It seems to be a law of human nature: Rulers cannot resist expanding their power. So family heads become chiefs. Chiefs become kings. And kings become emperors. An emperor is a king who rules other kings.
The first empire was invented as a conscious act. This threshold event occurred in the third millennium B.C. -- more than a thousand years after the creation of civilization. Once invented, the idea of empire took hold in man's imagination and spread rapidly.
Who was the first to have thought of this idea of empire anyway? It seems to have been Sargon the Great. A few decades before 2300 B.C., this canny Mesopotamian strongman brought lesser rulers to heel. Sargon forged the Akkadian Empire out of lesser kingdoms throughout the Tigris and Euphrates river valleys. You have heard of the Akkadian Empire's greatest work of literature, the Epic of Gilgamesh. It's one of the world's first literary artifacts. While the epic poem was recited in different languages, it is the Akkadian text that is the basis of our modern translations.
Over the next thousand years there arose a succession of other powerful empires in the Fertile Crescent and beyond: the Hatti, Egyptian, Assyrian, Minoan, and Mycenaean, to name a few. Together this succession of imperial dynasties comprise the First Age of Empires. In the West, we glean information about these pioneering empires from the Pentatuch (Torah) in the Hebrew Scriptures, which provides insights into the ancient Egyptian Empire. Many are also familiar with Hammurabi's Code, which around 1750 B.C. opened a remarkable window onto the Babylonian emperor's idea of justice.
For unknown reasons -- about the same time the Mycenaeans ended their seige at Troy and about the time Moses led Israel out of Egypt -- a dark age settled over much of the eastern Mediterranean and parts of the Middle East. It lasted from the 12th century B.C. till about the 9th century B.C. It was a time of widespread decline, when civilizations and empires lost their vigor.
Second Age of Empires
Then all of a sudden, for equally mysterious reasons, the second wave of empires came into being and spread from 600 B.C. to 600 A.D. This Second Age of Empires included the Persian Empire, Alexander the Great's empire, the Roman imperium, and China's great Han Empire. This Second Age of Empires seems terribly distant from us in time and space, yet here is a striking thought. Two-thirds of our species's existence with civilization had already passed by the time the Western Roman Empire fell. Two-thirds! The Roman Empire could look back on empires that had flourished some two millennia before it -- in roughly the same relation that we today are to the ancient Romans. So the imperial dynasties of the Second Age of Empires are only relatively ancient.
Here is another thought. These distant empires are more familiar to you than you think. Most Americans have acquaintance with the Second Age of Empires from several sources.
- Hollywood. The more notorious imperial dynasties have captured Hollywood's imagination. Swords-and-sandals productions have been made about the Persian ruler Xerxes (The 300), the Macedonian king Alexander the Great (Alexander), various events under the Roman consuls, generals, and emperors (Pompey and Crassus in Spartacus, Julius Caesar, Antony and Cleopatra, I Claudius, Caligula, Nero in Quo Vadis, Marcus Aurelius in Gladiator), and about Jews and Christians in the Roman Empire (Ben Hur, The Passion of the Christ, Jesus of Nazareth).
- The Bible. The Hebrew scriptures unfold amid numerous ancient empires -- the Persian, Hellenistic, and Roman empires are apt examples -- and the New Testament is written in Hellenistic Greek under the Roman occupation.
- Herodotus, The Histories, is a perennial favorite and gives great details about the Persians. This classic was featured in Michael Ondaatje's English Patient.
- Latin works originating in Roman times continually reacquaint us with this fascinating era -- e.g., Marcus Aurelius' Meditations and St. Augustine's Confessions remain perennial classics.
- We also have borrowed many terms characteristic of the Second Age of Empires and Axial Age:
- Zarathustra (used by Nietzsche, after Zoroaster)
This brief survey of words, popular culture, and highbrow literature also shows that the Axial Age and Second Age of Empires overlap and, indeed, are intimately linked. If the Axial Age (800-200 B.C.) saw the spiritual and intellectual foundations of all future civilizations come into being, then the Second Age of Empires (600 B.C. to 600 A.D.) saw wave after wave of imperial dynasties arise on the Afro-Eurasian landmass from the Mediterranean to the Pacific. More specifically:
- Persian Empire (550-330 B.C.)
- Alexander the Great's Hellenistic empire spread from Egypt to Asia (338-150 B.C.). It ended the Greek polis as an effective means of social and political organization, replacing it with a cosmopolitan one-world vision of civilization.
- Han China
- Roman Empire
- Byzantine Empire
- Achaemenids and Sasanids (224-651 A.D.) in Iran
- Mauryas (321-185 B.C.) and Guptas (320-550 A.D.) in India
(1) They were undergirded by the religious and philosophical traditions of the Axial Age. In turn, the stability and scale of these imperial dynasties enabled Axial Age religions to come of age. Curiously, the religious traditions of the Axial Age sent their deepest roots in empires far from the regions in which they originated. This is notable about Confucianism (which spread well beyond the original river valley civilization in which it arose), Buddhism (which migrated to central Asia, China, and Southeast Asia), Hinduism (which migrated to Southeast Asia), and -- later -- Christianity (which migrated to Rome, Constantinople, and Aksum). Judaism was extended by Hellenism and after the Diaspora sank roots in various places far from the City of David. Zoroastrianism, the exception to the rule, originated in Persia but did not sink deep roots beyond its region of origin and, perhaps for that reason, did not survive long past this Second Age of Empires.
(2) The empires were multicultural, the product of the syncretic blending of numerous ethnic traditions. There are Buddhist sculptures, for example, that reveal Hellenistic influences. The behavior of the missionaries and merchants of these cultural melting pots reveals something paradoxical about human nature. They were at once driven to identify narrowly with their clan, yet also spread globally because of belief in their culture.
(3) Each of these empires developed sophisticated bureaucracies, professional armies, and advanced communication systems to serve rulers, generals, and trade.
(4) The establishment of these centralized empires created new markets for goods and ideas. Thus the empires were linked to each other by trade routes, which made sustained material and cultural contacts among extremely diverse peoples inhabiting the different empires possible. The Second Age of Empires expressed a kind of proto-globalization that's remarkable considering the limited technology of the times. The Silk Road was well traveled in this era. Artifacts from Han China have been found in the Roman Empire, and artifacts from the Roman Empire have been found in Han China. Such goods would have traveled between Rome and China via Hellenistic, Persian, and various Indian empires.
Northwestern Europe was largely a backwater throughout this time. No one living among these civilizations would have anticipated that one day the northwestern extension of the Eurasian landmass would give rise to a civilization that after 1500 A.D. would dominate all the lands that these empires controlled.
But Europe's time had not yet come. In the meantime, the rise of Islam in 622 A.D. would fundamentally change the Afro-Eurasian landmass.