Ancient wall in Persepolis, bas-relief with Phoenician people and their gifts and donations for the Persian king

Ancient Empires: The Greatest Empires in Ancient & Medieval History

12 January 2024

Looking through the history books, you can see that there were many significant ancient empires, but which would be considered the greatest? To find the answer to this question, we’re taking into consideration various factors such as distance spanned, and the length of time they existed, and the number of people recorded to be a part of each empire.

Follow our journey from some of the greatest ancient empires all the way to more recent empires and how they have impacted the world today or use the jump links below.


In this article:

1. What makes a great Empire?

2. The greatest ancient empires

  • The Mayan Empire
  • The Assyrian Empire
  • The Aksumite Empire (Kingdom of Aksum)
  • The Roman Empire

3. The greatest medieval empires

  • The Mongol Empire
  • The Aztec Empire & The Inca Empire
  • The Kongo Empire

4. The greatest recent empires

5. The evolution of recent empires to modern day


What makes a great empire?

To define the greatest empire, you have to first list what achievements would be taken into account. For example, is the most significant empire one which had the largest number of people or the one which spanned the further distance? Or is it the one which lasted the longest?

To give a definitive answer is difficult, as one achievement may be deemed more impressive than another. Similarly, the region in which the empire was formed must also be considered, such as whether the empire resided in the Americas, Africa, Asia, Europe or globally. One achievement, such as accumulated wealth, for example, may be more difficult in one region than another.

To evaluate each empire properly, we also have to look at the era in which the empire took place. From ancient to most recent, we’ll be looking at the timeline of empires and the resulting aftermath.

Starting at the beginning, here’s what are considered some of the greatest empires...

The greatest ancient empires

A replica of an 8th century carving, depicting ruler U Pakal K'inich, at Temple XIX in Palenque Archaeological Park.A replica of an 8th century carving, depicting ruler U Pakal K'inich, at Temple XIX in Palenque Archaeological Park.
A replica of an 8th century carving, depicting ruler U Pakal K'inich, at Temple XIX in Palenque Archaeological Park.

Thanks to historic records dating as far back as 5,000 years ago, we’re able to put together a picture of what some the greatest ancient empires looked like both during and after this time. 

Many of these empires expressed their ability to harness the combination of: 

  • Trade 
  • Science
  • Technology
  • Warfare
  • Religion
  • Centralised rule
  • Securing loyalty

Of course, as these records are very old, some of the reported figures may not be one hundred percent accurate, so make sure that you keep the word ‘approximately’ in the back of your mind when reading each figure.

Here’s a brief overview of some ancient empires and their approximated key statistics...

The Mayan Empire

More than 2,000 years ago, the Mayans came to rule in the middle of the Americas. Home to millions at its peak, the Mayan empire that emerged out of the city states on the Yucatan Peninsula became one of the largest in the ancient history of the Americas. It was well known for its well-developed cities with road, agricultural, canal and irrigation systems. 

Formed: 2000 BCE

Ended: 16th century CE

Distance covered: 310,000 km²

Number of people: 2 Million / 10 Million

The Assyrian Empire

The Assyrians held one of the largest empires, more than 2,500 years ago, spanning across what is today parts of Iraq, Iran, Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, Israel, Egypt and Cyprus! The Assyrian Empire had a reputation for its rich culture, excellent medicine and powerful military.

Course: Discover the Assyrians

Formed: 911 BC

Ended: 609 BC

Distance covered: 1.4 million km²

Number of people: 120,000

The Aksumite Empire (Kingdom of Aksum)

On the African continent, we now also know of the Aksum in the Horn of Africa region. Aksum grew to be seen as a peer of the empires of Persia, Rome and China with trade connections in the Mediterranean, Red Sea and Indian Ocean. It is also recognised as having played a vital role in the history of Christianity in the region.

Course: The East African Kingdoms and Empires of Aksum, Dongola and Abyssinia

Formed: 150 BC

Ended: 940 C.E

Distance covered: 2.5 million km²

Number of people: 20,000

The Roman Empire

The Roman Empire has left a huge imprint, not only on significant parts of continental Europe, the Middle East (as the West calls this region today) and Northern Africa, but also the British Isles, including what is today central parts of London.

Formed: 27 BC

Ended: 476 AD

Distance covered: 5 million km²

Number of people: 45 million - 120 million

Aside from the Roman Empire, these empires emerged mostly outside Europe.

The Greatest Medieval Empires

Moving from the ‘ancient history world' into the medieval age, we see a new generation of empires emerge around the world. Compared to the predominantly smaller kingdoms in Western Europe that developed after the Roman Empire, most of the empires outside Europe spanned an even greater distance. 

Whilst relying on a lot of the same means as ancient empires, such as trade and science, they also grew much larger by developing larger state bureaucracies, standing armies and gunpower technologies. However, this typically came at the expense of ordinary people, who got caught up in the crossfire.

