With etymological roots in the Latin imperium, empire refers to a large-scale, multi-ethnic political unit that rules over smaller political units, peoples and territory that have been aggregated through conquest. Hence, empire always involves relations of domination and subordination, which may be formal or informal. Understood in this way, empires and imperialism appear contemporaneously with civilization, beginning 5,000-6,000 years ago.

Empires first emerge in the Near East (Assyrian, Babylonian, Egyptian), and are followed by more expansive empires in the centuries immediately surrounding the beginning of the Christian era (Macedonian, Greek, Roman, Persian, and Chinese). It is not until the dawn of European modernity, however, that imperial expansion takes on a globalizing form.

The establishment of modern European empires can be divided into three periods. The first runs from the late fifteenth to the middle of the seventeenth century, and is marked by Portuguese and Spanish conquest of the New World. The second runs from the middle of the seventeenth to the middle of the nineteenth century, and was initiated by successful challenges to Spanish/Habsburg hegemony by Holland, Britain, and France, and by their own establishment of maritime empires. The third and final period, representing the zenith of European imperialism, begins in the second half of the nineteenth century and is not concluded until decolonization in the decades following World War II. Empire during this period is married with nationalism and racism in an era of intensifying interimperialist rivalry.

While the decades following World War II marked the denouement of formal empires, they did not mark the end of theorizing about empire. A new generation of radical thinkers insisted that formal imperial rule had simply been replaced by new forms of informal economic and political subjugation in the capitalist world system. More recently, such thinking has informed discussions of whether or not the contemporary USA is, or is moving towards, becoming an empire, given its most recent global projection of power.



  1. Hardt, M. & Negri, A. (2000) Empire. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA.
  2. Lenin, V. I. (1950) [1917] Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism. In: Selected Works, vol. 1. Foreign Languages Publishing House, Moscow.


Lloyd Cox