The empire is a staple of fantasy fiction, and it’s not hard to see why. Much of human history has been shaped by empires, so authors have a lot of fodder for inspiration. But empires, evil or otherwise, are extremely complex. If you’re planning to use one, it’s important to understand how it works.
First, what is an empire? Contrary to the nomenclature, an empire is not defined by having an emperor or empress. An empire is a state that subjugates other peoples and nations across a large area, usually by force. Even though we divide Roman history into the Republican and Imperial eras, both the Roman Republic and the Roman Empire were empires because they controlled vast swaths of territory and people beyond Rome. On the other hand, modern day Japan is not an Empire, even though it has an emperor, because it governs only itself.
Different empires have enormous potential for variation. To build a framework for how your empire works, answer these questions:
Why Does Your Empire Expand?
Empires rarely spring up because of some leader’s whim. There’s almost always a driving force that leads to expansion – though it might change over time. Knowing the reason for your empire’s expansion will help you understand who stands to gain from conquest and how that conquest will be justified.
What’s a leader to do when everyone wants land and all the land’s been taken? If your leader has imperial aspirations, they’ll promise every soldier a piece of foreign turf. Their army will swell with new recruits, and then they’re ready to conquer.
This was a popular tactic in certain periods of Roman history, and it certainly motivated the poor to sign up. Joining a victorious conquest was the only hope many Romans had of ever owning their own land, and they didn’t much care where it came from. Despite its success, this strategy has a way of backfiring. It’s almost inevitable that more people will join the military than there is land available, which requires raising additional soldiers to conquer more land, and the cycle continues. An empire that awards lands to its soldiers can quickly find itself growing out of control, with an unhappy populace if the conquest ever runs out.
Desire for Resources
Humans want stuff. From iron ore to smart phones, people will go to extreme lengths to satisfy their desires. Many early European empire buildings can be traced back to this motivation. In the 1600s and 1700s, Europe discovered that it had a thirst for goods from abroad and they produced little that anyone else wanted to trade for. Most of the good stuff, from gold to fine porcelain, came out of Asia and Africa. All Europe had were powerful guns and advanced ships. So European states like the Netherlands, Portugal, and eventually England quickly used their guns and ships to seize colonial holdings. From these new outposts, they gained access to the resources they wanted.
An empire that expands for resources is likely to make many small conquests over a wide area. If all the empire wants is another country’s coffee plantations, there’s no reason to occupy anything else. This requires a relatively small number of people, allowing small states to become world powers. However, scattered holdings can be difficult to defend and control.
A Search For New Markets
This motivation is the inverse of of a desire for resources. Sometimes a country will produce a lot of stuff but have no one who wants to buy it. This was especially common in the days before free trade became the norm. Remember those Europeans who went out conquering for resources? Once the industrial revolution got started, the same European nations found they were producing way more goods than their small populations could use, so they went out in search of new markets. If the new markets weren’t interested, the growing empires conquered and absorbed them.
This motivation usually leads to conquest on a massive scale. Controlling enough people to buy another country’s goods requires expansion far beyond a few ports and coastal areas. Because new territories won’t buy mass produced goods if they have their own factories, an empire in search of new markets will de-industrialize the local economy.
Sometimes, instead of subjugating new lands, an empire seeks to absorb them in order to gain their power and influence. A neighboring country’s large population could bolster the empire’s army, or their trade networks could bring in much needed revenue. This can be done through alliance or through violence. The Habsburg dynasty is an example of the former. While they weren’t above a fight, the Habsburgs preferred to marry into the ruling lines of other countries. An example of the latter is the Qin conquest during China’s Warring States period. The Qin campaigns were as bloody as they were decisive, with every rival state absorbed into a unified China.
Regardless of the method, this motivation only works in situations where newly acquired territory can be integrated into the empire with relative ease. If a new acquisition’s population is constantly rebelling, that will take away from imperial strength rather than add to it. The Qin conquest worked because they and their rival states shared a common culture, and the Hapsburg strategy worked because European countries usually followed their monarch, no matter who it was.
An empire that spreads to increase its power will be truly formidable since gaining new territory does not tax its resources the way other types of expansion do. Instead, each acquisition is a direct boost to the empire’s strength. On the other hand, it’s likely such an empire will quickly run out of territory that’s willing to be absorbed and either stop growing or switch to another motivation.
