25 Medieval Empires

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 25 empires from the Middle Ages, starting with the most successful.

Byzantium / Eastern Roman Empire (c. 330-1453)

The Byzantine Empire was at its height during the reign of Justinian I in the sixth century CE – Wikimedia Commons

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 Constantinople, the empire would last over a thousand years, and at the height of its power, controlled most of the coastal lands surrounding the Mediterranean, including Egypt, North Africa and parts of Italy and Spain.


Byzantium would see many periods of decline and return to prosperity. Constantinople itself was besieged several times and nearly conquered – in all but two cases it was able to survive. On the first fall of Constantinople, in 1204, it would take more than fifty years before a Byzantine emperor could regain control. However, when Constantinople fell to the Ottoman Empire in 1453, that marked an end to its empire.

Byzantium has had a huge influence on the medieval world, carrying on the idea of the Roman Empire and becoming an important centre of Christianity throughout the Middle Ages. Its endurance and impact on history make it, in our opinion, the most successful medieval empire in the Middle Ages.


Mongol Empire (1206–1368)

Map showing changes in borders of the Mongol Empire and subsequent Mongol domaines. - Wikimedia Commons
Map showing changes in borders of the Mongol Empire and subsequent Mongol domaines. – Wikimedia Commons

After uniting the Mongol people, Chinggis Khan (c.1162-1227) and his successors would use their military power to conquer state after state. By the mid-thirteenth century the Mongols would establish the largest contiguous land empire in history, stretching from Korea to the Middle East. Its military might was unrivalled, but it also allowed for relatively peaceful conditions to exist within its border – this allowed for more international trade and travel, spreading goods and ideas across Eurasia.

The Mongol Empire did not last long – it was so large and spread out that by the second half of the thirteenth century it would break apart into several empires, including the Yuan Dynasty in China and the Ilkhanate in the Middle East. These successor states would themselves only usually last for a few generations.

Republic of Venice (697–1797)

Image by Netzach / Wikimedia Commons

The Most Serene Republic of Venice began in a lagoon at the northern end of the Adriatic Sea and was something of a vassal state to the Byzantine Empire. It 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. However, it was not really a land empire, but rather a sea-power that grew enormously wealthy through trade and made sure it had enough naval strength to defend its interests.

Tang Dynasty (618–907)

The Tang dynasty territory in 742 – Wikimedia Commons

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)

Image by André Koehne / Wikimedia Commons

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)

Image by Lotroo / Wikimedia Commons

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)

Umayyad Caliphate at its greatest extent, c. AD 750 - Wikimedia Commons
Umayyad Caliphate at its greatest extent, c. AD 750 – Wikimedia Commons

After Muawiya ibn Abi Sufyan became the ruler of the Muslim world and established 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. A branch of the Umayyad family would continue to rule in Spain until the eleventh century.


Khmer Empire (802-1431)

The Khmer Empire (Kambuja), c. 900 – Wikimedia Commons

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 fourteenth century the empire was declining and Angkor was eventually abandoned due to attacks from neighbours and environmental changes.

Abbasid Caliphate (750-1258)

Uprisings within the Middle East against the Umayyads would lead to the Abbasid Revolution, which ushered in a new Caliphate. The Abbasids would build an empire centred around Baghdad, and during the ninth century they could claim to be the political and cultural centre of the world.

When it started, the Abbasid Caliphate extended from North Africa to Central Asia, but its borders gradually declined as new states emerged and the Abbasids themselves fell under the control of military commanders. By the eleventh century, the Abbasids controlled a territory that only reached as far as present-day southern Iraq, although they still had a significant religious importance for many Muslims. The caliphate lasted until 1258, when the Mongols conquered Baghdad and killed Caliph al-Musta’sim.

Chola Empire (848–1279)

This map shows the greatest extent of the Chola empire during 1030 under Rajendra Chola I: territories are shown in blue, and subordinates and areas of influence are shown in pink. Image by Nipuna Weerasinghe / Wikimedia Commons

While the Chola Dynasty can trace its origins back to the third century BCE, it was in the ninth century that this Tamil-based state created a maritime empire that dominated the Indian Ocean. At its height, the Chola Empire ruled much of southern India, Sri Lanka and the Maldives. Furthermore, they used naval campaigns to establish a large degree of control over parts of Southeast Asia.


