For us in Britain ‘empire’ might conjure up pictures of the Raj in India, of phrases like ‘the white man’s burden’ and then also, perhaps, ways in which empire was resisted – the Indian Mutiny, Gandhi and the satyagraha movement, and the Mau Mau. But, empires have been a force in history for at least as long as we have had written records: indeed some of the earliest written records deal with territorial expansion.

Through looking at three different empires across history – the Roman Empire, which in some form lasted nearly eight hundred years; the Ottoman empire, which was the dominant force across the Middle East from 1299, only finally collapsing in 1918; and the British empire, which, although shorter lived at its height covered around a quarter of the globe – we can see the different ways in which empires expanded, worked, sustained themselves and collapsed.  Our further reading section gives pointers for some good historical writing on these topics.

Historians working on the history of empire often grapple with two key themes – that of power in its different forms - military, economic, cultural and symbolic– and difference: encounters with unknown peoples, territories, ecologies and cultures. Such encounters with difference could often lead to the repression or elimination of pre-existing societies, cultures and people, but could also lead to new creolized forms of culture and societies.

Empire-building is often thought of as the territorial expansion of a particular state or polity. It is therefore certainly linked to war and the conquest of one peoples over another. At the same time, empires can be characterised as vast trading networks. And, in this sense, they can been viewed as a force of globalisation. As a force that connects lives and cultures across the globe. They often spread ideas, languages, labourers, religions, spices, aesthetics and institutions.

Some historians, such as Niall Ferguson, go so far as to argue that the British Empire—as a force of globalisation—was a good thing for the world, that it brought with it modern technologies and democratic institutions, a shared language and law and order. This approach fits into a far longer history of European attitudes which saw empire as . While empires have always encountered From the 1950s a new wave of thinkers, including people such as Franz Fanon and Edward Said, challenged dominant European ideas of empire as a force for progress.

Empires have, historically, drawn different cultures into contact. With this, empires have forced groups to attempt to make sense of ethnic, cultural and religious differences. 


Further Resources for History & Empire


Case Study: The Roman Empire


  1. Beginnings
  2. Power
  3. Rebellion
  4. Administration
  5. Communication
  6. Legacy
  7. Bibliography

1. Beginnings

  • 4th century BC, Rome was an insignificant city-state maintaining its security by a number of alliances with its neighbours. There followed an expansion of its territories as it claimed victories over its neighbours. By mid-3rd century BC, most of Italy had been dominated by Rome. Until the mid-2nd century BC, Rome was in contention with Carthage in North Africa, the dominant power in the western Mediterranean.
  • Three Punic Wars with Carthage:
  1. 264-241 BC – Carthaginians withdrew from Sicily;
  2. 218-201 BC (Hannibal and the march over the Alps) – routed Rome; [FACTOID: Hannibal destroyed the Roman army at Cannae, Apulia in 216BC. In one day the Carthaginians killed 50,000 Roman soldiers. This remains the highest number ever killed in one day in Europe.]
  3. 149-146 BC – Rome levelled Carthage, 50,000 made slaves.
  • The first Punic War forced Rome to build its own navy because the Carthaginian merchant fleet was so strong. This gave Rome another line of communication further afield, it no longer being dependent on inland conquests and expansion. In this sense, the Romans claim to never intending to build an empire was true, the beginnings were strategic and, to an extent, defensive. Kelly: “The acquisition of empire had been the unplanned consequence of a moderate and reasonable policy of homeland security”, according to the Romans. Most early wars were, in fact, defensive, e.g. 390BC the Gauls took Rome.
  • Rome now expanded to Spain and North Africa in the West and began its moves towards the East. By the 1st century BC, Asia Minor was conquered. In the 60s BC, Pompey annexed Syria and in the 50s Julius Caesar conquered Gaul. In 31 BC Octavian defeated Cleopatra VII and Marc Antony at Actium bringing Egypt under the Roman imperium.
    • Octavian named ‘Augustus’ and becomes princeps (‘leader’). He gained authority over Roman wealth and the military. Unchallenged as ruler of the Mediterranean world and taken to be the first emperor and thus Rome-ruled territories become an empire.

