The first recorded empire in history was established roughly 4,300 years ago by Sargon the Great ago in ancient Mesopotamia. Historians now call this the Akkadian Empire, after the capital city of Akkad. This empire must have seemed enormous at the time, considering it encompassed much of the known world. However with historical data on our side, it was by no means anywhere close to on of the largest empires by land area.
Since this very first empire there have been hundreds more throughout history. In fact empires lasted all the way until the mid 20th century, with the gradual dissolving of the British empire following the devastation of World War II.
There is a case to be made that the United States in its current form is an empire (an economic based one, instead of military/territorial one), though that isn’t quite as relevant for the purposes of this post.
When looking across history the five empires listed below were the largest ever recorded, with territory spanning millions of square miles.
5 Largest Empires in History by Land Area
The 5 largest empires in history by land area consist of the following:1
- British Empire: ~13.0 million square miles around 1920
- Mongol Empire: ~9.0 million square miles around 1280
- Russian Empire: ~8.7 million square miles around 1860
- Spanish Empire: ~5.4 million square miles around 1790
- Chinese Empire (Qing Dynasty): ~5.0 million square miles around 1800
For comparison, the earth’s surface consists of ~49 million square miles (excluding the uninhabitable Antarctic and Arctic islands). This means that the British empire covered nearly 27% of the world at one time – a stunning figure.
In fact, all of the five largest empires in history governed over at least 10% of the earth’s inhabitable surface and all of the empires were established through conquest and conolization.
A few interesting notes on each of the empires can be found below:
The British empire holds the title of largest empire ever by land mass. It’s influence was far reaching as the empire maintained possessions on virtually every continent. The empire reached it’s apex during the reign of Queen Victoria, this coming despite the loss of many of its original North American settlements during the American Revolution.
At one point the British administered to a population of over 400 million people around the world. The phrase, “The sun never sets on the British empire” points to how widespread and expansive the empire truly was.
Utilizing it’s world class navy, and professionally maintained colonial army, the British were able to successfully hold these possessions until its collapse following the devastation of World War II.
The Mongol empire holds the claim for largest contiguous land empire and boasted over 100 million people – nearly 25% of the worlds population at the time.
The empire was loosely affiliated and did not last long, though brought stability to many regions post-conquering.
The sheer enormity of the empire is tough to imagine, with it’s land extending east to west from the Sea of Japan to Central Europe. North to South it reached Siberia, as well as the Indian subcontinent, down westward to the Arabian peninsula.
The Russian empire also consisted of a massive stretch of land across 3 continents. Much of this land was sparsely populated due to the climate, including the vast stretches of Siberia and Alaska.
However, the Russian empire was essential in several large scale conflicts, including the defeat of Napoleon.
The Spanish empire has a firm legacy, especially in the America’s where it played the role of colonizer. By toppling the existing Aztec and Incan empires, the Spanish found themselves rulers of a vast swath of territory, spanning from Mexico, California and Florida, down to the tip of South America.
The empire ruled over so many people that Spanish is now the second most spoken language in the world.
Chinese Empire (Qing Dynasty):
The Chinese Empire amassed over centuries reached its peak under the Qing Dynasty in the late seventeenth century. The dynasties of China exhibited a centralized bureacracy led by a ruler with the “Mandate of Heaven.”
Superior organization over the centuries allowed the Chinese to rule over such a large area and population.2
By the 18th-19th century, civil wars such as the Taiping Rebellion, European incursions, and the emergence of Japan under the Meiji Restoration greatly diminished Chinese power and led to the partition of the empire.
1) Wright, Quincy. “Empires and World Governments Before 1918.” Current History, vol. 39, no. 228, 1960, pp. 65–74. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/45309863.
2) Taagepera, Rein. “Size and Duration of Empires: Growth-Decline Curves, 600 B.C. to 600 A.D.” Social Science History, vol. 3, no. 3/4, 1979, pp. 115–38. JSTOR, https://doi.org/10.2307/1170959.