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Empire vs. Kingdom: What’s the Difference?

While it lasted, the British Empire was the largest empire the world has ever known, and no other empire has yet come close to its grand scale. At its core was the Kingdom of Great Britain, ruling over vast overseas territories. Yet have you ever wondered, “What’s the difference between an empire and a kingdom”?

The difference between a kingdom and an empire is that a kingdom is a territory with a monarchical form of government, while an empire is a sovereign state whose government rules over a group of subject states, colonies, or territories. Generally, a king or queen rules a kingdom, while an emperor typically rules an empire. However, historically, empires have also been governed by kings or even elected officials.

I’ll review what lies behind the English concepts of kingdoms and empires and try to answer the question, “When does a kingdom become an empire?”

Kingdom vs. Empire: Dominion

Kingdoms and empires are the realms controlled by a sovereign. A king can rule a kingdom and empire, but an empire does not necessarily have to be ruled by an emperor.

In an empire, the sovereign can be a king, queen, emperor, or even an elected official or governing body.

What Is a Kingdom?

A kingdom is a political unit based around a particular community or territory that has a monarchical form of government (source). 

The king or queen’s dominion, the territory over which he or she has power, might be very small, centered around a large town or city, or very large, controlling multiple city-states, provinces, and even other countries (source)

What Is an Empire?

The Cambridge Dictionary defines an empire as a group of countries under the government of a single person or sovereign country (source).

For clarity, an empire is typically based on a dominant centralized state that controls a series of less powerful peripheral states (source).

The English word “empire” is derived from the Latin word imperium through Old French.

The Roman concept of imperium referred to powers granted for a particular command, usually military in nature. The English word “ empire” is first attested in the 14th century in reference to the Roman Empire (source).

Based on the Cambridge definition, the Roman Republic was an empire before Augustus ever took over because, as a sovereign state, Rome ruled over several countries and client kingdoms collectively referred to as Imperium Romanum.

Apart from governments, we often apply the term empire to other entities like commercial or business empires. The concept is still largely the same, with one powerful centralized business or commercial center dominating smaller, less powerful ones.

Heads of State: King vs. Emperor

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The key difference between the English concepts behind “kings” and “emperors” is that of their source of legitimacy, which is reflected in the etymology of the words.

The Etymology of the Titles

While the exact etymology is hotly debated, the English concept of kingship appears to be closely related to the same root from which we derive our words for kin, child, and kind.

This would refer to their role as leaders of the people, or it could reference the royal bloodline of kings.

We derive our concept of an emperor from the Latin word for a military commander, imperator, related to the Latin verb imperare, “to command.” 

We often associate emperors with powerful authoritarian rulers. Whether the members of a sovereign state perceive that state to be a kingdom or an empire is closely connected to their attitudes toward the legitimacy of power and the centralized state.

The Ancient Institution of Kingship

The first kingdoms in history emerged in Sumerian Mesopotamia and Egypt.

The Sumerian word for king is transliterated as lu-gal, or “big man,” while the Egyptians at first referred to their kings as “your majesty” (hm-k) or “his majesty” (hm-f) (source).

Only during the New Kingdom Egyptian Empire did they refer to their king by the title “Pharaoh,” from Egyptian pero’ or per-a-a, meaning “great house” (source).

Such kings claimed their legitimacy from their gods and often served as high priests and intermediaries between heaven and earth.

They established ruling dynasties, with power transferring from one generation to the next within their families. Many even claimed to be divine or semi-divine figures themselves.

The Hebrew word for king, melek, as a verb means “to reign,” “become king or queen,” or “to consult” or “take counsel” (source).

The degree to which power is actually centralized with the monarch has varied greatly over history and with each kingdom.

Some rulers have functioned as autocrats, ruling by executive fiat where their word is the law. Other monarchs were held in check by some form of a council or legislative body.

The Rise of Emperors

While a kingdom is ruled by a king or monarch (meaning one ruler), an empire is not necessarily monarchical as it can be ruled by a small group of individuals or oligarchy (source).

Empires without Emperors

“Oligarchy” simply means “rule by the few” and can refer to a small group of elites that hold power, whether they be aristocrats of noble birth or great wealth, elders by virtue of their age and wisdom, or those who hold advanced mystical or technical knowledge.