2. Power

Burbank and Cooper: “repertoires of power” include communications and technological superiority, e.g. weaponry.

Difference: The Romans considered themselves as different, as having no precedent. Roman generals depicted themselves as the first to achieve some goal or territory.

Military – the army was huge, strictly disciplined, well-armed and battle-hardened. [FACTOID: to give an idea of the size of the army and Rome’s investment in it, the USA would have to have a standing army of a little under 13 million to equal Rome’s, over 10 times its present strength.] [FACTOID: During Julius Caesar’s campaign in Gaul, 1 million enemy soldiers were killed and another million were enslaved. This scale of destruction was never equalled until the Spanish invasion of the Americas.]

Economic ­– plundered riches and provincial taxes paid for the military means to maintain and expand the empire. [FACTOID: Between 200 and 150 BC Rome seized the equivalent of approximately 30 metric tons of gold. In 62 BC, Pompey returned from the East with swag worth about 70 tons of gold. In 47 BC, Julius Caesar brought back so much from Gaul that the price of gold dropped sharply.]

Colonialism/colonization: To maintain order and possession and to avoid the need for a large military presence. Thus, costs of expansion and empire reduced and income increased as local resources were exploited by colonizers.

Cultural and Symbolic – for the empire to continue it needed to be supported by the Roman people and the subject peoples. In religious terms, the Romans saw themselves as favoured and protected by the gods. As long as they continued to be victorious, the Romans could claim divine right to empire and command. Art was used to promote the emperor and empire as heroic: statues, reliefs, columns (e.g. Trajan’s Column) and interior decoration. Processions were huge and popular, re-enacting the latest victory. This was a form of ‘mass media’. The provinces vied with each other in the expense of putting on these processions and constructing various statues – attempting to ‘belong’.

  • The Romans, in their own terms, were not attackers, but defenders of Rome. Their neighbours were a threatening enemy and as their borders changed, they acquired new threatening enemies. Cicero wrote that Romans went to war so that they could live in peace. Woolf: “The story of Rome was told as a story of the emergence of a strong martial, moral, pious character type from very mixed stock.”, and, “The unity of Rome, repeatedly established and repeatedly placed in jeopardy, is a constant theme of accounts of Rome’s origins and early history.” Heroic themes: Roman casualties of conquest were never pictured or shown in any procession or artwork.
  • ·      They used imperialism and colonialism, and justified their actions by divine right and superiority. The Romans claimed not to have intended to build an empire – they had merely been defending themselves.

3. Rebellion

  • Uprisings did occur, but were brutally stamped out. Roman military power, strong communication links and an absolute need to be and stay dominant left little room for revolt. [FACTOID: Technological superiority: In order to re-take Masada, the Romans built an enormous assault ramp 205 mtrs long, 70 mtrs high (20-storey building) with a 1 in 3 incline. At the top was a stone platform to take a battering ram which was 23 mtrs wide.]

4. Administration

  • Local collaboration - Romans appointed and imposed provincial governors, but local matters were dealt with by local authorities which those authorities were keen to maintain. Governors did not intervene unless the matter was directly concerned with Rome, or if they were asked to. There were a number of matters that the governor was interested in, the annual tribute to Rome being one, after that the local authorities dealt with everything else. The central authority rewarded the local authority and allowed customary law (where it didn’t interfere with Roman law). Rome did not attempt homogeneity, differences were maintained, responsibility of the periphery to the core being the unifying factor. [FACTOID: provincial governors throughout the empire, were supported by about 10,000 bureaucrats. Very low number by modern standards.]

5. Communications

  • Population under Roman rule estimated at between 50 and 70 million. Communication was maintained by roads, aqueducts, sea travel and trade. Also employed was imperial culture acting as a uniting force.
  • Constantine (reigned 306-337AD): consolidated Diocletian’s reforms and founded Constantinople as capital of the eastern empire having legal and cultural parity with Rome. His patronage of Christianity was useful: one God = one emperor = divine authority. Absolute monarchy established.

