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What’s the difference between a country and an empire?

It depends. Annoyingly, “empire” is one of those terms that picks up several different meanings, and gets used in different contexts. So first we have to decide, “Why do we want to know?”

In this blog, we focus on worldbuilding for fiction writers. So to me, “empire” is useful as a concept when it helps you think about complex ideas in a straightforward way, and make cooler invented worlds. Let’s talk, therefore, about three lenses through which we can think about an “empire” compared to a “state”: indirect versus direct control; multi-national populations versus a single nation; or rule for the benefit of the imperial class/caste at the expense of the subject peoples, versus rule for the (nominal) benefit of all subjects.

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One way you can think about an empire is that it controls a bunch of smaller cities or even states, but not directly. Instead of levying taxes on individuals, an empire might levy tribute on an entire town, or even a whole region or state. How the tribute is collected, and how its burdens are allocated between people or social classes, is not the empire’s concern; these decisions are usually made by local authorities from the native population. Similarly, law and order might still be run by the natives, subject to the dictates of the empire; if matters are getting out of hand, an imperial legion might sweep through to put some heads on spikes, pour encourager les autres, and perhaps replace the local leadership with more cooperative local personnel. But usually, the empire doesn’t want to be bothered, beyond a necessary minimum.

By contrast, a state (in this lens) has direct control over its populace, applying taxes and laws on a more granular basis. Where an empire wants most of the benefits of dominating people without having to worry about controlling them, and having a large staff of functionaries, the state exerts more control, with a more developed staff of bureaucrats and enforcers to do the controlling.

This is just one way to think about empires. But if this is the distinction you are looking for, you now have terminology to express what you mean.

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Another way to think about an empire is in contrast to the nation-state: where the state is inhabited predominantly by people who are part of a single nation, with a shared history and culture and often a shared language. The state is seen as the agent of the nation; the role of the government is to see to the nation’s welfare. The state of Japan is made up of the Japanese nation, for example; people from other nations might be allowed to live in Japan (if they behave themselves), but can’t really become Japanese. And the role of the state is to defend the Japanese people and further its goals. Nearly the same could be said about Finland, or Nepal, or many other states.

An empire, by contrast (in this lens), is multi-national. Think of the Hapsburg Empire (AKA Austro-Hungary), a royal dynasty ruling over several different nations (which typically despised each other). The Roman Empire, too, ruled over many different peoples, using the carrot of Roman citizenship and the stick of the Legions to keep the whole thing together. If an empire of this type is to justify itself, it cannot be with reference to nations; perhaps the empire will claim some sort of functional value, or a unifying mission like the Pax Romana, or (like the Hapsburgs) it might simply claim to exist from the privileges of the ruling family at its head.

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In the third lens, what makes an empire is that it dominates other peoples for the benefit of the original people who formed the empire, whether or not the other peoples benefit as well. If taxes, slaves, and commerce are drained toward the imperial homeland, while the welfare of the conquered peoples is neglected or seen as an afterthought, we have an empire in this sense.

A clear example is the Congo Free State. Massive amounts of natural resources (primarily rubber) were shipped from the Congo back to Europe, and rivers of native blood were shed in the process, often with very little purpose. (The Belgian Parliament concluded in its investigation that the native population had been cut in half during the Free State period.) The Force Publique did build roads and other infrastructure, but only where it was necessary to improve resource extraction. They largely did not train native officials or improve native health or education.

By contrast, a state (at least ostensibly) cares about the welfare of all its citizens. This may not hold in practice—favored ethnic groups or social classes, or particular provinces or cities, might get the lion’s share of state largesse—but this would be seen as a deficiency in the state, a failure to carry out its duties to the citizenry. A Nazi official would laugh if you suggested that he ought to care about conquered French or Poles or Ukrainians as much as he cares about Germans; but even during the darkest days of Jim Crow in the United States, segregation was justified as being ultimately for the benefit of the oppressed black community (however absurd an argument this was). Supporters of segregation could not baldly state that they wanted to keep blacks as an underclass, at least not in public, because the United States is formally based on the equality of citizens.

An empire dispenses with such hypocrisy, at least to some degree. The conquered peoples are seen as livestock to be farmed by the empire, and little more. The British Empire at least had pretensions to benefit the locals, a bit; the Spanish Empire scarcely bothered.

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You’ll notice that these lenses need not all be true at the same time. Many empires did not levy tribute on cities or provinces, but collected taxes from individuals; similarly, even some states would levy taxes on a whole city or village. Many states are not nation-states, like the United States or Canada, and some combine several distinct nations, like Switzerland or Belgium. And some empires act on behalf of a single nation, such as the German Reich. And whether a state acts for the benefit of all its citizens is always a fraught question.

But now you have a rich series of concepts you can apply in your worldbuilding. You can pick and choose to express what you want your setting to look like, how you want your empires and states to act, and where you want the conflicts to be.

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(This post is part of Politics for Worldbuilders, an occasional series. Many of the previous posts in this series eventually became grist for my handbook for authors and game designers, Beyond Kings and Princesses: Governments for Worldbuilders. The topic of this post belongs in the planned second book in this series, working title Tyranny for Worldbuilders. No idea when it will be finished, but it should be fun!)