To Rule the Earth...
No one person has ever achieved rulership over
the whole planet. Which states have come closest to this measure? What
follows is a table of the 25 largest states and empires to have held sway
over the earth at one time or another. The figures for their sizes are
approximations for the most part - many of these states held only vague
or ill-defined frontiers. The figures given are also drawn from the period
of maximum extent for the nation involved; thus, the Portuguese figures
exclude Oman and Malacca (among numerous other Portuguese bases), since
their occupation and withdrawal predated the later Portuguese holdings.
Similar circumstances obtain for other empires, and are noted in the comments.
As a comparison to the land surface that is available, note that the habitable
portion of the globe (i.e. excluding Antarctica) extends over roughly 52,
677,000 square miles (136,433,400 sq. km.): so, the largest of these entities
reached about one quarter of the whole.
||The British Empire and Commonwealth
The greatest extent of the British Empire was
achieved between 1918 and 1922. The figures exclude the eastern seaboard
of the United States, which became independent long before the British
colonial expansion of the 19th century.
|14,157,000 sq. miles (36,666,630
The Soviet Empire
The Communist states were never entirely under
a single ruler - Although Josef Stalin probably came closest 1948-53. The
main division was between the Soviet Bloc, led by Russia, and the Eastern
Bloc, led by China. The area given for the whole Communist world does not
include later, semi-nonaligned states such as Angola, Tanzania, or Laos.
|13,800,000 sq. miles (35,742,000
|The Soviet Bloc
sq. miles (25,598,500 sq. km.)
||The Mongol Empire
The greatest extent of the Mongol hegemony was
|12,800,000 sq. miles (33,152,000
||The Spanish Colonial Empire
At its largest reach, roughly 1740-1790 Spain
controlled about half of South America, more than a third of North America,
and had significant holdings in the Pacific basin.
sq. miles (19,425,000 sq. km.)
||The Russian Federation
Russia is, of course, a subunit and the core
of the Soviet Empire noted above. Even in its reduced state, it is still
by far the largest single state on the planet.
sq. miles (17,073,280 sq. km.)
||The Fascist Axis
The Axis powers of the World War II era were
never under a single ruler, they were a group of three major powers and
a handful of minor ones. Some of the lesser states were, in fact, only
nominally associated with the Axis, owing to the needs of defence against
mutual foes (as in the case of Finland, which I do not include), or outright
intimidation, as in the case of Thailand (which I do).
sq. miles (07,417,760
sq. miles (03,677,800
sq. miles (02175600
|Other Axis allies
sq. miles (00646982
sq. miles (13,918,142 sq. km.)
The Early Caliphate was a remarkable thing -
a vast stretch of territory spanning Spain, North Africa, the Middle
East, Iran, and much of Central Asia: all of which absorbed by Arab conquerors
in a bit less than 100 years. Too vast to be stable, it began to fragment
less than 200 years after.
sq. miles (13,209,000 sq. km.)
||The French Colonial Empire
The French colonial experience was primarily
within Africa, although there were significant territories in Asia and
the Americas as well. The figures do not include Quebec or Louisiana, long
lost before French colonial expansion in the 19th century.
sq. miles (12,595,170 sq. km.)
||The Chinese Empire
Modern China is somewhat smaller than the figures
show - they indicate the approximate size of the state governed by the
Qing Emperors during the late 18th and early 19th centuries, which included
Tibet and Mongolia as dependencies.
sq. miles (11,137,000 sq. km.)
||The Portuguese Colonial Empire
At it's greatest extent, c. 1815-1820, Portugal
controlled major territories in South America and Africa. Like many other
colonial powers, Portugal had held a previous empire (centered mostly in
Asia) which was lost.
sq. miles (10,360,000 sq. km.)
||Dominion of Canada
Canada is a subunit of the British Commonwealth
and, as an independent state, the second largest on earth at this time.
sq. miles (09,968,910
||United States of America
The figures reflect the United States at its
greatest territorial influence, circa 1915-1934, when it controlled not
only the Philippines, but also had occupied Haiti.
sq. miles (09,702,365
||Federative Republic of Brazil
Brazil is the major subunit of the Portuguese
colonial empire, and remains today the fifth largest state in the world
in terms of territory.
sq. miles (08,547,000
||Commonwealth of Australia
This continent-sized land mass hosts but a single
state, one which is significantly larger than all the great empires of
classical times. The figures are for the period 1918-1975, when Australia
administered Papua and New Guinea.
sq. miles (08,152,550
||The Persian Empire
This is the oldest of the super-states listed
herein - it is the vast empire successfully held off by the Greek city-states
in the 5th century BCE.
