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The Empire Enigma

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The author is a student of ancient and modern European history.

Countries with American troops deployed

Countries with American troops deployed


Ask the question does America have an empire and you will have people lining up to give their opinion on the matter. The very word empire has dozens of definitions and implied meanings. While historians often apply the term to any collection of territories that are ruled from one capital there is a distinction between a definable empire and political units that acted like empires.

This article will attempt to identify traits that determine an empire in the historical sense and how these traits apply to America. There are several differences between the western understanding of empire and the eastern understanding of empire, but this article will focus solely on western empires.

Roman Empire under Trajan - Client states in pink

Roman Empire under Trajan - Client states in pink

Holy Roman Empire at it's largest extent

Holy Roman Empire at it's largest extent

Submission of Lesser States

One of the determining factors of an empire is territorial domination of land. This does not simply mean controlling more territory though. An empire controls political units other than it's own home region. Smaller political units may be other kingdoms, republics, or city-states, but the important factor is that the smaller units are legally bound to the empire for international activities and domestically self governing.

Examples of imperial control can be seen in the Roman Empire, Holy Roman Empire, and the British Empire. Rome began to take control of other kingdoms during the Republic period, and it continued under the Roman Empire. Small kingdoms, like Judea and Armenia, had their kings who were puppets of the Roman Republic and later the Roman Emperor. The Holy Roman Empire initially ruled over independent city-states like Milan, while the emperor of the Germans was also king of Rome, king of Burgundia, and elector-count of his own kingdom like Saxony or Austria. The British became an empire when the Indian princes submitted to the King of the United Kingdoms.

Historical entities which simply dominate other regions are not considered empires. Two examples are the Kalmar Union and the Peloponnesian League. Under the Kalmar Union the king of Denmark became king of Norway and Sweden as well as their possessions around the Baltic Sea. It is not considered an empire because the political units were combined to form one court with one head. The Peloponnesian League was led by Sparta which dominated the other Peloponnesian states in foreign policy, but it did so without the smaller states formally acknowledging Sparta as ruling over them.

Under this idea America is not an empire in the historical sense. America may dominate foreign states through trade and international organizations, but it formally and legally recognizes other states as being sovereign. Even throughout the 20th century when the USA was propping up foreign leaders like Diem in Vietnam it did not rule over Vietnam in the traditional sense.

Frederick Barbarossa, Holy Roman Emperor

Frederick Barbarossa, Holy Roman Emperor

King George VI, last Emperor of India

King George VI, last Emperor of India

A Monarch

An empire has an emperor to lead it. An emperor is a sovereign monarch ranked over a king who whether a royal family, elected king, or military dictator, within whom the empire is embodied. Most empires throughout history have had a monarch to lead it. The Holy Roman Empire was led by an Elector-Count who was also king of sovereign territory, the British Empire had their king, Russia had a Tsar, and the German Empire was led by the king of Prussia.

A glaring problem with the idea of a monarch ruling an empire is Rome. Roman Emperors were initially only military leaders, and they were not leaders of their own kingdoms. Historians attempt to rationalize this by showing that Roman Emperors took on the mantle of the leader of kingdoms they took over and used it exclusively in kingdoms they conquered. Roman Emperors acted like the Pharaoh when in Egypt for example. Roman Emperors took on purple robes, which were signs of royalty and after the Julio-Claudian dynasty they became more autocratic which further shows that the Roman Emperors saw themselves as more than caretakers of the Senate.

America has a democracy, with a leader who maintains no office other than that of the presidency. America does not rule over foreign people, but has territories which elected to join the Union as equals. American bases overseas do not constitute foreign domination as they play no part in their host countries political process. While this idea does not hold completely true at all American bases, the majority of host countries are not controlled. America has more troops in Japan, Korea, and Germany than anywhere in the world but Afghanistan, and of these three states have independently elected democracies that chafe at American directives.


