The empire on which the sun never sets

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The phrase "the empire on which the sun never sets" (Spanish: el imperio donde nunca se pone el sol) was used to describe certain global empires that were so extensive that it seemed as though it was always daytime in at least one part of its territory.

The concept of an empire ruling all lands where the sun shines dates back to the ancient Egyptians, Mesopotamians, Persians, and Romans. In its modern form, it was first used for the Habsburg Empire of Charles V, who, as Duke of Burgundy, King of Spain, Archduke of Austria, and Holy Roman Emperor, attempted to build a universal monarchy. The term was then used for the Spanish Empire of Philip II of Spain and successors when the empire reached a global territorial size, particularly in the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries.[1][2][3] It was used for the British Empire, mainly in the 19th and early 20th centuries, a period in which it reached a global territorial size. In the 20th century, the phrase has sometimes been adapted to refer to the global reach of American power.

Ancient precursors[edit]

Georg Büchmann traces the idea to a speech in Herodotus' Histories, made by Xerxes I before invading Greece.[4]

γῆν τὴν Περσίδα ἀποδέξομεν τῷ Διὸς αἰθέρι ὁμουρέουσαν. οὐ γὰρ δὴ χώρην γε οὐδεμίαν κατόψεται ἥλιος ὅμουρον ἐοῦσαν τῇ ἡμετέρῃ

"We shall extend the Persian territory as far as God's heaven reaches. The sun will then shine on no land beyond our borders."[5]

A similar concept in the Old Testament might pre-date Herodotus and Xerxes I where Psalm 72:8 speaks of the Messianic King: "He shall have dominion also from sea to sea, and from the river unto the ends of the earth"[6] for "as long as the sun and moon endure, throughout all generations" Ps 72:5.[7] This concept had existed in the Ancient Near East before the Old Testament. The Story of Sinuhe (19th century BC) announces that the Egyptian King rules "all what the sun encircles".[8] Mesopotamian texts contemporary to Sargon of Akkad (c. 2334 – 2279 BC) proclaim that this king ruled "all the lands from sunrise to sunset".[9] The Roman Empire was also described in classical Latin literature as extending "from the rising to the setting sun".[10][11]

Habsburg Empire of Charles V[edit]

The dominions of Charles V in Europe and the Americas were the first collection of realms to be referred to as the "empire on which the sun never sets".

Charles V of the House of Habsburg controlled in personal union a composite monarchy inclusive of the Holy Roman Empire stretching from Germany to Northern Italy with direct rule over the Low Countries and Austria, and Spain with its southern Italian kingdoms of Sicily, Sardinia and Naples. Furthermore, he oversaw both the continuation of the long-lasting Spanish colonization of the Americas and the short-lived German colonization of the Americas. This empire was the first referred to as the "empire on which the sun never sets" by several authors during Charles's lifetime.[12][13][14][15]

Charles was born in 1500 in the Flemish region of the Low Countries in modern-day Belgium, then part of the Habsburg Netherlands, from Joanna the Mad (daughter of Isabella of Castile and Ferdinand of Aragon) and Philip the Handsome (son of Mary of Burgundy and Maximilian I, Holy Roman Emperor). He inherited his homeland from his father as Duke of Burgundy in 1506, became jure matris king of Castile and Aragon in 1516, and was elected Holy Roman Emperor in 1519. As ruler of Castile and Aragon, he has been referred to as King of Spain, while his mother and nominal co-monarch Queen Joanna was confined in Tordesillas (died in 1555). As Holy Roman Emperor, he was crowned King of Germany and King of Italy. He also used the title of King of the Indies (a term then used to describe large parts of the Americas).[16][17]

