Throughout the medieval era, many multi-ethnic states emerged – some lasting for just a generation, while others would endure for centuries. Here is our list of twenty empires from the Middle Ages, starting with the most successful.
Byzantium (c. 330-1453)
Long after the Western half of the Roman Empire had broken up, the Eastern half, known as Byzantium, would continue to flourish. Based out of the city of Constantinople, the empire would last over a thousand years, although there were stretches when Byzantine fortunes were weak. However, its endurance and impact on medieval life make it rank for us the most successful empire in the Middle Ages.
Mongol Empire (1206–1368)
After uniting the Mongol people, Genghis Khan (c.1162-1227) and his successors would use their military power to conquer state after state, until by the mid-thirteenth century the Mongols would establish the largest contiguous land empire in history. However, the empire would soon break apart, forming powerful states like the Ilkhanate in the Middle East and the Yuan Dynasty in China.
Republic of Venice (697–1797)
The Most Serene Republic of Venice began in a lagoon at the northern end of the Adriatic Sea, but would make use of its maritime assets to become one of the most important economic powerhouses of the medieval world. The Venetians would take control of parts of Italy, the Adriatic coast, Crete and Cyprus, while setting up commercial posts in the Western Mediterranean and Black Seas.
Tang dynasty (618–907)
The period of the Tang Dynasty is regarded as one of the most prosperous times in Chinese history. With a population of around 50 million, rising to nearly 80 million at the end of the ninth century, the empire was able to build military forces that moved westward and conquered parts of Central Asia. Moreover, the dynasty became a leader in establishing economic, cultural and technological innovation, greatly influencing its neighbours such as Japan and Korea.
Ottoman Empire (1299–1923)
It would be the Ottomans that would bring an end to the Byzantine Empire, and then establish its control over southeastern Europe, the Middle East and North Africa. The Ottoman Empire’s greatest period would be the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, but the state would continue to endure, although gradually declining, until the twentieth century.
Carolingian Dynasty (800–888)
The reign of Charlemagne (768–814) was pivotal in changing the map of medieval Europe – much of the western half of the continent would fall under his rule, and on Christmas Day in the year 800 he was crowned Emperor. However, his sons and grandsons would have trouble holding onto this vast empire, and before the end of the ninth century it would split into what we now call today France and Germany.
Umayyad Caliphate (661–750)
After Muawiya ibn Abi Sufyan would become the ruler of the Muslim world and establish his own Umayyad dynasty based out of Damascus, his military forces would conquer large swaths of territory. At its height the Umayyad Caliphate would extend from India to the Atlantic Ocean. However, as military success subsided and the Islamic religion changed, the Umayyads were overthrown by the Abbasid Revolution. While a branch of the Umayyad family would continue to rule in Spain until the eleventh century, the Abbasid Caliphate would represent the most prosperous period of Islamic civilization, although the state itself gradually became more decentralized.
Khmer Empire (802-1431)
For over six hundred years the Khmer peoples of South East Asia were able to create a dominant state. From its magnificent capital city of Angkor, the Khmer Empire stretched out over what today is Cambodia, Thailand, Laos, and southern Vietnam. However, by the 14th and 15th century the empire was decline and Angkor abandoned due to attacks from neighbours and environmental changes.
First Bulgarian Empire (681–1018)
After the Bulgars settled in the Balkans in the seventh-century they would carve out for themselves a growing state that eventually would encompass much of southeastern Europe. Simeon I (893-927) would even assume the title of Emperor as the Bulgarians threatened to conquer Byzantium. A Second Bulgarian Empire emerged in 1185, and would last for another two hundred years before being defeated by the Ottomans.
Jagiellonian dynasty (1386-1572)
The marriage of Jogaila, the Grand Duke of Lithuania and Queen Jadwiga of Poland in 1386 helped establish a multi-ethnic regional power in Eastern Europe. At its greatest extent, the Jagiellonians would rule territory from the Baltic Sea to the Black Sea, and would also briefly rule Hungary as well.
Crown of Aragon (1137–1716)
This Mediterranean maritime empire began in 1137 with the marriage of Raymond Berenguer IV and Petronilla of Aragon, uniting the County of Barcelona and the Kingdom of Aragon. Their descendants would continue to add states and principalities to their own personal rule, so that by the Later Middle Ages they would have domain over Balearic Islands, Sicily, Corsica, Sardinia, Malta, Southern Italy, and parts of Greece.
