What is an Empire? - Definition & Types

Instructor: Nate Sullivan

Nate Sullivan holds a M.A. in History and a M.Ed. He is an adjunct history professor, middle school history teacher, and freelance writer.

In this lesson we'll learn about empires. We'll define the term, and examine examples from history to identify key characteristics. We'll also highlight some basic themes and developments surrounding important empires throughout history.

Empire Definition

Think back to your elementary school history classes. You probably learned about the ancient Egyptians, the Greeks, and Romans. To a large degree, history has been made up by the rise and fall of empires, especially if you examine history from a big picture approach. While empires are not as common today as they were in other time periods, the role of empires throughout human history is enormous.

In this lesson we'll be learning about empires. So what exactly is an empire? An empire is a state or group of states under the authority of a single ruler, or in some cases, a small group of people (oligarchy). Not always, but often times, the states or areas within the empire are diverse and are composed of people of different languages, races, cultures, etc. The male ruler of an empire is often called an emperor, while the female ruler of an empire is often called an empress. However, sometimes other titles are used. King and queen, of course, are some of the most common, but there are others. For example, the Russian emperor was called the tsar, and the German emperor was called the kaiser.

We tend to think of empires as large, and throughout history, many have been large; however, the size of an empire can vary. Typically, an empire begins with a central state that absorbs other states and territories. In many empires, wars of conquest are an essential component. Empires also expand through colonization, which involves claiming foreign lands for the empire and establishing settlements. One common example of colonization is the British colonization of eastern North American during the 17th and 18th century.

Let's dig deeper and look at some empires in history.

Well-Known Empires

There's no way we can discuss every single empire in history, but let's highlight some of the most well-known.

Roman Empire

The Roman Empire lasted between 27 B.C. and 476 A.D. and is regarded as one of the largest and most powerful empires in history. Imperial Rome ruled regions on three continents: Europe, Africa, and Asia. It ruled over an estimated 21% of the world's population. The Roman Empire was remarkably sophisticated for its time. Its architecture still stands today in the form of the Roman Coleseum and other well-known structures. Julius Caesar, Octavian, and Nero were well-known Roman Emperors. The Roman Empire was split into halves in 395 A.D., and while the Western Roman Empire fell in 476 A.D., the Eastern Roman Empire endured another 1,000 years until it fell to the Ottomans in 1453.

The Roman Empire was one of the most powerful empires in history. It was remarkably advanced for its time.
roman empire

Holy Roman Empire

This next empire tends to confuse many people. The Holy Roman Empire was a loose conglomeration of central European states lasting between 800-1806. Frankish King Charlemagne was the first Holy Roman Emperor. What are now the countries of France, Germany, Austria, and Poland were included in the Holy Roman Empire. The people groups within the Holy Roman Empire were incredibly diverse, and it is a wonder that this empire was able to survive so long given its fragmented nature.

British Empire

The British Empire was the largest empire in history, controlling one-quarter of the earth's surface. The British Empire as we know it, began to emerge in the late 15th century and is usually regarded as lasting until the late 20th century. At its peak, the British Empire controlled regions on all seven continents. Eastern North America (before the American Revolution), India, and Australia were prominent and important British colonies. In the New World, British colonial interests conflicted with the colonial interests of the French and Spanish, leading to frequent wars, such as the Seven Year's War (French and Indian War) and the War of Jenkin's Ear.

The pink areas on this map show regions that were once a part of the British Empire.

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