As Duke of Burgundy and ruler of the Low Countries, he established the Seventeen Provinces and made the palace of Coudenberg in Brussels one of his main residences: there, he came of age in 1515 and announced his abdication in 1555. As ruler of Spain he inherited the possessions of the Crown of Aragon in the south of Italy, and ratified the conquests of the Castillan conquistadores: Hernán Cortés annexed the Aztecs and subjugated Middle America following the Fall of Tenochtitlan, and Francisco Pizarro defeated the Incas and extended colonial rule to South America following the Battle of Cajamarca. As Holy Roman Emperor he managed to defend his German territories in Austria from the Ottomans of Suleiman the magnificent (Siege of Vienna) and his Italian territories in the Duchy of Milan from the French of Francis I (Battle of Pavia): to finance the Ottoman-Habsburg Wars and the Italian Wars the Empire made large use of the gold and silver coming from the Americas. This flow of precious metals, however, was also the cause of widespread inflation.[17] Charles V ratified also the German colonization of the Americas and financed the expedition of the explorer Magellan around the globe.[18] Unable to create a universal monarchy and resist the rise of Protestantism, Charles V announced his resignation. His abdication divided his territories between his son Philip II of Spain, who took the colonial territories, and his brother Ferdinand of Austria, Bohemia and Hungary who took the Holy Roman Empire. The Habsburg Netherlands and the Duchy of Milan continued to be part of the Holy Roman Empire, but were also left in personal union with the King of Spain.[17]

Spanish Empire[edit]

The areas of the world that at one time were territories of the Spanish Monarchy or Empire.

Charles's son, Philip II of Spain, made Spain (his homeland) the metropole of the territories that he inherited. In particular, he placed the Council of Castille, the Council of Aragon, the Council of Italy, the Council of Flanders and the Council of the Indies in Madrid.[19] He added the Philippines (named after him) to his colonial territories. When King Henry of Portugal died, Philip II pressed his claim to the Portuguese throne and was recognised as Philip I of Portugal in 1581. The Portuguese Empire, now ruled by Philip, itself included territories in the Americas, in the North and the Sub-Saharan Africa, in all the Asian Subcontinents, and islands in the Atlantic, Indian and Pacific oceans.

In 1585, Giovanni Battista Guarini wrote Il pastor fido to mark the marriage of Catherine Michelle, daughter of Philip II, to Charles Emmanuel I, Duke of Savoy. Guarini's dedication read, "Altera figlia / Di qel Monarca, a cui / Nö anco, quando annotta, il Sol tramonta."[4] ("The proud daughter / of that monarch to whom / when it grows dark [elsewhere] the sun never sets.").[20]

In the early 17th century, the phrase was familiar to John Smith[21] and to Francis Bacon, who writes: "both the East and the West Indies being met in the crown of Spain, it is come to pass, that, as one saith in a brave kind of expression, the sun never sets in the Spanish dominions, but ever shines upon one part or other of them: which, to say truly, is a beam of glory [...]".[22] Thomas Urquhart wrote of "that great Don Philippe, Tetrarch of the world, upon whose subjects the sun never sets."[23]

In the German dramatist Friedrich Schiller's 1787 play Don Carlos, Don Carlos's father, Philip II, says, "Ich heiße / der reichste Mann in der getauften Welt; / Die Sonne geht in meinem Staat nicht unter." ("I am called / The richest monarch in the Christian world; / The sun in my dominion never sets.").[24]

Joseph Fouché recalled Napoleon saying before the Peninsular War, "Reflect that the sun never sets in the immense inheritance of Charles V, and that I shall have the empire of both worlds."[25] This was cited in Walter Scott's Life of Napoleon.[20][26]

It has been claimed that Louis XIV of France's emblem of the "Sun King" and associated motto, "Nec pluribus impar", were based on the solar emblem and motto of Philip II.[27]

British Empire[edit]

The British Empire in 1919, at its greatest extent with presence on all continents

In the 19th century, it became popular to apply the phrase to the British Empire. It was a time when British world maps showed the Empire in red and pink to highlight British imperial power spanning the globe. Scottish author, John Wilson, writing as "Christopher North" in Blackwood's Magazine in 1829, is sometimes credited as originating the usage.[28][29][30][31] However, George Macartney wrote in 1773, in the wake of the territorial expansion that followed Britain's victory in the Seven Years' War, of "this vast empire on which the sun never sets, and whose bounds nature has not yet ascertained."[32]

