Which was the largest empire in world history?

For many years, I’ve enjoyed doing regular courses at London’s City Literary Institute. For a year and a half now, all those courses have had to be online because of the covid crisis.

Currently I’m doing a nine-week course in world history delivered by the Danish historian Martin Jorgensen. This week’s session included discussion of the Mongol Empire which set me thinking about just how large this empire was.

I had assumed that the largest empire in history was the British Empire and, on checking out the relevant Wikipedia page, I find that I am not wrong. In terms of both geographical size (35.5 million square kilometres) and population (412M), the British Empire was the biggest.

BUT it is possible to make a case that really the Mongol Empire was the greatest.

First, in geographical terms, at 24 million square kilometres it was second only to the British Empire (although closely rivalled by the Russian Empire). It was the largest contiguous empire the world has ever seen.

Second, in terms of  the proportion of the world population of the time, the British Empire was 23% but the Mongol Empire was 31% (only exceeded by three Chinese empires and very closely rivalled by the Roman Empire).

See further data here.

A thought: What if, in 1242, the utterly ruthless and unstoppable Mongol hordes led by the military genius Sabotai had not turned round before defenceless Vienna because Ogadai – the head of the greatest land empire in history – had died and they had to return to elect a new khan? Then the world would have witnessed the annihilation of Christendom with no Renaissance and no Reformation.

In terms of importance to today’s geo-politics, it is significant that the break-up of the Mongol Empire led to the Ming, Russian, Ottoman, Safavin and Mughal Empires which today can been seen as respectively China, Russia, Turkey, Iran and India – all very significant world powers.


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