Weird History

12 Small Countries That Used To Be Gigantic Empires 

Dave Smith
Updated February 6, 2020 116.2k views 12 items

It's incredible to imagine, but some small countries in all corners of the globe used to be capitals of mighty empires that controlled continents or swaths of land. There are a lot of remnants of empires that once ruled the world. Italy, for example, was once the center of the Roman Empire. But there are plenty of small countries that used to be bigger - take Mexico, which used to control almost all of North America.  

Our modern world was shaped by conflict, wheeling and dealing, and military conquest. Amazingly, some of the largest and most powerful imperial states to emerge grew out of very small countries. Whether for greed, economic survival, or security, these various cultures launched themselves into the annals of history by quickly building vast empires. What do old empires look like now? If you read on, you might be surprised what small countries used to be empires. 

Tiny England Once Controlled A Quarter Of The Earth
Tiny England Once Contro... is listed (or ranked) 1 on the list 12 Small Countries That Used To Be Gigantic Empires
Photo: Arthur Mees/Wikimedia Commons/Public domain

The British Empire is one of the more well-known, but what makes it so interesting is how long it was able to stay in power. Like the Roman Empire, the Spanish Empire, and others, the British Empire was able to hold on to power and territory by using the vast power of its colonies to put down rebellions and fight wars. 

Beginning in the 15th century during the reign of Henry VII, the English began the process of modernizing their navy for long-distance trade. Under Richard III, Henry VIII, and Elizabeth I, the navy was built up and the first overseas colony was established at Newfoundland by John Cabot. Once Sir Francis Drake defeated the Spanish Armada and prevented the invasion of England, Britain found herself the power of the seas and able to continue expanding and trading. By the 17th and 18th centuries, England had been setting up colonies in New England, Ireland, Scotland, and then India, the crown jewel of the newly founded British empire. 

England would have never been able to expand and take control of foreign land without the establishment of the British East India Company and the use of state-sponsored privateering. As the East India Company became wealthier, it established the Presidency Army. Unique for its time, the army of the East India Company became the largest privately owned fighting force in the world, and it quickly outgrew the professional English territorial army of the home country. 

By the 19th century, the East India Company’s army was becoming too powerful to control, and Queen Victoria, with the help of Parliament, stepped in to reorganize the army after the horrible Indian Mutiny of the 1850s. The Presidency Army became the Army of British India. The British Empire faced the early stages of dissolution during the outbreak of WWI. In 1916, the Easter Uprising in Ireland demonstrated the dissatisfaction of the Irish towards being ruled by the English. The Great War severely weakened the empire and laid the foundations for WWII. In 1945, with the defeat of Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy, and Imperial Japan, Great Britain began to experience numerous nationalist and liberal movements in India, the South Pacific, Africa, and Palestine. 

After decades of slow dismantlement, Hong Kong was declared to be a special administrative region of the People’s Republic of China. With this simple transfer of power, the last British overseas territory became part of another country and effectively ended the British Empire. The breakup of the British Empire resulted in the birth of over a dozen independent nations in Asia, Africa, South America, Oceania, the Middle East, within the British Isles, and in North America. 

The Ottoman Empire Became Turkey
The Ottoman Empire Becam... is listed (or ranked) 2 on the list 12 Small Countries That Used To Be Gigantic Empires
Photo: Hornius, Georg/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

The Ottoman Empire, named after the individual tribe of Turkic peoples who began the dynasty, has an extremely unique history. It was a state that began with the demise of an ancient empire and lasted into the 20th century. 

During the 700s and 800s CE, various groups of Turkic people indigenous to the Asian steppes were uprooted with the arrival of Mongol forces from the east. One specific Turkic clan, the Ottomans, formed in Anatolia (in modern Turkey) under the leadership of Sultan Osman Gazi and adopted Islam. After consolidating power, he expanded Ottoman-Turkic territory into the territory of the dying Byzantine Empire. 

Just decades before the beginning of the First Christian Crusade, the fledgling Ottoman Empire began growing and reaching further into surrounding territories. Using the landmass that would become modern Turkey, the Ottomans came into control of what is essentially a bridge between Europe and Asia. Through Turkey, trade and military forces could travel between regions. 

With the help of their mercenaries, namely the Christian Janissaries, the Ottomans defeated European armies from several kingdoms from the 10th century until their forces stood at the gates of Constantinople. The city, which was the last bastion of the Eastern Roman Empire, fell to the Ottomans in 1453 and ushered in a new age in Europe. 

Through the centuries, the Ottomans weathered various threats, both internal and external, until WWI erupted in 1914. By this time, the Ottoman Empire was known as the sick man of Europe and showed clear signs of fracturing. 

