Imperium (Warhammer 40,000)

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Imperium of Man
Imperial eagle.jpg
Imperial Aquila
(Seal of the Emperor and the Imperium of Man)
Real world
Series Warhammer 40,000
Creator Games Workshop
Genre Science fantasy
Motto The Emperor protects
Form of government Theocratic Oligarchy
Head of state
Established M30 (30th millennium)
Governing body Council of the High Lords of Terra
Official language High Gothic
Capital Holy Terra (Earth)
Territory All space within 50,000 light year radius from Terra
Population (groups) Humans, mutant species of human descent
Population (size) Unknown – many quadrillions

The Imperium of Man or Imperium of Mankind is a galactic empire in the fictional universe of Warhammer 40,000. It is a theocratic industrial and militaristic totalitarian regime that rules over almost all of humanity and spans more than a million inhabited worlds.

Real World[edit]


The "Imperium" is one of the original factions in the fictional background of the Warhammer 40,000 tabletop miniatures wargame; the game was initially published in 1987 by Games Workshop, and continues to be actively developed. The game system's setting is a dystopian far future fictional universe that is extensively described in numerous rulebooks, tie-ins, and other official sources.


Notwithstanding backstory development by Games Workshop and affiliates (such as the publishing imprint Black Library) that spans several decades, the core depiction of the Imperium – as an authoritarian, strife-torn galactic empire on the brink of catastrophe – changed little; a major reason is the publisher's decision to "freeze" the narrative setting to the universe's late–41st millennium (or late–M41[1]). As of 2013, this setting had been utilised by the majority of related material; however, for several years prior and continuing, the publisher has also been promoting a parallel narrative thread for the fictional universe, which is taking place during the founding and early times of the Imperium.

The fictional empire is variously called "Imperium", "Imperium of Man", or "Imperium of Mankind" in official publisher sources.



27,000 years in the future, the Imperium rises from the ruins of a more prosperous and enlightened human civilization. That civilization, shortly after being exhausted by attacks by rebelling artificial intelligence created by man, collapsed when warp storms cut off interstellar travel and left its worlds vulnerable to attacks by daemons and aliens during what is known as the Age of Strife. When the storms abate, the Emperor embarks on a "Great Crusade" to unite all human-settled worlds in the galaxy under his banner. Over the course of two centuries, his armies conquer more than a million worlds stretching across 50,000 light years from Earth, giving humanity a dominant position among the galaxy's species. According to Imperial propaganda, it is humanity's "Manifest Destiny" to rule the galaxy.

Early in the 31st millennium, the Great Crusade comes to a sudden halt when half of the Emperor's Space Marine Legions (along with a substantial fraction of the Imperium) convert to the worship of the four Chaos Gods. The resulting civil war became known as the Horus Heresy and nearly destroyed the Imperium. Though these rebels are ultimately defeated and driven out, the Emperor is critically wounded in the final battle with his traitor son Horus and survives on life support and stasis in a persistent immobile and unresponsive state on the Golden Throne. In the absence of his guidance, the Imperium has become a very brutal authoritarian regime.

The Imperium endures for 10,000 years. It still claims lone dominion over the Milky Way Galaxy and all humanity. It does not recognize other governments, whether human or alien, and maintains that all aliens must be exterminated and that all humans must be brought into the Imperium and made to worship the Emperor. It remains united chiefly through religious fanaticism and threats of brutal disciplinary force, while teetering on the verge of collapse due to a combination of war, technological stagnation, and bureaucratic inefficiency.


Emperor of Mankind[edit]

The founder and nominal ruler of the Imperium is an enigmatic and mysterious persona known only as "the Emperor of Mankind". He is a human psyker of immeasurable power, an immortal who has guided humanity since the dawn of civilization on Earth. He is worshiped as a god by most of the Imperium.

