10 Small Countries That Were Once Big Empires

It’s hard to believe, but small countries that play little or no role in world affairs today used to be powerful empires. A striking example is Italy with its capital Rome. The Roman Empire once encompassed vast areas around the Mediterranean Sea. A country like Mexico, for example, which now has little say in world politics, also ruled a considerable part of North and Central America in the nineteenth century. For example, there are numerous countries that rarely make the world news today, but were influential nations many hundreds of years ago. Below is a list of ten smaller countries that once formed great empires.

The United Kingdom

Today the United Kingdom consists of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. All in all, the United Kingdom is an average European country, which still plays a role in world politics, but is not a superpower like the US. That was a bit different 100 years ago. The British Empire then ruled about one-fourth of the world.

England built up an impressive merchant fleet from the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. In the late fifteenth century, England began to trade overseas, when explorer John Cabot was sent to discover new areas in North America. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries England controlled parts of Ireland, New England and India. Thanks to the revenues of the British East India Company, a trading organization that grew into one of the largest commercial enterprises, England was able to further expand its power over the world. India remained the main British colony for hundreds of years.

The British Empire reached its peak shortly after the First World War. The Empire then consisted of about one quarter of the earth’s surface. Nevertheless, the position of the British Empire gradually weakened. After World War II, nationalist movements emerged in many British colonies and the empire began to disintegrate. In 1997, Hong Kong, one of the last remnants of the British Empire, was returned to China.


Today’s Turkey also has a great history. Turkey descends from the mighty Ottoman Empire. In the course of the eleventh and twelfth centuries, Turkic peoples settled in Anatolia. Several small principalities arose in this region, with the area of ​​sultan Osman I becoming increasingly important. This small principality would grow into a world empire, the Ottoman Empire.

In the year 1453 the Ottomans conquered the city of Byzantium, which meant the end of the Eastern Roman Empire. The Ottoman Empire expanded even further in North Africa and gained control of the Red Sea. At its peak in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the Ottoman Empire encompassed extensive territories in Eastern Europe (the Balkans), North Africa, and the Middle East.

When World War I broke out in 1914, the Ottoman Empire clearly fell into decline. After WWI, the empire lost most of its territory. In 1922 the Ottoman Empire officially came to an end. Only the territory of present-day Turkey remained. In 1923, Mustafa Kemal became the first president of the new Republic of Turkey.


Yes, the current holiday destination of Austria was also once the core of a large European empire: the Austro-Hungarian Empire. This empire was formed in the year 1867. Austria and Hungary then formed a so-called dual monarchy, whereby the emperor of Austria was also the king of Hungary.

Hungary and Austria were given equal status within the empire. After the establishment of this dual monarchy, the Austro-Hungarian Empire played an important role in Europe. Incidentally, the territory of the empire was much larger than just present-day Austria and Hungary. The Austro-Hungarian Empire also included parts of what is now the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Italy, Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina.

The Habsburg Emperor Franz Joseph I of Austria, also King of Hungary, constantly struggled with conflicts between the population groups in his empire. The Emperor’s heir to the throne, Franz Ferdinand, was assassinated in 1914 . This sparked World War I , a world war lost by Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

After World War I, the Austro-Hungarian Empire was split into Austria and Hungary, while other parts of the Empire were annexed to former Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia, Poland, Romania, and Italy.


Mongolia nowadays hardly plays a role in world politics, but for centuries the Mongolian warriors led by their ruler (the khan) terrified many European and Asian peoples.

The legendary ruler Genghis Khan, in particular, went down in history as a cruel conqueror. Genghis Khan united the various Mongol tribes, raised a well-organized army and was the founder of the mighty Mongol Empire. At its peak, the empire stretched from present-day Korea to Hungary and from Siberia to Java.

After the death of Kublai Khan in 1294, a grandson of Genghis Khan, the empire split into four parts. The power of the empire slowly but surely crumbled. Around the year 1400, the Mongol Empire ceased to exist and only the territory of present-day Mongolia remained.


Numerous smaller countries in Western and Central Europe were part of a political alliance from the tenth to the nineteenth century, the so-called Holy Roman Empire. The Holy Roman Empire was headed by an Emperor who was crowned and anointed by the Pope.

The empire consisted of several smaller kingdoms, duchies, principalities, dioceses, archbishoprics and counties, each of which was under the authority of a local ruler. This ruler was subject to the emperor of the Holy Roman Empire. The emperor himself personally ruled over his own territories.

At its peak in the 13th century, the empire included the current states of Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany, Switzerland, Austria, the Czech Republic, western Poland, northern Italy and eastern France. The core of the Holy Roman Empire consisted of several areas that now make up modern Germany.

In the 17th and 18th centuries, the influence and cohesion of the empire gradually began to diminish. The French Revolution and the reign of Napoleon heralded the end of the Holy Roman Empire. Napoleon defeated a coalition of Prussia, Austria and Russia at the Battle of Austerlitz, bringing several German territories under his control. In 1806, the last emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, Francis II, abdicated and the empire was dissolved.



The history of present-day Iran is closely linked to the Achaemenids, the royal family that ruled the ancient Persian Empire. Until 1935 the old name ‘Persia’ was used for the current state of Iran.