6. Legacy

  • The Roman Empire, its ideas, symbols, institutions and laws have provided a model for governance, empires and states ever since, particularly Napoleonic, Victorian and Fascist, and still do. The Roman Empire continues to influence thinking about empire, imperialism and colonialism.

For further information regarding technological and social achievements see the following…

So, what have the Romans ever done for us?

7. Bibliography

Greg Woolf, ‘Inventing empire in ancient Rome’, in Susan E. Alcock, et al. (eds), Empires, (Cambridge, 2001), pp. 311-322.

Christopher Kelly, The Roman Empire: A Very Short Introduction, (Oxford, 2006 online edn), pp. 19-69.

S.C. Wells, ‘The Roman Empire’, in W. McNeill (ed.), Berkshire Encyclopedia of World History, (Mass. 2011).

http://search.credoreference.com/content/entry/berkwhist/roman_empire/0 ]

Case Study: The Ottoman Empire


  1. Summary of the empire
  2. Empire and Religion
  3. Non-Muslim and Racial Treatment
  4. Empire and Trade
  5. Bibliography

1. Summary

  • The Ottoman’s had a territorial empire and its aim was to absorb local states and this value on land meant they had a vast population of different peoples engulfed.
  • They were not ‘eliminationist’ in nature as they did not seek to eradicate the indigenous culture of local peoples as this was considered backwards and aggressive.
  • In addition, they did not like to exploit economic resources and wanted a progressive stance which allowed sustainable growth.
  • Hobson and Wallerstein stated that empires are inherently militaristic and this can be linked to the Ottoman Empire as they had a strong naval force. The Ottoman Empire used slaves as a means of creating a large strong army which was actually successful. Also the Ottomans were innovative in military technology by developing such things as gunpowder as a military weapon.

2. Empire and Religion

  • The Ottoman Empire presents a case of empire which has deep foundations and influences in religion. This is clearly illustrated by religion being assimilated into the state apparatus but also the Sultan and his declaration to being "the protector of Islam".
  • The Ottoman Empire did have some pragmatic features as it did take ideas, beliefs and customs from the people that inhabited it, however, it was mainly influence by the beliefs of Islam. Much of the ruling class in the Ottoman Empire attended ‘madrasahs’ which are religious schools, this highlights the importance of Islam in the empire. These ruling class members were taught the teachings of Islamic Law (Sharia) and how it should be applied in government and state structures.
  • The structure of the empire was hierarchical whereby the ruling elite wielded much power, however to become part of the ruling elite you had to work hard and prove yourself as the empire was a meritocracy. Therefore, contrary to other large empires, aristocracy and privilege of birth were somewhat insignificant other than the Sultan who claimed birth rights to rule.
  • The Ottoman Empire demonstrates the changes in empire as a concept. If we consider the USA as a modern day empire, it tends to rely on ideology not religion because globalisation allows the spread of democratic ideals, whereas the Ottoman Empire was restricted to religiocentrism which resided in certain areas.

3. Non-Muslim and Racial Treatment

  • It can be argued that the Ottoman Empire treated non-Muslims relatively well in comparison to other Empires. Non-Muslim communities were organised according to the millet system which granted them a limited amount of power to regulate their own affairs; this allowed the different groups to be independent and attain an identity separate to the Ottoman empire as a whole.
  • On the other hand, treatment of non-Muslims can be considered relatively poor under the Devshirme system. The system which was introduced in the 14th Century essentially meant that Christian territories which had been conquered by the Ottomans had to surrender 20% of their male children to the state who would then essentially become slaves to the state. Although this appears to be a form of poor treatment, these slaves were actually fairly privileged in contrast to other slaves in world history. These slaves served great purpose to the Sultan who would value and respect them in return for their loyalty.
  • Difference is a key concept in empire. These various policies to deal with non-Muslims illustrated the way in which the Ottomans dealt with diversity and difference in culture and ethnicity.

