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Empire

The Course of Empire: Destruction by Thomas Cole

Empires have been part of human history for millennia. Are they, of necessity, a bad thing?

Mosaic from Hagia Sofia depicting Constantine I with a representation of the city of Constantinople

Though the beginnings of the Byzantine Empire are unclear, its demise is not. The history of the Eastern Roman Empire, from its foundation in 324 to its conquest in 1453, is one of war, plague, architectural triumphs and fear of God's wrath.

‘Grover Cleveland Taming the British Lion’, Joseph Keppler, Puck, 1888.

At the beginning of the 20th century, there were 16 empires of varying size and reach. At the end of the century, there was just one: the United States. How did this happen and what role did Britain play in smoothing America’s path to global hegemony?

George V and Queen Mary watching the Delhi Durbar from the Red  Fort, accompanied by Indian princes acting as pages, 1911.

The voice of the British monarch carried considerable weight in imperial India. Its slow silencing mirrored the retreat of Britain from the subcontinent. 

US Marines evacuating wounded comrades, Kut al-Amara, 3 April 2003. (Gilles Bassignac/Gamma-Rapho, Paris)

Two imperial ventures, in the same Middle East town a century apart, reveal the similarities – and differences – in the exercise of power.

Prester John enthroned on a map of East Africa. Detail from 16th century atlas.

For five centuries the legend of a Christian priest king, in Asia or in Africa, sustained the hopes of Europeans in their struggle with Islam. Those who joined the search for Prester John were looking for a man who was not there. 

Empire 1.0: Florence Preston drives in the last peg of the Uganda Railway.

Though much of the West has withdrawn from empire, one of the world’s rising powers offers the latest twist on imperialism.  

Japan’s vast Asian empire became home to more than a million female settlers, who told their stories in an effort to keep in contact. 

Hacienda La Fortuna. A sugar mill complex in Puerto Rico, painted by Francisco Oller in 1885

Sweet it may be, but sugar's story is a bitter one, embracing slavery, decay and obesity.

The foundations of modern India were laid by the British governor-general, Warren Hastings. But he paid a heavy personal price.