Imperialism Definition, Laws, & History: From Rome To Now

Imperialism example, definition, history, and laws

Imperialism involves nations enforcing their authority over other nations. Usually through unprovoked military force, but it could be through political power plays as well. Since it’s an old practice that’s frowned upon in modern days, the word ‘imperialism’ is often used to criticize a nation’s foreign policies


Whether that’s warranted or not, I’ll leave for you to decide. 

But in recent history, imperialism was considered not just acceptable, but necessary. It was a risky venture though. Nations put themselves at risk for loss of lives, armies, money, goods, war breaking out, and – of course – the inheritance of your new territories enemies and issues now becoming your own.

So what pushed imperialism forward despite all those risks and why was it considered so important?


Causes & Justification Of Imperialism 

An easy way to think of imperialism (or the goal of imperialism) is as a multinational monopoly

But a nation doesn’t need to control all of the other nation to be considered an imperialist. They just need to exert power over a key portion of another nation. For example, nation A can hold the market of nation B, and if nation B happens to be the primary buyer of nation A’s goods, then all the better. 

And once they have nation B’s market, the smart move might be to acquire nation C for their goods to sell to nation B as well. And so on it goes.

Imperialism isn’t just about market gains, it could also be for

  • The spread of religion
  • Gain in materials
  • Gain in the workforce
  • Political power
  • Military gain
  • Gain of goods
  • Gain of trade

But, in any case, how does a nation even begin to justify unjustified use of military force?


Conservative Economic Theory

This theory (or rational, really) requires some sort of superiority complex. But it goes like this:

A well-developed nation believes that market domination is essential for preserving its already-well-developed nation. Through securing access to market, material, political, or strategic advantages they’re able to continue their success. 

And they deserve to prosper. Because they’re superior.

We also saw this in the religious imperialism era. Their religion was “superior” to the old religions. Or it was considered to be “God’s work” to overtake and convert everyone to their religion because they were saving them from false idols and, typically, from hell. (So goes the justification.) 


Liberal Economic Theory

In some cases, a nation produces more goods than its population can consume. Securing outside markets through imperialism is seen as a necessity to reduce expenses and increase profit simultaneously. Thus helping their economic position. 


Marxist-Leninist Economic Theory

This theory comes from socialism and communism thought-leaders Marx and Lenin. It’s a bit convoluted, but it works roughly like this:

All the imperial powers would unite to form a capitalist coalition. From there, they would jointly impact all other nations through imperialism. The new nations overthrown by the coalition would join in to disperse goods and gains throughout the world evenly for “the good of all.” 

I’m sure you can see why all the world’s capitalist countries coming together and kumbaya-ing for the “greater good” never quite panned out. 


The Warrior Class Theory

Under this theory, the purpose of imperial conquest isn’t for any gains. It’s classified as an age-old behavior of pointless conquest through power – and blood-hungry nations. IE; the “warrior class.”

Though the need for brute force was there at some point in the nation’s history, now it’s pointless. However, the “warrior nation” continues to manufacture fake crises to exercise its military power. 


Political Theory

This one can be summed up pretty simply as a world-wide power struggle

Under this theory, the purpose of imperialism is to maintain or bolster a nation’s power in the world’s constant power struggle. Their power refers to either military or political. 


Imperialism V. Colonialism 

Imperialism and colonialism go hand-in-hand but they’re ever-so-slightly different. Imperialism is the reason for colonialism. Colonialism is the result of imperialism. Colonialism has roots that dig deep into capitalism, so imperialism goes hand-in-hand with all of the economic structures, really.

But anyway.

An imperialist nation will send colonies to another nation to colonize it (ie: colonialism.) These colonies are under the control of the imperial nation. Colonies then send and purchase resources from the nation, and the imperial nation (sometimes) prospers from the resulting colony. 

Imperialism is what keeps these colonies under their control. Colonialism is the driving force that pushes imperialism forward.


Examples Of Imperialism Through History

From early BCE all the way to the 1900s, imperialism was a large part of the world’s history. And it’s not necessarily dead now, just… different. 

But before we can dive into the evolution of modern imperialism, we need to go way back to the blueprint that gave us ancient imperialism. IE: the Roman empire. 



The Roman Empire

imperialism with the Roman empire

Prior to building their empire, Rome was in a precarious position. Not only were they surrounded by wealthy and powerful nations, but they also held a prime piece of real estate. Under constant threat of war – and with a hefty dose of self import – Rome took over their closest Latin neighborhoods to create a bigger army and a buffer. 