How Is Your Empire Governed?
Empires can have all sorts of governments, and how your empire is governed will have a big impact on how it operates. Different governments are better at different things. Let’s go over a few of the more common options.
If there’s one person in your empire that no one can refuse, that’s a dictatorship. The dictator might call themself an emperor, as the Roman rulers did, but they’re the one in charge.
A dictatorship has several advantages for a budding empire. If the dictator is charismatic and capable, they can engender extreme loyalty from the people. Augustus of Rome was so popular that when he voluntarily gave up some of his power, the people of Rome demanded he be restored. Beloved dictators can lead their empires into total war with ease, commit massive resources to building projects, or reform how society is organized in any way they please. This makes a dictatorial empire more flexible and better able to focus its resources.
On the other hand, a dictatorial empire has no safeguards against an incompetent or malicious dictator. What’s more, absolute power often encourages a person’s worst tendencies. Augustus built Rome up to heights of glory, but many of his successors plunged it into chaos through ineptitude, and no one could stop them.
Another downside of dictatorship is that transfers of power rarely go smoothly. In a dictatorship, no state institution has the authority to regulate who becomes the next dictator. So when a dictator dies, anyone with a power base can make their own claim for the throne. A dictatorial empire will often be wracked by civil war, just like the Roman Empire was.
If your empire is ruled by a small group of powerful people, then it’s an oligarchy. Even if someone has the title “emperor” and a fancy hat, the real power is spread out amongst the group. The oligarchs might rule secretly from the shadows, or they might have an official name like “senate” or “parliament.”
An oligarchical empire is usually more stable than a dictatorial one, because no single oligarch can upend the status quo. It’s even possible for absorbed territories to gain some measure of influence if their important citizens are accepted into the oligarchy. This process is what created the Austro-Hungarian Empire as powerful Hungarians demanded a share of control from their Austrian counterparts.
But stability comes with a price. Oligarchical empires often have difficulty adapting to new circumstances, because no oligarch is willing to accept a change that might diminish their influence. Oligarchs also tend to be really unpopular, because they are a faceless organization that can be easily blamed for any of the empire’s problems.
Most empires have a religious institution of some kind, but when that institution rules in its own right, you get a theocratic empire. Religion and religious values often form the basis of law and governance.
It’s easy to think of theocracies as stagnant and inflexible because of religious dogma, but that’s often not the case. The Byzantine Empire* was largely theocratic, with the emperor deriving much of his power from being the head of the church, and it was a dynamic state that lasted for centuries.
A common religion is one way for empires to build a shared identity among subjects, and this effect is multiplied in a theocratic empire. Subjects are far more likely to accept their lot in life if they believe that disobedience has divine consequences. Of course, this can become a major disadvantage when a theocratic empire conquers people of a different religion. If the empire tries to convert its new subjects by force, they’ll rise in bloody rebellion. If it doesn’t, that damages the supremacy of the empire’s own faith.
Theocratic empires are also highly vulnerable to religious sectarianism. What seem like small differences over doctrine can have huge consequences, paralyzing an empire with internal conflict.
Believe it or not, it’s possible for an empire to be democratic. In the 1800s, Britain grew more and more democratic even as its empire spread across the globe. The trick is that democracy only ever extends to the home provinces. Even as more and more people gained the vote in Great Britain, the idea of extending suffrage to colonies like Burma was laughable. If an empire did somehow grant equal representation to its colonies without falling apart, it probably wouldn’t be an empire anymore, just a large union of states.
A democratic empire is generally better governed than more authoritarian ones. Its officials are accountable to the people, and it’s protected from the worst excesses of a single leader. Democracy can also be used as a moral imperative for expansion. If an empire’s people see their form of government as superior, they’re more likely to support conquest of people with an inferior form of government. Hawkish politicians love to use this excuse in real life, with long speeches about how important it is to “bring democracy” to other countries.*
Democracy can also hinder an empire’s expansionist dreams, depending on the voters’ whims. If citizens grow weary of war, the empire loses its ability to conquer new territories. People in the home province might have a sudden attack of conscience and ask why they can vote but people in the colonies can’t.
What Is Your Empire’s Reach?