The history of the ancient Persian Empire begins around 550 BC, when Cyrus II the Great united the Persian tribes and won a victory over the Medes. Cyrus the Great conquered other areas such as Lydia and the city of Babylon, which he added to his Persian Empire. Cyrus’ son, Cambyses II, also managed to conquer Egypt. The Persian Empire reached its greatest expansion under the reign of Darius I, successor to Cambyses II. The empire then stretched from present-day eastern Greece to the valley of the Indus. After Darius I, many Achaemenids would rule the empire.

The power of the Persian Empire began to decline in the fourth century BC. Alexander the Great campaigned against Persia in 334 BC. He defeated the forces of Darius III, which heralded the downfall of the Persian Empire.



Spain’s colonial empire once spanned North, Central and South America, the Netherlands, areas of Italy, the west coast of Africa and the Philippines. It was one of the largest empires in history.

The story of the Spanish Empire began in the 15th century, when Ferdinand II of Aragon and Isabella I of Castile married, leading to the unification of Spain in the Iberian Peninsula. Ferdinand and Isabella tried to expand their empire and sent out explorers. Christopher Columbus discovered America in 1492. He took possession of territories for the Spanish crown. In the years that followed, Spanish conquerors (the so-called ‘conquistadors’) took possession of large parts of the American continent. They conquered the Aztec Empire and the Inca Empire.

At the height of the Spanish colonial empire, there were Spanish colonies from Canada’s southern border to Cape Horn. Spain also owned the Philippines and other areas in Southeast Asia.

Spain lost control of its colonies in the early 19th century. One by one, the former colonies on the American continent became independent. In the Spanish-American War of 1898, Spain also lost Cuba, the Philippines, and other possessions in Southeast Asia. This marked the final end of the Spanish Empire.



Although African Mali is today one of the poorest countries in the world , hundreds of years ago it belonged to a powerful African rhine, the Songhair Empire.

The Songhai Empire was an Islamic empire in West Africa that flourished in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. However, the roots of the Songhai Empire go back to the ninth and tenth centuries. One of its most famous rulers was Askia Mohammed, who ruled the Songhai Empire in the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries. Under his reign, the Songhai Empire reached its greatest expansion. Around the year 1500, the territory of the Atlantic Ocean in present-day Gambia and Senegal reached the center of present-day Niger.

Askia Mohammed was in contact with statesmen and scholars in the Near East. Under his reign, Malian cities such as Timbuktu and Djenne became true centers of learning and culture.

After Askia Mohammed’s death in 1529, his sons quarreled over control of the Songhai Empire. The empire weakened, a civil war broke out and Moroccan troops conquered the territory. In 1901 France would colonize large parts of West Africa. The Songhai Empire was definitely a thing of the past and was soon forgotten by the rest of the world.



The Inca Empire in South America stretched from southern Colombia to northwestern Argentina and Chile in the early 1500s. The king of the Incas ruled over seven to twelve million subjects.

The Incas built an extensive road network in their empire. High in the Andes Mountains, they built the almost inaccessible city of Machu Picchu , a striking example of their high civilization.

In 1492, Christopher Columbus discovered the American continent. This heralded the beginning of the colonization of America by Europe. At the same time, this colonization heralded the end of the Inca Empire. The Spaniards not only conquered the Incas by force, they also brought diseases from Europe to which the Incas were not resistant. Inca leader Atahualpa was taken hostage by the Spanish conquistadors in 1532. In the year 1572 the curtain finally fell on the Inca Empire. Then the Spanish conquistadors captured the Inca capital of Vilcabamba and executed the last Inca king, Tupac Amaru.

The ruins of Macu Picchu, the secret city of the Incas in the Andes Mountains, were only discovered in 1866. Macu Picchu became the most important tourist attraction in Peru.

The Netherlands

The Netherlands

The Netherlands is now one of the smaller European countries , but from the seventeenth to the twentieth century it had small colonies and trading posts on almost all continents.

The Dutch colonial empire fell apart after World War II. In the seventeenth century, the Republic of the Seven United Netherlands, the predecessor of the current Dutch state, experienced its Golden Age. Explorers sailed the world’s oceans and founded trading posts and small colonies. In 1602, the Dutch East India Company was founded, which took control of trade with the overseas territories in Southeast Asia.

A few decades later, in 1621, the West India Company was founded, a trade organization with a monopoly on trade in West Africa and America. For more than 300 years, the present-day Netherlands ruled over various colonies around the world. The Netherlands owned territories in Africa, Southeast Asia, Oceania, the Caribbean, North America and the Middle East.

In the first half of the nineteenth century, the Kingdom of the Netherlands still owned the Dutch East Indies, Suriname, islands in the Caribbean and a colony in Ghana. After World War II, the Dutch colonial empire continued to crumble. The Dutch East Indies became independent in 1949, followed by Suriname in 1975.

To this day, however, the islands of Aruba, Curaçao and Sint Maarten remain autonomous countries within the Kingdom of the Netherlands. The islands of Bonaire, Saba and St. Eustatius still form ‘special municipalities’ of the Netherlands.