The Emperor does not participate in affairs of state for medical reasons. 10,000 years prior he was critically injured in battle and never recovered. Since then he survives on life support in an unresponsive and immobile state on the Golden Throne. What little presence the Emperor does retain is devoted to projecting a psychic beacon, the Astronomican, so that human starships may navigate the Warp, while the rest of his immense psychic powers are constantly occupied with keeping the Chaos Gods in the Warp at bay, preventing their intrusion into the material universe on Terra and protecting his people throughout the galaxy.

It is believed that he also communicates vague visions of the future that trained psykers may augur through special tarot cards from time to time, but otherwise he cannot communicate his will. The High Lords of Terra govern his empire according to a distorted memory of his words and deeds made ten millennia earlier. The Emperor wanted to build a secular and enlightened society, where humanity is free from the mercy of Chaos and alien influence but the Imperium instead became mired in brutality, superstition and ignorance not seen since the Age of Strife. But though the Imperium is repressive and stagnant, it is also the only thing holding the enemies of Mankind at bay.

Hierarchy and organization[edit]

The Emperor's seat, and the heart of Imperial Administration, is the Imperial Palace, a massive construct that covers most of what used to be the continent of Asia on Terra; the "Sanctum Imperialis", commonly referred to as the "Inner Palace", is built on top of, within, and under Mount Everest.

Though the Emperor is the nominal head of state, in practice the highest tier of government is the Council of the High Lords of Terra or the Senatorum Imperialis, which has ruled for over ten millennia in the Emperor's name. Under this top echelon is a multi-tiered hierarchy consisting of countless departments, agencies, and organisations, both military and civilian, charged with implementing the decisions of the High Lords and with the day-to-day administration of the Imperium as a whole.

Most worlds in the Imperium are ruled by a planetary governor. The cultures and governments of the Imperial worlds are very diverse. A few are even democratic and prosperous, though these are rare islands of happiness in a generally grim empire. Generally speaking, each governor is allowed to rule his world as he sees fit provided he keeps the faith and provides the requisite tithes of conscripts, exports, and captured psykers.

Outside and above the Imperial hierarchy is the Imperial Inquisition, the all-powerful and much feared secret police and main intelligence agency, which answers only to the High Lords and has the power to investigate and persecute anyone it pleases.


Five fundamental taboos, set by the Emperor at the Imperium's founding, underlie its governance by the High Lords; their flouting results in summary capital sanction, regardless of office or rank.

  1. Collaborating or in any way consorting with xenos (aliens)
  2. Developing or using artificial intelligence
  3. Engaging in sorcery
  4. Exhibiting excessive mutation
  5. Committing unsanctioned genocide, especially of humans

In late–41st millennium, the Imperium is still broadly governed by these principles. However, it is also ruled by expediency in the face of constant threats. It is not uncommon for Imperial servants to assume discretion in their enforcement when they deem it necessary, and some among their number do this as a matter of course; this is considered heretical or traitorous by more conservative Imperial officials.

The Imperium's methods for enforcing its rule are often exceedingly brutal. Source material calls it "the cruelest and most bloody regime imaginable"; in-universe, Imperial servants commonly state, "ruthlessness is the mercy of the wise." The Imperium's galactic law enforcement agency (the Adeptus Arbites), readily uses deadly force when faced with any possibility of resistance. The Inquisition makes liberal use of torture and cares more about punishing the guilty than protecting the innocent, routinely causing excessive suffering and death of the latter. On the other hand, they rationalize that it is better for a few innocent lives to be harmed than allow Chaos to infiltrate the Imperium to cause even more death and destruction. That and given the sheer population of the Imperium in excess of tens of trillions is spread over more than a million worlds, it is not uncommon for entire systems and sub-sectors to be purged to prevent any possible taint of Chaos from spreading if such action is deemed necessary. Witches and heretics are publicly flogged or burned at the stake. The Imperium's mainstream military forces, such as the Imperial Guard Regiments, often have political officers (Imperial Commissars) attached. They have authority to execute out-of-hand any soldier, regardless of rank, who displays cowardice or disobedience.

