A potted history of the Ancient World – 4000 years of carnage in the Mediterranean, Anatolia & Mesopotamia

Moving through Lycia on cool winter’s day. The sun shines. I am absolutely completely alone with the old stones and the graves. Nothing moves. No sounds but the breeze and the tinkle of goat bells as they move, invisibly, through ancient Lycian ruins and pines.

The ancient Lycian city of Pinara

The Lycians ruled this part of Turkey for around 2000 years and their presence is evident in the ruins of six major cities. The three I visited were Pinara, Tlos and Xanthos. The Lycians had powerful sea and land forces by the second millennium BC and had already established an independent state. The earliest historical references to the Lycians date back to the Late Bronze Age (ca 1500-1200 BC) in numerous Egyptian, Hittite and Ugaritic texts.

I discovered these things on my visit to Lycia (more on that here: Pinara, in the Valley of the living Dead) which was not only fascinating but it simply compounded the sense that I had, from travelling in these parts, of my profound ignorance of Ancient World history (although others might say “and pretty much everything else too!”).

My suspicion is that most others would know little more than me about Lycia or most of the rest of the region. If so this post is for you.

If you are like me you may have heard of the Lycian Way, especially if you are some bushwalker who likes stomping around Turkey in your boots, eroding the ancient landscape. But do you know anything about Lycia and its culture?

Pinara

I’d guess for 99% of people that’s a no. Along with me, until recently. And that’s just for starters. What about the Sumerian, Babylonian, Parthian, Seleucid, Carian, Carthaginian, Assyrians, Akkadian, Hittite, Egyptian, Mongolian, Phoenician, Ptolemic, Roman, Greek, Persian, Ottoman cultures/empires, among others.

And those empires are just the beginning. After that you start on the semi-independent, largely self-governing states of Rhodes etc. – Rhodes being my next stop. In fact there are more empires than you can poke a stick at, half of which I’d never even heard of (or at least barely). Have you been to the Dordogne in southern France and counted the number of chateaux? If you were gobsmacked at how many chateaux there were, that has nothing on the number of little tinpot trading and military empires between 4000 BC and now.

Since we started with the Lycians, one of the more interesting aspects of their society was that it was also one of the few non-Hellenistic societies of antiquity which could not be called ‘barbarians’. In fact, their image, in antiquity, was much like that of today’s Swiss: a hard-working and wealthy people, neutral in world affairs but fierce in the defence of their freedom and conservative in their attachment to ancestral tradition.

Lycia was the last region on the entire Mediterranean coast to be incorporated as a province in the Roman Empire and even then the Lycian Union continued to function independently. The Lycians spoke a language of their own, with their own unique alphabet, before adopting Greek around the 3rd century BC. Their many monuments, especially their beautiful tombs which embody their ancestor cult, still dot the entire landscape of the southwest coast of Turkey between the Gulf of Fethiye and Phaselis.

The ancient Greeks knew and admired the Lycians, for the Lycians had solved a problem which baffled the ancient world: how to reconcile free government in the city-state with the needs of a larger political unity.

Besides their unique form of government, the Lycians may have had one unusual custom that the Greeks found very unfamiliar. Their society had strong matriarchal elements. Herodotos noted: “They have customs that resemble no one else’s. They use their mother’s name instead of their father’s.

Not that this great commitment to Matriarchy actually did the women much good. When the Lycians were about to be defeated by the Persians, at Xanthos, the men whipped back into the city and killed all the women and children so that, presumably, they couldn’t be either enslaved or raped. That was just before the men then sallied forth again to be killed…

“Now, dear, those nasty Persians are about to come over the kill and rape you. I don’t want you to have to endure that, so I’m going to kill you right now, ok?”

“Ok dear, no worries.”

You can find out more about the Lycians, if you are interested: here and here.


 

WARNING

The rest of this post is, well, not really a traditional post – it’s more a history tour of the local neighbourhood spread over several thousand years – if that interests you – read on. If not go for a coffee or something.

Leaving aside South America, China, India and the ancient cultures of south-east Asia, Australia and the north Americas, I’ve discovered that, even within my own lineage and it’s near geographical neighbours, i.e. the Caucasian cultures of Europe, North Africa, West Asia, South Asia and parts of Central Asia my knowledge of the history of 6000 years of “civilisation” is pitifully poor.

We look about us now and see what is happening in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Ukraine, West Africa, Yemen, Somalia and, yet, compared with ancient times, we live in an age of relative peace and tranquility. Small comfort, of course, to those currently having their lives torn apart by the grasping at power by our corrupt rulers and petty despots.

To read ancient history is to get the impression of a never ending wave of wars, looting, rape and then revenge. An eye for eye, a tooth for a tooth. A cesspool of violence. To be fair, though, we are talking a span of 4000 years, so I’m sure that the Egyptians got the odd moment to sit back and read their papyrus scrolls in between, allegedly, enslaving thousands to build pyramids and wage wars (although in fact this appears to be largely myth).

For many of these former civilisations there is little left to see primarily because the behaviour of each successive successful despot was akin to the behaviour of Assad or the Burmese or the Saudis. Or perhaps, in Australian terms, to the attempted genocide of Australian Aboriginals.

In other words, let nothing stand in the way and let nothing remain. Or if you are thinking rape and pillage, we need look no further than the behaviour of the Serbs in the Balkan wars to understand what happened in the ancient world. Or for Australians the similarity might be to the male entitlement of Canterbury Bulldogs of 2004.

So here’s a potted history of some of these places, as well as a map of where all these dudes hung out in and around the Middle East, Anatolia, the Mediterranean and the other trendy parts of the ancient world.

Many of these empires hung out and did their thing in Mesopotamia – after the Greek word meaning “the land between the rivers (the Euphrates and Tigris)”. Mesopotamia consists of modern day Iraq, Kuwait, northeast Syria, and southeast Turkey. The dates of many of the empires overlap as they co-existed in different parts of the Mediterranean, Middle East and Anatolia concurrently. The dates shown below are approximate only.

  • 5000 BC – 2000 BC SUMERIA
  • 2300 BC – 2150 BC – AKKADIA
  • 2200 BC – 1900 BC – BABYLON
  • 2040 BC – 1782 BC  – EGYPT MIDDLE KINGDOM
  • 1900 BC – 600 BC – ASSYRIA
  • 1800 BC – 1100 BC EARLY GREECE (MYCENAE)
  • 1800 BC – 1100 AD TROY 
  • 1600 BC – 1180 BC HITTITES
  • 1570 BC – 1069 BC EGYPTIAN NEW KINGDOM (EMPIRE)
  • 1500 BC – 240 AD LYCIA
  • 1500BC -322 BC – PHOENICIA
  • 788 BC – 550 BC –  MEDIA
  • 626 BC – 539 BC – NEO BABYLONIA
  • 550 BC – 300 BC ACHAEMENID Persian Empire
  • 700 BC – 146 BC -MACEDONIAN/GREEK EMPIRE (CLASSICAL GREECE)
  • 312 BC – 64 BC SELEUCID KINGDOM
  • 305 BC – 30 BC PTOLMAIC EMPIRE
  • 247 BC – 224 AD PARTHIAN EMPIRE
  • 27 BC – 476 AD ROMAN EMPIRE
  • 330 AD – 1453 A.D – BYZANTIUM
  • 1206 AD – 1368 AD MONGOL EMPIRE
  • 1300 AD – 1922 AD OTTOMAN EMPIRE
  • 332 BC – 146 BC CARTHAGE

5000 BC – 2000 BC The SUMERIANS: Were the burnout merchants of the ancient world and the first of the well known Mesopotamian empires from around 5000 BC. They hung out between the Tigris and Euphrates, in lower Mesopotamia, just around the Gulf of Arabia. They invented the wheel so were the original hoons. They were also big beer drinkers which may explain their liking for fast chariots.