The Mongol Empire

The Mongol Empire was originally a Nomadic society which benefitted from great mobility through its use of horses and mobile warfare. Estimated to have cost millions of lives, the empire’s violent expansion made it one of the largest land-based empires to have existed, spanning across Asia nearly in its entirety.

By incorporating cities, trade networks, religious practices and setting up a postal system the Mongol Empire was able to consolidate its rule, providing a template for other empires across Eurasia to follow suit.  

Formed: 1206

Ended: 1368

Distance covered: 23 million km²

Number of people: 110 million people

The Aztec Empire & The Inca Empire

In the Americas, the Aztecs and the Incas also built their states on warfare, conquest and communication systems, allowing them to become the largest empires in the Americas. This was despite not having had access to any form of animal power before the Europeans introduced horses from the early 16th century.  

Aztec

Formed: 1428

Ended: 1521

Distance covered: 207,199 km²

Number of people: 6 million

Inca

Formed: 1438

Ended: 1533

Distance covered: 2,000,000 km²

Number of people: 12 million

The Kongo Empire

In the Congo Basin in western Central Africa, the Kikongo managed to connect inland and maritime trade networks as well as expand into neighbouring lands, setting up the Kongo Empire  from the 15th century. Long ignored alongside the vast empires of Western Africa in global and imperial history, the Kongo empire is now recognised as part of the Thirty-Year War in Europe, even using the Dutch against the Portuguese.

Course: The Congo Basin from 1400 to the present

Formed: 1390 CE

Ended: 1914

Distance covered: 129,400 km²

Number of people: 2 million

The greatest recent empires

Illustration of the Ottoman Empire at its greatest extent in 1683.Illustration of the Ottoman Empire at its greatest extent in 1683.
The Ottoman Empire at its greatest extent in 1683

With their origins in our less distant past, the Ottoman, Russian, Mughal, Ming and Qing empires not only ruled for centuries but also came to be the largest empires across Eurasia. 

They redefined what was possible for the European maritime empires’ attempts to expand beyond the Americas, the coastlines of Western and Southern Africa and South Asia.

The Ottoman Empire

Ruling parts of the Balkans, North Africa and the Middle East, the Ottoman Empire , adapted the power technologies of those it conquered. For a long time, the Europeans feared the Ottomans. It took centuries before the Ottomans’ strengths turned into weaknesses and the empire became known as the Eastern Question in Europe. This was due to the combination of the modern capitalist economy, several independence wars and the imperial wars with Russia. 

Formed: 1299

Ended: 1922

Distance covered: ~5.3 million km²

Number of people: 30 million people

The Qing Empire

Similarly, the Qing Empire was too large for any single European power to overpower. Although the opium wars with the British impacted Qing rule and society dramatically, it was the combined impact of civil wars and the combined pressure of the European imperial powers that challenged imperial rule in China. This led to not only the nationalist revolution, but also a significant migration that saw millions of Chinese become part of a global Chinese diaspora.

Formed: 1644

Ended: 1911

Distance covered: 14,711,132 km²

Number of people: 450 million

The Russian Empire

The Russian Empire emerged out of the post-Mongolian power vacuum, expanding in several stages. Wherever they looked to expand, the Russians met resistance, not only from the people they sought to subjugate in what is now Ukraine, Caucasus and Central Asia, but also other imperial powers such as the Qing Empire and the Mughal Empire. 

Formed: 1721

Ended: 1917

Distance covered: 22,800,000 km²

Number of people: 125.6 million

The evolution of recent empires to modern day

By the early 20th century, imperial expansion was defined by the imperial powers facing off in their borderlands, rather than minor states which could be incorporated into their growth. These inter-imperial wars led to a surge in lives lost, urban and rural destruction and post-war famine. 

The First World War was responsible for the end of several empires, leading to the remaking of the world map and imperial order. Imperial projects and the failure to secure a lasting peace after the First World War laid the foundations for Nazi Germany’s imperial project.

A major turning point: WW2

The Second World War was even more devastating than the First World War, claiming more lives and wreaking more havoc due to more nations at war, larger armies, more battlefields and enhanced war technologies based on oil. Although understood as one war, both the war and its outcomes were felt differently.  

The Second World War also ended empires, bringing about a wider process of decolonisation. Many people were looking to decide their own futures without colonial governments and economic exploitation, however independence at this time was violent especially in India , Pakistan and Algeria. 

The Aftermath of The World’s Greatest Empires 

The global economy we know today, is a direct result of how these empires operated. Within the formation of shipping industry and docks in both the imperial centres and the colonies, our shipping practices evolved, as did our global consumption patterns, hence our abundance of tea , sugar and cotton, for example.

The implications, legacies and direct impact these empires had on the communities within societies we see today has be radically different in different parts of the world, such as the Middle East and South Asia, for example . This in turn impacted migration patterns and diaspora experiences. 

The impact can even been seen on a granular level, such as how societal interests have developed, such as which sport has become the most prevalent.

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