Mamluk Sultanate (1250-1517)
The Mamluks were slaves – taken from parts of the Steppe and Central Asia and trained to be the best military forces in the medieval world. Even after they overthrew the Ayyubid Dynasty and took control of Egypt and Syria they would continue to replenish their ranks and leadership with slaves. They were able to hold off repeated Mongol invasions, remove the Crusader States from the eastern Mediterranean, and hold onto power for over 250 years.
Angevin Empire (1154–1214)
Henry II would amass a series of titles during his reign: Count of Anjou, Count of Maine, Count of Nantes, Duke of Normandy, Duke of Aquitaine, Lord of Ireland and King of England. While some lands he inherited and others gained through marriage, Henry seems to have up to task of maintaining and enhancing an empire that included almost half of France. The French king was surprised by what an active ruler Henry was, commenting “The king of England is now in Ireland, now in England, now in Normandy, he seems rather to fly than to go by horse or ship.” However, family infighting and lacklustre reigns by his sons Richard and John would strip the Angevin empire back to down to the Kingdom of England.
Mali Empire (c. 1235–c. 1600)
Established over large parts of West Africa, this state was centred around the city of Timbuktu, which would became a trading, educational and cultural hub. It might be best known for the rule of Mansa Musa (1312-1337) who is believed to have been one of the wealthiest individuals in world history.
Holy Roman Empire (962–1806)
In 962 the German Otto I reinstated the position of Emperor, fashioning himself as the successor of Charlemagne. Although the empire theoretically extended from northern Italy to Austria, Germany, the Low Countries and the present-day Czech Republic, it was a very decentralized state with many of the city-states and principalities ruling themselves. The position of emperor was actually elected among the high ranking families of the empire, which usually further limited its power.
Kalmar Union (1397–1523)
Between 1387 and 1389 Queen Margaret I of Norway was able to become the ruler of Denmark, Sweden and Norway, the latter of which also made her the sovereign over Iceland and Greenland. This Scandinavian union was formalized on 17 June 1397 by the Treaty of Kalmar, which stipulated an eternal union of the three realms under one king, and while they were to be governed separately, the foreign policy was to be conducted jointly by the monarch. However, the eternal union would not last, with Sweden reestablishing its own kingdom in the sixteenth century.
Fatimid Caliphate (909–1171)
The Fatimids, an Ismaili Shia movement, had fled into northern Africa to escape Sunni persecution. With the help of the local Berber tribes, the Fatimid rulers were able to carve out a kingdom in what is present-day Algeria and Tunisia. By the year 969 they conquered Egypt and established Cairo as the capital of their caliphate. The empire would expand into the Red Sea and Syria, but began to decay in the late 11th century, challenged by Turks and Crusaders. Eventually the military commanders Nur ad-Din and his nephew Saladin would seize control of Egypt.
Hunnic Empire (c. 420–469)
Around the year 420 the Hun brothers Octar and Rugila began to establish a confederacy of nomadic tribes in the western half of the Great Steppe. The Hunnic Empire would reach its greatest strength under the rule of Attila (434–453) stretching out from Germany to central Asia. Attila launched invasions of both the Eastern and Western portions of the Roman Empire, and may have even conquered Rome itself if he had not died on his wedding night, with one account suggesting it was from a severe nosebleed. After his death the empire quickly collapsed.
Timurid Empire (1370–1507)
In 1370 the Turco-Mongol warlord Timur, also known as Tamerlane, began his reign and his attempt to restore the Mongol Empire. He would take control of much of Central Asia, Iran, Iraq and the Caucasus, and would even challenge the Ottomans and Mamluks in the Middle East. However, after Timur’s death in 1405 the empire he built up would decline and break up, with various Timurid rulers continuing to rule smaller states for the next hundred years.
North Sea Empire (1016–1035)
The Viking ruler Cnut earned the moniker of ‘the Great’ by becoming the kings of England, Denmark and Norway. The historian Laurence Larson commented, “When the eleventh century began its fourth decade, Cnut, was with the single exception of the Emperor, the most imposing ruler in Latin Christendom.” After his death in 1135 each of the three kingdoms went their separate ways.
Learn more about these empires:
Top Image: The oldest surviving Ptolemaic world map, redrawn according to his 1st projection by monks at Constantinople under Maximus Planudes around 1300