Empires are large almost by default, but their total size can differ greatly. At its height, the Mongolian Empire spanned 16% of the earth’s land. Meanwhile, the Byzantine Empire shrank down to a single city at the time it fell. An empire’s size and scale determine how much of your setting it holds sway over and will have a big impact on what threats it faces.
Regional empires would be considered large countries by modern standards, but their territory and influence are contained to a relatively small part of the world. The Austro-Hungarian empire is a good example. It spanned much of southeastern Europe, and it exerted considerable influence there, but had little impact on the global stage.
A regional empire is small enough that other states are still a threat to it. It’s also less likely to have the social and political divides that are the doom of many larger empires.
As contiguous empires grow, they reach continental scale. They are the dominant power in their region, and they have influence that extends far beyond it. At its height, the Ottoman Empire was truly continental. The Ottomans held significant territory in Europe, Asia, and Africa. They dominated trade between east and west, and the only empires powerful enough to challenge them were far away.
An empire with continental reach will have few enemies of equal strength. At the same time, empires of this size become difficult to manage, leading to more internal problems.
Many empires, especially the European variety, are not contiguous at all. Instead they comprise many far ranging outposts and colonies. This is almost always facilitated by a powerful navy to transport goods and personnel from one enclave to another.
A scattered empire is harder to maintain than a contiguous one, but it also allows for the conquest of choice territories. The Portuguese pioneered this style of empire building in the early Renaissance, grabbing dozens of valuable ports from southern Africa to southeast Asia.
While this has never happened in real life, it is entirely possible that your fantasy empire might hold dominion over the entire world. This would represent a truly massive reach and probably require the aid of magic or fantastic technology to maintain. An empire that rules all the world has no external enemies, but its internal politics are likely to be a nightmare of biblical proportions.
How Does Your Empire Control Territory?
Even the most laid back empire needs some way to control its territory. Modern nation-states are held together by a shared sense of identity, but few empires possess such a thing, and so they have to rely on more coercive methods.
Some empires use the most heavy-handed option available: controlling territory through total occupation. Soldiers are garrisoned in every city, locals have few freedoms, and every aspect of life is controlled by imperial officials.
This method is both the first and last resort of an expanding empire. When territory is freshly conquered, soldiers must be stationed there to tamp down the embers of resistance. This is can be seen in nearly all military conquests, from the Crusades to World War II.
Alternatively, if a province has proved ungovernable by any other means, empires will muster an occupation force in a final attempt to control the situation. Rome was forced to do this for the rebellious land of Judea on more than one occasion.
Complete subjugation is not only horrific for the subjugated but also it is expensive for the empire. It is rarely sustainable in the long term, either because the presence of so many soldiers sparks even more rebellion or the empire simply cannot afford such a lengthy mobilization.
Much more peaceful than a military occupation, in this option the empire marries its own nobility into a new land’s ruling class. This was the Hapsburg’s strategy for dominating Europe. With the right marriage arrangements, your empire can gain huge swaths of territory without drawing a single sword.
While the results are undeniable, this method has limits. For one, it only works within a pre-established system of intermarrying and royal allegiance. European countries had a long tradition of accepting rulers from different noble families, but that tradition did not extend to other lands. If the Habsburgs had tried to take control of China by ensnaring the Kangxi Emperor in a marriage, they’d have been laughed out of town. Chinese officials would have rejected the idea outright, and the Chinese population would have bridled under rule from such a foreign dynasty.
Controlling territory through royal bloodlines also has a tendency to leave your empire with a scattering of disparate territories that have little in common and great difficulty working together.
A favorite strategy of many colonial powers has been to install an elite cadre of officials from the heartland while leaving most of the work to locals. British rule in India used this tactic. A British viceroy made the big decisions but depended on native Indian leaders to carry out his commands.
When it works, this is a relatively cheap way to rule imperial territory. It doesn’t require a huge investment of soldiers, it isn’t subject to the limitations of rule by marriage, and it grants the empire direct control over policy. The big downside is that the imperial governor is the obvious person to blame for any problems caused by imperial rule. If the local population rises in revolt, the governor may not have sufficient forces on hand to deal with it.
