A Brief History
On August 15, 1947, India became an independent country, thereby making George VI of the United Kingdom the last British emperor of India and signalling the end of one of history’s largest empires. No leader has ever conquered the entire world. Some have conquered whole countries, while others have taken over the greater half of continents. Europe has been one of the most densely populated continents for centuries. The first humans arrived in Europe approximately 1.75 million years ago. Prehistoric Europe consisted of the Minoan and Mycenaean civilizations that collapsed around 1,200 BC. The majority of early European history comes from what is now modern-day Greece and its neighboring countries. Most parts of Europe have, at one point, belonged to one of the major below-mentioned European empires whose ranking in this article is based on military presence, imperialism and population, as judged by the author.
10. The Celtic Empire
The Celts were an ethnolinguistic group of tribal societies in the Iron Age and Medieval Europe that spoke Celtic languages while having similar culture throughout western Europe. Though predominant in the British Isles (Great Britain and Ireland), their reach also extended over what is now modern-day Portugal, Spain, France, Holland, Belgium, Germany and Italy. The Celts first appeared in Central Europe around 1,200 B.C.; from there they moved westward. Their expansion was aided by their weaponry and brutal battle techniques. Classical writers such as Strabo and Dionysius described them as “wild beasts.”
In Book XIV of Roman Antiquities, Dionysius described their fighting as, “… being in large measure that of wild beasts and frenzied, was an erratic procedure, quite lacking in military science. Thus, at one moment they would raise their swords aloft and smite after the manner of wild boars, throwing the whole weight of their bodies into the blow like hewers of wood or men digging with mattocks, and again they would deliver crosswise blows aimed at no target, as if they intended to cut to pieces the entire bodies of their adversaries, protective armour and all.”
The Celts also had a strong art culture and later, despite their hedonistic appearance, adapted Christianity to replace their Paganism.
9. The Viking Empire
The Vikings were Norse seafarers who, from the late 8th to middle 11th centuries, would travel away from their homeland to trade, explore and sometimes raid areas of Europe, Asia and the North Atlantic islands. Although the Vikings did not conquer mainland Europe like the Celts, they did travel to the Middle East and Russia and even traded with China. There is strong evidence that they even reached North America and had settlements in the modern Canadian provinces of Newfoundland and Labrador. Along with their ability to expand, the Vikings were also known for their brutish warfare and violence as motivated by their Norse religion. One war tactic even consisted of deploying troops who had ingested hallucinogenic mushrooms or massive amounts of alcohol.
8. The Spanish Empire
The Spanish Empire began during the Age of Exploration in 1496 and would reach its peak as the foremost global power under the House of Habsburg. In the 16th century, Spain was exploring and colonizing half of North and South America, parts of Africa and even some islands in the Pacific Ocean. The Spaniards were an uncontested naval power until King Phillip II sent his Spanish Armada to invade England in 1588; its crushing defeat by the English paved the way for English expansion and colonialism.
7. The Portuguese Empire
Although it started as a small and relatively insignificant European country, Portugal would go on to have one of the largest and richest empires; its colonies including Brazil, coastal regions of Africa and trading posts in Asia. Known more as traders than warriors, the trade route from Portugal to India, founded by Vasco da Gama in 1498, introduced spices and other exotic new foods to Europe. In 1580, Philip II of Spain inherited the Portuguese crown, thereby beginning a 60-year union between Portugal and Spain.
6. The French Colonial Empire
For nearly 1,000 years, France has had a long-standing rivalry with England. Naturally this rivalry extended to their colonies as well, especially during the American Revolution. Though the French did establish colonies in the Caribbean, India and North America, after the sale of Louisiana, a territory that today is actually comprised of 15 modern-day U.S. states, to the U.S. in 1803 and the conquest of Algiers in 1830, they concentrated primarily on their colonies in northwestern Africa, Madagascar, French Guiana and select areas in southeastern Asia. By World War II, the French colonial empire, including France, had a population of 110 million.