Occasionally, the Imperium resorts to destroying entire worlds with weapons of mass destruction in order to suppress heresy, rebellion, or alien encroachment. An Exterminatus, the obliteration of an entire world, is only resorted to when the level of corruption a world bears is so monumental that it cannot be wiped out by any other means and leaving it intact could lead to an anchor for Chaos or mankind's other enemies to attack the Imperium.


Imperial citizens are almost exclusively human; a relatively small fraction of the population consists of members of stable mutant species of human descent, called abhuman in Imperial classification and are recognized as citizens (if second-class). Common citizens of the Imperium have very little say in how, and by whom, they are governed. They have no influence in the selection process of the High Lords or any other Imperial official, and are not allowed to question Imperial decisions or participate in the decision-making. Even worlds with democratically elected Planetary Governors are under the absolute veto of Imperial Authority.

Imperial society galaxy-wide is characterized by religious intolerance, superstition, xenophobia, militarism, and antiscience. Critical thinking is considered a waste of time. Ignorance of anything beyond one's place in society is common and, for many, desirable. Though no discrimination on basis of color or gender exists in the Imperium, any divergence in political or religious beliefs, even slight, is often deemed nigh-heretical, and disagreement with such beliefs is a capital offense. Unquestioning obedience to authority is the greatest virtue.

Virtually all human worlds are at or somehow participating in war. Even those worlds that are not battle-zones feel the weight of war on them through heavy taxation and conscription.

Mutants are humans that display physical deviations from the norm, the result of exposure to mutagenic chemicals, alien experimentation or Chaos corruption. In general, mutants are hated and feared by the common citizens, seen as a sign of mankind's slow degeneration away from the holy human form. On worlds where they are not summarily exterminated, they are used as slaves for dangerous and menial tasks or banished to fringes of society.

Psykers, mutants who draw their powers from the dimensional realm known as the Immaterium or the Warp, are too dangerous to remain at liberty on the Imperium's myriad worlds; their minds are susceptible to daemonic possession as their strong presences in the Warp can serve as gateways into the material universe for all kinds of Warp entities if they are weak or undisciplined with their powers. Uncontrolled, they can intentionally or unintentionally cause the destruction of entire worlds and have done so in the pre-Imperium past, such as during the terrible days of the Age of Strife. Humans found to be bearing the psychic mutation, if they are not simply killed, are sent to Terra aboard the infamous Black Ships which endlessly traverse the Imperium. There, they are usually sacrificed to sustain the Emperor's Golden Throne, but those who are strong enough and can control their powers are trained to aid various branches of the Imperium's military-albeit under constant guard.

Technology and science[edit]

Although humans have access to sophisticated technology, they do not understand the scientific principles behind it, for science has ceased in the Imperium and has been replaced by mysticism and superstition. Machines are built and maintained by the tech-priests of the Adeptus Mechanicus, who view machines as a higher form of life, possessed of machine spirits. They believe that, long ago, a being they call "the Machine God" gifted humanity with all the technical knowledge there is to know, including the designs of every device humans use. In addition, the majority of the Adeptus Mechanicus believe that the Emperor is the Machine God. The tech-priests see themselves as the guards and caretakers of the Machine god's children. A machine's spirit must be appeased and directed through the proper rites of repair and operation, which are as likely to involve prayers and incense as screwdrivers and lubricants.

To attempt to invent, reverse-engineer or develop technology is seen as an affront to the Machine god. The only occasion when Imperial technology may progress is when somebody discovers a lost blueprint (STC - Standard Template Construct) that dates back to pre-Imperium civilization. Only such systems are assumed to be the pure gospel of the Machine god.

The tech-priests see alien technology as corrupt and refuse to reverse-engineer it, even when such technology surpasses the Imperium's (many of the alien races are more advanced than the Imperium in various technological fields). It is treason for a common citizen to even possess alien technology, though several factions in the mechanicus like the xenarites and Crucible Resolviate are interested in the study of alien technology, and Crucible Resolviate has been successful in bringing some alien technologies into compliance with the Universal Laws.

