Through the course of history, we've seen empires rise and fall over decades, centuries and even millennia. If it's true that history repeats itself, then perhaps we can learn from the missteps and the achievements of the world's greatest and longest lasting empires.
Empire is a tricky word to define. While the term is thrown around a lot, it's often misused and misrepresents a nation's political place. The simplest definition describes a political unit that exerts control over another political body [source: Schroeder]. Basically, it's a country or group of people that controls the political decisions of another lesser power.
The term hegemony is often used interchangeably with empire, but there are some key differences, just as there are differences between a leader (albeit an opportunistic leader) and a bully. Hegemony works within an agreed-upon set of international rules, whereas an empire makes and enforces the rules. Hegemony refers to dominant influence by one group over another set of groups, but requires majority consent to stay in power [source: Schroeder].
What were the longest-lasting empires in history, and what can we learn from them? We'll take a look at these kingdoms of the past, how they formed and the factors that eventually led to their fall.
The Portuguese Empire is remembered for having one of the strongest naval fleets the world has ever seen. A lesser-known fact is that it didn't give up its last vestige of land until 1999. The kingdom reigned for 584 years. It was the first global empire in history, spanning four continents. It began in 1415, when the Portuguese took Ceuta, a North African Muslim city. The expansion continued as they moved into Africa, India, Asia and eventually the Americas [source: Abernathy].
After World War II, decolonization efforts began in a number of areas, with many European countries pulling out of their colonies around the world. It wasn't until 1999 that Portugal gave up Macau to China, signaling the end of the empire [source: Landler].
The Portuguese Empire was able to expand because of its excellent weaponry, naval superiority and its ability to rapidly set up ports to trade sugar, slaves and gold. It also had enough manpower to quickly conquer new peoples and gain land [source: Perry]. But, like most empires throughout history, the conquered regions eventually sought to reclaim their land.
The Portuguese Empire crumbled due to several factors including international pressure and economic tension.
Next, we'll take a look at an empire that lasted for centuries despite significant internal differences.
At the height of its power, the Ottoman Empire spanned three continents and encompassed a broad range of cultures, religions and languages. Despite those differences, the empire managed to prosper for 623 years, from 1299 to 1922 A.D. [source: Faroqhi].
The Ottoman Empire got its start as a small Turkish state after the weakened Byzantine Empire withdrew from the area. Osman I pushed the boundaries of his empire outward, leaning on strong judicial, educational and military systems, as well as a unique method of transferring power [source: BBC].
The empire continued to expand, eventually taking Constantinople in 1453 and pushing deeper into European and North African territories. Civil wars in the early 1900s -- followed immediately by World War I and the Arab Revolt -- signaled the beginning of the end. At the conclusion of World War I, the Treaty of Sévres divided up most of the Ottoman Empire. The final nail in the coffin came after the Turkish War of Independence resulted in the fall of Constantinople in 1922 [source: Faroqhi].
Inflation, competition and unemployment are often cited as key factors in the Ottoman Empire's demise [source: BBC]. Each section of the massive kingdom was culturally and economically diverse, and its residents eventually wanted to break free.
Next, we travel back to 802 A.D. to visit a region now known as Cambodia.
Little is known about the Khmer Empire, however, its capital city of Angkor was said to be awe-inspiring, thanks in part to the Angkor Wat, one of the world's largest religious monuments, built during the height of the Khmer's power. The Khmer Empire began in approximately 802 A.D. when Jayavarman II was declared king over the region now known as Cambodia. Six hundred and thirty years later, in 1432, it dissolved [source: Daniels].
The bulk of what we know about this empire comes from stone murals in the region, as well as firsthand accounts from Chinese diplomat, Zhou Daguan, who travelled to Angkor in 1296, and published a book on his experiences called "The Customs of Cambodia" [source: Diamond]. Most of its reign was marked by war as the Khmer attempted to grow ever larger and capture more territory. Angkor was the primary home of nobles in the latter half of the empire. Neighboring civilizations fought for control of Angkor when the Khmer's power began to wane.
