Achaemenid Empire – Circa 500 BC
As the 18th largest empire in all of history, the Achaemenid Empire (also called the first Persian Empire) is already impressive. At their height around 550 BC, they occupied 2.12 million square miles of land space including the vast majority of the Middle East and parts of Russia. What’s even more impressive is that under Cyrus the Great, they had a complex societal infrastructure including roads and a postal service that later empires would emulate.
Macedonian Empire – Circa 323 BC
Alexander the Great led the Macedonian Empire to overthrow the Achaeminid Empire (you’re welcome, Sparta) and built the definitive Hellenistic state, ushering in Ancient Greek civilization, the philosophical contributions of Aristotle, and likely many, many orgies. At its height, the Macedonian Empire occupied nearly 3.5% of the entire world area, making it the 21st largest empire in history (and second largest at the time behind the Persians they overthrew).
Maurya Empire – Circa 250 BC
After Alexander’s death, all of India and much of the surrounding area was taken by the Maurya Empire, resulting in the first (and largest) Indian Empire. At its height, under a benevolent and diplomatic ruler known as Ashoka the Great, the Maurya Empire occupied some 1.93 million square miles of land, making it the 23rd largest empire in history.
The Xiongnu Empire – Circa 209 BC
During the 4th and 3rd centuries BC, what would eventually become China was made up of several small warring states. As a result, the nomadic armies of Xiongnu had an easy time raiding the northern territories. At its height, the Xiongnu Empire took up over 6% of the entire world as the 10th largest empire in history. They were so overpowering, it took years of negotiations, marriage arrangements, and concessions from the Han Dynasties to keep them from taking over.
Western Han Dynasty – Circa 50 BC
Speaking of the Han Dynasties, the Western Han Dynasty hit its peak about a century later. Though never to the level of the Xiongnu Empire, they did manage to occupy 2.32 million square miles of land with over 57 million people to be recorded as the 17th largest empire in history. To achieve this, they successfully drove the Xiongnu north while aggressively expanding south into what is now Vietnam and the Korean peninsula. The Western Han Dynasty included the major diplomatic efforts of Zhang Qian, who made contacts as far away as the Roman Empire and established the famous Silk Road trade network.
Eastern Han Dynasty – Circa 100 AD
For nearly 200 years, the Eastern Han Dynasty survived through various rulers, rebellions, instability, and economic crisis. Despite these factors, at its largest, the Eastern Han Dynasty was the 12th largest empire in history. It was much larger than it’s BC counterpart, taking up roughly 190 thousand more square miles of land for a total of 4.36% of the entire world.
The Roman Empire – Circa 117 AD
Just due to the immense amount of exposure the Roman Empire receives, any average person off the street may incorrectly believe it was the largest in history. It’s true that at its height in 117 AD, it was the most extensive political and social structure in western civilization, but even then, the Romans occupied only a total of 1.93 million miles of land, making them the 24th largest empire in history. In this case, it’s a matter of quality over quantity as the influence of the Roman Empire pioneered or impacted nearly every aspect of western civilization.
Göktürk Khaganate – Circa 557 AD
The Göktürk Khaganate was comprised of what is now north central China. The rulers of the Khaganate originated from the Ashina clan, another nomadic tribe of obscure origins from the Northern corner of Inner Asia. Like the Xiongnu some 600 years earlier, they amassed massive numbers and expanded to rule huge territories in Central Asia including the lucrative Silk Road trade. By 557 AD, they would become the 15th largest empire in history by controlling 4.03% of the entire world (far more than the Roman Empire ever did at 3.36%).
Rashidun Caliphate – Circa 655 AD
The Rashidun Caliphate was the first Islamic caliphate in the earliest period of Islam. It was founded directly after the prophet Muhammad’s death in 632 AD in order to lead the Muslim community. After subduing and uniting the various Arab tribes, the caliphate embarked on a conquest that would result in the domination of Egypt, Syria, and the entire Persian Empire. At its strongest in 655 AD, the Rashidun Caliphate was the 14th largest empire ever, encompassing 2.47 million square miles of the Middle East.