Aside from their refusal to innovate, the tech-priests are also very inefficient at distributing their technology, as they will not allow anyone outside their faith to share and profane their secrets. Some worlds in the less developed portions of the Imperium even live at pre industrial levels of development and few at feral levels (often in worlds of this state the planetary governor resides permanently in orbit and has limited interaction with the natives beyond extracting tithes and enforcing the Imperial Creed)

Despite this, some original scientific research does continue on Mars and the other Forge Worlds of the Imperium, enough to keep Imperial technology advancing steadily, if extremely slowly.


The Imperium promotes the Imperial Cult, the worship of the Emperor as humankind's only true god and rightful master. He is the savior, the only one who can protect humanity from the dangers of the cosmos. The irony of this is that the Emperor had wanted to build an enlightened and secular society, but cults devoted to him started everywhere, and after he was incapacitated and interred in the Golden Throne this worship spread unimpeded until it became the state religion.

Just as all human-inhabited worlds must be brought under the Imperium's control, all humans must be made to worship the Emperor and all other religions must be expunged. The state religion, which is the responsibility of the Ecclesiarchy (the State Church), preaches that unquestioning obedience and self-sacrifice are the best ways to honor the Emperor. It teaches that mutants (with few exceptions) are vile perversions of the "holy" human form, and thus they are subject to the worst oppression. Rogue psykers ("witches") are harbingers of doom. Heresy is the worst crime of all despite the deliberate vagueness of the official definition, and those judged as heretics are stripped of all rights and punished in the most horrific fashion. To be excommunicated by the church or the Inquisition is to be stripped of your very rights as a human being; you are no longer considered part of humanity.

Religion is a central theme in all Warhammer 40,000 fiction. Most human protagonists, from warrior-monk Imperial Space Marines to Witch Hunters of the Inquisition, are fanatical worshippers of the Emperor. A very common motif in Imperial iconography is a human skull, often surrounded by a halo. This is the face of the Emperor, whose broken, half-dead body resembles a corpse.

While the ordinary citizen of the Imperium believes that the Emperor has always been venerated as the immortal and omnipotent God of humanity throughout the history of Mankind, Imperial historians and the Battle-Brothers of the Space Marine Chapters know that this was not always the case: At the beginning of the Emperor's Great Crusade in the 31st Millennium, there was no Ecclesiarchy and the veneration of the Emperor, in the form of a cult known as the Lectitio Divinitatus, was frowned upon and outright condemned by the Emperor himself.

The official Imperial doctrine was that the Emperor was an extremely powerful being, the rightful ruler of all Mankind, and the perfect physical, mental and spiritual embodiment of humanity, but no matter how supreme, he was still only a human being. This changed after the Emperor ascended on his Golden Throne and was visible in the Warp for all Mankind.

In the 41st millennium, the tenets of the Imperial Cult, known as the Imperial Creed, are actually highly flexible and are tailored by the Adeptus Ministorum's Missionaries to fit the native culture, existing religion, and cultural practices of whatever world it exists upon.

The Cult of the God-Emperor is the dominant faith, but the tech-priests of the Adeptus Mechanicus follow a parallel religion around their "Machine God", of whom they see the Emperor as an avatar.


Human starships traverse interstellar distances by shifting into the Warp, a parallel dimension of psychic energy where the conventional laws of physics do not apply.

Technology to dive into and travel through the Warp was invented by Mankind sometime in the 18th Millennium of the Imperial Calendar during the early Dark Age of Technology. Prior to this time, interstellar travel for the voidships of Mankind was limited to sub-light speeds. Travel between star systems was painfully slow, taking many generations of travel, and most human interstellar colonies were isolated outposts established by the crews of Generation ships or vessels that made use of suspended animation technology.