Sumer Akkadia map

They also invented the plow, and writing (the system which we call cuneiform), so are to blame for both modern agriculture and 50 Shades of Grey. They were great at metalwork, so we can probably blame them for the car and modern weapons too.

Sumer was a collection of city-states or cities that were also independent nations, some of which endured for 3,000 years, the largest being Uruk at around 80,000 people which, when you consider the total estimated population of 40 million, was equivalent to a modern day mega-city of around 15-20 million.

The others were  Eridu, Ur, Nippur, Lagash and Kish. Gilgamesh was most likely a real king of Uruk and he stars in his own biopic, the “Epic of Gilgamesh,” a 3,000-line poem that follows the adventures of a Sumerian king as he battles a forest monster and quests after the secret of eternal life.

The Sumerian City of Uruk
The Sumerian city of Uruk

The origin of the Sumerians remains a mystery. A bit like Queenslanders really. We know they exist but no one can quite work out why or how they came to exist in that strange form. They are variously ascribed to Turkey/Anatolia or to India.

The Sumerians were knocked over by the Akkadians.

More about the Sumerians here


2300-2150 BC – AKKADIA: Next were the Akkadians: the world’s first “real” empire was formed in 2350 B.C.E. by Sargon the Great in Mesopotamia. Sargon’s empire was called the Akkadian Empire. There were five rulers of Akkad: Sargon, Rimush, Manishtusu, Naram-Sin (also known as Naram-Suen) and Shar-Kali-Sharri who maintained the dynasty for 142 years before it collapsed.

The civilisation founded by Sargon the Great, prospered during the historical age known as the Bronze Age. Like Sumeria it was a collection of city states under the control of Sargon’s capital city, Akkad.  Sargon reigned from approximately 2334-2279 BC.

Sargon of Akkad
Sargon

Sargon’s empire included the Sumerian cities of the Tigris-Euphrates Delta in Mesopotamia, and all of southern Mesopotamia as well as parts of Syria, Anatolia, and Elam (now western Iran) establishing the region’s first Semitic dynasty.

After taking control of these, Sargon went through modern day Syria to the Taurus Mountains near Cyprus.

The Akkadian Empire eventually also stretched across modern day Turkey, Iran, and Lebanon. Sargon is, less plausibly, said to have gone into Egypt, India, and Ethiopia. The Akkadian empire spanned approximately 800 miles.

After the fall of the Akkadian Empire, the people of Mesopotamia eventually coalesced into two majorAkkadian-speaking nations: Assyria in the north, and, a few centuries later, Babylonia in the south. The site of the capital Akkad, in modern Iraq, has never been found.

More on Akkadia here and here


2200 BC – 1900 BABYLONBabylon is the most famous city from ancient Mesopotamia whose ruins lie in modern-day Iraq 59 miles (94 kilometres) southwest of Baghdad. The town became an independent city-state with the rise of the First Amorite Babylonian Dynasty in the nineteenth century BC. After the Amorite king Hammurabi created a short-lived empire in the 18th century BC, southern Mesopotamia became known as Babylonia and Babylon eclipsed Nippur as its holy city. The language was Akkadian.

An Amorite king named Hammurabi first created the short lived Babylonian Empire in the 18th century BC. It was from this time that South Mesopotamia came to be known as Babylonia, and the city of Babylon itself grew in size and grandeur.

The empire quickly dissolved upon his death and Babylon spent long periods under Assyrian, Kassite, Aramean, Chaldean and Elamite domination.

After being destroyed and then rebuilt by the Assyrians, Babylon again became the seat of the Neo-Babylonian Empire from 608 to 539 BC which was founded by Chaldeans from the south east corner of Mesopotamia, and whose last king was an Assyrian from Northern Mesopotamia. After the fall of Babylon it came under the rules of the Achaemenid, Seleucid, Parthian, Roman and Sassanid empires.

You can read more about Babylon here


3150 BC – 1069 BC – EGYPT

  • 3150 BC -2613 BC EARLY DYNASTIC PERIOD 
  • 2686 BC – 2181 BC EGYPT (OLD KINGDOM)
  • 2181 BC – 2040 BC FIRST INTERMEDIATE PERIOD
  • 2040 BC – 1782 BC MIDDLE KINGDOM
  • 1782 BC – 1570 BC SECOND INTERMEDIATE PERIOD
  • 1570 BC – 1069 BC EGYPTIAN NEW KINGDOM (EMPIRE)

The ancient Egyptian culture and society was one of history’s most long lived. From its inception in the Early Dynastic period, through the old Kingdom, around 2600 BC it lasted for about 3000 years, longer if the fall of the Ptolmaic Empire is not seen as the end of ancient Egypt. The exact duration of the different periods are still matters of debate by scholars and Egyptians do not recognise, for example, any differentiation between the Old Kingdom and the First Intermediate period.

The old Kingdom was the era of the pyramid builders including Giza. The historical records of this period, the 4th-6th Dynasties of Egypt, are scarce and historians regard the history of the era as literally ‘written in stone’ and largely architectural in that it is through the monuments and their inscriptions that scholars have been able to construct a history. (see: How the pyramids were built)

Giza

The pyramids themselves relay scant information on their builders, but the mortuary temples built nearby and the stelae which accompanied them provide king’s names and other important information.

The Old Kingdom

The Old Kingdom, with its capital at Memphis, is “possibly unparalleled in world history for the amount of construction they undertook”. The pyramids at Giza and at Saqqara (Pyramid of King Djoser at, the first pyramid ever built in Egypt), and elsewhere, during this period required unprecedented bureaucratic efficiency to organise the labor force which built the pyramids, and this bureaucracy could only have functioned under a strong central government.

Egypt was divided into a total of 42 provinces. There were twenty-two provinces in Upper Egypt and twenty in Lower Egypt. Each province was headed by a governor who tried to build up power within his own province.

After the old Kingdom collapsed, Egypt had the First Intermediate Period (2181-2040 BC) during which Egypt was ruled regionally by local magistrates who made and enforced their own laws. The rise of these local officials and the power of the priesthood were not the only causes of the collapse of the Old Kingdom, however, in that a severe drought toward the end of the 6th Dynasty brought famine which the government could do nothing to alleviate.