Theories abound about why the Khmer Empire fell. Some believe that a king adopted Theravada Buddhism, leading to a loss of workers, degeneration of the water-management system and, ultimately, weak harvests [source: Leitsinger]. Others argue the Thai kingdom of Sukhothai conquered Angkor in the 1400s. Others believe the final straw came when the kingdom transferred power to the city of Oudong, leaving the city of Angkor all but abandoned.
In a broad sense, the Khmer Empire is another example of the danger of growing too large to sustain oneself. Click to the next page to see if this trend continues.
Considering the length of its rule, we know surprisingly little about the day-to-day activities of the Ethiopian Empire. Ethiopia and Liberia were the only African powers to resist the European "Scramble for Africa." The empire's long reign began around 1270 A.D., when the Solomonid Dynasty overthrew the Zagwe Dynasty, declaring they owned the rights to the land based on a supposed lineage to King Solomon, shifting power to the Habesha people. From there, the dynasty went on to become an empire by incorporating new civilizations within Ethiopia under its rule [source: Roberts].
It wasn't until 1895, when Italy declared war against it that the Ethiopian empire began to falter. Ethiopia held off its invaders, but Italy wasn't done. In 1935, Benito Mussolini ordered Italian soldiers to invade Ethiopia in a war that raged for seven months before Italy was declared victorious. From 1936 until 1941, Italians ruled over the country [source: Keller].
The Ethiopian kingdom didn't overstretch its bounds or exhaust its resources, as we have seen in previous examples. Rather, Ethiopia had resources that more powerful countries wanted -- particularly coffee [source: Roberts]. Civil wars contributed to its weakened state, but in the end it was Italy's desire for expansion that led to Ethiopia's fall.
We know precious little about the Kanem Empire and how its people lived -- most of our knowledge comes from a text discovered in 1851 called the Girgam [source: Clark]. Over time, its primary religion became Islam, however it's thought the introduction of the religion may have brought internal strife in the empire's early years. The Kanem Empire was established sometime around 700 and lasted until 1376. It was located in what is now Chad, Libya and part of Niger.
According to the text, the Zaghawa people first founded their capital in 700 as the city of N'jimi. The empire's history is split between two different dynasties, the Duguwa and the Sayfawa -- the latter being the driving force to bring Islam to the country. Its expansion continued, including a period in which the king declared a holy war or jihad against all surrounding tribes.
The military system devised to facilitate the jihad created a governmental system based on hereditary nobility, in which soldiers were rewarded with the land they conquered, which they passed down to their sons. That system resulted in civil war that weakened the territory and made it vulnerable to attack. Bulala invaders were able to quickly take N'jimi in 1376 and eventually take control of the entire Kanem Empire.
The lesson of the Kanem Empire is that unpopular decisions can create internal conflict, leaving a once powerful people defenseless [source: Goodwin]. It's a story repeated throughout history.
Holy Roman Empire
The Holy Roman Empire was seen as a revival of the Western Roman Empire and as a political counter to the Roman Catholic Church. The name, however, comes from the fact that while the emperor was chosen by electors, he was crowned by the pope in Rome. The empire lasted from 962 to 1806 A.D. and consisted geographically of a large midsection of what is now central Europe, most notably the bulk of Germany.
The empire began when Otto I was declared king of Germany, but he would later be known as the first emperor of the Holy Roman Empire. At one point, the empire was made up of roughly 300 territories [source: Daniels]. After the Thirty Years War in 1648, the kingdom was fragmented -- planting the seed of independence.
In 1792, France was in the midst of revolt. By 1806, Napoleon Bonaparte had forced the last Holy Roman Emperor, Francis II to abdicate, and the area was reorganized as the Confederation of the Rhine.
Similar to the Ottoman and Portuguese empires, the Holy Roman Empire was made up of various ethnic backgrounds populated with lesser kingdoms. Ultimately, the lesser kingdom's desire for independence caused the greater empire to tumble.
Details are sketchy concerning the beginning stages of the Silla Empire, but we know by the sixth century it was a highly complex, lineage-based society where pedigree decided everything from the types of clothes one would wear to the jobs they'd have. While this system helped the empire initially gain land, it would eventually lead to its fall.
