The 7 Most Powerful Nations in History

1. Egypt (c1570BC – c1100BC)

In all, the civilisation of Ancient Egypt lasted from 3150BC to 332 BC, when the once proud empire was invaded and conquered by the Greeks. In those long millennia of power, the nation reached its pinnacle in what is known as the New Kingdom between the 16th century BC and the 11th century BC. The history of ancient Egypt is broken down into kingdoms and dynasties, and the New Kingdom comprised the Eighteenth, Nineteenth, and Twentieth Dynasties of Egypt. It was Egypt’s most prosperous time and marked the peak of its power. The Eighteenth Dynasty contained some of Egypt’s most famous Pharaohs, including Ahmose I, Hatshepsut, Thutmose III, Amenhotep III, Akhenaten and Tutankhamun and was marked by expansions in Egypt’s external trade and army, along with the consolidation of the Egyptian empire. In the Nineteenth Dynasty, Ramesses II (“the Great”) fought campaigns of conquest. The last “great” pharaoh from the New Kingdom is widely considered to be Ramesses III, a Twentieth Dynasty pharaoh who reigned several decades after Ramesses II. Throughout his reign, Ramesses III was forced to defend Egypt’s borders, which led to a draining of the Empire’s treasury and a decline in the Empire. Rameses III’s death was followed by years of bickering among his heirs. Three of his sons ascended the throne successively as Ramesses IV, Rameses VI and Rameses VIII. Egypt was increasingly beset by droughts, below-normal flooding of the Nile, famine, civil unrest and official corruption. The power of the last pharaoh of the dynasty, Ramesses XI, grew so weak that in the south the High Priests of Amun at Thebes became the de facto rulers of Upper Egypt, and the power of the greatest nation on Earth began to wane.

2. Rome (c30BC to c180)

Rome was, in its own estimation, the greatest city there was or had ever been. They had a point, for a time. Founded by Augustus Caesar in 30 BC from the remains of the once great Roman Republic, the city Empire made large territorial gains around the Mediterranean Sea in Europe, Africa and Asia. The city of Rome was the largest city in the world from c. 100 BC – c. AD 400. While the imperial period of Rome lasted approximately 1,500 years the first two centuries of the Empire’s existence were a period of unprecedented political stability and prosperity known as the Pax Romana, or “Roman Peace”. Following Augustus and his mad nephew Caligula, the Senate briefly considered restoring the republic, but the Praetorian Guard proclaimed Claudius emperor instead. Under Claudius, the empire invaded Britannia, its first major expansion since Augustus. After Claudius’ successor, Nero, committed suicide in AD 68, the empire suffered a series of brief civil wars. Vespasian emerged triumphant in AD 69, establishing the Flavian dynasty, before being succeeded by his son Titus, who opened the Colosseum shortly after the eruption of Mount Vesuvius. His short reign was followed by the long reign of his brother Domitian. The Senate then appointed the first of the Five Good Emperors. The empire reached its greatest extent under Trajan, the second in this line. Following the death of the last of the Five Good Emperors, Marcus Aurelius, a period of increasing trouble and decline began with the reign of Commodus. The Roman Empire was the most powerful economic, cultural, political and military forces in the world of its time. It was one of the largest empires in world history. At its height under Trajan, it covered 5 million square kilometres. It held sway over an estimated 70 million people, at that time 21% of the world’s entire population. The longevity and vast extent of the empire ensured the lasting influence of Latin and Greek language, culture, religion, inventions, architecture, philosophy, law and forms of government on the empire’s descendants.

3. Song Dynasty China (960-1279)

The Song dynasty was founded by Emperor Taizu of Song following his usurpation of the throne of Later Zhou. The Song government was the first in world history to issue banknotes nationally and the first Chinese government to establish a permanent standing navy. This dynasty also saw the first known use of gunpowder, as well as the first discernment of true north using a compass. The population of China doubled in size during the 10th and 11th centuries. This dramatic increase of population caused an economic revolution in pre-modern China. Social life during the Song was vibrant. Citizens gathered to view and trade precious artworks, the populace intermingled at public festivals and private clubs, and cities had lively entertainment quarters. The spread of literature and knowledge was enhanced by the rapid expansion of woodblock printing and the 11th-century invention of movable-type printing. Technology, science, philosophy, mathematics, and engineering flourished over the course of the Song. Philosophers such as Cheng Yi and Zhu Xi reinvigorated Confucianism with new commentary, infused with Buddhist ideals, and emphasized a new organization of classic texts that brought out the core doctrine of Neo-Confucianism. Eventually the great Song civilisation was defeated and eclipsed by the nationless Mongol empire.

4. Mughal India (1526- 1739)

The Mughal Empire was a Muslim dynasty that ruled India. The Empire was based in the north of India with Indian Rajput and Persian roots and in time the emperors became more Indian than strictly Muslim. The Mughal Empire at its peak extended over nearly all of the Indian subcontinent and large parts of Afghanistan. It spanned 1.5 million square miles at its zenith. The Mughal Empire began a period of proto-industrialization and Mughal India became the world’s largest economic power, with 24.4% of world GDP, and the world leader in manufacturing, producing 25% of global industrial output up until the 18th century. Founded by Babur after the First Battle of Panipat (1526), the “classic period” of the Mughal Empire started in 1556 with the ascension of Akbar the Great to the throne. Under the rule of Akbar and his son Jahangir, the region enjoyed economic progress as well as religious harmony, and the monarchs were interested in local religious and cultural traditions. Akbar was a successful warrior who also forged alliances with several Hindu Rajput kingdoms. The reign of Shah Jahan, the fifth emperor, between 1628 and 1658, was the golden age of Mughal architecture. He erected several large monuments, the best known of which is the Taj Mahal at Agra, as well as the Moti Masjid, Agra, the Red Fort, the Jama Masjid, Delhi, and the Lahore Fort. The Mughal Empire reached the zenith of its territorial expanse during the reign of Aurangzeb. During his lifetime, victories in the south expanded the Mughal Empire to its greatest extent, ruling over more than 150 million subjects, nearly one quarter of the world’s population at the time. By the mid-18th century, external attacks and internal dissent led to the Empire’s break-up into several small states. In 1739, the Mughals were crushingly defeated in the Battle of Karnal by the forces of Nader Shah, the founder of the Afsharid dynasty in Persia, and Delhi was sacked and looted, drastically accelerating their decline. The last remnants of the empire were formally taken over by the British, and the Government of India Act 1858 let the British Crown formally assume direct control of India in the form of the new British Raj.

