History of Empires
It is not an easy task to look back at the various nations that rose above the rest through power, cunning, or sheer brutality and decide which of these five deserve to be considered ‘The Best’. To decide this we need to look at the size the empire achieved and how long it lasted before imploding in on itself or succumbing to the barbarians at the gates. We need to look at the architectural footprints it left behind and the most exciting cultural and scientific contributions it left as a legacy. Finally I think we need to consider which of these empires has the greatest origins story so that we can recognize that at some point these Empires started as the ambition of a single very dynamic individual.
Before I reveal the top 5 I would like to mention two empires which deserve an honorable mention.
The first of these empires is the Spanish Empire which managed to accumulate 19.4 Million Square Kilometers of territory and survived for 573 years, which is the longest of all the empires I considered. They competed with some of the greatest empires including the Portuguese, the French and Even the mighty British Empire. In the end they succumbed to the difficulties of fighting the English, resisting the Protestant Reformation and of course the difficulty of maintaining its giant empire. It failed however to leave an easily identifiable mark on western culture save the propensity of the Spanish language.
The second of these empires is the Umayyad Caliphate which was the second and greatest of the Caliphates that succeeded Muhammad’s unification of the Arab world. It is, to this day, a model for Islamic and Christian relations. It minted the first Islamic coins and built one of the most recognizable landmarks in history; the Dome of the Rock. It was the fifth largest empire of all time and had lands from Western India to Southern Spain. However, its origin story was a bit of a bore and it failed to last a full century before giving way to the third caliphate.
The Qing Dynasty began in Northeastern China by Nurhac, the leader of the Jurchen Aisin Gioro clan. Nurhac and his clan had long been a vassal of the Ming Dynasty but had grown tired of playing second fiddle to the Ming family. Worried about the possibility of raids by the disorganized Mongol tribes to the west Nurhac convinced them to busy themselves with assisting him in a bloody campaign to overthrow the Mings and begin a new Dynasty. A successful Nurhac became the first Emperor of the Qing dynasty which successfully diminished tribal disunity, took control of Southeastern Asia and became the sixth largest Empire in history at nearly 15 million square kilometers of holdings. The Qing dynasty resisted several rebellions and outside forces for 268 years. It failed however to embrace the industrial revolution and modernization of its armed forces. Despite inventing gunpowder nearly 800 years earlier the Chinese Armies were not capable of resisting European forces and had their capital sacked, twice by forces less than half their size. The watershed moment was the first Sino-Japanese war when the Chinese were defeated decisively and lost the jewel of their military crown, the Beiyang Fleet. The Qing Dynasty never recovered and was eventually succeeded by the General of the new army, Yuan Shikai who would become President and future Emperor of the Republic of China.
The Roman Empire
The Roman Empire is emblazoned in most of our minds as the quintessential Empire. We aren’t alone in this either. Charlemagne’s Holy Roman Empire, Hitler’s Third Reich, and even Modern America have all beg, borrowed and stolen imagery and cultural cues from this great Empire. Although Rome itself is as old as the hills (all seven of them) we can’t truly call it an empire until Augustus declares himself the “First Citizen” in 27 B.C.E. making Rome an Autocracy. Rome, perhaps more than all the other empires has left the greatest historical imprint which is impressive considering it didn’t quite make it to 3 million square kilometers in size. A great deal of our architecture and building techniques are inspired if not exactly the same as the Romans had done it over 2000 years ago. They can be credited for everything from socially induced Bulimia to watching half naked men making each other bleed for the entertainment of thousands. Let’s not forget the small contributions either, such as the alphabet, professional armies and plumbing. It’s no wonder Rome has had the spotlight for so long, their so awesome we could throw a party. Toga! Toga! Toga!
The story of the Mongol Empire is one of those stories that make all us in the West a little nervous. It begins like a Mario Puzo novel and carries on like an Edward Rutherford study. When Young Genghis Kahn’s father is poisoned by the Tatars he goes to his tribe to become the new chief. They refuse him due to his young age and they cast him and his family out to fend for themselves. Genghis later kills his brother over a hunting dispute and is later captured and forced into slavery by an enemy tribe. becomes famous for his skill at evasion when he escapes capture and he begins to gather a following. He decides to settle down and takes a wife from a neighboring tribe to secure peace. She gets kidnapped and he has to raise a fighting force to get her back, which he does with great precision. The fighting force sticks around and Genghis knowing he has a special talent and willing me begins unifying the tribes by force. After he does this he sends forces North, East, South and West, taking over every land in sight. He never lives to see the full extent of his Empire but his successors eventually conquer the Chinese, the Tatars, the Persians, the Bulgarians, and the Russians. The total land controlled by the Mongols was a staggering 33 million square kilometers. They raid even into Europe creating a name for themselves and a memory that continues to inspire fearful awe in the ancestors of the Europeans 700 years later. Interestingly, the Mongols were very ahead of the times in Women’s rights; they discouraged foot binding, gave women the right to divorce and even gave women equal opportunity in military postings (which would not be realized in the US until earlier this year). The Mongols left behind a strong military legacy as well. The Mongols introduced the stirrup to the Europeans which allowed the Europeans to develop a true Calvary unit that was all but impossible before. The Europeans learned how to use it well and made Calvary the pride and joy of armies for over 500 years. The other idea the introduced into European military minds was the real and psychological impact of fast moving forces surrounding infantry and flanking supply lines. This would lead to more advanced military tactics and eventually birth the concept of Blitzkrieg that was utilized by yet another infamous empire.
King Henry VII
The English Empire
The sun never sets on the British Empire, after all, it is the largest and most dignified of the five world empires on our list. At nearly 34 million square kilometers the British have held prime beach front property on every continent (including Antarctica) and they have ruined the lives of more indigenous peoples in a busy year then most nations ruin in their entire history. If you don’t believe me just ask the Irish, Scottish, Chinese, East Indians, Pakistanis, South Africans, Egyptians, Palestinians, First Nations, ah… who am I kidding, chances are your ancestors were likely abused by The British Empire at some point. The British not only ruled the lands but they completely dominated all seven seas with their giant navy and, perhaps with a little less dignity the English are accustomed to, pirates. This guaranteed that the fifth of the world population that sang God Save the King could pay their taxes and be kept safe from the terrible expansions of the French, Spanish and Portuguese. The English, once thought of by Europeans as a backwater state have come a long way thanks to the development of the English language (Thank Shakespeare) which is now the most dominate language for trade, tourism and academics. We can also thank England for many great reforms of international trade and the abolition of slavery. Without the British Empire where would our appetite be for hot beverages form around the empire, such as tea, coffee, or cocoa? Now, I should mention that as a Canadian I feel a particular fondness towards the Queen and I am so very grateful that she allows our Parliament to meet at all and even more grateful that she tells them when they require another election. My American friends may not share this feeling and perhaps they may wish to throw a case of tea into the Charles River while blasting off a few hundred pounds of fireworks instead. Either way, the facts cannot be changed. We Canadians and Americans will read this article in English while enjoying a tea, or perhaps a coffee and we will look around our nations which were birthed from the same ambitions of the Greatest Empire on Earth, the British Empire.