By 1918, engagements between the Ottoman Empire and its British and French opponents came to an end in an armistice. Within the empire the Young Turks, a revolutionary group led by Enver Pasha, fought for control against the Sultan Mehmed VI, the ruler of the empire. This clash led to an interim Ottoman government that consistently lost control of former lands of the Empire. Then, in 1920, Turkish nationalists convened in Ankara and elected their first president, Mustafa Kemal (Kemal Ataturk). This simple act ignited a vicious but brief civil war amid the chaos of the breakup of the empire and the land grab by the British and French.

Finally, the Turkish National Assembly dissolved the centuries-old Sultanate that culminated in Mehmed VI stepping down from his throne in 1922. In 1923, Mustafa Kemal was recognized as the new, first president of the Turkish Republic. Sadly, most of the Middle Eastern lands formerly under control of the Ottoman Empire were not granted freedom but were absorbed into the British Empire or came under French control. 

Austria Used To Be The Austro-Hungarian Empire
Austria Used To Be The A... is listed (or ranked) 3 on the list 12 Small Countries That Used To Be Gigantic Empires
Photo: Count Béla Kreith and Gustav Freytag/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

As many as 11 individual ethnic groups lived under the rule of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Underneath the veneer of regal pomp and circumstance, this diversity was becoming increasingly difficult for the House of Hapsburg to control. 

The 1867 compromise between Austria and Hungary was one result of the Prussian victory in the Seven Weeks War the previous year. With Austria defeated, the Kingdom of Hungary was in a stronger position to request greater autonomy and stay within the Austrian Empire. The Austrians recognized this and the Austro-Hungarian Empire was born. This agreement benefited both monarchies and offered greater mutual economic and military security protection against external threats. 

When Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated by Gavrilo Princip in 1914, Emperor Franz Joseph declared war on Serbia and WWI quickly escalated into a global conflict. Only two years later, the Emperor passed and was replaced with Charles I. This vacuum and transition of power left the Hapsburg Empire in a terribly dangerous position. The many ethnic groups living within the imperial borders felt strong connections to other countries and wanted emancipation from rule. The Czechoslovak Legion was a fighting force made up mostly of Czechs and some Slovaks. Each group supported breaking away from the Austro-Hungarian Empire and establishing new nations. To help accomplish this, they fought on behalf of the Imperial Russian Army. 

In 1918, the fighting ended and left the wreckage of the Imperial Russian Empire. The German Empire was crumbling, France had fought to exhaustion, Great Britain was weakened, the Ottoman Empire would soon disintegrate, and now the sun was setting on the Austro-Hungarian Empire. After only 51 years, several groups took advantage of the chaos at the end of the fighting to break away and form new nations. Moravia, Ruthenia, Silesia, Bohemia, and Slovakia formed the Republic of Czechoslovakia, while Yugoslavia was born and made up of Bosnia, Croatia-Slavonia, Herzegovina, and the Dalmatian coast. The German-speaking areas of the old Empire became modern Austria, while Poland acquired Galicia and the remaining lands became modern Hungary. In less than a generation, these nations would be thrown into the abyss of WWII and maps of Central and Eastern Europe would change again in 1945. 

The Great Mongol Empire Of Asia And Europe Became Mongolia
The Great Mongol Empire ... is listed (or ranked) 4 on the list 12 Small Countries That Used To Be Gigantic Empires
Photo: Unknown/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

For centuries, the reputation of the Mongols and their empire sent chills down the spines of the cultures who were affected by the wrath of the Khans.

In the 12th century CE, Genghis Khan was born in the mountains of northern Mongolia near the modern border with Siberia. Legend has it, he supposedly emerged from the womb clutching a clot of blood. Born with the name Timujin (or Temujin), he would later prove himself worthy of his more well-known nom du guerre Genghis Khan, which means "Universal Ruler." By 1207, Khan united the warring clans of Mongolia with force and sword one at a time and created a strong chiefdom with a powerful cavalry to solidify power. His rule spread from parts of modern-day Europe and Asia.

Khan's grandson Kublai Khan went on to conquer all of what is now China by the 13th century. It was also around this time he met Marco Polo of Italy. Twenty years later, the elder Khan passed and fractures in the empire began to expand. Several monarchs who paid heavy taxes for protection money began building up armies and defying Mongol law. In West Asia, a Muslim named Timur (also known as Tamerlane) began conquering territory and helping bring Islam to lands formerly under control of the Mongols. Additionally, the Russians mounted a rebellion against the Mongols in what is now Ukraine, and the Ming Dynasty in China began to rebuild its own empire and strengthen its military. It soon became clear the Mongol Empire was too big to defend and various cultures broke away when the Mongols were busy with other insurrections. 

At its height, the Mongol's empire and influence stretched from the Korean peninsula all the way to eastern Poland in the west and from the Siberian border in the north down to as far south as Vietnam. To this day, it remains the largest contiguous empire in human history. When the Empire fell, the Kievan Rus began building their own nation of Russia. The Ming Dynasty began crossing oceans and establishing trade routes, and the empire shrunk over the years to become modern Mongolia.