If you're seeing this message, it means we're having trouble loading external resources on our website.

If you're behind a web filter, please make sure that the domains *.kastatic.org and *.kasandbox.org are unblocked.

Main content

READ: What is an Empire

There are as many definitions of empire as there have been empires, but some pretty familiar elements appear in most of them. It starts with working on our “control issues”.
The article below uses “Three Close Reads”. If you want to learn more about this strategy, click here.

First read: preview and skimming for gist

Before you read the article, you should skim it first. The skim should be very quick and give you the gist (general idea) of what the article is about. You should be looking at the title, author, headings, pictures, and opening sentences of paragraphs for the gist.

Second read: key ideas and understanding content

Now that you’ve skimmed the article, you should preview the questions you will be answering. These questions will help you get a better understanding of the concepts and arguments that are presented in the article. Keep in mind that when you read the article, it is a good idea to write down any vocab you see in the article that is unfamiliar to you.
By the end of the second close read, you should be able to answer the following questions:
  1. How does this author define empire?
  2. Does the author think ancient Egypt was an empire? Why or why not?
  3. What reasons does the author give for early states forming empires? What advantages did those early states have?
  4. How does the author explain the power dynamic of the core’s control over the periphery?
  5. What challenges did early empires face?

Third read: evaluating and corroborating

Finally, here are some questions that will help you focus on why this article matters and how it connects to other content you’ve studied.
At the end of the third read, you should be able to respond to these questions:
  1. Write down a list of the major characteristics that the author thinks are common to empires. Are any or all of these characteristics present in the political communities of which you are a part? Do you live in an empire?
Now that you know what to look for, it’s time to read! Remember to return to these questions once you’ve finished reading.

What is an Empire?

Carvings in golden-colored gates show depictions of people traveling, hunting, and presenting gifts.
By Dennis RM Campbell
There are as many definitions of empire as there have been empires, but some pretty familiar elements appear in most of them. It starts with working on our “control issues”.

All shapes and sizes

We tend to think of empires as being really big. The British Empire controlled nearly 14 million square miles, about 24% of the entire world! But that example, from 1920 CE, is a little too recent to really get an idea of the world's 4,300 years of empire that the world has experienced. The Akkadian Empire of Mesopotamia (2330 – 2200 BCE) controlled only 30,000 square miles when it began, roughly the size of South Carolina, and it's doubtful that imperial control ever extended much further. As we will see, empires are more accurately measured by power and wealth than by square miles.

Developing a definition

At its most basic, an empire is a complex political organization where a dominant central state controls weaker peripheral (outer) states. There is no single recipe for making an empire, but the main ingredient is always control. In history's numerous examples of empires, we find that virtually any kind of state can exert power over other states to create an empire, but results will vary. The center's control over its peripheries can be either loose or strong, and can fluctuate even within an empire.
Map shows the area ruled by the Akkadian Empire.
Map of the Akkadian Empire. All regions north and west of Eshnunna were at best very weakly controlled by the Akkadian Emperors. By Zunkir, CC BY-SA 3.0.
The earliest known empire was the Akkadian Empire. For around 1,000 years, Mesopotamia was dominated by city-states—small political units, where a city controlled its surrounding area. In 2330 BCE, Sargon of Akkad took control of southern Mesopotamia. He ruled from the city of Akkad, the center of his small empire. The other city-states maintained their political identities, but now functioned as the periphery of Sargon's empire, whether they liked it or not.
Let's compare this with what happened in Egypt. Between 3100-3000 BCE, a ruler of Upper Egypt conquered Lower Egypt. This may have been one event or a series of events over the reigns of multiple rulers. Though Egypt was actually larger, it didn't become an empire like Akkad. It was really a kingdom. Upper and Lower Egypt became politically and culturally united, with citizens of both regions self-identifying as "Egyptians" rather than as citizens of a particular city or region.
Bronze sculpted head of an Akkadian emperor featuring a very detailed carved beard and hat. One eye is missing from the sculpture, probably a result of age decay.
Bronze head of an Akkadian emperor, possibly Sargon, discovered at the site of Nineveh (Iraq). The piece is currently on display at the National Museum of Iraq. By Iraqi Directorate General of Antiquities, Public Domain.
In general, empire creation is a result of a drive to accumulate power and control. In Mesopotamia, powerful city-state rulers gained more power by conquering their neighbors. From the 6th through 4th centuries BCE, various states in northern India (Mahajanapadas) fought for power. The region eventually fell to the Nanda Empire (345-322 BCE), which itself lost control to the Maurya Empire (322-185 BCE). We see a similar development in China: As the kingdoms of the Warring States Period (402-221 BCE) fought for dominance, the Qin conquered all of them, creating the first Chinese empire.
Map shows a comparison between the size of the area ruled by the Magadha empire and the center of the empire, Rajagriha, which is very small in comparison.
Map of the Magadha Empire (6th-4th centuries BCE). Note that the center (dark red) is quite small. By Avantiputra7, CC BY-SA 3.0.
Map shows the area ruled by the Maurya Empire.
Map of the Maurya Empire (c. 250 BCE). Compared to the earlier empire of Magadha and that of the Nandas, the Maurya Empire was extremely large. By Avantiputra7, CC BY-SA 3.0.