4. Empire and Trade

  • Istanbul was a crucial part of the empire for politics and military strongholds and due to its fortuitous position, it became one of the great trade centres in the world with routes to Europe, Asia and Africa.
  • The Ottomans traded silk and other cloth, musk, rhubarb, porcelain, spices and dyestuffs.
  • This trading highlights power within the empire and its ability to bring in wealth and FDI.
  • The economics success of the Ottoman Empire can be attributed to the leaders such as Mehmet. The leaders encouraged merchants from conquered territory to move to key locations in order to boost trade and longevity. We also see pragmatism in the policy of economics because the leaders put aside religion when they encouraged Jewish traders from Europe to move to territories such as Istanbul to set up business.
  • Hobson stated in reference that empire was fundamentally an expansion in economic market. This can be proved by the Ottoman empire in that they expanded their economic opportunities onto different continents.

5. Bibliography

William Deans, ‘History of the Ottoman Empire,’ 2015

Lord Kinross, ‘The Ottoman Centuries: The Rise and Fall of the Turkish Empire,’ 1979

Stephen Turnbull, ‘The Ottoman Empire 1326-1699 (Essential Histories,’ 2003

Eugene Rogan, ‘The Arabs: A history- Second Edition,’ 2012

Andrew Wheatcroft, ‘The Enemy at the Gate: Habsburgs, Ottomans and the Battle for Europe,’ 2009

Case Study: The British Empire


  1. Summary
  2. Purpose of Empire
  3. Stages and types of Empire
  4. Theories of British Imperialism
  5. Whig History
  6. Slavery
  7. Empire as a legitimised culture of difference
  8. Empire’s relationship with capitalism

1. Summary

  • First British Empire (1585-1783) established through territorial colonisation of lands in North America
    • British America included parts of Canada and the Thirteen Colonies
  • The Continental Congress of the Thirteen Colonies declared itself independent from the British Empire in 1776
  • Following the American Revolution, British interests turned towards Asia, the Pacific and later towards the exploration of Africa
  • The Second British Empire (1783-1815) was followed by the Industrial Revolution and Britain's Imperial Century (1815–1914)
  • The Empire became the largest empire in world history. At its height, It encompassed:
    •  1/4 of the world's land area
    • 1/5 of its population
  • Rapidly declined after WWII as the UK could no longer afford to maintain avast overseas empire on top of the ‘wind of change’ that came about alongside the Cold War

2. Purpose of Empire

  • ·      Agreement amongst historians that the empire was not planned by anyone
  • ·      John Seeley, The Expansion of England (1883):
    • "we seem, as it were, to have conquered half the world in a fit of absence of mind"
    • Conformed to the view that expansion of British values was in India’s best interests but that doing so has burdened Britain with greater responsibility and risk
    • Therefore imperialism often presented as a noble, selfless, philanthropic act.
  • ·      It was a construct, not a legal entity. There was no imperial constitution, no office of emperor, no uniformity of laws.
  • ·      Expansion opportunistic, improvised, response to crisis rather than grand ideological motivation or powerful cultural forces
    • technological / military inequalities made it cheap, easy for Britain to dominate in Africa

3. Stages and Types of Empire

  • First British Empire bought about by private operations form businessmen and religious groups (Anglican and Methodist missionaries. English Puritans) that were protected by the Royal Navy. Not necessarily planned by the government in London
  • Second British Empire a combination of the three types of empire
    • Territorial in British India. Dozens of semi-independent princely states. Empire moved into vast lands with profound diversity. The Raj was an example of multi-civilizational empire whereby British rule was maintained by collaboration with indigenous rulers. Indigenous people ran the empire as they were the source of labour and wealth. Value of land sourced from their taxes which supported the colonial centre in Britain.
    •  ettler colonisation in Australia. Indigenous aboriginals viewed as inferior. Cultural genocide of Tasmanians. ‘Logic of race’ and ‘rule of differences’ prevalent. Divisions into tribes and racial groups to enhance control. Australia seen as virgin territory. Maps of Australia empty compared to full and diverse map of British Raj. This empty land seen for economic resources. Not effectively used by indigenous populations.
    • Informal Empire in South America and Qing China. Imperialism as a de jure recognition of another state’s sovereignty but de facto treatment of the state as only partially autonomous. Opium trade continued to be forced upon China after it lost the opium wars. Britain also built an informal economic empire through control of trade and finance in Latin America after the independence of Spanish and Portuguese colonies in about 1820.