5. The Roman/Byzantine Empire
The Byzantine Empire was the continuation of the eastern half of the Roman Empire after the fall of the Western Roman Empire in 473, and lasted from its inception in 330 until its own fall in 1453, though with a gap from 1204 to 1261 caused by Western European Crusaders occupying its capital, Constantinople. Its capital, Constantinople, or modern-day Istanbul, Turkey, was considered “The New Rome.” For most of its existence, this empire was the most powerful economic, cultural and military force in Europe. It eventually fell to the Ottoman Turks in 1453.
4. The Russian Empire
The Russian Empire, which existed from 1721 until it was overthrown by the Bolsheviks in 1917, stretched over three continents and was only surpassed in size by the British and Mongol empires. At its peak, it was comprised of present-day Russia, Mongolia, Alaska and other territories around the Eurasian Peninsula. The expansion of the Russian Empire also allowed for the spread of Eastern Orthodox Christianity. In this article it is ranked over the French Empire because it was the Russians who thwarted Napoleon’s plans to take over and control all of Europe. Replaced by the USSR, the former Russian Empire achieved a new sort of “empire” status as the Soviets gained hegemony over many European and Central Asian territories before being dismantled in 1991.
3. The Third Reich
This empire, although controversial and hated, was responsible for World War II and is still fresh in our minds. Known as Nazi Germany, or the Third Reich, and ruled by Adolf Hitler, it only lasted from 1933 to 1945. It was a fascist totalitarian state that controlled almost all aspects of life. Particularly keen on promoting racism, German Nationalism and especially anti-Semitism, Hitler and the Nazis believed Aryans to be the master race. Jews and others deemed not up to Hitler’s expectations and standards were persecuted and/or murdered. Nazi Germany occupied most of Europe, with much of the rest being under the control of their allied “puppet states.” The Nazis eventually lost the war, and their empire was lost along with it.
2. The Holy Roman Empire
The Holy Roman Empire lasted from the Middle Ages until its dissolution in 1806. It was multi-ethnic and comprised of the territories of Germany, Italy, Bohemia and Burgundy. The emperor was traditionally elected and then crowned by the Pope. Throughout its early history, Catholicism was the main religion in its territories, but with the Reformation, new Protestant churches, such as Lutheranism and Calvinism, were introduced. After its defeat by Napoleon at the Battle of Austerlitz on December 2, 1805, the empire was defeated and dissolved soon afterwards.
1. The British Empire
The British Empire was “the empire on which the sun never sets.” It had colonies in North America, the Caribbean, Africa, the Middle East, southern Asia, Australia, New Zealand and even Antarctica. At its height, it covered more than 33,700,000 km2 (13,012,000 sq. mi), almost a quarter of the Earth’s total land area. The British had rivalries with the French, the Irish, the Spanish and the Dutch, as well as dealing with insurrections in their colonies. After World War II, Britain began a policy of decolonization, and the end of the Empire as such came in 1997, when Hong Kong was returned to China. Some former colonies continue to be part of the British Commonwealth, now called “The Commonwealth of Nations,” which is made up of 53 nations under the umbrella of Queen Elizabeth II as “Head of the Commonwealth.”
This article has presented 10 great European empires that made a name for themselves via imperialism, warfare, religion and size. Maybe an even greater empire still awaits us. Question for students (and subscribers): Might the European Union be considered an empire? Do you believe empires still have a place in the twenty-first century? Please let us know in the comments section below this article.
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For more information, please read…
Ferguson, Niall. Empire: The Rise and Demise of the British World Order and the Lessons for Global Power. Basic Books, 2004.
The featured image in this article, a map by The Red Hat of Pat Ferrick of the territories that were at one time or another part of the British Empire, with the United Kingdom and its accompanying British Overseas Territories underlined in red, has been released into the public domain worldwide by the copyright holder of this work.