In a speech on 31 July 1827, Rev. R. P. Buddicom said, "It had been said that the sun never set on the British flag; it was certainly an old saying, about the time of Richard the Second, and was not so applicable then as at the present time."[33] In 1821, the Caledonian Mercury wrote of the British Empire, "On her dominions the sun never sets; before his evening rays leave the spires of Quebec, his morning beams have shone three hours on Port Jackson, and while sinking from the waters of Lake Superior, his eye opens upon the Mouth of the Ganges."[34]

Daniel Webster famously expressed a similar idea in 1834: "A power which has dotted over the surface of the whole globe with her possessions and military posts, whose morning drumbeat, following the sun and keeping company with the hours, circles the earth with one continuous and unbroken strain of the martial airs of England."[20][35] In 1839, Sir Henry Ward said in the House of Commons, "Look at the British Colonial empire—the most magnificent empire that the world ever saw. The old Spanish boast that the sun never set in their dominions, has been more truly realised amongst ourselves."[36] By 1861, Lord Salisbury complained that the £1.5 million spent on colonial defence by Britain merely enabled the nation "to furnish an agreeable variety of stations to our soldiers, and to indulge in the sentiment that the sun never sets on our Empire".[37]

A rejoinder, variously attributed to an unnamed Indian nationalist or to John Duncan Spaeth, runs in one variant, "The sun never set on the British Empire, because even God couldn't trust the English in the dark".[38][39][40]

United States[edit]

The United States has military bases in all the shaded countries in this map.

From the mid-nineteenth century, the image of the sun never setting can be found applied to Anglophone culture, explicitly including both the British Empire and the United States, for example in a speech by Alexander Campbell in 1852: "To Britain and America God has granted the possession of the new world; and because the sun never sets upon our religion, our language and our arts...".[41]

By the end of the century, the phrase was also being applied to the United States alone. An 1897 magazine article titled "The Greatest Nation on Earth" boasted, "[T]he sun never sets on Uncle Sam".[42] In 1906, William Jennings Bryan wrote, "If we can not boast that the sun never sets on American territory, we can find satisfaction in the fact that the sun never sets on American philanthropy";[43] after which, The New York Times received letters attempting to disprove his presupposition.[44] In the course of the 20th century, the metaphor of the sun never setting was used systematically, together with empire allusions such as Pax Americana, in the rhetoric of US foreign policy.[45] A 1991 history book discussion of U.S. expansion states, "Today ... the sun never sets on American territory, properties owned by the U.S. government and its citizens, American armed forces abroad, or countries that conduct their affairs within limits largely defined by American power."[46]