Umayyad Caliphate – Circa 720 AD
The second of the four major caliphates following the death of Muhammad, the Umayyad Caliphate rose in the aftermath of the first Muslim Civil War in 661 AD. In addition to dominating the entirety of the Middle East, the Umayyad Caliphate continued to expand into northern Africa and parts of southern Europe. Boasting a complex societal structure made up of 29% of the total world population (62 million people) and 7.45% of the world’s total land mass, the Umayyad Caliphate grew to become the 8th largest empire in current history, and the largest empire the world had ever seen by 720 AD.
Abbasid Caliphate – Circa 750 AD
Thirty years after the height of the Umayyad Caliphate, the Abbasid Caliphate rose to power due to rebellion and open revolt against the Umayyad by the descendants of the youngest uncle of Muhammad. Their claim was that their bloodline was closer to the Prophet Muhammad; therefore, they were his true successors. After successfully taking power in 750 AD, they ushered in a “golden age” that lasted nearly four hundred years and included a strong alliance with China. Though they didn’t grow their empire any more than the Umayyed Caliphate, they maintained the empire for an extended period and successfully controlled 4.29 million square miles, making them the 7th largest empire in history until they were invaded by Genghis Khan in 1206 AD.
Tibetan Empire – Circa 800 AD
The Tibetan Empire inhabited over 3% of the entire world by 800 AD. Meanwhile to the west, the comparatively gigantic and thriving Arab Empire was at their height. On the other side, the Tang Dynasty had become a stable, unified force and had diplomatic relations with the Arabs, putting the Tibetan Empire in one of the first uncomfortable empire sandwiches in history. Through diplomacy and impressive military might, the Tibetan Empire survived for over 200 years. Ironically, the growing influence of Buddhist teachings would eventually spark a civil war that fragmented the empire.
Tang Dynasty – Circa 820 AD
The Tang Dynasty ushered in what is considered to be a golden age of cosmopolitan culture in Chinese civilization. Two of China’s most famous poets, Li Bai and Du Fu belonged to this period, and the invention of woodblock printing assisted in bringing artist culture to the growing population in China and throughout Asia. Though smaller in terms of historical Chinese Dynasties, the Tang Dynasty lasted nearly three centuries (618 – 907 AD), inhabiting 3.6% of the total world area and ranking as the 20th largest empire in history.
The Mongol Empire – Circa 1270 AD
While many know of him, few understand how vast Genghis (Actually “Chingis”) Khan’s empire truly was. At its greatest, the Mongol Empire controlled a whopping 9.27 million square miles of land. To put things in perspective, that’s over four times the size of the Roman Empire at its absolute largest, or a little under three times the size of the modern united states, making the Mongol Empire the second largest empire in all of history.
The Golden Horde Khanate – Circa 1310 AD
Chingis Khan was no fool, and he knew without his leadership it was unlikely an empire the size of his would remain stable. As such, he arranged for the empire to be divided into quarters by region, each controlled by one of his sons, therefore ensuring his legacy. Due to the sheer size and power of the original empire, even its fragments made for impressively strong empires. A generation after the Mongol Empire reached its height, the Golden Horde Khanate became its own separate entity. Even on its own, by 1310 AD this represented the 16th largest empire in history and controlled a still-impressive 4.03% of the world (about a quarter of the Mongol Empire’s land).
Yuan Dynasty – Circa 1310 AD
From the northern Chinese territories already previously controlled by the Mongol Empire, Chingis Kahn’s grandson led his armies to conquer the remainder of China and unify it as the Yuan Dynasty. By 1310 AD, it had grown to be the largest fragment of the previous Mongol Empire, and the 9th largest empire in history with 4.25 million square miles of land under its control. Unfortunately, revolts in the mid-14th century led to a final overthrow of the Yuan in 1368, making it also the shortest-lived major dynasty in Chinese history.
Ming Dynasty – Circa 1450 AD
The Ming Dynasty was formed after the Yuan Dynasty fell. Though essentially unable to expand north due to a strong Mongol presence, the Ming Dynasty still occupied a respectable 4.36% of the world’s landmass and is the 13th largest empire in the history of the world. It is perhaps better known for building China’s first true navy, allowing it to launch naval expeditions and stimulate successful regional maritime trade.