The Silla Empire began in 57 B.C. and covered what is now North and South Korea. Kin Park Hyeokgeose was the first to reign in the region. Under his rule, Silla continually expanded the empire, conquering a number of kingdoms on the Korean Peninsula. Eventually, a monarchy was formed. The Chinese Tang Dynasty and the Silla Empire were at war in the seventh century over the northern kingdom of Goryeo, but the Silla were able to fend them off [source: Connor].
A century of civil war among high-ranking families as well as the conquered kingdoms doomed the empire. Eventually, in 935 A.D. it abdicated power and became part of the new country of Goryeo, the same kingdom it was at war with in the seventh century. Historians don't know the exact circumstances that led to the demise of the Silla Empire, but it's generally held that neighboring nations were unhappy with the kingdom's continuing expansion across the Korean Peninsula. Theories suggest a smaller, ruling class may have fought back to gain sovereignty.
Republic of Venice
The pride of the Venetian Empire was its massive naval fleet, which enabled its rapid expansion across Europe and the Mediterranean, eventually conquering historically important cities such as Cyprus and Crete. The Venetian's ruled for an amazing 1,100 years, from 697 A.D. to 1797 A.D. It began when the Western Roman Empire fell to Italy, but started in earnest when Venetians declared Paolo Lucio Anafesto their duke. The empire went through several significant changes, but consistently expanded across what is now known as the Republic of Venice, eventually warring with -- among others -- the Turks and the Ottoman Empire.
An abundance of wars left the Venetian Empire with little in the way of defenses. The city of Piedmont fell to France, and Napoleon Bonaparte seized parts of the empire. When Napoleon issued an ultimatum, and Doge Ludovico Manin surrendered in 1797, Venice was brought under Napoleon's rule [source: Willis].
The Republic of Venice is a classic example of an empire stretching its borders so far that it couldn't properly protect its capital. Unlike other empires, it wasn't civil war that led to its demise, but war with its neighbors. The highly regarded Venetian naval fleet, which had once been on the offensive, was stretched too thin to defend its own empire.
The Kush Empire ruled from 1070 B.C. to around 350 A.D. in what is now known as the Republic of Sudan [source: Welsby]. Over the course of its long history, not much is known about the exact details of its politics; however, there is evidence of monarchies during the later years. Still, the Kush exerted power over several smaller nations in the area and managed to maintain power in the region while expanding south to conquer lands with a resource they relied on, timber. Its economy was heavily dependent on trading iron and gold.
Some evidence suggests the empire came under attack from desert tribes, but other scholars speculate the territory's overdependence on the iron economy lead to deforestation, forcing its people to disperse when they ran out of timber needed to burn to forge the iron. [source: BBC].
Other empires failed because they exploited their own people or neighboring countries, but the deforestation theory suggests the Kingdom of Kush fell because it destroyed its own land. Its rise and its fall were connected to the same industry.
Roman/Eastern Roman Empire
The Roman Empire is not just one of the most famous in history; it's also the longest-lasting. It spanned several different eras, but essentially lasted from 27 B.C. to 1453 A.D. -- a grand total of 1,480 years [source: Daniels]. The republic that preceded it was brought down by civil wars, which led to the appointment of Julius Caesar as dictator. The empire expanded across modern day Italy and much of the Mediterranean region. It had much strength, but Emperor Diocletian introduced one key factor insuring long-lasting success in the third century. He determined that two co-emperors could handle authority and alleviate the stress of massive expansion, laying the foundation for the eventual Eastern and Western Roman Empires [source: Williams].
The Western Roman Empire dissolved in 476 A.D., when Germanic forces revolted and removed Romulus Augustus from the seat of emperor. The Eastern Roman Empire continued to prosper after 476 A.D., coming to be known more commonly by present day historians as the Byzantine Empire.
