10 Most Long-lived Empires in History

By: Thorin Klosowski & Francisco Guzman  | 

The Colosseum, originally the Flavian Amphitheater, is a huge ovoid amphitheater located in the center of the city of Imperial Rome, the largest ever built in the Roman Empire. picture alliance/Getty Images

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 dominance over another political state [source: Davidson]. Basically, it's a country or group of people that controls the political decisions of another lesser power.

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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, rather than by controlling them.[source: Oxford Bibliographies].

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.

10: Portuguese Empire

empires
The tomb of Portuguese explorer Infante Henry, Duke of Viseu, kown as Henry the Navigator (1394-1460), in the Church of Santa Engracia, Lisbon, Portugal. PHAS/Getty Images

The Portuguese Empire may have been the first global empire in history. It began in 1415, when a Portuguese prince, Henry the Navigator, became fascinated by exploration down the coast of Africa. In 1420, the Portuguese discovered the uninhabited island of Madeira and sent colonists to settle it. This was the first of many lands the empire claimed in its 584 years [source: Oxford Reference].

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].

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The Portuguese Empire was able to expand because of its excellent weaponry, naval superiority and its ability to rapidly set up ports to trade spices, slaves, ivory and gold. It also had enough manpower to quickly conquer new peoples and gain land [source: Mudge]. But, like most empires throughout history, the conquered regions eventually sought to reclaim their land.

The Portuguese Empire crumbled due to several factors including clashes with the British Empire in Africa and Republican activists in Portugal, which changed the country to a republic.

9: Ottoman Empire

empires
The Mina Hamidiye Mosque, one of the works of the Ottoman Empire, stands in Tripoli, Lebanon. Halil Sagirkaya/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

At the height of its power, the Ottoman Empire expanded into the largest political entity in Europe and western Asia and encompassed a broad range of cultures, religions and languages. Despite those differences, the empire managed to prosper for 623 years, from 1300 to 1923 [source: Gormley].

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].

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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 Turkish War of Independence — 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 new Turkish state [source: Gormley].

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.

8: Khmer Empire

empires
Angkor Thom, established in the late twelfth century by King Jayavarman VI, located in present day Cambodia, was the last and most enduring capital city of the Khmer empire. ANUJAK JAIMOOK/Getty Images

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 complex, built by Suryavarman II, around 1122 C.E. The Khmer Empire began in approximately 802 C.E. and lasted to 1431. The empire's greatest king was Jayavarman VII, who built temples, monuments, highways and hospitals. Six hundred and 30 years later, in 1432, it dissolved [source: Plubins].

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 traveled to Angkor in 1296, and published a book on his experiences called "The Customs of Cambodia" [source: Historyradio]. 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.

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The Thai migration of the 12th-14th centuries C.E. was the decline of the empire. Eventually, the Thai created their own small kingdoms, and as these kingdoms grew in power, they started to attack imperial territories and took Angkor in 1431 C.E., which became the end of the Khmer empire. [source: Plubins].

7: Ethiopian Empire

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A street with posters on the walls of King Victor Emmanuel III of Italy and the Duce, Benito Mussolini, during the Italian colonization in Harar, Ethiopia, circa 1930. Keystone-France/Gamma-Rapho/Getty Images

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 C.E., when the Solomonic 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: New World Encyclopedia].

It wasn't until 1896, 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, Italian soldiers invaded Ethiopia in a war that raged for seven months before Italy was declared victorious. From 1936 until 1941, Italians ruled over the country [source: New World Encyclopedia].

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The Ethiopian kingdom didn't overstretch its bounds or exhaust its resources, as we have seen in previous examples. Civil wars contributed to its weakened state, but in the end it was Italy's desire for expansion that led to Ethiopia's fall.

6: Kanem Empire

empires
Kanem warriors of the 19th-century Kanem Empire, which was located in present-day Chad. adoc-photos/Corbis/Getty Images

We know precious little about the Kanem Empire and how its people lived. Over time, its primary religion became Islam, although the introduction of the religion may have brought internal strife in the empire's early years. The Kanem Empire was established sometime around 800 C.E. and lasted until the 1390s. It was located in what is now Chad, Libya and part of Niger [source: World History Encyclopedia].

