Age of Empires

Goddess Britannia & British Empire Warriors in a Parade-1887. Oil painting on canvas, 44 x 33. 1887

Although the nineteenth century is commonly linked with the development of nationalism and the formationr of nation states, imperia was the dominant form of political organization throughout the world. As a result, this article will demonstrate that imperia dominated the world. This will be proved by first looking at nation states and then at imperia.

Historians Jane Burbank (1946) and Frederick Cooper’s (1947) definition of imperia is as follows: ‘Empires are large political units, expansionist or with a memory of power extended over space, police that maintain distinction and hierarchy as they incorporate new people.’[1] Burbank and Cooper define nation states as follows: ‘The nation state, in contrast is based on the idea of a single people in a single territory constitutioning itself as a unique political community.’[2]

Nation states

Europe after the Napoleonic Wars (1803-1815) was hardly a peaceful continent. France’s growth has resulted in the dissemination of the principles of the French Revolution (1789-1799). Nationalism was one of these ideals.[3] Stories, languages, myths, heroes, and history were produced and gathered by intellectuals, poets, philosophers, historians, and philologists. They developed concepts of countries and national consciousness.[4] They also provided the rationale for expansionist assertions.[5] These concepts propagated throughout societies through organizations and clubs.[6]

In Germany, the same was true. At the beginning of the nineteenth century, the territory including Germany and Italy was made up of several tiny states. The Kingdom of Prussia was one of these governments, and the then-Chancellor Otto von Bismarck (1815-1898) exploited these new concepts to strengthen and expand the kingdom. After a few conflicts between 1864 and 1871, this resulted in the formation of a German state led by the Kingdom of Prussia.[7] In Italy, a similar process occurred. As a consequence, Europe’s fractured core was unified into two nation states.

In Western Europe, the process of unification had already taken place. The French, English, Spanish, Portuguese and Dutch territories have long been a cultural, administrative and political whole.[8]

During the nineteenth century, there were few nation states outside of Europe. However, one might claim that they also existed in South America after the upheavals in the Spanish colonies after the Napoleonic wars. Spain had been conquered by Napoleon Bonapartes (1769-1821) armies in 1808. This severed the link between Metropole and colonies, which thus gave the colonies more autonomy. However after 1815 the Spanish wanted to reclaim lost authority and this led to conflict.[9] Following the independence wars and decolonization, numerous new republics were established in South America, with the new rulers working to establish collective national identities. These states, however, were made up of many peoples, including Mestizos, Creoles, Africans, Native Americans, and Europeans.[10]

This ethnic and cultural diversity was also present in European countries. In Germany, for example, in addition to Germans, there were Poles, Jews, Danes, and Alsatians who resided inside the borders of the German state. The same might be said for France, the United Kingdom, Italy, Spain, Portugal, and the Netherlands.[11]

So the link with nationalism and the nation-state in the nineteenth century is reasonable, since nationalism and the nation-state were dominant in the nineteenth century. Even if you stick to Burbank and Cooper’s definition, you won’t be able to talk totally about nation states because states incorporate several nations. On the other hand, you might speak of a nation-state since many of those governments had a single dominating nation, which created a distinct political community. However, this was primarily a European concern, because, as I will demonstrate, imperia were the norm throughout the world.


There were many Imperia outside of Europe, but by the beginning of the nineteenth century, there were also territories in both Africa and Asia that were neither imperia nor nation states. They were structured primarily into tribes and kingdoms.[11] During the nineteenth century, they were mainly absorbed into imperia. That’s why the world was primarily made up of imperia.[12]

There were British colonies in North America, such as Canada and the United States, the latter of which was a republic. The US was pushing expansionist policies. The United States expanded to its current size under the guise of “Manifest Destiny,” the idea that the United States is predestined by God to spread its domination and promote democracy and capitalism over the whole North American continent. In the process, the US absorbed and oppressed numerous indigenous peoples. Furthermore, in 1898, the United States annexed numerous Spanish possessions, including the Philippines.[13]

On the other side of the Atlantic, on the Euraziatic continent between Germany and the Pacific Ocean, the multiethnic Austro-Hungarian empire, Czarist Russia, Ottoman Sultanate, Shahist Persia, and the Chinese Qing empire dominated the land.[14]

In addition to these continental imperia there were other European overseas imperia. They all pursued expansionist politics in the nineteenth century. Initially, Britain led the way, but as the nineteenth century proceeded, other European colonial powers developed as well. As a result, towards the end of the nineteenth century, European states ruled over numerous diverse peoples in Africa, Asia, and Oceania.[15] It ruled over one-third of the world’s population.[16]

This European expansion was fueled in part by rivalry among self-aware nationalistic European nations, who saw imperia as a source of prestige and economic benefit.[17] The effect of nationalism may also be observed in Europeans’ attempts to “civilize and to christianize” indigenous people.[18] This demonstrates that they European culture as superior.

Empires approximately at the year 1900.
Bosanko, George. Map of the worlds empires, during 1900. Wikimedia Commons, 2012.


So we witness the emergence of nationalism and nation states during the nineteenth century. It can be seen that both Germany and Italy became states as a result of nationalism. It should also be mentioned that new states in South America are attempting to forge a collective identity.

However, we observe across the world that European powers split Africa, India, Oceania, and Asia into colonies, forming an overseas multi-ethnic imperia. Moreover, old continental imperia such as the Ottoman Empire, the Czarist Russia, the Chinese Empire, and the Habsburg Empire persisted throughout the nineteenth century.

Because this was plainly not the situation for the rest of the world, the connection of nationalism and the nation-state with the nineteenth century is a Eurocentric one. As a result, outside of Western Europe, imperia remained the dominant type of political structure.

[1] Jane Burbank and Frederick Cooper, Empires in World History: Power and the Politics of Difference (Princeton and Oxford 2011) 8.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibidem, 232-234; A., Paging, ‘Imperialism, Liberalism & The The Quest For Perpetual Peace’, Daedalus 134 (2005) 2, 46-57, there 50.

[4] Hagen Shulze, States of America; Nations and NationalismFrom the Middle Ages to the Present (Hoboken 1998) 162-163.

[5] Ibid., 174.

[6] Ibid., 188.

[7] Ibid., 218-230.

[8] Ibid., 200.

[9] Robert Tignor e.a., Worlds Together: Worlds apart (New York City) and London 2017) 570-571.

[10] Ibid., 571-572.

[11] Shulze, States of America; Nations and Nationalism, 258.

[12] Burbank and cooper, Empires in World History, 9-10.

[13] Ibid., 249-251.

[14] Ibid., 6, 20 and 251.

[15] Ibid., 6 And 19.

[16] Ibid., 1.

[17] Paging, ‘Imperialism, Liberalism & The The Quest For Perpetual Peace’, 50-51.

[18] Burbank and cooper, Empires in World History, 6.

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