Every empire in the western world since the fall of the Roman Empire claims to be descended from the Roman Empire, except for the British Empire, which became an empire after replacing the Mughal Empire. History sees the rise and fall of many kings and kingdoms, but there are very few empires, and they all wanted to be seen as returning to a period of greatness.

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After the last Roman emperor was deposed the Germanic rulers claimed to be protecting Roman rule until a new emperor was chosen. Charlemagne was recognized as emperor in the West by emperor Michael I Rhangabes of the Eastern Roman Empire. Thereafter the Holy Roman Emperors, German Kaisers, and Austrian Emperors traced their right to reign to Charlemagne. The Russian, Bulgarian, Spanish and Ottoman Empires were all linked to the Byzantine Empire through marriage and titles. Even Napoleon sought to create a link to the past by marrying an Austrian princess.

America is seen as taking over the remnants of the British Empire. After World War II America moved in to countries that Britain and France had occupied , but there was no legal transfer of power to the Americans, the countries under British and French control were granted independence. America never claimed to be stabilizing or recreating the British or French empires, but was creating a world united by trade links.

Hegemony and Imperium

America fails to be qualified as an empire in the historical sense. There is little doubt that America is not an empire, but it is something more than a singular state. Historians call the period of Athenian dominance of Greece an empire, but it was no more an empire than America is. These two states had power equal to that of the imperial states, and they had Imperium, the power to command.

A hegemon is a state that rules other states through implied powers rather than actual powers. Athens was a Greek hegemon, able to control it's neighbors because it controlled the supply of grain with it's navy. It dominated through the implied threat that it would starve your city to death if you did not comply. It had Imperium, which is a vital piece of an empire, but it did not have any other characteristic of an empire.

America is a world hegemon. Countries that disagree with American policy suffer trade embargoes, UN sanctions and finally military intervention. America projects it's power abroad in a fashion that can be seen as imperialistic, but it does not qualify as an empire by the historical meaning of the word.


Helen Bolam on September 29, 2015:

Really interesting article. Makes you look a little deeper into what's really going on in the world today.

A Anders (author) from Buffalo, New York. on October 22, 2012:

Thanks again Suzettanaples!

Suzette Walker from Taos, NM on October 22, 2012:

Very interesting article. This is a thorough explanation of what an empire is and is not. Great article! No, we could never say the U.S. is an empire. I like the word hegemon - that is interesting. Thanks!

A Anders (author) from Buffalo, New York. on October 03, 2012:

Thanks for the comments. Territorial conquest is generally considered to be a poor idea since WWII, so if any kind of conqueror occurs it will be economic or ideological rather than physically.

Richard J ONeill from Bangkok, Thailand on September 30, 2012:

Interesting, America, now that you mention it, is a world hegemon.

I learned a lot from this hub. Good work and great historical background.

America may not be an empire, but as you say, its power is frightening! Although, I like to think that world leaders or at least most world leaders realize that our planet and the fragile state of the economy cannot take another war so we'll be safe from any conquering, unless of course it is done by aliens! :)

Peace. :)

UltimateMovieRankings from Virginia on June 29, 2012:

It takes a great writer to be able to educate and entertain their reader at the same have been able to accomplish both things in this excellently written hub that was fun to read and fun to learn at the same time. I would say that I would have to agree with you about your conclusions of how the United States should be viewed.

A Anders (author) from Buffalo, New York. on June 18, 2012:

Thank you for the comment Skarlet, I'm glad you enjoyed it.

Skarlet from California on June 18, 2012:

Interesting hub.

I always enjoy a good History lesson.

Voted up

Arthur George Rettell jr. ( from AZ. STATE on May 22, 2012:

kool Dude

A Anders (author) from Buffalo, New York. on May 21, 2012:

Thanks for the comments. I was thinking about what makes an empire an empire and your question was the push I needed to make a new hub, so thank you!

James Kenny from Birmingham, England on May 20, 2012:

Thank you very much for the interesting and comprehensive answer to my question. You've firmly established in my mind the fact that the US doesn't have an Empire in the traditional sense. Voted up etc.

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