The Warp is a chaotic and maddening place where conventional navigation instruments are useless, so humans make use of a special breed of psyker called "Navigators". With the third eye in their foreheads, they can gaze upon the Warp and perceive the Astronomican. The Astronomican is a psychic beacon that is projected from Earth by the God-Emperor's spirit. Like a lighthouse, it provides a fixed reference point for ships to navigate by. Beyond the range of the Astronomican, Warp travel is slower and more dangerous, and this sets the Imperium's effective borders.

The Imperial Space Fleet is divided into three distinct branches - the Warfleets of the Imperial Navy, the Merchant Fleets and the Civil fleets, and whilst the inquisition are able to requisition the ships of other Imperial organisations, they also maintain vessels of their own.

Interstellar communications are achieved through astropaths, who are psychic telepaths trained to send and receive messages across interstellar distances. This method of communication is not especially reliable or efficient, but it is faster than sending a messenger ship. To send messages across especially great distances, astropaths relay messages and form choirs to boost their range. As part of their training, every astropath is brought before the Emperor for him to soul-bind, by which he boosts the astropath's power and guards his mind against daemonic influence. However, they are usually render blind in the process due to the sheer magnitude of the Emperor's power.

Both these factors make the Emperor's spirit the linchpin of the Imperium's infrastructure. Should the Emperor finally die, the Imperium could immediately collapse. The Emperor's tenuous grip on life is sustained by the daily sacrifice of thousands of psykers so that his light may continue to shine.


The Imperium commands the largest military in the galaxy, honed in millennia of almost constant war: at any time, there are numerous conflicts engaging Imperial forces, across the Imperium and beyond. Because of the scale of the distances involved, and the number and severity of threats, Imperial military commanders have great autonomy into how and when they prosecute campaigns within their areas of responsibility.

The core military force of the Imperium is the Imperial Guard. It is made up of professional soldiers, who may be volunteers or conscripts drawn from almost all of the Imperium's planets. The basic Guard unit is a self-contained formation called the Regiment, a fighting force that is hundreds of thousands strong; there are millions of active Imperial Guard Regiments. Their specialisations and types cover every conceivable kind of warfare in the galaxy, regardless of theater or fighting conditions.

The Imperial Navy, the military arm of the Imperial Fleet, commands millions of spacecraft, deep-space weapons platforms, and military space stations. It is organised into several major Warfleets, each of which is further divided into a multitude of Battlefleets and Battlegroups. The Navy also operates a vast and constantly busy transport network of gigantic spaceships used to ferry troops, supplies, and equipment to and from the Imperiums's numerous warzones.

The Space Marines, genetically modified transhuman supersoldiers, serve as the Imperium's elite shock troops. Their augmentations are derived from the genome of one of the twenty Primarchs, the genetically engineered sons of the Emperor who were made to be his generals, and are organised into approximately 1,000 Chapters that act as autonomous units; Chapters are usually about 1,000 Marines-strong. All Chapters have considerable resources at their disposal, including their own space and vehicle fleets, auxiliary personnel, and other support elements. Most Chapters operate in specific areas, near the Imperium's most troublesome spots, or at its borders. Originally the Space Marines were organized in a score of Legions that served as the Imperium's primary fighting force (while the Imperial Guard's predecessor served as a reserve and garrison force). Ranging between tens to hundreds of thousand of Space Marines, each was led by a Primarch, and were virtually unstoppable. However, after half of them turned to Chaos and nearly destroyed the Imperium in the resultant civil war, it was decided that the remaining Legions would be divided to ensure that no single leader can command such power and be a such a potential threat to the Imperium.

All Space Marine Chapters are expected to pay a tithe of 5% of their gene-seed every year to the Adeptus Mechanicus so that the Mechanicus' Tech-priests can monitor the health of each Chapter and facilitate the Founding of new Chapters from existing gene-seed lines whenever the High Lords of Terra decree that the Imperium has a need for new Chapters of the Adeptus Astartes.

