State policy, practice, or advocacy of extending power and dominion, especially by direct territorial acquisition or by gaining political and economic control of other areas. Because imperialism always involves the use of power, often in the form of military force, it is widely considered morally objectionable, and the term accordingly has been used by states to denounce and discredit the foreign policies of their opponents. Imperialism in ancient times is clear in the unending succession of empires in China, western Asia, and the Mediterranean. Between the 15th century and the middle of the 18th, England, France, the Netherlands, Portugal, and Spain built empires in the Americas, India, and the East Indies. Russia, Italy, Germany, the United States, and Japan became imperial powers in the period from the middle of the 19th century to World War I. The imperial designs of Japan, fascist Italy, and Nazi Germany in the 1930s culminated in the outbreak of World War II. After the war the Soviet Union consolidated its military and political control of the states of eastern Europe (see Iron Curtain). From the early 20th century the U.S. was accused of imperialism for intervening in the affairs of developing countries in order to protect the interests of U.S.-owned international corporations (see United Fruit Co.). Economists and political theorists have debated whether imperialism benefits the states that practice it and whether such benefits or other reasons ever justify a state in pursuing imperialist polices. Some theorists, such as Niccolò Machiavelli, have argued that imperialism is the justified result of the natural struggle for survival among peoples. Others have asserted that it is necessary in order to ensure national security. A third justification for imperialism, offered only infrequently after World War II, is that it is a means of liberating peoples from tyrannical rule or bringing them the blessings of a superior way of life. Seealso colonialism; sphere of influence.
Learn more about imperialism with a free trial on Britannica.com.
Former empire centred in Anatolia. It was named for Osman I (1259–1326), a Turkish Muslim prince in Bithynia who conquered neighbouring regions once held by the Seljūq dynasty and founded his own ruling line circa 1300. Ottoman troops first invaded Europe in 1345, sweeping through the Balkans. Though defeated by Timur in 1402, by 1453 the Ottomans, under Mehmed II (the Conquerer), had destroyed the Byzantine Empire and captured its capital, Constantinople (now Istanbul), which henceforth served as the Ottoman capital. Under Selim I (r. 1512–20) and his son Süleyman I (the Magnificent; 1520–66), the Ottoman Empire reached its greatest peak. Süleyman took control of parts of Persia, most of Arabia, and large sections of Hungary and the Balkans. By the early 16th century the Ottomans had also defeated the Mamlūk dynasty in Syria and Egypt; and their navy under Barbarossa soon seized control of much of the Barbary Coast. Beginning with Selim, the Ottoman sultans also held the h1 of caliph, the spiritual head of Islam. Ottoman power began to decline in the late 16th century. Ottoman forces repeatedly besieged Vienna. After their final effort at taking the Austrian capital failed (1683), that and subsequent losses led them to relinquish Hungary in 1699. Corruption and decadence gradually undermined the government. In the late 17th and 18th centuries the Russo-Turkish Wars and wars with Austria and Poland further weakened the empire, which in the 19th century came to be called the “sick man of Europe.” Most of its remaining European territory was lost in the Balkan Wars (1912–13). It sided with Germany in World War I (1914–18); postwar treaties dissolved the empire, and in 1922 the sultanate was abolished by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, who proclaimed the Republic of Turkey the following year. Seealso Janissary; Turk; Young Turks.
Learn more about Ottoman Empire with a free trial on Britannica.com.
Independent principality (1204–61) of the fragmented Byzantine Empire. Founded in 1204 by Theodore I Lascaris, it was the political and cultural centre from which a restored Byzantium arose in the mid-13th century under Michael VIII Palaeologus. It extended from the Black Sea coast east of the Sangarius River southwest across western Anatolia to Miletus and the Menderes (Maeander) River. It became a centre of Greek education, especially under Theodore II Lascaris, who founded an imperial school. It declined after 1261, when Michael VIII regained the Byzantine capital of Constantinople.
Learn more about Nicaea with a free trial on Britannica.com.
Trading empire that flourished in West Africa in the 13th–16th centuries. It developed from the state of Kangaba on the upper Niger River and was probably founded before AD 1000. The Malinke inhabitants of Kangaba acted as middlemen in the gold trade in ancient Ghana. Growing in the 13th century under the leadership of Sundiata, it continued to expand in the 14th century and absorbed Gao and Timbuktu. Its boundaries extended to the Hausa people in the east and to Fulani and Tukulor peoples in the west. It eventually outgrew its political and military strength, and many of its subject areas revolted. By circa 1550 it had ceased to be an important political entity.
Learn more about Mali empire with a free trial on Britannica.com.