First Bulgarian Empire (681–1018)

First Bulgarian Empire - Wikimedia Commons
First Bulgarian Empire – Wikimedia Commons

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)

Image by Poznaniak, Julieta39 / Wikimedia Commons

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.

Song Dynasty (970-1269)

The Song dynasty at its greatest extent in 1111 – Wikimedia Commons

After uniting China in the tenth century, the Song Dynasty established a period of prosperity. Reaching a population of over a hundred million, the people of this state would be responsible for a number of scientific and technological innovations, including the introduction of paper money and gunpowder.

The dynasty is divided into two periods: Northern Song (960–1127) and Southern Song (1127–1279), which is defined by the loss of much of its northern territory in the early twelfth century. The Southern Song was defeated and conquered by the Mongols.

Crown of Aragon (1137–1716)

Lands of the Crown of Aragon. Map by MS Sakib / Wikimedia Commons

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 the Balearic Islands, Sicily, Corsica, Sardinia, Malta, Southern Italy, and parts of Greece.

Mamluk Sultanate (1250-1517)

Map of the Mamluk sultanate during the third reign of al-Nasir Muhammad, 1317 AD – Map by Ro4444 / Wikimedia Commons

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. The Mamluks 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)

The Angevin Empire in 1190 – Wikimedia Commons

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 were gained through marriage, Henry seems to have been up to the 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 down to the Kingdom of England.

Mali Empire (c. 1235–c. 1600)

The Mali Empire, circa 1350. Wikimedia Commons

Established over large parts of West Africa, this state was centred around the city of Timbuktu, which would become 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)

The Holy Roman Empire around 1000 AD – Wikimedia Commons

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.

Delhi Sultanate (1206–1526)

Delhi Sultanate at its greatest extent, under the Tughlaq dynasty, 1330–1335 – Wikimedia Commons

An empire that was ruled by five different dynasties, the Delhi Sultanate would eventually stretch out to encompass nearly the entire Indian subcontinent. It would be a period that would see Islamic and Asian peoples and cultures become more integrated into Indian society.

Kalmar Union (1397–1523)

The Kalmar Union at the beginning of the 16th century - Wikimedia Commons
The Kalmar Union at the beginning of the 16th century – Wikimedia Commons

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)

Map by Omar-toons / Wikimedia Commons

The Fatimids, an Ismaili Shia movement, had fled into northern Africa to escape Sunni persecution. With the help of the local Berber tribes, the Fatimids 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 and as one of the most important and prosperous cities in the world. The empire would expand into the Red Sea and Syria, but began to decay in the late eleventh century, challenged by Turks and Crusaders. Eventually, their own military commanders would seize control of Egypt and usurp the Fatimid Caliph.

Hunnic Empire (c. 420–469)

The Huns under Attila, circa 450 AD – Shepherd, William R.: Historical Atlas. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1911.

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)

Tumurid Empire around 1405 – Map by Stuntelaar / Wikimedia Commons

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.

Ghaznavid Empire (977–1186)

Ghaznavid Empire at its greatest extent in 1030 CE under Mahmud. – Wikimedia Commons

It is largely due to the efforts of Mahmud of Ghazni (998-1030) that the Ghaznavid Dynasty flourished in the eleventh century, taking control of parts of Central Asia and the Indian subcontinent. It would be during this period that Persian culture thrived.

North Sea Empire (1016–1035)

North Sea Empire. Red: Countries where Cnut was king. Orange: vassals. Yellow: allies – Wikimedia Commons

The Viking ruler Cnut earned the moniker of ‘the Great’ by becoming the king 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 1035 each of the three kingdoms went their separate ways.

A final thought about these medieval empires – in nearly every case, they largely achieved this power by subjugating other states and peoples, often impoverishing them and taking their wealth. Some of these empires would be very shortlived, lasting little more than a generation. Only a few of them would endure for a long period, a testament to their ability to forge an administration that could control /co-opt different peoples into accepting the legitimacy of these empires.