Although most of these sentiments have a patriotic ring, the phrase is sometimes used critically with the implication of American imperialism, as in the title of Joseph Gerson's book, The Sun Never Sets: Confronting the Network of Foreign U.S. Military Bases.[47]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Holslag, Jonathan (25 October 2018). A Political History of the World: Three Thousand Years of War and Peace. Penguin UK. ISBN 9780241352052 – via Google Books. Spanning both hemispheres and the Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian Oceans, the Habsburg Empire was – as its propagandists proudly boasted – the first 'upon which the sun never set'.[page needed]
  2. ^ Lothar Höbelt (2003). Defiant Populist: Jörg Haider and the Politics of Austria. Purdue University Press. p. 1. ISBN 978-1-55753-230-5.
  3. ^ Cropsey, Seth (2017). Seablindness: How Political Neglect Is Choking American Seapower and What to Do About It. Encounter Books. p. 13. ISBN 978-1-59403-916-4.
  4. ^ a b Büchmann, Georg; Walter Robert-turnow (1895). Geflügelte Worte: Der Citatenschatz des deutschen Volkes (in German) (18th ed.). Berlin: Haude und Spener (F. Weidling). p. 157. Retrieved 23 February 2016.
  5. ^ Herodotus (1910). "Book 7 (Polyhmnia)". Histories. translated by George Rawlinson. ¶8. Retrieved 23 February 2016.
  6. ^ Psalm 72:8
  7. ^ Psalm 72:5
  8. ^ Ancient Egyptian Literature: A Book of Readings, ed. Miriam Lichtheim, Berkeley & Los Angeles & London: University of California Press, (1975), vol I, p 230.
  9. ^ Wayne Horowitz, Mesopotamian Cosmic Geography, Winona Lake: Eisenbraums, (1998), p 88.
  10. ^ Horace (1902). "Horace: The Odes and Epodes".
  11. ^ Knox, Peter E.; McKeown, J. C. (November 2013). The Oxford Anthology of Roman Literature. ISBN 9780195395167.
  12. ^ Plain Truth. Ambassador College. 1984.
  13. ^ Ferer, Mary Tiffany (2012). Music and Ceremony at the Court of Charles V: The Capilla Flamenca and the Art of Political Promotion. Boydell Press. p. 126. ISBN 9781843836995.
  14. ^ Pagden, Anthony (18 December 2007). Peoples and Empires: A Short History of European Migration, Exploration, and Conquest, from Greece to the Present. Random House Publishing Group. ISBN 9780307431592.
  15. ^ Chesney, Elizabeth A.; Zegura, Elizabeth Chesney (2004). The Rabelais Encyclopedia. Greenwood Publishing Group. p. 34. ISBN 9780313310348.
  16. ^ Ireland, Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and (18 February 1877). "Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain & Ireland". Cambridge University Press for the Royal Asiatic Society – via Google Books.
  17. ^ a b c "The autobiography of the Emperor Charles V. Recently discovered in the Portuguese language by Baron Kervyn de Lettenhove .. : Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor, 1500-1558". 1862. Retrieved 28 January 2019.
  18. ^ Zantop, Susanne (10 September 1997). Colonial Fantasies: Conquest, Family, and Nation in Precolonial Germany, 1770-1870. Duke University Press. ISBN 0822382113 – via Google Books.
  19. ^ Hamish M. Scott (2015). The Oxford Handbook of Early Modern European History, 1350-1750: Cultures and Power. Oxford University Press. p. 217. ISBN 978-0-19-959726-0.
  20. ^ a b c Bartlett, John (2000) [1919]. Familiar quotations. revised and enlarged by Nathan Haskell Dole (10th ed.). Boston: Little, Brown and Company. p. 495. ISBN 1-58734-107-7. Retrieved 23 February 2016.
  21. ^ Bartlett, John (1865). Familiar quotations (4th ed.). Boston: Little, Brown and Company. p. 388. Retrieved 23 February 2016. advertisements for the unexperienced never sets.
  22. ^ Bacon, Francis (1841). "An Advertisement Touching a Holy War". In Basil Montagu (ed.). The works of Francis Bacon, lord chancellor of England. Vol. 2. address to Lancelot Andrewes. Carey. p. 438.
  23. ^ Duncan, William James; Andrew Macgeorge (1834). Miscellaneous papers, principally illustrative of events in the reigns of Queen Mary and King James VI. E. Khull, printer. p. 173. Retrieved 23 February 2016. sun never sets spain england.
  24. ^ Don Carlos, Act I, Scene 6.
  25. ^ Fouché, Joseph (1825). The memoirs of Joseph Fouché. Vol. 1. Compiled and translated by Alphonse de Beauchamp and Pierre Louis P. de Jullian. p. 313.