If a governorship is too direct, some empires will empower local leaders who can be counted on to tow the imperial line. The local leader technically has the power but will do what the empire wants, either because it aligns with the leader’s interests or because they fear retribution. A sneaky empire might even claim that they don’t control their puppets at all and that any decision the puppets make that benefit the empire are coincidence.
If the empire’s presence is disguised well enough, this method can dampen local resentment. After all, there’s not an obvious foreign ruler to focus anger on, just a local ruler who is very friendly to the empire. And if something really bad happens, the empire can always blame its puppet ruler. On the other hand, if the empire’s connection is exposed, the people are likely to get angry that they were duped.
Finally, cooperative puppets can turn uncooperative at the worst times. A leader the empire was sure it controlled might turn out to have a hidden streak of independence or decide to ally with a different empire, stealing their territory away in one fell swoop.
While most empires are authoritarian with their territory, some allow for genuine local autonomy. Entities within the empire govern themselves, usually in exchange for tribute to the imperial capital, and the empire is held together by shared culture. The Achaemenid Persians were one empire to employ this method. Their enormous territory was separated into a number of semi-independent states, each of which paid fealty to the imperial capital.
If it works, this method is the most effective of the list because it removes many common causes of rebellion. The empire treats its territories more like partners than subjects. However, local autonomy can also cause an empire to fall apart. If one group’s interests stop aligning with the rest of the empire, that group can use its autonomy to cause trouble. Civil wars can start this way. If each locality goes its own way, it can lead to the dissolution of the empire.
How Does Your Empire Project Power?
Whether your empire is evil or not, one aspect that’s bound to feature heavily in the story is power projection. This is how your empire adds new territory to its ranks, enforces its will on foreign governments, and keeps rebellious provinces in line. Most empires will use a combination of options, depending on the situation.
This is the quintessential Roman legion: well trained and with all the privileges of imperial citizenship. Citizen armies are effective and patriotic fighting forces, exactly what a growing empire needs to enforce its will. Their main drawback is that each soldier in the army is one less person to work in the civilian sector. An empire can’t draft or recruit too many people from the home provinces before important industries suffer from a lack of workers.
A citizen army is also limited by the home province’s population. A sparsely populated country with imperial ambitions will need to find another way project its power.
Raising soldiers from conquered territory takes pressure off the homeland, but it has serious disadvantages. Conquered subjects are unlikely to feel much patriotism for the empire, which means they have little incentive to go off and conquer more territory. Worse, if a province rises in rebellion, local levies may stay on the sidelines or even join the rebels. On the other hand, if a rival empire seeks to gobble up a levy’s home province, these weaknesses can turn into a strength. A citizen army from the imperial center might not think much of losing a far flung province, but that province’s levy will fight with the added motivation of protecting home.
A twist on the levy strategy, some empires will raise troops and then garrison them in different areas of imperial territory. The British were especially fond of this tactic, sending Indian soldiers to all corners of the world to enforce royal decree. This makes levies much more reliable in putting down rebellions, but stationing soldiers so far from home also has a negative effect on morale.
A rich empire, especially one with a small population, might decide to hire mercenaries for their army. In most cases, these mercenaries will be drawn from outside the empire, which means they can be replenished quickly as long as there is coin to spend. This sounded great to the late Roman Empire, which used mercenaries for most of its armed forces. The downside was that these mercenaries had little loyalty to Rome and were happy to support rebellious generals as long as the gold was good. Mercenaries also have an annoying habit of running away when a fight turns against them, which isn’t a great trait in soldiers defending an empire.
Sometimes an empire doesn’t have a lot of soldiers to spare for expensive campaigns, but it does have powerful ships. These ships can sail or steam anywhere with a port and demand concessions with the threat of violence. The United States became very found of this tactic in the 1800s, using its powerful ships to force Japan into unfavorable trade treaties.
How Does Your Empire Treat Conquered People?
Conquering new territories is all fun and games until your empire has to govern the people in them. How the empire does so is hugely important in determining its character. The more hardline your empire, the less suitable it is for anything other than villainy.
In this scenario, an empire tries to incorporate conquered peoples as full citizens. This is a long-term process, but if done successfully, it can lead to a tightly knit and resilient population. It’s also the least morally aberrant option, which makes it a good candidate if your empire is meant to be sympathetic. The Romans were so good at assimilation that in many cases conquered territories kept their Roman identity longer than Rome itself. Despite its name, the Byzantine Empire was actually the eastern half of Roman territory, and it kept Roman traditions alive long after the west collapsed.