Class conflicts led to the Byzantine civil war of 1341-1347 A.D., which not only decreased the empires numbers, but also allowed the short-lived Serbian Empire to make territorial gains on Byzantine-ruled lands. Social turmoil and plague further weakened the kingdom. Combined with growing unrest within the empire, the plague and social turmoil, the empire finally fell when the Ottoman Empire took Constantinople in 1453 A.D. [source: Daniels].
Despite Diocletian's co-emperor strategy that undoubtedly extended the life span of the Roman Empire, it met the same fate as other ruling powers whose massive expansion and varying ethnicities eventually demanded sovereignty.
These empires were the longest-lasting in history, yet each of them had weak points. Whether it was the exploitation of land or people, no empire has been able to restrain social unrest caused by class, unemployment or lack of resources.
Sociologist Arthur B. Shostak thinks stories of hope hold a critical place amid the teachings of the Holocaust. HowStuffWorks talked to Shostak to learn more.
- Abernathy, David. "The Dynamics of Global Dominance: European Overseas Empires, 1415-1980." Yale University Press. 2000.
- BBC. "Ottoman Empire (1301-1922)." BBC. Sept. 4, 2009. (Feb. 14, 2011)http://www.bbc.co.uk/religion/religions/islam/history/ottomanempire_1.shtml#section_7
- BBC. "The Story of Africa."http://www.bbc.co.uk/worldservice/specials/1624_story_of_africa/page90.shtml BBX World Service. (Feb. 14, 2011)
- Clark, John, J.D. Fage, Richard Gray, Ronald Oliver, John E. Flinn. The Cambridge history of Africa, Volume 4." Cambridge University Press. 1982.
- Connor, Mary. "The Koreas." ABC-CLIO. 2009.
- Daniels, Patricia, Stephen Hyslop, Douglas Brinkley. "National Geographic Almanac of World History Volume 10." National Geographic. 2006.
- Davids, Arthur. "Grammar of the Turkish Language." Parbury and Allen. 1832.
- Diamond, Jared. "Collapse." Penguin. 2005.
- Faroqhi, Suraiya. "The Ottoman Empire: A short history." Markus Wiener Publishers. 2009.
- Goodwin, Stefan. "Africa's Legacies of Urbanization: Unfolding Saga of a Continent." Lexinton Books. 2001.
- Jacobs, Andrew. "Distinct Mix Holds On in a Corner of China." New York Times. Feb 7. 2011. (Feb. 10, 2011).http://www.nytimes.com/2011/02/08/world/asia/08macao.html
- Keller, Edmond. "Revolutionary Ethiopia: From Empire to People's Republic." Indiana University Press. 1991.
- Landler, Mark. "Macao Journal; Packing Up, Portugal Polishes Image." New York Times. Oct. 30, 1999. (Feb 10, 2011)http://www.nytimes.com/1999/10/30/world/macao-journal-packing-up-portugal-polishes-image.html
- Leitsinger, Miranda. "Scientists dig and fly over Angkor in search of answers to golden city's fall." Associated Press. June 13, 2004. (Feb. 10, 2011)
- Perry, Marvin, Myrna Chase, Margaret C. Jacob, James Jacob. "Western Civilization: Ideas, Politics, and Society." Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 2009.
- Roberts, Andrew, Roland Oliver. "The Cambridge history of Africa Volume 8." Cambridge University Press. 1998.
- Schroeder, Paul. "Is the U.S. an Empire?" History News Network. Feb. 3, 2003. (Feb. 8, 2011)http://hnn.us/articles/1237.html
- Time Magazine. "Mozambique: Dismantling the Portuguese Empire." Time Magazine. July 7, 1975. (Feb. 10, 2011).http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,913229-1,00.html
- Time Magazine. "War: Ethiopia's Lusitania." Time Magazine. Jan. 13, 1936. (Feb. 10, 2011)
- Welsby, Derek. "The kingdom of Kush: The Napatan and Meroitic empires." Markus Weiner Publishers. 1996.
- Williams, Stephen. "Diocletian and the Roman Recovery." Psychology Press. 1997.
- Willis, Garry. "Venice: Lion City: The Religion of Empire." Simon and Schuster. 2002.