The Middle Kingdom

The Middle Kingdom (2040 BC -1782 BC) during the 12th Dynasty is considered Egypt’s “golden age” when cultural and artistic achievements reached their height. During the 13th Dynasty, however, the kings were weaker and more concerned with their own pursuits and court intrigues than the good of the country.

During this time, the Hyksos were able to establish themselves at Avaris in Lower Egypt and steadily consolidated their presence until they were able to wield significant political- and military power. The Middle Kingdom fell as the Egyptian central government grew weaker and both the Hyksos in the north and the Nubians in the south grew stronger, initiating the Second Intermediate Period.

The New Kingdom

The Egyptian Empire rose during the period of the New Kingdom (c. 1570 – c. 1069 BC), when the country reached its height of wealth, international prestige, and military might. The empire stretched from modern-day Syria in the north to modern-day Sudan in the south and from the region of Jordan in the east to Libya in the west.

Since the empire rose and fell in the course of the New Kingdom, historians refer to the period as either the New Kingdom or the Egyptian Empire interchangeably.

Egyptian history is divided by later scholars into eras of “kingdoms” and “intermediate periods”; kingdoms were times of a strong central government and a unified nation while intermediate periods were eras of a weak central government and disunity.

The New Kingdom rose out of the Second Intermediate Period in which the country was divided between a foreign Semitic people known as the Hyksos holding power in northern Lower Egypt, the Nubians ruling to the south in Upper Egypt, and the city of Thebes in the middle representing the traditional Egyptian government.

The Theban king Ahmose I (c. 1570 – c. 1544 BC) drove the Hyksos out of Egypt and defeated the Nubians, uniting Egypt under his rule from Thebes. In his early campaigns, Ahmose I created buffer states around Egypt’s borders to prevent any other foreign power from gaining a foothold in the country as the Hyksos had. In doing so, he initiated the policy of conquest which would be followed by his successors and give rise to the empire of Egypt.

This period is the most famous in Egyptian history. Egypt’s best-known monarchs such as HatshepsutThutmose IIIAmenhotep IIIAkhenatenTutankhamunRamesses II (the Great), and Ramesses III all reigned during this time and some of the most famous monuments and temples – such as the Colossi of Memnon and Temple of Amun at Karnak were built.

Part of the expansion of the Empire was built around the first professional standing army established by Amenemhat I (c. 1991-1962 BC) of the 12th Dynasty in the Middle Kingdom. Not only were the weapons of the army new and improved but so was the structure of the military itself.

Amenhotep I continued the policies of Ahmose I and each pharaoh who came after him did the same. Thutmose I (1520-1492 BCE) put down rebellions in Nubia and expanded Egypt’s territories in the Levant and Syria. Little is known of his successor, Thutmose II (1492-1479 BCE) because his reign is overshadowed by the impressive era of queen Hatshepsut (1479-1458 BCE).

Hatshepsut is not only the most successful female ruler in Egypt’s history but among the most remarkable leaders of the ancient world. She broke with the tradition of a patriarchal monarchy with no evidence of rebellion on the part of her subjects or the court and established a reign which enriched Egypt financially and culturally without engaging in any extensive military campaigns.

When Hatshepsut died, she was succeeded by Thutmose III (1458-1425 BCE) who, possibly in an effort to prevent future women from emulating her, had Hatshepsut’s name erased from monuments. As a result later kings knew nothing of her accomplishments and she would not be known to history again for over 2,000 years.

Thutmose III is often referred to as the Napoleon of Egypt” for his success in battle as he fought 17 campaigns in 20 years and, unlike Napoleon, he was victorious in all of them.

By the time of the reign of Amenhotep III (1386-1353 BCE), Egypt was among the wealthiest and most powerful in the world. Amenhotep III was a brilliant administrator and diplomat whose prosperous reign established Egypt firmly in what historians refer to as the “Club of the Great Powers” – which included Babylonia, Assyria, Mittanni, and the Land of the Hatti (Hittites) – all of whom were joined in peaceful relations through trade and diplomacy.

Amenhotep III’s son and successor was Amenhotep IV who, in the fourth or fifth year of his reign, changed his name to Akhenaten. His wife was the famous Nefertiti.

Under the reign of Akhenaten, the capital was moved from Thebes to a new city, Akhetaten, designed and built by the king and dedicated to his personal god. The temples in all the cities and towns were closed and religious festivals abolished except those venerating his god, the Aten.

This led to intense conflict with the priests of the cult of Amun and led to a decline in Egyptian power as Akhenaten ignored the central cultural value of Egypt – ma’at (harmony and balance) – which was the foundation of the religion and the society was ignored by Akhenaten’s administration and so were the diplomatic and commercial ties with other powers.

Akhenaten’s successor was Tutankhamun (1336-1327 BC) who was in the process of restoring Egypt to its former status when he died young. His work was completed by Horemheb (1320-1295 BC) who erased Akhenaten’s name from history and destroyed his city.

During the 19th Dynasty which followed Horemheb, the most famous pharaoh in Egypt’s history would claim to have finally restored the country to power: Ramesses II (the Great, 1279-1213 BC). Ramesses II is not only the best-known pharaoh in the present day but also in antiquity thanks to his talent for self-promotion

The empire continued through to the 20th Dynasty – and ended with the death of Ramesses XI. The country was, by this time, divided between rule by the pharaoh in Lower Egypt and by the High Priest of Amun at Thebes in Upper Egypt. Ramesses XI’s successor, Smendes (1077-1051 BC), would attempt to reign like the pharaohs of the past but, in reality, was a co-ruler with the high priest Herihor of Thebes (c. 1074 BC) at the beginning of the era known as the Third Intermediate Period (c. 1069-525 BC).

  • More on the Old Kingdom here and here
  • More on the Middle Kingdom here and here
  • More on the New Kingdom here

1600 BC – 1180 BC – THE HITTITES. The Hittites were an ancient group of Indo-Europeans who moved into Asian Minor and formed an empire at Hattusa in Anatolia (modern Turkey) around 1600 BCE. The history of the Empire is split in two the Old Kingdom and the New Kingdom. In the intervening period the empire was much diminished.

Hittite Empire 2
The Hittite Empire
The Hittite Empire reached its greatest heights during the mid-1300s BCE, when it spread across Asia Minor, into the northern Levant and Upper Mesopotamia. Hittites were pioneers of the Iron Age and began manufacturing iron artifacts around 1400 BCE. This is significant because the Hittites’ use of iron and steel created tools and weapons that were more efficient than those made of bronze.
Lion Gate at Hattusa
Lions Gate, Hattusa
One military engagement the Hittites are famous for is the Battle of Kadesh against the Egyptian pharaoh Ramesses II’s army in 1274 BCE. This battle is especially important because both sides claimed victory, which led to the first known peace treaty in the history of the world, in 1258 BCE.
The final decline of the empire started at the Battle of Nihriya, in c. 1245 BCE when the forces of Tudhaliya IV were defeated by the Assyrian army.
More about the Hittites here and here

1900 BC – 600 BC THE ASSYRIANS: For 300 years, from 900 to 600 B.C., the Assyrian Empire expanded, conquered and ruled the Middle East, including Mesopotamia, Egypt, the eastern coast of the Mediterranean, and parts of today’s Turkey, Iran and Iraq.