The Ottoman Empire – Circa 1683 AD
Back when Istanbul was Constantinople, it was the capital of the Ottoman Empire (also called the Turkish Empire). Though relative to history, it was rather small (2.01 million square miles, making it the 22nd largest empire ever) but otherwise successful and long-lived. Beginning just before the year 1300 AD, The Ottoman Empire managed to carve itself a place between the eastern and western worlds for over six centuries. Not until it’s defeat in World War I by the allied powers was the empire dissolved, resulting in the current day Republic of Turkey by 1922 AD.
Qing Dynasty – Circa 1790 AD
As the final imperial dynasty of China, the Qing Dynasty got a lot of things right. This huge empire became the 4th largest empire in all of history and occupied nearly 10% of the entire world, including Korea and Taiwan, with a population of over 400 million people. It was nearly three centuries before local uprisings forced the last emperor ever to abdicate and the Republic of China was born in February of 1912.
The Spanish Empire – Circa 1810 AD
Not to be outdone by the last Chinese Dynasty, the Spanish Empire was formed in 1492 and became only the second global empire in world history. With 5.92 million square miles of the planet under their control, this empire was the 5th largest in all of history. As a result of their massive naval conquests, they controlled a huge percentage of both North and South America along with virtually all the Caribbean, parts of Africa, Europe, the South Pacific, and even various cities along the coastline of the Middle East
The Portuguese Empire – Circa 1820 AD
Also known as the Portuguese Overseas, the Portuguese Empire was the first global empire in history. However, it never achieved the massive dominance of the Spanish Empire. With 3.69% of the entire world under its control, this empire is the 19th largest in history. However, it is also the longest-lived of the modern European colonial empires, having spanned six centuries and just missing the new millennia (December 20th, 1999 officially marked the end of the Portuguese Empire).
Empire of Brazil – Circa 1889 AD
Originally a part of the Portuguese Empire, the Empire of Brazil declared its independence in 1822. After a few years of instability, in 1843 there was a period of calm that allowed The Empire of Brazil to stabilize before conflicts with Great Britain and Uruguay arose. After successfully handling both of those conflicts, the golden age of the Brazilian Empire began, and it rapidly became known internationally as a progressive and modern nation. By the 1880’s, the empire represented the majority of South America, and having occupied 3.29 million square miles of the earth, it took its place as the 11th largest empire in history.
Russian Empire – Circa 1895 AD
The Russian Empire was a massive state that existed from (officially) 1721 until it was overthrown through revolution in 1917. From its beginning, this empire was all about expansion, and it moved Russia from a primarily agricultural nation into a more modern age. At its height in 1895, the Russian Empire’s population had grown from 15.5 million people to an immense 170 million people inhabiting almost 9 million square miles of land. By adding Baltic, Polish, Finnish, and greater Asian territories to its control, the Russian Empire became the 3rd largest empire in history.
Second French Colonial Empire – Circa 1920 AD
Competing with Spain, Portugal, the United Provinces and (later) Britain, the second French Colonial Empire began in 1830 with the conquest of Algiers. They colonized a large percentage of Africa and took over colonies in the Middle East, Southeast Asia, New Caledonia, and a tiny section of South America. This brought the Empire to its height as the 6th largest empire of all time as 5% of the world’s total population inhabited 7.7% of the total world area.
British Empire – Circa 1920 AD
This may or may not shock you, but in the competition of taking over the world, no empire has been more dominant (or more recent) than The British Empire. At 13.71 million square miles, The British Empire was easily the largest empire in history (30% larger than the Mongol Empire). For over a century, Britain was the foremost superpower of the world and controlled 23% of the world’s population. As a result of their massive expansions throughout the world, their cultural and linguistic legacy can be found in almost any developed culture on earth.
Most consider the official transfer of Hong Kong to China in 1997 the official end of the British Empire. If you look at the world scene though, Britain is still controlling the largest percentage of the world… they’re just being nicer and more progressive about it. Perhaps that’s world domination after all… just done right.