4. Theories of British Imperialism

  • Term ‘imperialism’ introduced by William Gladstone in 1870s to criticise Benjamin Disraeli’s aggressive imperialistic policies.
    • Term was later appropriated by its supporters such as Joseph Chamberlain. Embraced as an ‘attitude’. Not the facts of dominance but an emotional attitude of enthusiasm for such things.
    • Ignited debate over intentions of imperialism. Philanthropic and idealistic or a symptom of political self-interest and capitalist greed

5. Whig History

  • Whig history, supported by Macaulay sees British history as an upward progression through tyranny to the best form of governance, liberty and progress.
  • Focus on a moral duty to civilise. British Empire brought English language and education to India.
  • Australia held up as a Whig history success story. Transformed from a sparsely populated and primitive land to limited self-governance and then towards a full Westminster styled parliamentary democracy

6. Slavery

  • Slavery abolished in British Empire before it was abolished within the anti-imperialist United States.
  • Burbank and Cooper argue it was simply because the slave trade ceased to be valuable to British capitalists(Jane Burbank & Frederick Cooper, Empires in World History, Chapter 10)
  • Ex-slaves were still subject to racialized system of rule and labour discipline
  • Empire played a paradoxical role within the slave trade.
    • The British Empire, through its capacity to defend territories, protect sea routes and prevent insurrections, made slave plantations possible.
    • At the same imperial power made it possible to abolish across huge swaths of the world. The Royal Navy enforced the ban across the empire.

7. Empire as a legitimized culture of difference

  • Fanon:
    • He looked beyond economies. He believed that Marxist analysis should be stretched to apply to the colonial context.
    • Instead of inequality through class differences there is imperial inequality through native and settler differences.
    • World defined by black and white – “For the black man there is only one destiny. And it is white" (Frantz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks, New York: Grove Press, 1967, Page 10)
    • Empire more than just what is present in the material world. He talked about ‘colonisation of the mind’.
    • Native society viewed as insensibly to ethics and lacking in values. Ideological black and white created a racial legitimacy within the British Empire.
  • Said
    • Idea of the Orient a European fantasy which rationalised and legitimised expansionism
    • Critiqued by Bernard Lewis. ‘Orientalism’ as a study has been polluted, it now branches into several other fields (e.g. art, philosophy) and is unclear as to what countries fit into the ‘Orient’. Also argues that Said undermines the contributions made by western colonial empires towards eastern cultural studies. (Bernard Lewis, Islam and The West, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993, Chapter 6)

8. Empire’s relationship with capitalism

  • Lenin and Marx viewed empire as the highest form of capitalism
  • Hobson and Wallerstein – Empire as ‘unequal development’
  • Hobson:
    • British capitalist class pursued new markets in order to sell goods and so empire is merely an expansion of capital
    • Critique – not producing development in neither Britain nor the colonies. Led by small industrial elite looking for a quick profit.
    •  ‘European expansion was driven by the search for new fields of investment[1]’ (Empire: A very short introduction, chapter 1)
  • Wallerstein:
    • Built on Marx and Hobson’s analysis. He believed that unequal development was caused by empire
    • Global markets rely on and maintain by unequal development.
    • The British preserved agricultural and rural systems in Africa and India in order to benefit the industrial core.
    • Indian manufacturing steeply declined. No longer buying own goods but cheap goods from Britain instead
    • Emphasises core and periphery. The Indigenous people were robbed of their means of production.
  • Robinson and Gallagher, The Imperialism of Free Trade (1952):

The Scramble for Africa was a symptom of the ‘new imperialism of the 1880s’ whereby the concept of informal empire, in upholding the principles of free trade, was continually favoured over formal imperial control. 