Realm of varying extent in medieval and modern western and central Europe. Traditionally believed to have been established by Charlemagne, who was crowned emperor by Pope Leo III in 800, the empire lasted until the renunciation of the imperial h1 by Francis II in 1806. The reign of the German Otto I (the Great; r. 962–973), who revived the imperial h1 after Carolingian decline, is also sometimes regarded as the beginning of the empire. The name Holy Roman Empire (not adopted until the reign of Frederick I Barbarossa) reflected Charlemagne's claim that his empire was the successor to the Roman Empire and that this temporal power was augmented by his status as God's principal vicar in the temporal realm (parallel to the pope's in the spiritual realm). The empire's core consisted of Germany, Austria, Bohemia, and Moravia. Switzerland, the Netherlands, and northern Italy sometimes formed part of it; France, Poland, Hungary, and Denmark were initially included, and Britain and Spain were nominal components. From the mid-11th century the emperors engaged in a great struggle with the papacy for dominance, and, particularly under the powerful Hohenstaufen dynasty (1138–1208, 1212–54), they fought with the popes over control of Italy. Rudolf I became the first Habsburg emperor in 1273, and from 1438 the Habsburg dynasty held the throne for centuries. Until 1356 the emperor was chosen by the German princes; thereafter he was formally elected by the electors. Outside their personal hereditary domains, emperors shared power with the imperial diet. During the Reformation the German princes largely defected to the Protestant camp, opposing the Catholic emperor. At the end of the Thirty Years' War, the Peace of Westphalia (1648) recognized the individual sovereignty of the empire's states; the empire thereafter became a loose federation of states and the h1 of emperor principally honorific. In the 18th century, issues of imperial succession resulted in the War of the Austrian Succession and the Seven Years' War. The greatly weakened empire was brought to an end by the victories of Napoleon. Seealso Guelphs and Ghibellines; Investiture Controversy; Concordat of Worms.
Learn more about Holy Roman Empire with a free trial on Britannica.com.
First of the great medieval trading empires of western Africa (7th–13th century). Located in what is now southeastern Mauritania and part of Mali, it acted as intermediary between Arab and Berber salt traders to the north and gold and ivory producers to the south. Gold was secured through barter from those living at the empire's southern limit and exchanged in the capital for commodities, especially salt. As the empire grew richer it extended its reach, incorporating gold-producing southern lands and cities to the north. The king exacted tribute from the princes of subject tribes. Ghana began to decline with the rise of the Muslim Almoravids; the Almoravid leader Abu Bakr seized the Ghanaian capital of Kumbi in 1076. The empire's subject peoples began to break away, and in 1240 the empire's remains were incorporated into the Sundiata empire of Mali.
Learn more about Ghana empire with a free trial on Britannica.com.
Style of furniture and interior decoration that flourished in France during the First Empire (1804–14). It corresponds to the Regency style in England. Responding to the desire of Napoleon for a style inspired by imperial Rome, the architects Charles Percier (1764–1838) and Pierre Fontaine (1762–1853) decorated his state rooms with Classical styles of furniture and ornamental motifs, supplemented by sphinxes and palm leaves to commemorate his Egyptian campaigns. The style influenced the arts (Jacques-Louis David in painting, Antonio Canova in sculpture, the Arc de Triomphe in architecture) and fashion and spread quickly throughout Europe.
Learn more about Empire style with a free trial on Britannica.com.
Steel-framed 102-story building designed by Shreve, Lamb & Harmon Associates and completed in New York City in 1931. At a height of 1,250 ft (381 m), it surpassed the Chrysler Building to become the highest structure in the world (until 1954). It is notable for its use of the setback.
Learn more about Empire State Building with a free trial on Britannica.com.
Empire, southeastern and southern Europe and western Asia. It began as the city of Byzantium, which had grown from an ancient Greek colony founded on the European side of the Bosporus. The city was taken in AD 330 by Constantine I, who refounded it as Constantinople. The area at this time was generally termed the Eastern Roman Empire. The fall of Rome in 476 ended the western half of the Roman Empire; the eastern half continued as the Byzantine Empire, with Constantinople as its capital. The eastern realm differed from the west in many respects: heir to the civilization of the Hellenistic era, it was more commercial and more urban. Its greatest emperor, Justinian (r. 527–565), reconquered some of western Europe, built the Hagia Sophia, and issued the basic codification of Roman law. After his death the empire weakened. Though its rulers continued to style themselves “Roman” long after Justinian's death, “Byzantine” more accurately describes the medieval empire. The long controversy over iconoclasm within the eastern church prepared it for the break with the Roman church (see Schism of 1054). During the controversy, Arabs and Seljuq Turks increased their power in the area. In the late 11th century, Alexius I Comnenus sought help from Venice and the pope; these allies turned the ensuing Crusades into plundering expeditions. In the Fourth Crusade the Venetians took over Constantinople and established a line of Latin emperors. Recaptured by Byzantine exiles in 1261, the empire was now little more than a large city-state. In the 14th century the Ottoman Turks began to encroach; their extended siege of Constantinople ended in 1453, when the last emperor died fighting on the city walls and the area came under Ottoman control.