Initially in the Old Kingdom era, at other times Ashur, the first capital, and other Assyrian cities came under the control of the Akkadian empire under Sargon the Great. At other times, Assyria was a vassal state to Ur’s Third Dynasty in southern Mesopotamia.

From around 1250 B.C., the Assyrians had started using war chariots and iron weapons, which were far superior to bronze weapons. These tools and tactics made the Assyrian army the most powerful military force of its time, both doctrinally and technologically advanced.

Ashur

Assyria’s competitors in the Old Kingdom included Hittites, Amorites, Hurrians, Mitanni, Elamites as well as Babylonians and Sumerians. The Amorites began to settle in the area, taking vital resources needed by Ashur.

An Assyrian king named Shamshi-Adad I (1813 to 1791 B.C.) succeeded in driving out the Amorites and uniting the Assyrian cities of Arbel, Nineveh, Ashur and Arrapkha. Along with the city of Nimrod, this was the core of the fledging Assyrian empire.

Under King Shamshi-Adad I, the Assyrian trade network with Anatolia flourished, giving Ashur power and wealth. While stronger competitors prevented the empire’s growth, the Assyrian core cities were secure. The year after King Shamshi-Adad’s death, Hammurabi took the Babylonian throne and Assyria became vassals to the Babylonians during Hammurabi’s rule.

The final stage of the Assyrian empire began in 745 B.C. when Tiglath Pileser III took the throne. Tiglath Pileser III received the empire in a slump with a demoralised army and disorganised bureaucracy. He took control and began reorganising all aspects of the empire from the army to the bureaucracy to re-conquering rebellious provinces.

Following Tiglath Pileser III, the Assyrian empire was ruled by Shalmaneser V, Sargon II and Sennacherib. Sennacherib’s reign (705 to 681 B.C.) welded the empire into an even greater force; he conquered provinces in Anatolia, Judah and Israel, even sacking Jerusalem. Sennacherib moved the capital of Assyria to Nineveh, where he built a splendid palace and exquisite gardens. Given that no one has actually found any sign of any hanging gardens at Babylon, many scholars speculate that the famous gardens might have been at Nineveh.

One assumes that some Assyrian media manager, in a Trump-like moment, decided that “Hanging Gardens of Babylon” sounded better than “Hanging Gardens of Ninevah”, and stuck out a Tablet Release, to that end, so we have been stuck with the former ever since.

Ashurbanipal was the last great Assyrian king. After his reign of 42 years, the huge empire began to fall apart. It had become too large, taxes were too high and entire regions rebelled. In 612 B.C., Nineveh itself was razed by a host of Persians, Babylonians and Medes. The great Assyrian empire was over.

After the fall of the Assyrian Empire, a Chaldean named Nabopolassar took the throne of Babylon and, through careful alliances, created the Neo-Babylonian Empire.

His son, Nebuchadnezzar II (604-561 BCE), renovated the city so that it covered 900 hectares (2,200 acres) of land and boasted some the most beautiful and impressive structures in all of Mesopotamia. Every ancient writer to make mention of the city of Babylon, outside of those responsible for the stories in the Bible, does so with a tone of awe and reverence. Herodotus, for example, writes:

The Neo-Babylonian Empire continued after the death of Nebuchadnezzar II and Babylon continued to play an important role in the region under the rule of Nabonidus and his successor Belshazzar (featured in the biblical Book of Daniel)

More on the Assyrians here and here.


3000 BC – 1100 AD / 1800-1100 TROY – Troy was the most important Bronze Age city in the North Aegean, reaching the height of its prosperity in the middle Bronze Age (1800-1100), contemporary with the Mycenaean civilization on the Greek mainland and the Hittite empire to the East.

Inhabited from the Early Bronze Age through to the 12th century AD the archaeological site which is now called Troy is 5 km from the coast but was once next to the sea.

The site was situated in a bay created by the mouth of the river Skamanda and occupied a strategically important position between Aegean and Eastern civilizations by controlling the principal point of access to the Black Sea, Anatolia and the Balkans from both directions by land and sea.

In particular, the difficulty in finding favourable winds to enter the Dardanelles may well have resulted in ancient sailing vessels standing by near Troy.

Excavations at the site of Troy were carried out by Heinrich Schliemann from 1870 AD until 1890. This and later excavations have revealed nine different cities and no less than 46 levels of inhabitation at the site. These have been labelled Troy I to Troy IX after Schliemann’s (and his successor Dorpfeld’s) original classification.

Troy VI (c. 1750-1300 BCE) is the period most visible today at the site and is the most likely candidate for the besieged city of Homer’s Trojan War. Impressive fortification walls 5 m thick and up to 8 m high constructed from large limestone blocks and including several towers (with the rectangular plan as in Hittite fortifications) demonstrate the prosperity but also concern for defence during this period. The walls would have once been topped by a mud brick and wood superstructure and with closely fitting stonework sloping inwards; as the walls rise they certainly fit the Homeric description of ‘strong-built Troy’.

More on Troy here


1800 BC – 1100 BC EARLY GREECE (MYCENAE) – The earliest inhabitants of mainland Greece (called Mycenaeans after excavations found at Mycenae) developed an advanced culture. But, around 1100 BCE, the Mycenaeans were invaded by barbarians called Dorians and all their civilization disappeared. Greece went into a “Dark Age” to re-emerge hundreds of years later.

The Mycenaean civilization flourished in the late Bronze Age, from the 15th to the 13th century BCE and extended its influence not only throughout the Peloponnese in Greece but also across the Aegean, in particular, on Crete and the Cycladic islands.

mycenae and Minoa

The Mycenaeans were influenced by the earlier Minoan civilization (2000-1450 BCE) which had spread from its origins at Knossos, Crete to include the wider Aegean. Architecture, art and religious practices were assimilated and adapted to better express the perhaps more militaristic and austere Mycenaean culture.

With the mysterious end of the Mycenaean civilization during the Bronze Age Collapse around 1200 BCE (possibly through earthquake, invasion or in-fighting) came the so-called Dark Ages and it would be many centuries before Greek culture would finally regain the heights of the late Bronze Age.

More on Mycenae here


1500BC – 322BC PHOENICIA Strictly speaking this was never an “empire” in the sense we think of empires – at best it was a maritime trading empire dominated by city states, principally Tyre and Sidon.

Because their goods were so highly prized, Phoenicia was often spared the kinds of military incursions suffered by other regions of the Near East. For the most part, the great military powers preferred to leave the Phoenicians to their trade.

