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.