The 5 Greatest Superpowers of All Time

Does America make the cut?

While the world has known many great empires, the list of superpowers is shorter. It is much harder for a state to become and maintain superpower status because that requires an overwhelming dominance over all its rivals. As with lists, there is no way to include everything that deserves a mention, and I have admittedly left out strong contenders like the Ottoman Empire, the Persian Empire, the Spanish Empire, the Arab Empire, the Mauryan Empire and the Tang Dynasty. Here are five of the greatest superpowers in history:

Roman Empire

The Roman Empire—which reached the height of its power in the second century—was by far the dominant power in most of the ancient world. Though its power did not reach as far as India and China, the Roman Empire’s prowess was unquestioned in the Middle East and Europe. It covered almost all the major population centers and civilizations of antiquity, including Greece, Egypt, the Levant, Carthage, Anatolia and Italy. The population of the Roman Empire at its peak was about 60 million, dwarfing all its neighbors and comprising a large portion of the world’s population. The empire’s size meant that it did not need to trade much except to acquire luxury resources (silk, lapis, spices, incense and so on).

The empire was by far militarily dominant over its neighbors, with the partial exception of the only major organized state that bordered it—Persia, whose power was still nowhere equal to Rome’s. While Roman legions could and did ravage Persia’s heartlands, there was no chance that a Persian army could reach Rome. Rome’s legions were essentially undefeatable in pitched battles with its enemies. Rome ultimately fell not because of external threats, but due to continuous civil war, economic depredations and an over-reliance on mercenaries.

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Mongol Empire

The Mongol Empire was the world’s largest land empire. The empire’s rise is all the more amazing because a group of Mongol tribes numbering no more than a million managed to conquer empires that were literally hundreds of times bigger. This was achieved through outstanding tactics, mobility, incorporation of the technology of the conquered peoples and logistics (favorable to pastoral peoples like the Mongols).

The warlord Temujin united all the Mongol tribes by 1206 at the age of fifty, at which point he was acclaimed the universal ruler (Genghis Khan). After conquering northern China, he wrecked Central Asia when Mongol ambassadors were killed there, a personal affront to Genghis Khan. The subsequent conquest of Central Asia from 1219 to 1221 and Iran wrecked that region and is one of the most brutal events in history. Though contemporary chronicles exaggerated figures, probably 15-50 million people in this region died (most of the population of Central Asia). Genghis Khan’s heirs ruled an empire that went on to conquer most of Eurasia, including much of the Middle East, parts of Eastern Europe, China and Russia. The empire ushered in a brief period of peace and trade across much of the world. Ultimately, however, despite some setbacks in Japan and the Levant, the real threat to the Mongol Empire’s dominance was rivalry between its rulers, and the empire fragmented into four khanates, which in turn collapsed or were conquered. The legacy of the Mongol Empire lives on in the fact that 8 percent of the world’s men are descended from Genghis Khan.

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British Empire

The British Empire grew out of the colonial and trading ventures of Great Britain in the eighteenth century, and by the early twentieth century, it had become history’s largest empire, covering a quarter of the world’s surface—so large that the “sun never set” on it. At its height, over a fifth of the world’s population lived in it.

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Unlike previous great empires, the basis of Britain’s power was its navy, which it could use to strike far and wide. This allowed Britain to enforce freedom of navigation and oppose slavery and piracy, making the world a safer place. Instead of seeking to control vast inland territories for resources, the empire depended on trade and control over strategic chokepoints—Suez, Malacca, Aden, Hormuz, Gibraltar were all British. This made Britain very wealthy.

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