In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Imperialism

  • Introduction
  • Reference Works
  • Journals
  • Ancient Empires
  • Liberalism and Imperialism
  • Marxism and Imperialism

International Relations Imperialism
Carl Cavanagh Hodge
  • LAST REVIEWED: 02 March 2011
  • LAST MODIFIED: 02 March 2011
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199743292-0010


Imperialism refers to the extension of the dominion of one nation over others by military conquest, political or economic compulsion, or some combination of the three. Derived from the Roman notion of imperium, connoting the dominion brought by way of the conquest, imperialism is in substance a form of large-scale political organization as old as recorded history. Varying both in terms of territorial expanse and formal institutional organization, all imperialism entails a fundamental political inequality between the imperial nation and its various subject nations or tribes. Ancient empires, such as Pharaonic Egypt, lasting from the founding of the Old Kingdom in 3500 BCE to the end of the New Kingdom in 715 BCE, the Persian Empire (556–330 BCE), the First and Second Athenian empires (454–404 BCE and 378–355 BCE), the Roman Empire (264 BCE–527 CE), and the successive Chinese empires from the Qin (221–206 BCE) to the Han (206 BCE–8 CE ) developed governing and administrative institutions sophisticated and durable enough to be ranked as significant chapters in the history of government. Others, such as the Macedonian Empire under Alexander the Great (334–324 BCE ) accomplished rapid expansion over vast territory yet left little behind, save military inspiration to future conquerors such as Gaius Julius Caesar and Napoleon Bonaparte. The most expansive empire in human history, the Mongol Empire of Chinggis Khan (1206–1294) brought peoples from China through Central Asia to the Black Sea and Poland under its sway but left mostly desolation in its wake.

General Overviews

General overviews of imperialism include classic works, dominated by histories of the Roman Empire that have ever since influenced both the governance of European empires in particular and, to varying extents, the scholarship of imperialism. Reference works on imperialism, by contrast, tend to concentrate on modern European imperialism and colonialism. The contemporary literature on ancient empires is generally of a very high quality but tends to steer clear of both comparative study and theoretical generalization. Many overviews of modern imperialism feature sweeping comparative observations, and a select few venture into theory.

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