Many empires in history, such as the British Empire, were ruled by kings who tended to shy away from the title of emperor. There were also empires ruled under a republican or democratic form of government.

Rome was a republic when it began its foray into imperialism, while the Greek city-state of Athens was a direct democracy when it established the Athenian Empire (454–404 BC).

The Archetypical Emperor

The archetypical example of an emperor in Western Civilization is the first Roman emperor, Augustus. He held the title imperator, commander of the army, ruling largely by having won the series of bloody conflicts that brought down the Roman Republic.

Though he had the power to rule by force, he preferred to maintain the magistracies of the old republic. Roman citizens hated the very concept of a monarch, associating their last king prior to the formation of the republic with tyranny. 

The Roman emperors from Augustus onward held the title of pontifex maximus or chief priest until Gratian declined the title in AD 381 and the pope assumed it (source).

Later, Roman emperors began to adopt the term dominus, meaning lord or master, leading to the historical distinction between the earlier “Principate” (37 BC–284 AD) and the latter “Dominate” (AD 284–476).

How Does a Kingdom Become an Empire? 

I’m sure many social studies teachers have been asked, “What is bigger than a kingdom?” or “Is an empire bigger than a kingdom?” However, the answer is not that simple, as some empires have been very small compared to rather large kingdoms.

Still, the question is not too far off the mark as, generally, kingdoms develop into empires by exercising control over less powerful kingdoms or states through a process of expansion or imperialism.

The motives for expansion are often for security reasons, resources, or wealth, which are often correlated.

There are exceptions since some nations are referred to as empires simply because their head of state assumes the title of emperor, despite no significant territorial expansion.

Such nations include the Korean Empire (1897–1910), the Empire of Vietnam (1945), and the Central African Empire (1976–1979).

The classical definition of imperialism refers to the military and governmental dominance of one nation over other nations. 

The term is more often used now to refer to other forms of dominance, such as cultural imperialism and economic imperialism, usually with a negative view of the West’s cultural dominance over the past two centuries.

This article deals primarily with the classical definition.

The First Empires

Most of the ancient empires were forged through conquest as the rulers of individual city-states conquering neighboring city-states and their towns for their resources, wealth, or out of fear that their neighbor might do the same to them if they did not act first.

The first empires emerged in Mesopotamia, including the Akkadian Empire (2334–2154 BC) and the Neo-Sumerian Empire (2112–2004 BC). Many also qualify the realm of Nimrod mentioned in Genesis 10:8-12 as the first empire.

While the Egyptian Old Kingdom (2686–2181 BC) was formed by the conquest of the Kingdom of Lower Egypt by the Kingdom of Upper Egypt, most historians do not consider it an empire.

This is because both territories were subsumed under one king instead of one sovereign over multiple sovereigns.

Under the Akkadian Empire, the Akkadian King ruled over a series of lesser kingdoms, each with its own ruler. The Egyptian Empire arose during the New Kingdom as it controlled peripheral territories in Syria and Sudan.

Emperors, Kings of Kings, and Divine Titles

In one sense, an emperor can be considered a “King of Kings,” a title first adopted by the Assyrian King Tukulti-Ninurta I (c. 1243–1207 BC) and subsequently adopted by many kings of the Assyrian, Babylonian, Persian, and Seleucid Empires.

Many of the Greek rulers of the Seleucid Empire took the title “King of Kings,” and the authors of the New Testament, originally written in Greek, used the title to refer to Christ as the ultimate sovereign Lord over everything.

Throughout history, the concepts of “king” and “emperor” have been closely linked to theology, philosophy, and divinity in some way.

The first Chinese empire also emerged from a series of conflicts between rival kingdoms, as the Qin Empire (221–206 BC) emerged during the Warring States Period.

The victorious king of Qin adopted the title of Qin Shi Huang, or “First Qin Emperor,” derived from Chinese mythological figures.

Subsequent Chinese emperors bore the title of Huang Di, which signified their claim to divine sovereignty over “All Under Heaven,” their conception of the earthly realm.

Some of the longest-lasting empires in history include the New Kingdom Egyptian Empire (1550–1077 BC), the Chinese Qing Empire (1636–1912), and the Japanese Empire (1868–1947), all of which viewed their emperor as a divine figure. 