Learn more about Byzantine Empire with a free trial on Britannica.com.
Worldwide system of dependencies—colonies, protectorates, and other territories—that over a span of three centuries came under the British government. Territorial acquisition began in the early 17th century with a group of settlements in North America and West Indian, South Asian, and African trading posts founded by private individuals and trading companies. In the 18th century the British took Gibraltar, established colonies along the Atlantic seacoast of North America and in the Caribbean Sea, and began to add territory in India. With its victory in the French and Indian War (1763), the empire secured Canada and the eastern Mississippi Valley and gained supremacy in India. From the late 18th century it began to build power in Malaya and acquired the Cape of Good Hope, Ceylon (see Sri Lanka), and Malta. The British settled Australia in 1788 and subsequently New Zealand. Aden was secured in 1839, and Hong Kong in 1841. Britain went on to control the Suez Canal (1875–1956). In the 19th-century European partition of Africa, Britain acquired Nigeria, Egypt, the territories that would become British East Africa, and part of what would become the Union (later Republic) of South Africa. After World War I, Britain secured mandates to German East Africa, part of the Cameroons, part of Togo, German South-West Africa, Mesopotamia, Palestine, and part of the German Pacific islands. Britain gradually evolved a system of self-government for some colonies after the U.S. gained independence, as set forth in Lord Durham's report of 1839. Dominion status was given to Canada (1867), Australia (1901), New Zealand (1907), the Union of South Africa (1910), and the Irish Free State (1921). Britain declared war on Germany in 1914 on behalf of the entire empire; after World War I the dominions signed the peace treaties themselves and joined the League of Nations as independent states. In 1931 the Statute of Westminster recognized them as independent countries “within the British Empire,” referring to the “British Commonwealth of Nations,” and from 1949, the Commonwealth of Nations. The British Empire, therefore, developed into the Commonwealth in the mid-20th century, as former British dependencies obtained sovereignty but retained ties to the United Kingdom.
Learn more about British Empire with a free trial on Britannica.com.
An empire (from the Latin "imperium", denoting military command within the ancient Roman government) is a state that extends dominion over populations distinct culturally and ethnically from the culture/ethnicity at the center of power. Scholars still debate about what exactly constitutes an empire, and other definitions may emphasize economic or political factors.
Like other states, an empire maintains its political structure at least partly by coercion. Land-based empires (such as the Mongol Empire or the Achaemenid Persia) tend to extend in a contiguous area; sea-borne empires, also known as thalassocracies (the Athenian, Portuguese and the British empires provide examples), may feature looser structures and more scattered territories.
Empire contrasts with the example of a federation, where a large or small multi-ethnic state or even an ethnically Homogeneity one relies on mutual agreement amongst its component political units which retain a high degree of autonomy. Additionally, one can compare physical empires with potentially more abstract or less formally structured hegemonies in which the sphere of influence of a single political unit (such as a city-state) dominates a culturally unified area politically or militarily. A second side of this same coin shows in potentially inherent tactics of divide and conquer by different factions ("the enemy of my enemy is my friend") and central intervention for the greater whole's benefit.
Compare also the concept of superpowers and hyperpowers. (Some commentators have seen the British Empire as a hyperpower, in its heyday as the largest empire in world history (covering about one quarter of the Earth's land surface) with established political, economical, financial, and scientific hegemony over the whole world.)
What constitutes an empire is subject to wide debate and varied definitions. An empire can be described as any state pursuing imperial policies, can be defined traditionally, or can be examined as a political structure. And in some cases the term "Empire" is also used when a ruler takes the title of "Emperor", even though the country involved has no other real reason to be considered an empire (for example, the short-lived "Central African Empire").
Unlike a well-defined nation-state, a multi-ethnic or colonial empire may have no natural shared language. Given that languages form an important part of administrative and cultural policy, the choice and use of language in empires can have considerable significance.
