Definition and Key Features of Empire

An empire is defined as a major political unit with a large territory or influence over a number of territories or peoples under a single sovereign authority, subject to real or possible domination or control. It is traditionally defined as a large domain which rules over territories outside of its original borders. There are always distinct barriers between the common population and the imperial ruling class who govern them.

In the age of globalization and a borderless world, the imperial structure is more relevant than ever.

The list below is an overview of the general features and distinct traits that separate powerful states or political entities from legitimate empires in the global age. As of this writing, there are 3 existent empires – the United States, China and the EU, all occupying their respective regional geostrategic spheres of power. The fourth or emerging imperial entity is the United Nations and the interlocking web of international organizations and agreements over which it is very difficult to ascertain who has the most influence and control. The list below is meant to be a general overview of imperial traits or attributes (by no means exhaustive) looking at the greatest classical empires up until the present day.

  • Spatial reach, size or vast territory
  • Prestige, formal governing authority
  • Mobilization of mass military force
  • Imperial leadership promoting their agenda through diplomacy or sociopolitical influence, with the potential threat of military force for non-compliance; can be ruled by a monarch, despot or oligarchy
  • Economic integration & control (the greatest empires had their own common currency)
  • Cultural influence or imposition from the dominant class with some degree of autonomy
  • Large, extensive infrastructure for the transfer of goods and services with an administrative network to collect and distribute capital and resources
  • Capital or governing power centres from which imperial rule emanates
  • Fundamental cultural cohesion or sense of identity beyond ethnicity
  • Sense of mission (often divine or spiritual in nature) or binding ideology, closely related to a self-propelling narrative of civilizational grandeur or entitlement
  • Assertion of supreme power, recognition of no equal, claim to ascendancy
  • Forced migrations, expulsion, persecution or elimination of subjugated populations, targeted ethnic groups or those deemed inferior
  • Can be composed of contiguous or remote territories, or a combination or the two
  • Can be established or maintained via direct conquest or control or through indirect or vicarious rule, or an adaptive mix or variety of configurations as an empire expands and evolves
  • Involves gradations of power or influence
  • Superimposes, rather than replaces state borders or boundaries
  • Reduces subordinates to the status of client states or satellites, and foster a relationship of dependence on the imperial power
  • See themselves as the legitimate creators and guardians of an order on which others are dependent (paternalistic perspective)
  • Feel they must defend against potential or actual outbreaks of chaos, for which they carefully monitor as a constant threat


Great empires have also demonstrated the capacity to reform, regenerate, or reinvent themselves in order to survive, retain or obtain increased power. By training a citizenry to become more imperially literate and cognizant of the main attributes of empire, we foster the promotion and maintenance of robust freedom and democracy. Citizens who seek to be informed about current developments and what is taking shape around them would benefit from a better understanding and historical consciousness of empires.


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Sources for further reading:

Munkler, H. (2005). Empires: The Logic of World Domination from Ancient Rome to the United States. Polity Press.

Burbank, J. and Cooper, C. (2010). Empires in World History: Power and the Politics of Difference. Princeton University Press.