The city-states of Phoenicia flourished through maritime trade between c. 1500-322 BC when the major cities were conquered by Alexander the Great and, after his death, the region became a battleground in the fight between his generals for succession and empire.

Phoenicia and it's trade routes

The Phoenicians were a great maritime people, known for their mighty ships adorned with horses’ heads in honor of their god of the sea, Yamm, the brother of Mot, the god of death.

The island city of Tyre and the city of Sidon were the most powerful states in Phoenicia with Gebal/Byblos and Baalbek as the most important spiritual/religious centres. Competition was particularly keen between the cities of Sidon and Tyre, arguably the most famous of the city-states of Phoenicia.

The city of Sidon (modern Sidonia, Lebanon) was initially the most prosperous but steadily lost ground to her sister city of Tyre.

Phoenician city-states began to take form c. 3200 BCE and were firmly established by c. 2750 BCE. Phoenicia thrived as a maritime trader and manufacturing center from c.1500-332 BCE and was highly regarded for their skill in ship-building, glass-making, the production of dyes, and an impressive level of skill in the manufacture of luxury and common goods

In 334 BCE Alexander the Great conquered Baalbek (re-naming it Heliopolis) and marched on to subdue the cities of Byblos and Sidon in 332 BC.

When Alexander arrived at Tyre, Tyre offered to submit but their conditions were unacceptable to Alexander and so he sent envoys to Tyre demanding their surrender.

Alexander ordered the siege of Tyre and was so determined to take the city that he built a causeway from the ruins of the old city on the mainland to the new island city. Used debris, and felled trees were used to build a causeway from the mainland to the island (which, owing to sediment deposits over the centuries is why Tyre is not an island today).

After seven months, Alexander’s forces breached the walls and massacred most of the populace. It is estimated that over 30,000 citizens of Tyre were massacred or sold into slavery. Only the rich and powerful were able to buy there way out and left to found a new trading city in Carthage.

After the fall of Tyre, the other city-states followed surrendered to Alexander’s rule, thus ending the Phoenician Civilization and ushering in the Hellenistic Age.

By 64 CE the disassembled parts of Phoenicia were annexed by Rome and, by 15 CE were colonies of the Roman Empire with Heliopolis remaining an important pilgrimage site which boasted the grandest religious building (the Temple of Jupiter Baal) in all of the Empire, the ruins of which remain well preserved to this day.

The most famous legacy of Phoenicia is undoubtedly the western alphabet but their contribution to the arts, and their role in disseminating the cultures of the ancient world, is equally impressive.

More on Phoenicia here


626 BC – 539 -BC NEO BABYLONIA. Babylon was reborn under the Neo-Babylonians (792 to 595 B.C.), also known as the Chaldeans, who succeeded the Assyrians and established a large empire. The empire reached its peak in the 6th century B.C. under Nebuchadnezzar, the famous Biblical ruler.

Until it was conquered by the Persians, Neo-Babylonian Empire was the most powerful state in the ancient world after the fall of the Assyrian empire (612 BCE). Neo-Babylonian” refers to the last great Babylonian empire (Babylon was its capital). The Neo-Babylonian empire lasted from 626 BCE, when a Babylonian king conquered the Assyrian empire, to 539 BCE when it was conquered by the Persians.

The Neo-Babylonians began as a little known Semitic people. They rebuilt Babylon and established it as their capital. Their army sacked Jerusalem and enslaved entire races of people. After the Assyrian empire collapsed Jerusalem enjoyed 70 years of independence before it was taken over by Nebuchadnezzar after a year and a half siege.

 The Neo-Babylonians made great contributions to science, astronomy and mathematics, which were later passed on to the Greeks. Many of the achievements in these fields credited to the Babylonians were actually accomplished by the Neo-Babylonians.

In Nebuchadnezzar’s time Babylon was built in the shape of a 1.6 mile square and was exquisitely planned. It was surrounded by massive walls and centered around 25 major streets paved with slabs of stone that were organized into a grid. Gates made of brass penetrated the walls. A massive bridge spanned the Euphrates which ran through the middle of the city. Mud brick palaces were adorned with glazed tiles of blue, red and green.

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Neo Babylonian art

At its peak Babylon was a religious center that was the Jerusalem of its day. It was multi cultural and a free city for refugees. The most elaborate temple was dedicate to Marduk, the patron God of Babylon. Extemenanki—a brightly painted, 300-foot-high, stepped ziggurat—that stood near the Temple of Marduk may have been the inspiration for the Tower of Babel.

The temples not only supported a caste of priests but also a sages and prophets such as Daniel. In the markets were silver, gold, bronze, ivory, frankincense, myrrh, marble, wine, grains, imported woods brought in by caravans and ships from as far away as Africa and India.

Much of the debauchery associated with Babylon occurred under the Neo-Babylonians. According the Bible, debauched partiers at King Belshazzar’s feast were warned by the prophet Daniel that their kingdom would fall with the words Mene, Mene, Tekel, Upharsin. Daniel lived in Babylon. He impressed the Babylonian court with his prophetic interpretations of Nebuchadnezzar’s death

More on neo-Babylonia here


788 – 550 MEDIA – The Medes were a largely nomadic tribe from Persia. Prior to their dominant rule there was little centralised authority but occasionally a tribe succeeded in gathering a collection of other tribes under its leadership.

The Medes were one such. They built a capital at Ecbatana (‘meeting place’) in the eastern Zagros from where they extended their power. In 612 BCE, Cyaxares, King of the Medes, stormed Nineveh with the Chaldeans, after which he pushed into the north-west. In 585 BCE, the Medes were fighting the Lydians on the Halys river when a solar eclipse frightened both sides into making peace. Soon afterwards, Cyaxares died leaving an empire of sorts to his son Astyages (585–550 BCE).

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The remains of Ectabana

One of the regions whose tribes paid tribute to the Medes was Persia, which lay south-east of Ecbatana, beyond Elam. There were around 10 or 15 tribes in Persia, of which one was the Pasargadae. The leader of the Pasargadae always came from the Achaemenid clan, and, in 559 BCE, a new leader was chosen: Cyrus II (‘the Great’).

We are told that Cyrus was the grandson of Astyages, the Median King, on his mother’s side, but that did not stop him wanting to shake off the Median yoke. By 552 BCE, he had formed the Persian tribes into a federation and begun a series of uprisings. When the inevitable showdown with his grandfather came in 550 BCE, the Medes mutinied and joined Cyrus to march on Ecbatana. the Median capital.

More on the Medes here


550 BC – 300 BC The ACHAEMENID Persian Empire conquered Babylonia and led to its fall. The Fall of Babylon denotes the end of the Neo-Babylonian Empire after it was conquered by the Achaemenid Empire in 539 BCE. … In 539 BCE, Cyrus the Great invaded Babylonia, turning it into a colony of Achaemenid Persia. Cyrus then claimed to be the legitimate successor of the ancient Babylonian kings.