  26. ^ Scott, Walter (1835). "Chap. XLI". Life of Napoleon Buonaparte: With a Preliminary View of the French Revolution. Vol. VI. Edinburgh: Cadell. p. 23.
  27. ^ Tiedeman, H. (29 February 1868). "The French King's Device: "Nec Pluribus Impar" (3rd Ser. xii. 502)". Notes and Queries: 203–4. Retrieved 14 May 2009.
  28. ^ Wilson, John (April 1829). "Noctes Ambrosianae No. 42". Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine. XXV (cli): 527. Not a more abstemious man than old Kit North in his Majesty's dominions, on which the sun never sets.
  29. ^ Vance, Norman (2000). "Imperial Rome and Britain's Language of Empire 1600–1837". History of European Ideas. 26 (3–4): 213, fn.3. doi:10.1016/S0191-6599(01)00020-1. ISSN 0191-6599. S2CID 170805219. It seems this proverbial phrase was first used by 'Christopher North' (John Wilson) in Blackwood's Magazine (April 1829).
  30. ^ Morris, Jan (1978). Farewell the Trumpets: An Imperial Retreat. as Christopher North the poet, had long before declared it, an Empire on which the sun never set.
  31. ^ Miller, Karl (9 August 2003). "Star of the Borders". The Guardian. Retrieved 15 June 2009. the British empire, on which, as Wilson may have been the first to say, the sun never set.
  32. ^ Macartney, George (1773). An Account of Ireland in 1773 by a Late Chief Secretary of that Kingdom. p. 55.; cited in Kenny, Kevin (2006). Ireland and the British Empire. Oxford University Press. p. 72, fn.22. ISBN 0-19-925184-3.
  33. ^ Scott, William; Francis Garden; James Bowling Mozley (1827). "Monthly Register: Society for the Propagation of the Gospel: Liverpool District Committee". The Christian remembrancer, or the Churchman's Biblical, Ecclesiastical & Literary Miscellany. Vol. IX. F.C. & J. Rivington. p. 589. Retrieved 15 June 2009.
  34. ^ "The British Empire". Caledonian Mercury. No. 15619. 15 October 1821. p. 4.
  35. ^ Lodge, Henry Cabot (1907–1921). "XVI. Webster". In W. P. Trent; J. Erskine; S. P. Sherman; C. Van Doren (eds.). [American] Early National Literature, Part II; Later National Literature, Part I. The Cambridge History of English and American Literature. Vol. XVI. New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons. p. § 6. Rhetoric and Literature. ISBN 1-58734-073-9.
  36. ^ "Waste Lands of the Colonies". Parliamentary Debates (Hansard). House of Commons. 25 June 1839. col. 847.
  37. ^ Roberts, Andrew (October 1999). "Salisbury: The Empire Builder Who Never Was". History Today. 49.
  38. ^ Iyengar, Rishi (23 July 2015). "Watch This Indian Lawmaker Brilliantly Explain Why the U.K. Owes Reparations for Colonial Rule". Time.
  39. ^ "Anonymous Quote". Retrieved 28 August 2021.
  40. ^ Mukherjee, Siddhartha (29 August 2020). "Wasn't it John Duncan Spaeth who said it?". Retrieved 28 August 2021.
  41. ^ Speeches of Alexander Campbell Archived 10 April 2011 at the Wayback Machine
  42. ^ Jordon, William (July 1897). "The Greatest Nation on Earth". Ladies' Home Journal: 7–8.; cited by Kaiser, Kaitlyn (2005). "Americanizing the American Woman: Symbols of Nationalism in the Ladies Home Journal, 1890–1900". Salve Regina University (thesis): 17, fn.57,58. {{cite journal}}: Cite journal requires |journal= (help)
  43. ^ Bryan, William Jennings (1908). "American Philanthropy". In Richard Lee Metcalfe (ed.). The real Bryan; being extracts from the speeches and writings of "a well-rounded man". Vol. 2. Des Moines: Personal Help Publishing Company. pp. 44–45.
  44. ^ "That never-setting sun". The New York Times. 5 August 1906. p. 8. Retrieved 14 June 2009.
  45. ^ Hausteiner, Eva Marlene; Huhnholz, Sebastian; Walter, Marco (2010). "Imperial Interpretations: The Imperium Romanum as a Category of Political Reflection". Mediterraneo Antico. 13: 11–16.
  46. ^ Williams, William Appleman (1991). "Expansion, Continental and Overseas". In Eric Foner; John Arthur Garraty (eds.). The Reader's companion to American history. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. p. 365. ISBN 0-395-51372-3. Retrieved 23 February 2016. the sun never sets on American territory.
  47. ^ Gerson, Joseph; Bruce Birchard, eds. (1991). The Sun Never Sets: Confronting the Network of Foreign U.S. Military Bases. Boston, Massachusetts: South End Press. ISBN 0-89608-399-3.