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 [source: New World Encyclopedia].

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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 Njimi in 1396 and eventually take control of the entire Kanem Empire [source: New World Encyclopedia].

The lesson of the Kanem Empire is that unpopular decisions can create internal conflict, leaving a once powerful people defenseless. It's a story repeated throughout history.

5: Holy Roman Empire

empires
The Battle of Legnano, May 29, 1176, C.E. fought between the forces of the Holy Roman Empire, led by Emperor Frederick Barbarossa, and the Lombard League. Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group/Getty Images

The Holy Roman Empire was seen as a attempt to resurrect the Western Roman Empire. 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 800 to 1806 C.E. and consisted geographically of a large midsection of what is now central Europe, most notably the bulk of Germany [source: New World Encyclopedia].

The empire began when Charlemagne was crowned by Pope Leo III. At its peak, the Holy Roman Empire was made up of present-day Germany, Switzerland, Liechtenstein, Luxembourg, the Czech Republic, Austria, Slovenia, Belgium, the Netherlands and large parts of modern Poland, France and Italy. After the Thirty Years War in 1648, the kingdom was fragmented, planting the seed of independence [source: New World Encyclopedia].

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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 [source: New World Encyclopedia].

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.

4: Silla Empire

empires
This bronze standing Buddha dates from the Silla dynasty (676-935), 9th century, Korea.
Sepia Times/Universal Images Group/Getty Images

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 size of their house. While this system helped the empire initially gain land, it would eventually lead to its fall [source: World History Encyclopedia].

The Silla Empire began in 57 B.C.E. and covered what is now South-Eastern Korea. King Bak Hyeokgeose was the first to reign in the region. Silla continually expanded the empire, conquering a number of kingdoms on the Korean Peninsula. Eventually, a monarchy was formed. [source: New World Encyclopedia]. 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: World History Encyclopedia].

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A century of civil war among high-ranking families as well as the conquered kingdoms doomed the empire. Eventually, in 935 C.E. it abdicated power and became part of the new country of Goryeo, the same kingdom it was at war with in the seventh century [source: New World Encyclopedia].

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.

3: Republic of Venice

empires
The roof of the Basilica San Marco, which stands in Venice, Italy. The Republic of Venice is a classic example of an empire stretching its borders so far that it couldn't properly protect its capital. godong/Getty Images

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 over 1,000 years, from the late seventh century to 1797 C.E. It began when a collection of lagoon communities joined together for mutual defense against the Lombards, Huns and other steppe peoples as the power of the Byzantine Empire dwindled in northern Italy. 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 [source: New World Encyclopedia].

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. Venice was brought under Napoleon's rule in 1797 [source: New World Encyclopedia].

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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.

2: Kush Empire

empires
Statues of the Kush dynasty Black Pharaohs, Taharqa and Tanutamon, from the Merowe dam, Nile Valley, Sudan.
Yves GELLIE/Gamma-Rapho/Getty Images

The Kush Empire flourished from 1069 B.C.E. to around 350 C.E. in what is now known as the Republic of Sudan. 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 [source: World History Encyclopedia].

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].

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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 [source: World History Encyclopedia].

1: Roman/Eastern Roman Empire

empires
A large cross stands erect in the amphitheatre of the Colosseum in Rome, Italy. Kaveh Kazemi/Getty Images

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.E. to 1453 C.E. — a grand total of 1,480 years. The republic that preceded it was brought down by civil wars, which led to the appointment of Julius Caesar as dictator [source: World History Encyclopedia].

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 Western and Eastern Roman Empires [source: World History Encyclopedia].

The Western Roman Empire dissolved in 476 C.E., when Germanic forces revolted and removed Romulus Augustulus from the seat of emperor. The Eastern Roman Empire continued to prosper after 476 C.E., coming to be known more commonly by present day historians as the Byzantine Empire [source: World History Encyclopedia].