So why empire?

Empire requires a center to control peripheral states, but why would rulers want an empire in the first place? Running an empire is complicated. They create inequality with peripheral peoples who are not given the same rights and status as people in the center. In fact, most peripheral people are oppressed, and that often leads to rebellions that need to be put down. All of this is expensive, so expansion and control over the periphery needs to be worth the high cost.
There is no single reason empires existed. The many reasons are unique to each empire's center. In the case of Mesopotamia, empire was a practical solution to the issue of resources. The region lacked important materials like hard wood, stone, and metal ore. True, these things could be obtained through networks of trade with outside states. Then again, simply conquering regions with these resources would secure a cheaper and more reliable source for the empire.
Dark green shaded regions on a map indicate the extent of the Roman Empire. Most of the empire borders the Mediterranean Sea.
Map of the extent of the empire created during the Roman Republic period (created between 264 and 61 BCE). The empire continued to grow until it encompassed all of the lands around the Mediterranean Sea, Gaul (France), and contested areas in Germany and the Near East. By G.W., CC BY-SA 3.0.
For other empires, resources were a secondary benefit. The primary goals were often security and wealth. Rome first expanded out of Italy during the Punic Wars against Carthage (264-146 BCE). They quickly became an empire, controlling most of the Mediterranean basin. Their initial expansion was the result of a fear of powerful neighbors, which the Romans believed could become a threat at any time. So they would attack and defeat them before they could hurt Rome. As their empire expanded, resources such as grain, ore, enslaved people, and even fish sauce (yum!) flowed into Rome in great numbers, making the Romans, or at least some of them, immensely rich.

Center vs. periphery

The relationship between center and periphery is defined by inequality. The center, as the seat of power, identifies itself as superior over its periphery. This helps justify the center's control of the periphery. This inequality is often reinforced through the legal system. People living in the periphery are usually denied the rights and protections given to those of the center. In this way, the general community of an empire is divided by status into smaller communities.
When an empire exerts direct control over its periphery, it runs the risk of abuses against the peripheral people. This may be a “bug” of empires, but it may also be a “feature”, since it is so common. Since peripheral peoples are not typically seen as true citizens, they do not have much legal protection. There were countless complaints by peripheral peoples against Roman governors, who were legally allowed to rob, beat, and even kill them. The Han Empire committed similar abuses against its peripheral people.
One of the most graphic examples comes from the Athenian Empire of ancient Greece. The city-state of Mytilene belonged to its periphery. When Mytilene attempted to break away from Athenian control, the Athenians declared the following punishment: all males would be killed, and all women and children would be sold into slavery. At the last minute, the Athenians decided to spare the people of the city, having sufficiently terrorized them into submission.

Challenges to empire

The first empires didn't have role models, and that was a challenge. World history courses didn't exist yet, so early emperors couldn't research previous examples. The earliest empires of Mesopotamia only lasted about four generations each—less than 200 years. That's because each one had to figure out how to run an empire. Ruling and feeding millions, defending against enemies, enforcing social hierarchies was a lot to learn. It was like learning to fly a plane that was already in the air. There was considerable trial and error involved, and it only takes a few errors to make an empire plummet.
Then there is the periphery problem. We've mentioned the issue of inequality, with the strong center often oppressing the weak outsiders. But when the periphery is strong, it's difficult for the center to control it. Each time an Akkadian Emperor died, his successor faced uprisings in the periphery as city-states rebelled. Weaker peripheries are easier to control.
Map uses arrows to represent areas invaded by Germanic peoples, including Rome, Carthage, and the Hun Capital.
Map of the various Germanic invasions of the Roman Empire. The northern border of the Roman Empire was extremely long, making it difficult to prevent incursions from outside groups. By MapMaster, CC BY-SA 2.5.
Another group that could be a problem for empires were the nomadic and semi-nomadic people living beyond its borders. These groups developed a complicated relationship with their neighboring empires. They wanted, and often needed, the wealth from the empire. But because they were typically treated as "barbarians," they often had to attack the empire to get anything. If they wanted to become part of the empire, as they often did, they faced significant abuses due to their difference, or "otherness."
Overextension is another potential problem. As empires conquer more territory, controlling the periphery is harder. People living in territories further away from the center typically do not feel any close connection to the empire. Empires needed loyalty from their periphery, and often sent large armies to get it. Another problem is that as the empire expands, so do its borders. Longer borders cost more to defend against outsiders. Both the Han and Roman Empires struggled to protect their expansive borders against invaders.

Conclusion

Empires have formed across the world throughout history. The earliest were typically short-lived and not very successful, but over time, empires became better at exerting their control over other people. The primary benefit for developing an empire is better access to resources. However, empire comes with a high cost. When empires lose control and collapse—as all eventually do—it is usually because they can no longer pay that cost.
Author bio
Dennis RM Campbell is an associate professor of History at San Francisco State University. He primarily conducts research on esoteric topics in ancient history and writes about ancient language, religions, and societies.

Want to join the conversation?