With this newly bolstered army, Rome set about conquering all of their Latin territories’ enemies that they inherited from the first conquest. And they repeated this process with each subsequent takeover. 

However, with each new territory, the Romans offered a different set of perks and rules. This developed a system that made states highly suspicious and highly competitive with each other in order to win Rome’s favor. This, of course, increased the power Rome had over each territory and enabled them to overthrow new ones. 

Once powerful enough, it enabled Rome to make allies they could have control over without the use of force. 

With this method, Rome held most of Europe (including France, Spain, Portugal, and Brittan) as well as parts of Africa and Asia. Though most notably, it had the largest cultural influence over Europe. 

After the Roman empire’s collapse, Europe continued Rome’s imperialist expansion. 



The European Empire

The European empire during imperialism

The “New World” was discovered and Brittan, England, France, Spain, and Portugal each set about creating colonies of their own. Pretty much everywhere that had land.

For Spain, the gold of Inca Peru held the most allure. But shortly thereafter they turned their sights on Mexico. At the time, this was a much larger expanse of territory than it currently is – spanning from California to Texas. Eventually, Spain’s territory grew to over half of the modern US. 

Meanwhile, the French attempted to colonize what’s now the US with less luck than the Spanish and English. But they succeeded in colonizing large chunks of Canada and held a small chunk of Florida (Floride française.) They also held some pieces of the US like Michigan and Louisiana – though it’s probably not what you think. Both of the US territories sparked later wars with the Spanish and the US.

The English, of course, “owned” Brittan at the time. And you probably already know about British colonization. But in case you don’t, they set about colonizing America starting first with… the Carolinas. If you never knew that, it’s probably because these colonies weren’t as successful as their later attempts.

After a few more ventures, they eventually settled into colonizing what’s now “New England”:

  • MA
  • NH
  • VT
  • RI
  • ME
  • CT

These six states eventually turned into 13 colonies for the British, now including:

  • NY
  • PA
  • VA
  • NC
  • SC
  • GA
  • MD
  • DE

From there, you probably have a pretty good idea of what went down. War with Native Americans, the great American conquest, independence from the British, Maifest Destiny, more wars, etc. 



The American Empire (AKA The Manifest Destiny)

Imperialism in US political cartoon

At this point, the USA has its independence, and we set about on our own imperialist conquest. First, we purchased Louisiana from France in 1803 in the Louisiana Purchase. This sounds like a small chunk of land, but it actually spanned from modern Canada down to New Orleans and covered 828,000 sq. miles of new territory. 

Then, there was the Mexican-American War that resulted in the annexation of an additional 525,000 sq. miles of Mexican territory from parts of New Mexico out through parts of California.

From there, our history gets a bit too messy and muddled to delve into too deeply here, so I’ll give you the cliff notes: we had a few wars that resulted in the remaining chunks of Spanish and French territory in the US, Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands, and American Samoa. 

The US also bought Alaska from Russia and annexed Hawaii. 


Does Imperialism Still Exist?

Yes, it still exists, but it looks different now because in modern times we’re not expanding territory. Instead, we’re expanding power, control, political influence, and cultural ideals.

And here’s where it gets a bit… dodgy. 

Whether you agree with the decision or not, the US’ involvement in other countries is imperialism at work. The same thing can be said for other nations who get involved in foreign affairs.

While most nations have their own policies for foreign affairs, they’re typically an outline for pushing their own cultural norms and agenda. For wrong or right, regardless of your beliefs, that is imperialism – at least – in the cultural sense. 

Additionally, any nation that makes a “show of force” without any provocation is acting in an imperialist way. Whether or not they take control of or power over the country by fear, force, political, economical, or in any other way, it’s imperialism.


When Is Imperialism Illegal?

There is such a thing as international law. It’s a document that outlines the rules, norms, and standards generally accepted in relations between nations. But, here’s the catch:

It’s not really enforceable. And breaking it isn’t necessarily illegal in the traditional sense.

Of course, breaking one of these laws could result in anything from economic repercussions to the use of military force. But pitted against a nation strong enough? The resulting repercussions could spark another world war, so it’s kind of a dicey spot.

Additionally, everything outlined in this document is – in and of itself – a form of imperialism.

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