Social turmoil and plague further weakened the Byzantine Empire. Combined with growing unrest within the empire, the plague and social turmoil, the empire finally fell when the Ottoman Empire took Constantinople in 1453 C.E. [source: World History Encyclopedia].

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.

Originally Published: Mar 1, 2011

Long-Lived Empires FAQ

How long did the Ottoman Empire last?
The Ottoman Empire is one of the longest-lasting empires in history. It lasted for about 600 years, ending in 1922  when the title of Ottoman Sultan was eliminated.
What were the biggest empires in history?
The British empire, Mongol empire and Russian Empire are the largest empires in history.
How many years did the Roman Empire last?
The Roman Empire - one of the greatest civilizations in history - lasted for over 1000 years, during which it has immense power and influence around the globe.
What was the longest-lasting empire?
The Roman Empire is the longest-lasting empire in all of recorded history. It dates back to 27 BC and endured for over 1000 years. 
What destroyed the Roman Empire?
There are multiple causes for the fall of the Roman Empire, one of which was external military threats. It is also believed that the smallpox plague contributed to its downfall, spreading like wildfire, causing over 2000 fatalities every day, which is thought to have made it difficult for the Romans to defend their empire.

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  • 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." BBX World Service. (Feb. 14, 2011). http://www.bbc.co.uk/worldservice/specials/1624_story_of_africa/page90.shtml
  • Cartwright, Mark. "Kingdom of Kanem." World History Encyclopedia. April 23, 2019. (Sept. 1, 2021). https://www.worldhistory.org/Kingdom_of_Kanem/
  • Cartwright, Mark. "Silla." World History Encyclopedia. Oct. 3, 2016. (Sept. 1, 2021). https://www.worldhistory.org/Silla/
  • Davidson, Peter. "Empire." World History Encyclopedia. May 11, 2011. (Aug. 10, 2021). https://www.worldhistory.org/empire/
  • "Ethiopian Empire." New World Encyclopedia. (Sept. 1, 2021). https://www.newworldencyclopedia.org/entry/Ethiopian_Empire
  • Gormley, Larry. "The Ottoman Empire." The Ohio State University. (Aug. 31, 2021). https://ehistory.osu.edu/articles/ottoman-empire
  • "Holy Roman Empire." New World Encyclopedia. (Sept. 1, 2021). https://www.newworldencyclopedia.org/entry/Holy_Roman_Empire
  • "Kanem-Bornu Kingdom." New World Encyclopedia. (Sept. 1, 2021). https://www.newworldencyclopedia.org/entry/Kanem-Bornu_Kingdom
  • 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
  • Mark, J. Joshua. "The Kingdom of Kush." World History Encyclopedia. Feb. 26, 2018. (Sept. 1, 2021). https://www.worldhistory.org/Kush/
  • Mark, J. Joshua. "Roman Empire." World History Encyclopedia. March 22, 2018. (Sept. 1, 2021). https://www.worldhistory.org/Roman_Empire/
  • Mudge, Emily. "The Portuguese Empire: A Brief History of Portugal Part 1." Portugal. Nov. 18, 2019. (Aug. 31, 2021). https://portugal.com/portugal-blogs/the-portuguese-empire
  • Norrlof, Carla. "Hegemony." Oxford Bibliographies. Sept. 29, 2015. (Aug. 31, 2021). https://www.oxfordbibliographies.com/view/document/obo-9780199743292/obo-9780199743292-0122.xml
  • "Republic of Venice." New World Encyclopedia. (Sept. 1, 2021). https://www.newworldencyclopedia.org/entry/Republic_of_Venice
  • "Silla." New World Encyclopedia. (Sept. 1, 2021). https://www.newworldencyclopedia.org/entry/Silla
  • "Timeline: Portuguese empire." Oxford Reference. 2012. (Aug. 31, 2021). https://www.oxfordreference.com/view/10.1093/acref/9780191737657.timeline.0001

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