At its height the Achaemenid Persian empire was the largest that the ancient world had seen, extending from Anatolia and Egypt across western Asia to northern India and Central Asia. Its formation began in 550 B.C., when King Astyages of Media, who dominated much of Iran and eastern Anatolia (Turkey), was defeated by his southern neighbor Cyrus II (“the Great”), king of Persia (r. 559–530 B.C.). This upset the balance of power in the Near East.
Persian Empire
The Lydians of western Anatolia under King Croesus took advantage of the fall of Media to push east and clashed with Persian forces. The Lydian army withdrew for the winter but the Persians advanced to the Lydian capital at  Sardis, which fell after a two-week siege. The Lydians had been allied with the Babylonians and Egyptians and Cyrus now had to confront these major powers. The Babylonian empire controlled Mesopotamia and the eastern Mediterranean.
In 539 B.C., Persian forces defeated the Babylonian army at the site of Opis, east of the Tigris. Cyrus entered Babylon and presented himself as a traditional Mesopotamian monarch, restoring temples and releasing political prisoners. The one western power that remained unconquered in Cyrus’ lightning campaigns was Egypt. It was left to his son Cambyses to rout the Egyptian forces in the eastern Nile Delta in 525 B.C. After a ten-day siege, Egypt’s ancient capital Memphis fell to the Persians.
The Persian empire ebbed and flowed in strength and area reaching a new height under Darius I (the Great). Backed by the army and the noble clans of Persia, grown rich from imperial rule, Darius expanded the Empire further and extended it into the Indus Valley, a prize worth several times more in tribute than Babylon.

Cyrus the Great and his empire

Darius also established a common currency, which made working far from home much easier. He brought together teams of craftsmen from all over the Empire to build, under the direction of Persian architects, an imperial capital at Persepolis.
Ultimately Darius III was murdered by one of his own generals, and Alexander claimed the Persian empire. However, the fact that Alexander had to fight every inch of the way, taking every province by force, demonstrates the extraordinary solidarity of the Persian empire and that, despite the repeated court intrigues, it was certainly not in a state of decay.
More on the Achaemenid Empire here and here

700 BC – 146 BC -THE MACEDONIAN/GREEK EMPIRE The classical Greek period begins as early as 7th century BCE, though we tend to be more familiar with its history in the 5th century when Greece consists of a group of constantly warring city-states, the most famous being Athens and Sparta. The Greek victory at the Marathon (490 BCE),(1) the destruction of the Persian fleet at Salamis (480 BCE) and the victory at Plataea (479 BCE) brought and end to the Persian Empire’s attempts to conquer Greece. During the last three decades of the 5th century, Athens and Sparta waged a devastating war (Peloponnesian War 431-404 BCE) which culminated in the surrender of Athens. More inter-Greek fighting followed in the 4th century but later in that century all of Greece would succumb to Phillip II of Macedon, who paves way for his son, Alexander the Great, to spread the Greek civilization across the world.

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Alexander

Alexander, born in 356BCE, was the son of Phillip II (382-336BCE), the King of Macedonia in northern Greece. (And considered a barbarian by the southern Greek city states).

Phillip created a powerful, professional army which forcibly united the fractious Greek city-states into one empire. From an early age, Alexander, displayed tremendous military talent and was appointed as a commander in his father’s army at the age of eighteen.

Having conquered all of Greece Phillip was about to embark on a campaign to invade Greece’s arch-enemy, the Persian Empire. Before he could invade Persia he was assassinated, possibly by Alexander, who then became king in 336BCE. Two years LATER, in 334 BC, he crossed the Hellspont (in modern-day Turkey) with 45,000 men and invaded the Persian Empire.

Alexanders empire

In three Colossal battles, Granicus, Issus and Gaugamela, that took place between 334 and 331 Alexander brilliantly (and often recklessly) led his army to victory against Persian armies that may have outnumbered his own as much as ten to one.

In battle he would lead his Campanion Cavalry right at the strongest (rather than the weakest) point of the enemy line. When he fights the Persians, for example, he goes for the most heavily protected point of the Persian force surrounding the Persian Emperor, aiming to destroy the leadership.

When the Persian emperor Darius flees at the battle the Persian army collapses.

By 331 BCE the Persian Empire was defeated, the Persian Emperor Darius was dead, and Alexander was the undisputed rival of the Mediterranean.

His military campaign lasted 12 years and took him and his army 10,000 miles to the Indus River in India. Only the weariness of his men and his untimely death in 323BCE at the age of 32 ended the Greek conquest of the known world.

At its largest, Alexander’s empire stretched from Egypt to India. He built six Greek cities in his empire, named Alexandria.

The late 5th and the 4th century are as eventful culturally for the Greeks as it was militarily. Despite constant warfare, this is also the golden age of classical Greek culture—the birth of democracy, the time of Aristotle, Socrates, and Plato.

More on Greece


312 BC – 64 BC The SELEUCID KINGDOM was an ancient empire that at its greatest extent stretched from Thrace in Europe to the border of India.

It was one of four “empires” carved out of the remains of Alexander the Great’s the Macedonian  empire by its founder, Seleucus I Nicator

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Seleucus I Nicator

Seleucus, one of Alexander’s leading generals, became satrap (governor) of Babylonia in 321, two years after the death of Alexander. In the prolonged power struggle between the former generals of Alexander for control of the disintegrating empire, Seleucus sided with Ptolemy I of Egypt against Antigonus I, Alexander’s successor on the Macedonian throne, who had forced Seleucus out of Babylonia.

In 312 Seleucus defeated Demetrius at Gaza using troops supplied by Ptolemy, and with a smaller force he seized Babylonia that same year, thereby founding the Seleucid kingdom, or empire.

By 305, having consolidated his power over the kingdom, he began gradually to extend his domain eastward to the Indus River and westward to Syria and Anatolia, where he decisively defeated Antigonus at Ipsus in 301. In 281 he annexed the Thracian Chersonesus. That same year, he was assassinated by Ptolemy Ceraunus, the disgruntled son of Ptolemy I.

Seleucus was succeeded by his eldest son, Antiochus I Soter, who reigned until 261 and was followed by Antiochus II (reigned 261–246), Seleucus II (246–225), Seleucus III (225–223), and Antiochus III the Great (223–187)

Source_ fsmitha.com - The division of the Greek Empire

By controlling Anatolia and its Greek cities, the Seleucids exerted enormous political, economic, and cultural power throughout the Middle East. Their control over the strategic Taurus Mountain passes between Anatolia and Syria, as well as the Hellespont between Thrace and Anatolia, allowed them to dominate commerce and trade in the region. Seleucid settlements in Syria, primarily Antioch, were regional centres by which the Seleucid kingdom projected its military, economic, and cultural influence.

The Seleucid kingdom was a major centre of Hellenistic culture, which maintained the preeminence of Greek customs and manners over the indigenous cultures of the Middle East. A Greek-speaking Macedonian aristocratic class dominated the Seleucid state throughout its history, although this dominance was most strongly felt in the urban areas.