Empire: large, composite, multi-ethnic or multinational, usually formed from conquest.

Will have a dominant culture (the core/metropole) with subordinate or subject peoples or nations (peripheries).

Suny: a particular form of domination or control between two units set apart in a hierarchical, inequitable relationship, in which the metropole dominates the periphery.

Imperialism: principle or notion that promotes empire, also informal imperialism which uses means other than conquest to dominate, e.g. culturally or economically.

Globalization: (new word), usually considered as ‘imperialism’.

Colonialism: strictly political; the colonialist power claims the right - often by conquest – to absolute ruler over another people, nation or state.

Internal Colonialism: where ‘colonialism is often connected with geographical distance, this term has been applied (contentiously) to South Africa in the period of apartheid and some parts of Latin America.

Colonization: always involves large movements of population where the immigrants retain firm connections (objective or subjective) with their former homeland, or that of their forebears.

Settler Colonialism: where the settlers entirely dispossess the native or previous inhabitants and/or take legal or other action to systematically disadvantage those inhabitants. Land so settled often seen as ‘virgin’, undeveloped and thus belonging to no-one and claimed by the settlers. Settler colonies often ‘eliminationalist’ in nature, physical and cultural genocide, mass displacement of native populations. 

Further Reading

Susan E Alcock, Terence N D’Altroy, Kathleen D Morrison & Carla M Sinopoli (eds), Empires: Perspectives from Archaeology and History (Cambridge University Press, 2001)

Jane Burbank and Frederick Cooper, Empires in World History: Power and the Politics of Differency (2010)

Stephen Howe, Empire: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford University Press, 2002)

Parker, Charles. Global Interactions in the Early Modern Age, 1400-1800. (Cambridge, 2010).

Parsons, Timothy. The Rule of Empires. (Oxford, 2010).

The Roman Empire

C. Ando, Imperial Ideology and Provincial Loyalty in the Roman Empire (Berkeley, 2000)

S. Goldhill Love, Sex and Tragedy: how the ancient world shapes our lives (London, 2004)

P. Horden and N. Purcell The Corrupting Sea, A Study of Mediterranean History (Oxford, 2000)

Christopher Kelly, The Roman Empire: A Very Short Introduction, (Oxford, 2006).

Greg Woolf, ‘Inventing empire in ancient Rome’, in Susan E. Alcock, et al. (eds), Empires, (Cambridge, 2001), pp. 311-322.

The Ottoman Empire

Aksan, Virginia H. and Daniel Goffman, eds. The Early Modern Ottomans: Remapping the Empire. (Cambridge, 2007).

Brummett, Palmira. Ottoman Seapower and Levantine Diplomacy in the Age of Discovery. (Albany, NY, 1994).

Dale, Stephen F. The Muslim Empires of the Ottomans, Safavids, and Mughals. (Cambridge, 2010).

Finkel, Caroline. Osman’s Dream: The History of the Ottoman Empire.  (New York, 2006).

Goffman, Daniel. The Ottoman Empire and Early Modern Europe.  (Cambridge, 2002).

Greene, Molly. Catholic Pirates and Greek Merchants: A Maritime History of the Mediterranean, 1450-1700. (Princeton, 2010).

———, A Shared World: Christians and Muslims in the Early Modern Mediterranean.  (Princeton, 2000).

Tezcan, Baki. The Second Ottoman Empire.  (Cambridge, 2010). 

The British Empire

John Darwin, The Empire Project: The Rise and Fall of the British World-System, 1830-1970 (Cambridge University Press, 2009)

Denis Judd, Empire: The British Imperial Experience from 1765 to the Present (Harper Collins, 1996)

A. McClintock, Imperial Leather: Race, Gender and Sexuality in the Colonial Context (1995)

Thomas R. Metcalf, Ideologies of the Raj (1997),

Bernard Porter, Empire and Superempire: Britain, America and the World (2006)

Martin Thomas and Matthew Thompson, ‘Empire and Globalisation: from “High Imperialism” to Decolonisation’ International History Review Vol. 36, Issue 1 (2014)