The Japanese emperor is the only official emperor who remains in power, though his position is now largely ceremonial.

Medieval Empires

The Roman Empire fragmented into multiple local kingdoms, and many monarchs attempted to lay claim to the legitimacy of the Roman Empire and the title of emperor.

These include the Byzantine Empire (AD 395–1453), which had the most direct claim, the Carolingian Empire (AD 800–888), and the Holy Roman Empire (AD 962–1806).

The Carolingian and subsequent Holy Roman Empire were legitimized by the papacy as protectors of the realm of Christendom from outside threats, particularly from the Islamic Caliphates, which are also considered as empires.

Seeds of Empire in the Centralized State

When and how a kingdom becomes an empire is closely related to a nation’s level of centralized power, political philosophy, and institutional structures, such as a large bureaucracy and military.

Repeatedly, history has shown the dangerous tendency of the centralized state toward imperialism.

The relationship of the individual to larger entities like the state has been a long-standing religious and philosophical issue. 

The western concepts of popular sovereignty and the sovereign nation-state originated in Medieval Scholasticism and came to the forefront during the Renaissance (1350–1650) and the Protestant Reformation (1517–1648).

Absolute Monarchy

Image by Ibrahim Diallo via Pixabay

The Middle Ages were dominated by a highly corporatist, Europe-wide concept of Christendom under the ecclesiastical monarchy of the papacy, but the decline of papal authority over localized nation-states and religious views led to the rise of powerful monarchs and the concept of divine-right monarchy. 

Many kings claimed the right to rule by divine sanction and that they were subject to no one, making them more like autocrats, tyrants, or despots than simply monarchs.

Several European nations also established colonial empires in the 16th and 17th centuries, such as the kingdoms of Portugal, Spain, France, and England, as well as the Dutch Republic.

Meanwhile, various political philosophies gave more political power to the individual based largely on the Neoplatonic concepts of natural law and the world soul, the Judeo-Christian view of man made in the image of God, or some combination of these concepts.

Early leaders of the Reformation, like Martin Luther and John Calvin, reserved the right to resist corrupt, autocratic kings to local magistrates, while later reformers, like the Presbyterian John Knox, expanded this to every individual.

Knox asserted that the common man had the right to disobey a corrupt government when that government assumed authority that belonged to God alone.

The British philosopher John Locke ultimately derived this aspect of his social contract theory from Knox.

The Renaissance humanists developed a theory of government, based on Neoplatonic thinking and differing views on natural law, of the modern secular state as a reflection of the collective will of its people.

They tended to see the state as the earthly manifestation of the world soul or collective consciousness.

The Origins of European Imperialism

It was actually the alchemist John Dee (1527–1608/9), serving during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, who was one of the first to directly advocate for the creation of a British Empire, and he is even credited with coining the term (source).

The British Empire began in the 17th century as the Kingdom of Great Britain established overseas colonies in North America and the West Indies and as it sought to dominate India.

Influenced by John Locke’s concept of popular sovereignty and the concept of God-given rights not derived from the state, Great Britain’s American colonies eventually broke away during the American Revolution and established the United States of America as a republic.

Influenced by a concept of popular sovereignty as represented by the general will, the French Revolution overthrew the French monarchy and set up a republic.

The Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen emphasized the state’s role in assigning rights as reflected in the general will.

When the state turned violent, leading to mass executions and the suppression of religion outside of the state cult, the people turned to the popular military general Napoleon Bonaparte for stability.

The result was the Napoleonic Empire, which lasted from 1804 to 1815. The Napoleonic Wars also saw the dissolution of the Holy Roman Empire in Germany and the rise of the Austrian Empire in 1804. 

Even after the fall of the Napoleonic Empire, the romantic nationalism inspired during these times led to the Revolutions of 1848 and, ultimately, the establishment of the Second French Empire (1852–1870) and the German Empire (1871–1918).

The First World War saw the end of many authoritarian monarchies and empires, but many were replaced by even more despotic, totalitarian regimes, as was the case with Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia.

Final Thoughts

A kingdom is a territory ruled by a king or queen, while an empire is a sovereign state that controls less-powerful peripheral states, colonies, or territories. When leaders are unchecked, a kingdom or any sovereign state has the potential to become an empire.