The 5 Most Powerful Empires in History

These powerful empires all fell. Will America fall, too?

The Romans were a tenacious people. They were able to bounce back from numerous setbacks against improbable odds to pull together and defeat their enemies. Though the Carthaginian general Hannibal almost destroyed the Romans after the Battle of Cannae in 216 B.C.E., the Romans were able to land an army at Carthage to defeat it a mere fourteen years later. The Roman legions were militarily dominant for centuries, enabling Rome to rule over nearly all other civilized peoples in the Mediterranean and Near East except the Persians for hundreds of years and facing only minor raids by disorganized tribes. When the empire did collapse, it was due more to continued crisis and civil war rather than its invasion by Germanic tribes. And the Eastern Empire lasted until 1453 C.E., giving the political history of the Roman state a whopping two millennia span.

The Caliphate

The Arab Empire, also known as the Caliphate, was a political entity founded by the Muslim Prophet Muhammad that encompassed most of Arabia by the time of his death in 632 C.E. It is more reasonable to call this the Arab Empire rather than the Muslim Empire because while Islam originated and spread because of this empire, there were many subsequent empires that were legally Muslim or ruled by Muslims but were not Arab.

Muhammad was succeeded by the four Rightly-Guided Caliphs (“successors”) who were selected by consensus and acclimation (though not undisputed) until 661 C.E. The hereditary Umayyad Caliphate then ruled until 750 C.E., followed by the Abbasid Caliphate, though conquests had ended by this point. The Arab Empire effectively ended around 900 C.E., although the Abbasids maintained their religious role as figurehead Caliphs in Baghdad until the destruction of that city by the Mongols in 1258 C.E. After 900 C.E., the empire began to crumble politically with the rise of rival dynasties, many of them Turkic and Persian in origin, as well as rival Caliphates in Spain and Egypt.

Nonetheless, in its own time the Arab Empire was extraordinary, both because of its military successes, and because of its legacy. It is amazing that a loosely organized, tribal people on the fringes of world civilization defeated the Byzantine Empire and overthrew the Sassanid Persian Empire, both of whose populations and resource bases dwarfed the Arabian Desert. The Arab conquests are a good example of how ideological zeal can sometimes make up for technological and organizational deficiencies, and Arab generals from this period deserve to be ranked among the world’s greatest military geniuses, especially the third Caliph Omar, who conquered the region from Egypt to Persia in ten years. In a hundred years, the Arab Empire grew to be several times larger than the Roman Empire at its height.

Because of its location, the Arab Empire, like the Persian Empire before it, connected the other centers of world civilization in Africa, Europe, Central Asia, India and China. As a result, goods and knowledge from all these regions were able to mix for the first time, giving rise to new concepts like algebra.

The ultimate legacy of the Arab Empire, of course, is the religion of Islam, followed by more than a billion people today.

The Mongol Empire

The Mongol Empire was another empire that originated on the periphery, and against all odds, defeated enemies much more powerful and populous than it. It was the world’s largest contiguous land empire, one that struck terror into all its enemies. Founded by the Mongol warlord Temujin, who assumed the title of Genghis Khan in 1206 C.E., the Mongol Empire first grew by picking off parts of China, as many previous steppe tribes had done.

But the defining moment of the Mongol Empire was when its ambassadors were killed by leaders of the neighboring Khwarazmian Empire, which included Iran, Afghanistan, and Central Asia. This was perceived as a grievous affront to the Great Khan and the subsequent Mongol revenge completely wrecked Central Asia and ended its Golden Age. Combined with the subsequent establishment of European sea routes that bypassed the Silk Road, the Mongol Invasions spelled the doom of Central Asia as an important region.

Although there were only about two million Mongols in the whole world, they subsequently conquered most of the Middle East, Russia, and China under Genghis Khan’s descendants. During their heyday, they suffered few setbacks except for their failed invasion of Japan and the 1260 C.E. Battle of Ain Jalut against the Egyptian Mamluks. How were the Mongols able to accomplish these feats? Despite their small population, the Mongols were able to field large and mobile armies against their enemies because they carried their herds with them and could sustain themselves off of horse blood. In an era before refrigeration, it was logistically difficult for a Chinese rules to field a comparable army.

The Mongol conquests killed millions of people but afterwards established a brief era of peace and prosperity as trade spread across their large expanse. In the long run, however, the Mongols proved inefficient at administering their empire, which eventually split into four khanates before each one eventually fell apart or further split.

The British Empire

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