The Seleucid kingdom began losing control over large territories in the 3rd century BC. An inexorable decline followed the first defeat of the Seleucids by the Romans in 190.

More about the Seleucids here


305 BC  – 30 BC – THE PTOLEMAIC DYNASTY arose after the death of Alexander the Great when the Greek Empire was split into four.

These four parts were:

  • Thrace & Asia Minor (taken by Lysimachus)
  • Macedonia and Greece (Cassander)
  • Egypt, Palestine, Cilicia, Petra, and Cyprus (Ptolemy)
  • Rest of Asia (Seleucus) – so founding the Seleucid Empire which was comprised of Syria, Babylon, Persia, & India.

The Ptolemaic dynasty controlled Egypt for almost three centuries (305 – 30 BCE), eventually falling to the Romans. While they ruled Egypt they never became Egyptian. Instead, they isolated themselves in the capital city of Alexandria, a city envisioned by Alexander the Great.

The city was Greek both in language and practice. There were no marriages with outsiders; brother married sister or uncle married niece. In the end even the famous Cleopatra (Cleopatra VII) remained Macedonian.

Ptolemy I Soter (Savior) (366 – 282 BCE) was a Macedonian nobleman and, according to most sources, the son of Lagos and Arsinoe. He had been a childhood friend of Alexander, his official taster, bodyguard, and even possibly a relative; rumors abound that he was the illegitimate son of Philip II, Alexander’s father.

Except for the first two Ptolemaic pharaohs, Ptolemy I and his son Ptolemy II, most of the family was fairly inept and, in the end, only maintained authority with the assistance of Rome.

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Alexandria showing location of the great Pharos and Library

Apparently, Ptolemy II was one the last truly great pharaohs of Egypt. Many of those who followed failed to strengthen Egypt both internally and externally. Jealousy and in-fighting were common.

Unlike many of his successors, Ptolemy II expanded Egypt with the reclaiming of Cyrene (the city had declared independence from Egypt) and acquisitions in Asia Minor and Syria.

He fought two wars – the Syrian Wars – against Antiochus I and Antiochus II (260 – 252 BCE) and would marry his daughter Berenice to Antiochus II. Unfortunately, he also fought and failed in the Chremonidean War against Macedon (267 – 261 BCE).

In Egypt, he established trading posts along the Red Sea, completed construction on the Pharos, and enlarged the library and museum. To honor his parents he established a new festival, the Ptolemaeia.

After 63 BC the Ptolemies ran up against the Romans. The then Pharoah was Ptolemy XIII (63 – 47 BCE) was the brother and husband of the infamous Cleopatra VII. Initially, he had expected to gain favor with Caesar when he killed the Roman general Pompey, who had sought refuge in Egypt and presented the severed head to Caesar.

However, the Roman commander grew irate because he wanted to kill Pompey himself. Ptolemy XIII’s army was defeated after an intense battle, and he drowned in the Nile River when his boat overturned.

The final pharaoh of Egypt was Cleopatra VII who is known to history as simply Cleopatra. She ruled Egypt for 22 years, controlling much of the eastern Mediterranean Sea.

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Image of Cleopatra on an ancient coin

Like many of the women of her era, she was highly educated, being groomed for the throne by her father Ptolemy XII in the traditional Greek (Hellenistic) manner. She endeared herself to the Egyptian people, participating in many Egyptian festivals and ceremonies as well as being the only Ptolemy to learn the Egyptian language besides speaking Hebrew, Ethiopian, and other dialects.

Her relationship with Julius Caesar has been the subject of the dramatists and poets for centuries. With the death of Caesar and the balance of power in Rome in question, she sided, unfortunately, with the Roman general Mark Antony, only to lose it all at the Battle of Actium. Regrettably, she failed to find compassion in Octavian, the future Emperor Augustus and committed suicide. Her sons by Caesar and Antony, Caesarion (Ptolemy XV) and Antyllus were put to death by Octavian.

More on the Ptelomies here


247 BC – 224 AD THE PARTHIAN EMPIRE

In 245 BCE, a satrap named Andragoras revolted from the young Seleucid King, Seleucus II, who had just succeeded to the throne.

In the confusion, Parthia was overrun by the Parni, a nomad tribe from the Central-Asian steppe. In 238 BCE, they occupied the district known as Astavene.

Three years later, a Parnian leader named Tiridates ventured further south and seized the rest of Parthia. A counter-offensive by King Seleucus ended in disaster, and Hyrcania was also subdued by the Parni. The first king of the Parthians (as the Parni were called from now on) was Tiridates’ brother Arsaces I. His capital was Hecatompylus.

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Hecatomplos

Through the conquests of Mithradates I (reigned 171–138 BC) and Artabanus II (reigned 128–124 BC), all of the Iranian Plateau and the Tigris-Euphrates valley came under Parthian control. In 92 BC, Mithradates II, whose forces were advancing into north Syria against the declining Seleucids, concluded the first treaty between Parthia and Rome.

The earliest Parthian capital was probably at Dara (modern Abivard); one of the later capitals was Hecatompylos, probably near modern Dāmghān. The empire was governed by a small Parthian aristocracy, which successfully made use of the social organizations established by the Seleucids and which tolerated the development of vassal kingdoms.

Parthia regularly came into conflict with the Roman Empire. Rome considered itself obliged to enter upon the inheritance of Alexander the Great and, from the time of Pompey, continually attempted the subjection of the Hellenistic countries as far as the Euphrates River and had ambitions to go even farther eastward.

With this objective, Marcus Licinius Crassus, the Roman triumvir in 54 BC, took the offensive against Parthia; his army, however, was routed at Carrhae the following year. After this battle Mesopotamia was regained by the Parthians, but, apart from the ravaging of Syria (51 BC), the threatened Parthian attack on the Roman Empire never materialized.

Finally, in southern Iran the new dynasty of the Sāsānians, under the leadership of Ardashir I (reigned 224–241), overthrew the Parthian princes, ending the history of Parthia.

More about the Parthians here


332 BC – 146 BC CARTHAGE Carthage was effectively a re-incarnation of the Phoenician trading empire. When the Phoenicians were defeated by Alexander the Great, Alexander’s army massacred most of the population (allegedly around 30,000 people) and only the rich and famous were able to buy their lives and freedom.

The city (in modern-day Tunisia, North Africa) was originally known as Kart-hadasht (new city) to distinguish it from the older Phoenician city of Utica nearby. The Greeks called the city Karchedon and the Romans turned this name into Carthago.

Originally a small port on the coast, established only as a stop for Phoenician traders to re-supply or repair their ships, Carthage grew to become the most powerful city in the Mediterranean before the rise of Rome.

The Carthaginians who arrived after the fall of Tyre drove the native Africans from the area, enslaved many of them, and exacted tribute from the rest. From a small town on the coast, the city grew to one of size and grandeur. Within one hundred years Carthage was the richest city in the Mediterranean.