sq. miles (06,169,380
||The Seljuq Empire
The Seljuqs were a Turkish people who established
a Middle Eastern Empire in the late 11th century CE. It swiftly fragmented
into more localized spheres of influence, notably in Iran, Anatolia, and
the Fertile Crescent region.
sq. miles (05,957,000
||The Roman Empire
The Romans were at their greatest extent in the
early 2nd century of the Common Era, when Trajan briefly annexed Mesopotamia.
sq. miles (05,698,000
||The Ottoman Empire
The Osmanli Turks established a state in Bithynia
which eventually grew to encompass Anatolia, the Levant, the Balkans, North
Africa, Crimea, the Caucasus, and western Arabia as far south as Yemen.
sq. miles (05,594,400
||The Macedonian Empire
Alexander the Great briefly established a vast
empire on the carcase of the Persian super-state (#15); but it fragmented
almost immediately after his death.
sq. miles (05,439,000
When Mexico became independent (first as an Empire
and shortly thereafter a republic) in 1821, it inherited a vast stretch
of former Spanish claims reaching from Nevada to Costa Rica. The figures
are for the period 1821-23, after which Central America broke away.
sq. miles (04,871,733
The Almoravids were a western Berber folk who
boiled out of Mauretania in the 11th century, to rapidly encompass all
of northwestern Africa and about half of Spain-Portugal for a brief time.
Establishing a radically puritanical sect of Islam, and founding the city
of Marrakesh in 1065, they were at the height of their influence c. 1105-1145.
sq. miles (03,885,000
Timur the Lame was a tribal leader of Mongol
extraction who set up a Middle Eastern empire centered around Iran in the
period between 1380 and 1405.
| 1,445,000 sq. miles (03,742,550
||The Mughal Empire
There have been large, centralized states on
subcontinent for a very long while - the Mughal
empire in the latter half of the 17th century probably achieved the greatest
size, although the current republic isn't much smaller.
sq. miles ( 2,294,250 sq. km.)
||The Seleucid Empire
The Seleucid state was a successor empire to
Macedonian Empire (#19). At it's greatest extent,
it reached from western Anatolia to Afghanistan.
sq. miles (03,431,750
Aside from the Andean highlands, Argentina encompasses
all the southernmost reach of South America.
sq. miles (02,780,106
||Republic of Kazakhstan
Kazakhstan is a vast semi-arid region of central
Asia, and a subunit within the Soviet Empire up until its independence
sq. miles (02,724,913
||The Ghaznavid Empire
A Mediaeval state within what is now Afghanistan,
Pakistan, portions of central Asia, and eastern Iran. It's greatest extent
was in the early 11th century.
sq. miles (02,590,000
Note: I am asked at fairly
regular intervals about a possibly missing element in this list, namely,
Tiwantinsuya, the Incan Empire of the later 15th and early 16th centuries.
Correspondents will mention figures ranging anywhere from 2.5 million square
miles (6.475 sq. km.) to 7.5 million square miles (19.425 sq. km.). Some
writers have cited a book by Charles Mann called "1491", a description
of the Western Hemisphere just before the arrival of Europeans in support
of their contention - apparently Mann alleges that the Inca controlled
a region comparable in size to that of the Ottoman or Roman Empires.
I must disagree with Mr. Mann. Let's do the math
- assume half of Peru (actually, historical maps that I've consulted usually
give less than that, about 1/3 to 40 percent, but we'll assume half), that
yields about 250,000 sq. miles. Assume all of Ecuador, another 100,000.
Assume about 1/3 of Bolivia; that will give about 130,000. Add maybe half
of Chile (most maps I've seen aren't as generous), another 150,000. And
add perhaps the northern tip of Argentina, maybe 1/10 for another 100,000.
Under these very generous assumptions, the total comes to about 730,000.
If you want to throw in some smidgens of Colombia, you could maybe push
750,000, very close to the size of modern Mexico. You would have to toss
in all the rest of Peru just to reach 1 million, something historical works
never do because the Inca aren't known to have penetrated to any significant
extent into the Amazon Basin. As for the highest figures I've seen (7.5
million sq. miles), well, all of South America only comes to 6.89 million
- the 7.5 million figure is about identical to the entirety of the Spanish
colonial Empire at it's greatest extent (#4 above), from Patagonia to Utah;
I'm certain the later Maya, the Aztecs, and the early Apache would be astonished
to learn that they were subjects of Cuzco.
The simple fact of the matter is that the domain
of the Inca wasn't enormous (the Aztec territory was even smaller) physically,
albeit it's influence and power were great. But size isn't everything -
consider the clout and influence of the Vatican as compared to it's physical
R. Gordon's Regnal Chronologies