Explaining empires to a 5 year old

Antonio D'souza
3 min readMay 1, 2020


My five year old & I were listening to Nobody’s Empire by Belle & Sebastian today when she asked me what an empire was. Here’s what I told her. [I’ve read a lot of history but am not a professional historian so it’s possible there are inaccuracies in my explanation.]

Up until about 10,000 years ago people generally just ate whatever they could find growing on plants in the wild. This forced them to waste a lot of time looking around for food & they had to eat whatever they found regardless of how much they enjoyed the taste. But then they realized that they could grow the plants they most liked to eat. This meant they had to do a lot of work to take care of those plants but then they could just go get food from those plants when they wanted to eat it, since they knew exactly where they were. Now they had a bit more time to relax, which was nice. We call those people farmers.

Some people didn’t want to do this though. Those people realized that they could just go take food from the plants that other people had grown instead. We call those people raiders. As you might have guessed, the farmers didn’t like it when raiders just took food from the plants they had spent so much time looking after. So they tried to protect those plants by building walls around them. We call those borders. But raiders were pretty smart too and quickly found ways to climb over the walls.

Farmers needed a better way to protect their plants from raiders. They decided to use some of their newfound free time to take turns standing guard along the walls to watch out for raiders. Any time they spotted raiders, everybody would rush to go fight them off using sticks & stones. They could throw stones at raiders before they even got to the wall but if raiders somehow made it inside the walls anyway then they could hit them with sticks.

At first, this worked to keep raiders away. But the raiders were pretty hungry so they kept trying & eventually got better at blocking the stones with hard flat things they could hold in front of them. We call those shields. These also turned out to be pretty good at blocking the sticks. Farmers realized that it would be hard to fight off raiders because raiders didn’t need to spend much time taking care of plants & could practice fighting instead. What farmers needed were people who could focus on fighting off raiders so farmers could focus on growing food instead. We call these people soldiers.

The soldiers didn’t have to spend any time taking care of plants because farmers would give them food in exchange for keeping them safe from raiders. But now the farmers had to work harder to grow enough food for all these extra people. Eventually some farmers realized that their soldiers were so good that nobody ever bothered attacking them any more. They started to wonder if they might be able to have their soldiers attack other farmers and take over their plants too. So they gave it a shot and it actually worked out. We call that a war.

The farmers who won the war didn’t actually want to take care of twice as many plant though; they just wanted some extra food. So they just told the losers of the war to start giving them a bit of extra food regularly in exchange for not being attacked any more. Now those losing farmers were in the same situation as they used to be when they were being attacked by raiders, except that instead of losing all their food they only had to give up a little bit of it. We call that a tax.

Meanwhile, the farmers who had won the war thought this was pretty nice because now they got a bit of extra food all the time without needing to do any extra work. So they kept doing this until they had many other farmers giving them food. That’s what we call an empire.