Most empires don’t have the forethought or stamina to incorporate conquered people into the imperial-culture identity, so they end up as second-class citizens instead. Sometimes this status is enforced by law; other times it’s merely a customary practice, but the results are the same. While conquered people are part of the empire, they’ll never reap the full benefits. The likelihood of this goes up if the conquered people look different, speak a different language, or have a different religion than their conquerors.
While it may be easier to exploit second-class citizens in the short term, an empire built on them is living on borrowed time. Sooner or later, fortunes will shift, and the conquered people will throw off their second-class status in favor of independence.
As an alternative to assimilation, some empires try to maintain cultural distinctions within their territory, especially if each culture is given some level of autonomy in governing itself. In this situation, the imperial authority is placed in the role of referee, trying to balance the needs and desires of the various groups within its territory. In order for this to work, there must still be something holding the groups together. In many Muslim empires, that was a common religion. Turks and Egyptians had very different interests, but in the Caliphate they were united by Islam. Alternatively, separate groups might be united in loyalty to a single monarch or political system.
By far the grimmest option, some empires see conquered peoples as little more than obstacles to be removed. This usually happens when an empire wants to clear land for settlement or resource exploitation, and it will make for a dark story indeed. I advise extreme caution in choosing this option, because it’s likely to touch on very painful wounds felt by many people today. Read up on how to avoid recreating real-world trauma before going this route.
What External Threats Does Your Empire Face?
If there’s one thing empires are famous for, it’s getting into conflicts, and the first kind of threat most people think of is an external one. The type of threat will dictate the empire’s response, so it’s important to determine which threat best suits your story.
This is the most straightforward kind of conflict: your empire squaring off against a powerful enemy. In all likelihood, the enemy is another empire. Armies numbering in the hundreds of thousands will march across the land, and entire economies will be retooled for war. This will be a clash of titans that leaves smaller countries fleeing for cover.
If your empire has no rivals equal to its power, there’s a good chance its borders are harassed by raiders. These are hardened warriors who attack your empire for the purpose of gaining wealth. They’re difficult to strike back at, either because their homes are in remote regions or they’re nomadic and move camp whenever legions approach.
The empire might leave citizens on its borders to defend themselves against these warriors. To the central provinces, raiders often seem like a minor problem. That is, until the disparate raiders unite and pour into the empire as conquerors. Empires across history have fallen this way, from Rome to China.
Even if your empire is the top dog of its region, there’s always the possibility of someone much stronger in distant lands. Emissaries of these far-off powers occupy an odd position. They don’t have the resources or supply lines to actually conquer your empire, but they can cause enough damage that your empire won’t risk offending them. This was the case in China during the 1800s. More and more European ships sailed into Chinese harbors, and while an invasion of China was unlikely, those ships could cause catastrophic damage all on their own.
In this scenario, your empire is actually the underdog, and must try to maneuver around a threat that possesses far superior weapons. It’s a conflict that’s as much about preventing hardliners from provoking the foreigners as it is about keeping the foreigners at bay.
In real life, no human civilization has ever been threatened by large animals, but in a fantasy setting things could be different. Some kind of ecological disaster might have forced powerful and numerous monsters to migrate out of their normal habitat and into imperial territory.
The monsters wouldn’t even need to attack humans. Herds of gargantuan herbivores could easily wreck an entire harvest, threatening the empire with collapse.
Your empire is so powerful that no external force poses a serious threat to it. That’s all right since you’ve got plenty of internal threats to choose from.
What Internal Threats Does Your Empire Face?
In history class, we tend to focus on empires that were conquered by another empire even more powerful than they were. But just as many empires, if not more, have been laid low by internal threats.
Because empires are made up of various groups coerced into a single state, rebellions are almost inevitable. In most cases, rebellions are quickly crushed, and they only become a problem when lots of them happen at once, forcing the empire to play whack-a-mole.
But it’s also possible for a single rebellion to cause incredible damage. China’s Taiping Rebellion was one such conflict, with tens of millions killed over 14 years. With a rebellion of that scale, even a victory will leave the empire shaken to the core.
