Evidence of the existence of empires dates back to the dawn of written history in Egypt and in Mesopotamia, where local rulers extended their realms by conquering other states and holding them, when possible, in a state of subjection or semisubjection. An early, highly organized empire was that of Assyria, which was succeeded by the even more integrated Persian Empire. Ancient imperialism reached its climax under the long-enduring Roman Empire, the eastern part of which lasted until late into the Middle Ages as the Byzantine Empire. In Western Europe no true empire arose to replace Rome; the Holy Roman Empire, despite the aspirations of its rulers, was little more than a confederation of princely states. However, imperialism remained an important historical force elsewhere. In the Middle East and North Africa the Arabs and later the Turks built large empires. Farther east, besides the huge, if unstable, empires of the nomadic Mongols and others arising out of Central Asia, there were long-lasting and complex imperial organizations exemplified by various Chinese dynasties.
Imperialism was reborn in the West with the emergence of the modern nation-state and the age of exploration and discovery. It is to this modern type of empire building that the term imperialism is quite often restricted. Colonies were established not only in more or less sparsely inhabited places where there were few or no highly integrated native states (e.g., North America and Africa) but also in lands where ancient civilizations and states existed (e.g., India, Malaya, Indonesia, and the Inca lands of South America). The emigration of European settlers to people the Western Hemisphere and Africa, known as colonization, was marked by the same attitude of assumed superiority on the part of the newcomers toward the native populations that prevailed where the Europeans merely took over control without large-scale settlements.
From the 15th to the 17th cent. the Portuguese and the Dutch built "trading empires" in Africa and the East for the exploitation of the resources and commerce with lands already developed. The Spanish and Portuguese established important colonies in the New World in the 16th and 17th cents., hoping to exploit the mineral wealth of the lands they conquered. The British and French imperialists became the foremost exemplars of colonial settlement in Africa and the East. Acting on mercantilist principles (see mercantilism), the European nations in the 18th cent. attempted to regulate the trade of their colonies in the interests of the mother country. Later, the increase of manufactures in the Industrial Revolution introduced a new form of imperialism, as industrial nations scrambled both for markets and for raw materials.
The eastward spread of Russia after the 16th cent. and the westward spread of the United States may also be termed imperialistic, although the United States did not actually acquire colonial possessions until the Spanish-American War. In the late 19th cent. Italy, Germany, and Japan also developed imperial ambitions; these nations, like the older colonial powers, were moved by a variety of aims, including commercial penetration, military glory, and diplomatic advantage.
At its best, European imperialism brought economic expansion and new standards of official administration and public health to subject countries; at its worst, it meant brutal exploitation and dehumanization. In every instance, however, the pressure of an alien culture, with its different values and religious beliefs, and the imposition of new forms of social organization meant the breakdown of traditional forms of life and the disruption of native civilization.
At the end of the 19th cent. there was a strong reaction against the most inhumane forms of imperialist exploitation. Efforts were made to improve the standards of colonial administration; and a new justification of the rule of non-Europeans by the European powers was found in the idea of "the white man's burden," which advanced the notion that the developed nations of Europe had a duty to rule Asians and Africans in order to lead them to a higher level of civilization and culture. Among the leading critics of imperialism at that time were the Marxists, who saw imperialism as the ultimate stage of capitalism and made much of the connection between imperialist rivalries and war.
After World War I, anti-imperialist feeling grew rapidly throughout the world, sparked by the development of movements for national liberation within subject countries. Nevertheless the major colonialist powers, Great Britain, France, and others, held on to their colonies, while Fascist governments in Italy and Germany, as well as militarist opinion in Japan, fostered even more extreme imperialist aims.
In the years since World War II, most of the countries once subject to Western control have achieved independence. Much of the contemporary debate centers on the issue of neo-imperialism. Many of the less developed countries contend that their economic development is largely controlled and seriously retarded by the developed countries, both through unfair trading practices and by a lack of controls over international business corporations.
See R. Robinson and J. Gallagher, Africa and the Victorians (1961, repr. 1965); G. Lichtheim, Imperialism (1970); K. E. Boulding and T. Mukerjee, ed., Economic Imperialism (1972); L. S. Feuer, Imperialism and the Anti-Imperialistic Mind (1989); J. N. Pieterse, Empire and Emancipation (1989).
Imperialism has two meanings, one describing an action and the other describing an attitude. Most commonly it is understood in relation to Empire building, as the expansion of a nation's authority by territorial conquest establishing economic and political powers in other territories or nations, and when such encompasses non-contiguous "colonies" or "protectorates" then the term also subsumes Colonialism. In that sense, most European seafaring powers were at one time or another Colonialistic and therefore Imperialistic, regardless of their exploitation or benevolence toward their colonial possessions and people.
In its second meaning the term describes the imperialistic attitude of superiority, subordination and dominion over foreign people— a chauvinism and comportment relegating foreign people to a lesser social and or political status. To clarify the distinction, the French colonies in North America treated the native races with great diplomacy, whereas the British colonies early on began treating native Americans chauvinistically, as savages and lesser creatures.
Imperialism is often autocratic, e.g. in early 20th century Japan, and sometimes monolithic in character. While the term imperialism often refers to a contiguous political or geographical domain such as the Ottoman Empire the Russian Empire, or the British Empire, etc the term can equally be applied to domains of knowledge, beliefs, values and expertise, such as the empires of Christianity (see Christendom) or Islam (see Caliphate).
Currently, there is an effort to broaden the definition of "imperialism" so it applies to any instance of a greater power acting or being perceived to act at the expense of a lesser power. Including 'perception' in the definition makes it circular, solipsistic, and subjective. Under this broader definition, 'imperialism' not only describes colonial, territorial policies;but also describes economic dominance and influence.
European dominance of the east through economic exploitation and political rule, (as distinct from the word colonialism, which usually implied establishment of settler colonies often with slavery as the labor system), the word was coined in the mid-nineteenth century.