The Macedonians spread Greek as the unifying language of their empire and of its successor-states, but many of their subject populations continued to use Aramaic (as used by the preceding Persian Empire) as a lingua franca. The Romans imposed Latin thoroughly in Western Continental Europe, but less successfully in Britain and in the East. The Arab Empire succeeded in developing a cultural unity based on language and religion which continues to unify the Middle East. Spanish became well ensconced in Mexico, but less so in Paraguay and in the Philippines. The English language proved very successful in North America, but Russian did not supplant indigenous tongues in the Caucasus or in Central Asia.
While the greatest empire of the ancient Western world was governed from Rome, to the East a larger empire in scope and duration was established under the dynastic rule of China. Also known as the Celestial Empire, its dominance lasted for about two thousand years. The influence of imperial China was highlighted by its vast network of tributaries, which led to major offshoots of Chinese civilization such as Japan, Korea and Vietnam. In addition, it played a vital role in the stability of the Silk Road, the ancient world’s most extensive trade route linking the East and the West. The period of the East's greatest territorial expansion came under Genghis Khan, who built up the world's largest contiguous empire, the Mongol Empire, in the early 13th century. From its capital in modern day Beijing, Kublai Khan (Genghis Khan's grandson), ruled much of the Eurasian land mass.
Other famous empires include the Arabian and Persian empire. The Persians built several great empires at different periods, so the term Persian empire can seem ambiguous; both pre- and post-Islamic Persia had powerful empires. Some geographies appear to favour empire-building (Iran, Mesopotamia), while other areas seldom (Mongolia) or never (Iceland) achieve imperial overlordship.
The Macedonians established an extensive land empire under Alexander the Great. Upon his death, this empire split into four separately run kingdoms under the Diadochi. The kingdoms themselves were independent, their territory is overall referred to as the Hellenistic empire, as all kingdoms shared similar influence from the Greeks and Macedonians.
In 1204, after troops of the Fourth Crusade had sacked Constantinople, the crusaders established a Latin Empire based on the city, while the descendants of the Byzantine Empire in Asia Minor established two smaller empires: the Empire of Nicaea and the Empire of Trebizond. These "empires" remained relatively small and proved short-lived; and the Ottoman Empire eventually conquered most of the region by 1453. Only with Peter the Great's crowning in St. Petersburg as Emperor of Russia would Christian Eastern Imperialism resurface. Likewise, upon the fall of the Holy Roman Empire during the Napoleonic Wars, the Austrian Empire, later reshaped as Austria-Hungary, inherited an imperial role in central/western Europe.
The discovery of the New World provided an opportunity for many European states to embark upon programs of imperialism on a model equal to the Roman and Carthaginian colonization. Under this model (previously tried in the Old World in the Canary Islands and in Ireland), subject states became de jure subordinate to the imperial state, rather than de facto as in earlier empires. This led to a good deal of resentment in the client states, and therefore probably to the demise of this system by the early- to mid-twentieth century.
The 19th century saw the birth or strength of many European colonial empires, all of them dismembered by the 20th century.
One problem with the European imperial model came from arbitrary boundaries. In the interest of expediency, an imperial power tended to carve out a client state based solely on convenience of geography, while ignoring extreme cultural differences in the resulting area. An example of the attendant problems occurred in the Indian sub-continent. Formerly part of the British Empire, when the sub-continent gained its independence it split along cultural/religious lines, producing modern India and the two-part country of Pakistan, which later split yet again resulting in the independence of Bangladesh. In other areas, like Africa, those borders still shape present day countries, and the African Union made its explicit policy to preserve them in order to avoid war and political instability.
Napoleon I and Napoleon III (See: Second Mexican Empire) each made attempts to establish Western Imperial hegemony based in France. Another heir to the Holy Roman Empire arose in the period of 1871–1918 in the form of the German Empire. Over time, other monarchies which viewed themselves as greater in size and power than mere kingdoms used the name or its translation. In 1056, King Ferdinand I of León, proclaimed himself "Emperor of Hispania", beginning the Reconquista. Bulgaria furnishes an early medieval example. Europeans came to apply the term "empire" to large non-European monarchies, such as the Empire of China or the Mughal Empire, and to extend it to past polities. The word eventually came to apply loosely to any entity meeting the criteria, whether kings governed or not, even whether a monarchy or not. In some cases synonyms of empire such as tsardom, realm, reich or raj to occur.
Empires can accrete around different types of state. They have traditionally originated as powerful monarchies under the rule of a hereditary (or in some cases, self-appointed) emperor, but the Athenian Empire, Rome, and Britain developed under elective auspices. Brazil leapt from colonial to self-declared empire status in 1822. France has twice made the transition from republic to empire. Even under its various Republics, France remained an empire under the definition used here, controlling numerous overseas colonies. To this day France continues to govern both a direct Empire (controlling colonies such as French Guyana, Martinique, Réunion, French Polynesia, and New Caledonia) and an informal one throughout "Francophone" Africa, from Chad to Rwanda.