This threat is a lot less flashy than a rebellion, but it’s potentially much more damaging. As an empire gets larger it requires more and more bureaucracy to manage, and eventually that bureaucracy can grow so complex that it’s impossible to get anything done.
At the same time, as the imperial elite entrenches itself, more and more of the empire’s wealth flows to the top. That means there’s less money to keep the empire’s institutions running, and the machinery of state slowly grinds to a halt.
War gets a lot of credit for killing people, but disease is the real champion in creating dead humans. Plagues are particularly devastating to empires, because an empire has a lot of people traveling between population centers. This gives the plague an easy way to spread. Empires also fight a lot of wars, which are even better at spreading disease since huge numbers of people inflict open wounds on each other.
When the crops fail, everything else grinds to a halt. Famines are usually started by a natural phenomena like drought, insects, or intense flooding, and then made worse by human actions. Wars require huge amounts of food, which is a problem if farms are already producing less than normal. On top of that, conscription strips many young laborers from the field, further reducing yields.
And then the chaos begins. People flee their homes, hoping to find food in other parts of the empire, but it’s likely those areas are suffering from famine as well. As food grows scarcer, imperial authority breaks down. Nothing motivates folk to rebel like a shortage of bread. If the crisis isn’t alleviated, it can lead to vicious fighting within the empire as those with power try to hoard whatever food is still available.
Compared to famines and plagues, a shortage of non-edible resources isn’t normally a huge problem. Most of the time, a new source of the material can be found, especially in vast imperial territories. But sometimes, there is no new supply of a critical resource. Bronze-Age empires found this out the hard way, as the bronze they depended on grew scarcer and scarcer.
Even a really severe resource shortage won’t destroy an empire, but it can force the empire to overextend. Before the iron mines ran dry, your empire might have considered faraway lands too much effort to conqueror, but now the imperial armies must to go farther and farther afield to secure the precious metal. An empire that’s stretched thin in search of resources is vulnerable to other threats.
Who Does Your Empire Threaten?
The final question to ask about your empire is who it threatens. The answer will determine a lot of the conflict in your setting and be extra important if your empire is the bad guy. Historically, empires threaten everyone around them, but you’ll want to get a little more specific.
An empire’s favorite pastime is gobbling up its neighbors. This is never good news for the people being absorbed, which is why smaller states will try all kinds of tricks to stay independent. Sometimes they build strong defenses to make themselves too much trouble for conquest. Other times they try to play one empire off against another. But no matter how hard a state tries to avoid confrontation, it’s only a matter of time before your empire comes knocking.
This kind of conflict will involve a lot of armies, sieges, and high-stakes diplomacy. In order to remain independent, the small state will have to beat your empire at its own game.
As empires grow, they eventually set their sites on people with very different ways of life. Usually, these people live beyond some natural obstacle that prevents easy cultural exchange. Oceans are famously good at separating people, but mountains and deserts can have the same effect. Whatever the obstacle, your empire eventually discovers a means to cross it.
When an empire comes into conflict with distant civilizations, the results are difficult to predict. With neighboring states, everyone is playing by roughly the same rules. But a distant civilization might have entirely different ideas of property ownership and how wars are waged – to say nothing about social etiquette. If you want a conflict that’s as much about figuring out the other side as it is about fighting them, this is the option for you.
Finally, an empire often poses the biggest threat to people who already live within its borders. Sometimes the threat arises immediately after conquest, with the empire divvying up captured lands to enrich its soldiers. Other times, conquered people can live in relative peace for decades until some change in imperial policy creates a problem. Perhaps priests in the capital have convinced the senate that minority religions should no longer be allowed, or imperial tax collectors have decided to strip food from a border province to feed the central cities.
Will the conquered people rise in open rebellion, or will they seek a political solution to the crisis? Since no group of people acts in perfect harmony, the answer could be both.
By answering these questions, you should have a basic framework for how your empire functions. If you want more than one empire in you setting, just repeat the process! Of course, there’s still a lot left to fill in, especially around questions of culture, but now you have a solid foundation. You should also feel free to branch out from these options. Even a casual reading of history reveals that empires have room for almost infinite diversity, especially if your knowledge base isn’t Eurocentric. Make whatever changes feel right for your plot and setting, as long as you can still see how they fit into your empire’s greater whole.
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