5. France, (1700-1815)

France has a long and glorious history, but it was arguably at its greatest power, and as such was the greatest power in the world, from the accession of the Sun King, Louis XIV to the fall of Napoleon. Louis believed in the divine right of kings, which asserts that a monarch is above everyone except God, and is therefore not answerable to the will of his people, the aristocracy, or the Church. Louis continued his predecessors’ work of creating a centralized state governed from Paris, sought to eliminate remnants of feudalism in France, and subjugated and weakened the aristocracy. By these means he consolidated a system of absolute monarchical rule in France that endured until the French Revolution. The kingdom was engaged in war with Spain through much of Louis’s reign, but the king’s control over his state was absolute and grew over the years. This was best evidenced by Louis demand that all aristocracy live with him in the great palace at Versailles so that he could stop them plotting against him. Louis’s reign was a golden age of the arts and crafts, still celebrated today. Louis XIV wanted to be remembered as a patron of the arts. He invited Jean-Baptiste Lully to establish the French opera. Jules HardouinMansart became France’s most important architect of the period, bringing the pinnacle of French Baroque architecture. While the state expanded, new Enlightenment ideas flourished. Montesquieu proposed the separation of powers. Many other French philosophes (intellectuals) exerted philosophical influence on a continental scale, including Voltaire, Denis Diderot and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, whose essay The Social Contract, Or Principles of Political Right was a catalyst for governmental and societal reform throughout Europe. Diderot’s great Encyclopédie reshaped the European world view. Astronomy, chemistry, mathematics and technology flourished. French scientists such as Antoine Lavoisier worked to replace the archaic units of weights and measures by a coherent scientific system. Lavoisier also formulated the law of Conservation of mass and discovered oxygen and hydrogen. Revolution came to France in 1789 when the people revolted against the decadence and power of the aristocracy. Even through this turbulent time, France remained the pre-eminent European power. Following a period of anarchy and chaos, which included the execution of King Louis XVI, France began to settle down under the Consulship of Napoleon Bonaparte, and two others. Soon, Napoleon’s ambition made its mark and within 5 years he was crowned Emperor. France spent 10 years fighting off the combined European powers who feared Napoleon’s expansionist design. He was defeated, captured and made a comeback, leading the Empire to a further defeat at Waterloo in 1815. After the Emperor was deposed, France restored the monarchy, but it was a weak thing compared to the glories of the past.

6. Great Britain, (1815-1918)

The British Empire originated with the overseas possessions and trading posts established by England between the late 16th and early 18th centuries. At its height, in the so-called Imperial Century, it was the largest empire in history and, for over a century, was the foremost global power. By 1913, the British Empire held sway over 412 million people, 23% of the world population at the time, and by 1920, it covered 13,700,000 sq mi, 24% of the Earth’s total land area. As a result, its political, legal, linguistic and cultural legacy is widespread. At the peak of its power, the phrase “the empire on which the sun never sets” was often used to describe the British Empire, because its expanse around the globe meant that the sun was always shining on at least one of its territories. Between 1815 and 1914 around 10,000,000 square miles of territory and roughly 400 million people were added to the British Empire. Victory over Napoleon left Britain without any serious international rival. Unchallenged at sea, Britain adopted the role of global policeman. Alongside the formal control it exerted over its own colonies, Britain’s dominant position in world trade meant that it effectively controlled the economies of many countries, such as China, Argentina and Siam. The ravages of WW1 began the decline of the Empire, and after WW”, the demand for independence from its colonies became irresistible. The sun finally did set on the British Empire in 1948 when the prize possession of India was granted independence.

7. United States of America, (1945 to present)

After WW1 many former great nations were broken (Germany, Austria-Hungary), or stunned and hurting (Britain, France) or engaged in revolutionary remodelling (Russia). One nation took the opportunity to consolidate its assent into what remains the most powerful nation on earth. The United States seemed to realise that its great industrial capacity and its highly motivated population could soon eclipse the old and dying glories of ancient Europe. The period after the end of WWII, despite an intense rivalry with the Soviet Union (or possibly because of it) was a time of high economic growth and general prosperity. The US became an economic power house the like of which the world had never seen. It seemed that nothing was impossible, including putting men on the moon, which happened in 1969. Despite unrest over civil rights, the assassinationof one president and the resignation of another, by the late 1980s the US stood unchallenged as the world’s only superpower. Even with the emergence of a new world order in the 1990’s and the threat from international terrorism in the early part of the 21st century, the US powered through. The victory of Ronald Reagan in 1980 and the Clinton boom of the 1990s built the US economy even further, and the combined effects of two long costly wars in the Middle East and the global economic crash of 2008 proved to be tough but not unconquerable challenges to the mighty US economy. Unrivalled as a military power, a centre of innovation, and in economic might, it seems that this continues to be the American century.

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