Of all the empires that arose and thrived on the face of this earth, which were the five most powerful? And how is it even possible to select five empires from among the hundreds that have flourished over the past five thousand years? Truth be told, any formulation of the “five most powerful empires” will always be subjective, because all empires were glorious and influential in their own ways.
But there are some empires that were simply so powerful, large, and influential over the grand sweep of history that they deserve to be called the greatest, no matter the criteria. The reader may note that I left out empires from China and India. While I would be the first to acknowledge the importance and legacy of empires from these regions, the overall global legacy of empires from these regions tends to be regional.
The (First) Persian Empire
The Achaemenid Persian Empire was founded by Cyrus the Great around 550 B.C.E., who went by the title of King of Kings (Shahanshah). Although the Persian Empire came to an inglorious end at the hands of Alexander the Great in 330 B.C.E., it had a lasting legacy on the subsequent development of world civilizations and future empires. Indeed, the Persian Empire was a pivotal empire because it was the first true empire that set the standard of what it meant to be an empire for future ones.
The Persian Empire existed at a unique time in history, when most of the oikumene, or civilized, settled, populated world was concentrated in or near the Middle East. As a result, the Persian Empire, which dominated most of the Middle East, ruled over a greater percentage of the world’s population than any other empire in history. Indeed, in 480 B.C.E., the empire had a population of approximately 49.4 million people, which was 44 percent of the global population at that time. The Persian Empire was the first empire to connect multiple world regions, including the Middle East, North Africa, Central Asia, India, Europe, and the Mediterranean world. It jumpstarted the concept of empires in places like Greece and India.
Such a large empire could only have been put together by military might, and the Persian Empire’s military achievements were significant, though they are often forgotten by its sudden demise at the hands of Alexander’s armies. Various Persian campaigns succeeded at subjugating most of the world’s advanced civilizations at the time including the Babylonians, Lydians, Egyptians, and the northwestern Hindu region of Gandhara, in today’s Pakistan. It should not be forgotten that, notwithstanding exaggeration and misinterpretation, the Persians believed that they achieved their goals in Greece and that more Greeks lived in the empire than not. The Persian Empire ushered in a period of harmony and peace in the Middle East for two hundred years, a feat that has seldom been replicated.
The Persian Empire’s legacy to the world in terms of imperial ideas include the use of a network of roads, a postal system, a single language for administration (Imperial Aramaic), autonomy for various ethnicities, and a bureaucracy. The Persian religion, Zoroastrianism, influenced the development of key concepts like free will and heaven and hell in Abrahamic religions through Judaism.
The Roman Empire
This one should be obvious. The Roman Empire has long been the empire par excellence for the Western world. But its importance is not the product of Western bias: the Roman Empire was truly one of history’s greatest empires. The Romans displayed the awesome ability to conquer and hold large swathes of territory for hundreds or even thousands of years, if the Eastern Roman Empire (Byzantine Empire) is accounted for. But it was not held together by brute force alone; once conquered, people aspired to become Roman, which meant participating in a sophisticated, urbane, classical culture.
Several important features of the modern world are the result of the Roman Empire. The Romans took over and expanded upon the Hellenistic (Greek) culture, passing down Greek architecture, philosophy and science to future generations. Later, the Roman embrace of Christianity helped elevate that religion from a minor cult to one of the world’s great religions.
Roman Law also influenced all subsequent legal systems in the West. Roman institutions also helped inspire the governance systems of modern democracies. Despite Greece’s reputation as the “birthplace of democracy,” the American Founding Fathers were primarily influenced by British and Roman practices. In fact, many of them frequently spoke of their distaste for the Athenian experiment in democracy and their admiration for the Roman form of mixed government, where monarchical, aristocratic, and democratic elements shared power. The American political system— with its separate branches of government— approximate this Roman institutional division. Once the Roman Republic transitioned into the Roman Empire, the idea and majesty of Caesar served as an inspiration for future rulers.