The Adeptus Mechanicus, apart from being responsible for the production and maintenance of most Imperial weapons and military equipment, fields specialised military forces of its own. These include spacecraft and formations of advanced, heavily weaponised war machines. Mechanicus forces may be under the strategic command of Imperial officers, or may be tactically seconded to Imperial Guard Regiments and Space Marine Chapters.

Each planet may also be defended by local militias or a more structured Planetary Defence Force. In most cases, the latter fill its ranks with short-term and part-time soldiers, who do not have the professional training and equipment of the Imperial Guard. Planetary defense forces of the more important systems may be complemented by a "System Fleet" of sublight-speed spacecraft.

Outside of the normal military command structure are other paramilitary organisations, several of which are classified or operate covertly; they usually deploy in much smaller units, and undertake highly specialised missions. One example is the Sisters of Battle, the paramilitary organization of the Imperium's state church and of the Inquisition.


The Imperium of Man as portrayed in the Games Workshop universe resembles various authoritarian institutions from throughout fiction and literature, including commonplace works such as Brave New World and 1984. Dune, a novel by Frank Herbert, had some influence on the overall design of the Imperium, and the "Galactic Empire" from the book series Foundation, by Isaac Asimov, also bears strong resemblance to the Imperium, portraying a loosely governed empire where extreme persecution is carried out on those who do not align to the governmental beliefs.

Since it originally was created as a sci-fi spin-off of the Warhammer Fantasy battle game, the 40K gameworld contains many elements of the fantasy genre, for example the concept of magic and adapted versions of classic fantasy races.

The inspirational sources for the 40K universe include classic and contemporary sci-fi, horror, and fantasy movies and television series and the works of renowned genre authors such as Isaac Asimov, Frank Herbert, H. P. Lovecraft, Michael Moorcock, J. R. R. Tolkien, and Robert Heinlein (Heinlein's novel Starship Troopers inspired many elements such as elite marines in powered armor, and drop pods in which encased Space Marines and equipment are fired from orbiting ships down to the battlefield); medieval, baroque, and surrealist art (especially H. R. Giger), popular depictions of historical settings, such as the World Wars, Victorian Britain, Imperial Rome, The Inquisitions, Nazi Germany, and Soviet Russia:

The Imperium bears several strong resemblances to the authoritarian Stalinist regime of the Soviet Union, which was exceptionally brutal and intolerant of differing ideologies, with its citizens frequently imprisoned, tortured, or even executed if believed to be dissenters. The Commissariat of the Imperium is similar to the ranking structure and purposes of the Red Army Commissariat during World War II. Commissars of the NKVD would frequently execute Soviet soldiers to punish cowardice or to simply coerce soldiers to fight as Imperial Commissars do within the Warhammer 40,000 universe. Early-War Red Army soldiers were utilized with high expendability via human wave attacks supported by overwhelming artillery bombardment, identical to several Imperial combat doctrines and their reliance on heavy artillery, and a commonplace Imperial medium tank, the Leman Russ battle tank, is nearly identical to the Soviet T-34.

The cult of personality and complete state control of media that is shown within the Imperium also bears similarities to those in nations such as contemporary North Korea, where much of society is taught to believe their leader is an eternal, omnipotent god, while in the Warhammer 40k Universe, the Emperor is indeed a supreme being, his mind continuing to be a beacon for humanity, his soul a god in the Warp waiting to be born.

More notable influences include much of the classical Roman Empire, with the Imperium's various "lesser gods" viewed as subservient to the Emperor of Mankind, much like the Romans' pantheistic religions believed. The language of High Gothic is heavily based on classical Latin, and many organizational, military, and even personal names bear strong Latin influence. Much Imperial architecture is designed after the Romaneqsue Gothic architecture of Medieval Europe.


  1. ^ Troke et al. 2012, p. 406. [Description of the Warhammer 40,000 dating system.]