Maarten, are today considered part of the Netherlands, though no longer in a colonial status.

15 of the World’s Largest and Most Intense Empires
The ill-fated Emperor Maximilian I of Mexico. Wikimedia

13. The First and Second Mexican Empires

After leading the revolution against Spain in 1821 and gaining Mexico’s independence, Agustin de Iturbide rallied popular support for a constitutional monarchy as the new form of government. In May, 1822, he used demonstrations to elevate himself to the title of Emperor of Mexico. The lands he ruled included modern-day Mexico, and most of the Southwest United States from Texas to California, as far north as today’s southern border of Oregon. Iturbide summoned the Mexican Congress, had himself elected as Emperor, dissolved the Congress and ruled by Imperial decree. The next year, having lost the support of the army and the people, largely due to a corrupt bureaucracy and a bankrupt treasury, he reconvened Congress and offered his abdication. Congress accepted, and Mexico became a republic.

In 1863, French Emperor Napoleon III intervened in Mexico, allied with Mexican conservatives, to create the Second Mexican Empire. In terms of land area, the Second Empire was much smaller than its predecessor, with the United States having control of the former Mexican territories north of the Rio Grande, and all of California above the Baja Peninsula. Napoleon installed Austrian Archduke Ferdinand Maximilian of the House of Habsburg as Emperor of Mexico. Maximilian had the support of the Mexican Conservatives and upper classes, but not of the people. French troops occupied Mexico to protect French interests. The United States, embroiled in the Civil War, could do little to oppose the French violation of the longstanding Monroe Doctrine.

In the end, Mexican nationalists defeated the French troops, and the end of the Civil War brought American support of Mexican revolutionaries. Napoleon withdrew his troops beginning in 1866, offering Maximilian safe passage. Maximilian chose to remain and fight for his throne, by then seen as illegitimate even by many conservatives. He sent his wife, Empress Charlotte, to Europe to persuade Napoleon to continue his support. Political pressure from the United States, and an American naval blockade of Mexican ports, forced the French emperor to demur. Maximilian, betrayed by a cabal of his own generals, was captured, tried for treason, and executed by firing squad in June, 1867. With its emperor died the Second Mexican Empire.

15 of the World’s Largest and Most Intense Empires
Francis II & I, the last Holy Roman Emperor and first Emperor of Austria. Wikimedia

14. The Catholic Church created the Holy Roman Empire as an extension of the defunct Roman Empire

On Christmas Day, 800 CE, Pope Leo III bestowed upon Charlemagne, King of the Franks, the title of Emperor, its first appearance in Western Europe since the dissolution of the Western Roman Empire. The newly created Holy Roman Empire extended, by divine right of kings, to the legitimate emperors of Rome, according to its adherents. The individual bearing the title of Holy Roman Emperor became the “king of kings” among Europe’s monarchs, with supreme authority over disputes among the Catholic rulers, answerable directly to the Pope. At least, in theory. The title remained with Charlemagne’s heirs until the late ninth century, when a series of religious wars led to it being held by Italian royal houses.

The intent of the throne was a unification of the Germanic and Italian kingdoms, duchies, principalities, electorates, and other dynastic states into a system more reflective of those of Western Europe. By the time of the Reformation, the throne of the Holy Roman Emperor was filled by the concurrence of a majority of the various rulers of the numerous states. Political compromises and resistance of the states over which the Emperor held authority limited his power. So did the waning influence of the papacy on Europe’s political affairs. By the mid-16th century the Holy Roman Emperor no longer received his crown from the hand of the pope.

In 1756, French writer and philosopher Francois Marie Arouet, known by his nom de plume Voltaire, wrote, “The Holy Roman Empire was neither Holy, nor Roman, nor an Empire”. By then, the throne was in the hands of the Austrian Habsburgs. At the end of the 18th century the King of Austria styled himself as Emperor Francis II by virtue of his holding the title of Holy Roman Emperor. As King of Austria he reigned as Francis I. Francis II dissolved the Holy Roman Empire after his military defeat at the hands of Napoleon, though he retained his imperial title by creating the Austrian Empire in 1806. The Holy Roman Empire lasted over 1,000 years, with each of its rulers being male, and Roman Catholic.

15 of the World’s Largest and Most Intense Empires
The advanced Mughal Empire created vast wealth on the Indian Subcontinent long before the arrival of the Europeans. Wikimedia

15. The Mughal Empire created living standards in India which exceeded those of Europe

Created via military conquest for the most part, the Mughal Empire on the Indian Subcontinent ruled over numerous cultures and religions with relative tolerance. It lasted over three centuries, though in the final century of its existence the British Raj curtailed it significantly. The Empire gained massive wealth through taxes, primarily on agriculture. It coined a stable and regulated currency, using bullion imported in exchange for agricultural products, raw materials, manufactures, and textiles. By the early 18th century, the standards of living in Mughal exceeded that of Great Britain, which exceeded that of the rest of Europe. Nor were most laborers looked down upon, as usually occurred in Britain and elsewhere.

Militarily the Mughal made advances in the use of gunpowder based weapons, including rockets. Shipbuilding became a major industry, Indian shipyards built vessels for their European trading partners. Cotton became an important cash crop, and finished cotton piece goods evolved into one of India’s largest exports under the Mughal. European demand for Mughal products created a trade imbalance, forcing the Europeans, particularly the Dutch, British, and Spanish, to make up the difference in gold bullion. Gradually, European occupation of and control of Mughal lands led to the decline of the empire, as the companies controlled production and prices based on their needs and profit lines.

The heyday of the Mughal Empire came to an end before the establishment of the British Raj, from internal pressures, warfare, and gradually declining administration. Though vestiges of it remained in British India, by the end of the 18th century the East India Company controlled most of what remained. Standards of living for the natives dropped as the British Empire absorbed the Mughal Empire, though India’s great wealth remained, transferred into British pockets. Today, the advances of India under the Mughal emperors can be seen throughout India in art and architecture. Among its many achievements is the Taj Mahal in Agra, numerous temples and mosques, and the veritable symbol of Indian music, the sitar.

 

Where do we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

“Who were the Mongols?” Erin Blakemore, National Geographic. June 21, 2019

“The Spanish Empire”. Article, The Latin Library. Online

“The Sad, Dark End of the British Empire”. Richard Halloran, Politico Magazine. August 26, 2014

“The Ottoman Empire (1301-1922)”. Article, BBC Religions. September 4, 2009. Online

“The Russian Empire and the World 1700-1917: The geopolitics of expansion and containment”. John P. LeDonne. 1997

“French Colonies”. Article, Global Security. Online

“Qing Dynasty”. Article, Travel China Guide. Online

“Napoleon Bonaparte and the Legacy of the French Revolution”. Martyn Lyons. 1994

“A Companion to the Roman Empire”. David S. Potter, ed. 2009

“The Making of Modern Japan”. Marius B. Jansen. 2002

“The Inca Empire: Children of the Sun”. Article, Ancient Civilizations. Online

“The Dutch East India Company: Expansion and Decline”. Femme S. Gaastra. 2003

“Maximilian, Mexico, and the Invention of Empire”. Kristine Ibsen. 2010

“The Holy Roman Empire”. Friedrich Heer. 1967

“The Passing of Empire: The Mughal Case”. M. Athar Ali, Journal of Modern Asian Studies. 1975

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