Historically empires could emerge as the result of a militarily strong state conquering other states and incorporating them into a larger political union. However, a sufficiently strong state could gain Imperial hegemony through a minimum use of military action. The inability of a potential victim to resist and their knowledge of this being enough to convince them to attempt to negotiate inclusion into the empire on the best terms available. For example in antiquity there is the bequest of Pergamon by Attalus III to the Roman Empire, and in the 19th century the Unification of Germany into an empire around a Prussian metropole. Military action in the case of Prussia was not so much to conquer the other German states but to divorce them from the alternative metropole of the Austrian Empire. Having convinced the other states of her military prowess and excluded the Austrians, Prussia could dictate the terms in which the nominally independent German states could join what was initially a revamped customs union. In this way the German states could retain most of the trappings of a sovereign state, and Prussia could avoid a protracted war of conquest and consolidation.
Typically, a monarchy or an oligarchy rooted in the original core territory would continue to dominate this union. Many ancient empires maintained control of their subject peoples by controlling the supply of a vital resource, usually water; historians refer to such régimes as "hydraulic empires". The introduction of a common religion is often cited as strengthening empires, as occurred (pace Edward Gibbon) with the adoption of Christianity under Constantine I.
An empire can mutate into some other form of polity. Thus the Bernese empire of conquest no longer appears as an empire at all; its territories have become absorbed into the canton of Bern or become cantons or parts of cantons elsewhere in the Swiss Confederation. The Holy Roman Empire, itself in a sense an attempt at re-constitution of the Roman Empire, underwent many transformations in its long history, fissuring extensively, experimenting with federalism, eventually, under the Habsburgs, re-constituting itself as the Austrian Empire - vastly different in nature and in territory. The former British Empire has spawned a loose multi-national Commonwealth of Nations, and the old French colonial empire has also left traces of its existence in cultural networks and associations. The Soviet Empire leaves behind it the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS).
An autocratic empire can readily become a republic by means of a coup (Brazil, 1889; Central African Empire, 1979); or it can become a republic with its dominions reduced to a core territory (Weimar Germany, 1918–1919; Ottoman Empire, 1918–1923). The breakup of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1918 provides an example of a multi-ethnic superstate fissuring into multiple constituent or new parts: the republics, kingdoms or provinces of Austria, Hungary, Transylvania, Croatia, Slovenia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Czechoslovakia, Ruthenia, Galicia, etc.
The former Soviet Union had many of the criteria of an empire, but nevertheless did not claim to be one, nor was it ruled by a traditional hereditary "emperor" (see Soviet Empire). Nevertheless, historians still occasionally classify it as an empire, if only because of its similarities to empires of the past and its sway over a large multi-ethnic bloc of Eurasia.
The use of the term American Empire has invited controversy within the United States. Stuart Creighton Miller argues that the American public’s sense of innocence prohibits the framing of American power in terms of an empire. To that end, former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld stated that "we [the United States] don't seek empires. We're not imperialistic. We never have been.
Historian Sidney Lens argues that the United States, from the time it gained its own independence, has used every available means to dominate other nations. Proponents of the empire view point to the over 700 American military bases worldwide as of 2005 and the use of bombing campaigns (against 22 countries since the Second World War) by the US Air Force to further American objectives. They also argue that the American Empire routinely relies on "governing surrogates", namely, governments which would collapse without American support. Another point of contention raised by the supporters of the “empire via surrogates” argument is that the US government publicly announces progress benchmarks for the governments of countries such as Iraq and the Government Accountability Office in Washington DC issues score cards which measure progress against the benchmarks - an activity that would normally not be tolerated by an independent country.
Most modern multi-ethnic states see themselves as voluntary federations (Belgium) or as unions (United Kingdom), and not as empires. Most have democratic structures, and operate under systems which share power through multiple levels of government that differentiate between areas of federal and provincial/state jurisdiction. Where separatist groups exist, internal and external observers may disagree on whether state action against them represents legitimate law-enforcement against a violent or non-violent fringe group, or state violence to control a broadly unwilling population. Notable states with ongoing violence by and against separatists are China, Russia, Spain, Indonesia and India.
After its origins as a Western European trade bloc, the Post-Cold War era European Union has since issued its own currency, formed its own military, and exercised its hegemony in Eastern European Nations and abroad. . As a consequence, political scientist, Jan Zielonka, has argued that the EU has transformed itself into an empire by coercing its neighbours into adopting economic, legal and political patterns in its own image.