The harbour was immense, with 220 docks, gleaming columns which rose around it in a half-circle, and was ornamented with Greek sculpture.

As Carthage sought to expand it came into conflict with Rome leading to the three Punic Wars between the two empires.

The most famous episode in the Punic wars was during the Second Punic War when Hannibal invaded Rome over the Alps from the Carthaginian territories in Spain.

This second war (218-202 BCE) was fought largely in northern Italy as Hannibal invaded Italy from Spain by marching his forces over the Alps.

Hannibal won every engagement against the Romans in Italy but in the manner of the Greek general, Pyrrhus, suffered sufficient losses that he could not consolidate his victories and was forced to return home.

He was defeated by the Roman general Scipio Africanus at the Battle of Zama, in North Africa, in 202 BCE and Carthage again sued for peace.

The term pyrrhic victory comes from the episode involving Pyrrhus who defeated the Romans at Asculum in 279 BC but suffered such heavy losses he had to return to Greece.

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Following the second Punic war, Carthage believed that once their reparations to Rome were paid they no longer owed the Romans anything. The Romans felt that Carthage should be obliged to bend to Roman will; so much so that the Roman Senator Cato the Elder ended all of his speeches, no matter what the subject, with the phrase, “Further, I think that Carthage should be destroyed.”

In 149 BC, Rome suggested just that course of action and the Third Punic War (149-146 BC) began. The Roman general Scipio Aemilianus besieged Carthage for three years until it fell. After sacking the city, the Romans burned it to the ground, leaving not one stone on top of another.

More on Carthage here


509 BC – 27 BC THE ROMAN REPUBLIC – During the early republic (from res publica, or “property of the people), the Roman state grew exponentially in both size and power.

Though the Gauls sacked and burned Rome in 390 B.C., the Romans rebounded under the leadership of the military hero Camillus, eventually gaining control of the entire Italian peninsula by 264 B.C.

The wars with the North African city of Carthage (known as the Punic Wars, 264-146 AD) consolidated Rome’s power and helped the city grow in wealth and prestige. Rome and Carthage were rivals in trade in the Western Mediterranean and, with Carthage defeated, Rome held almost absolute dominance over the region.

27 BC – 476 AD ROMAN EMPIRE – Few people need much of an introduction to the Roman Empire. Technically Rome had an empire long before scholars recognise the start of the Empire, proper, in 27 BC when Augustus the Great was formally crowned emperor.

Prior to Augustus’s crowning, Rome already had extensive territories gained both during the era of the Republic and after Julius Caesar became Dictator (technically he was never crowned Emperor).

Following the Battle of Actium in 31 BC, Gaius Octavian Thurinus, Julius Caesar‘s nephew and heir, became the first emperor of Rome and took the name Augustus Caesar.

Although Julius Caesar is often regarded as the first emperor of Rome, this is incorrect; he never held the title `Emperor’ but, rather, `Dictator’, a title the senate could not help but grant him, as Caesar held supreme military and political power at the time.

In contrast, the senate willingly granted Augustus the title of emperor, lavishing praise and power on him because he had destroyed Rome’s enemies and brought much needed stability.

Rome expanded massively under the so-called “five good emperors”. Between 96 and 180 AD, five exceptional men ruled in sequence and brought the Roman Empire to its height: Nerva (96-98), Trajan (98-117), Hadrian (117-138), Antoninus Pius (138-161), and Marcus Aurelius (161-180).

Roman Empire

Under their leadership, the Roman Empire grew stronger, more stable, and expanded in size and scope reaching it’s maximum extent and the height of power around 117 AD

From 376-382 AD, Rome fought a series of battles against invading Goths known today as the Gothic Wars. At the Battle of Adrianople, 9 August 378 AD, the Roman Emperor Valens was defeated, and historians mark this event as pivotal in the decline of the Western Roman Empire.

Various theories have been suggested as to the cause of the empire’s fall but, even today, there is no universal agreement on what those specific factors were. Edward Gibbon has famously argued in his The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire that Christianity played a pivotal role, in that the new religion undermined the social mores of the empire which paganism provided.

The Western Roman Empire officially ended 4 September 476 CE, when Emperor Romulus Augustus was deposed by the Germanic King Odoacer.

More on the Roman Empire here and here


330 AD – 1453 A.D – BYZANTIUM After the fall of Rome the Eastern empire founded with Constantinople as it’s capital continued on. The Byzantine Empire was the continuation of the Roman Empire in the Greek-speaking, eastern part of the Mediterranean. Christian in nature, it was perennially at war with the Muslims.

The emperor Constantine the Great (reign 306-337 CE) was one of the first to realize the impossibility of managing the empire’s problems from distant Rome.

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Constantine

In 330 CE Constantine decided to make Byzantium, which he had re-founded a couple of years before and named after himself, his new residence. Constantinople lay halfway between the Balkan and the Euphrates, and not too far from the immense wealth and manpower of Asia Minor, the vital part of the empire.

Most times the history of the Empire is divided into three periods.

The first of these, from 330 till 867 CE, saw the creation and survival of a powerful empire.

During the reign of Justinian (527-565 CE), a last attempt was made to reunite the whole Roman Empire under one ruler, the one in Constantinople. This plan largely succeeded: the wealthy provinces in Italy and Africa were reconquered, Libya was rejuvenated, and money bought sufficient diplomatic influence in the realms of the Frankish rulers in Gauland the Visigothic dynasty in Spain.

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Hagia (Aya) Sophia

The refound unity was celebrated with the construction of the church of Holy Wisdom, Hagia Sophia, in Constantinople. The price for the reunion, however, was high. Justinian had to pay off the Sasanian Persians, and had to deal with firm resistance, for instance in Italy.

The second period in Byzantine history consists of its apogee. It fell during the Macedonian dynasty (867-1057 CE). After an age of contraction, the empire expanded again and in the end, almost every Christian city in the East was within the empire’s borders. On the other hand, wealthy Egypt and large parts of Syria were forever lost, and Jerusalem was not reconquered.

In 1014 CE the mighty Bulgarian empire, which had once been a very serious threat to the Byzantine state, was finally overcome after a bloody war, and became part of the Byzantine Empire. The victorious emperor, Basil II, was surnamed Boulgaroktonos, “Slayer of Bulgars”. The northern border now was finally secured and the empire flourished.

Throughout this whole period the Byzantine currency, the nomisma, was the leading currency in the Mediterranean world.

Constantinople was the city where people of every religion and nationality lived next to one another, all in their own quarters and with their own social structures. Taxes for foreign traders were just the same as for the inhabitants. This was unique in the world of the middle ages.

For its time, the Byzantine Empire was quite modern. Its tax system and administration were so efficient that the empire survived more than a thousand years.

The culture of Byzantium was rich and affluent, while science and technology also flourished. Very important for us, nowadays, was the Byzantine tradition of rhetoric and public debate. Philosophical and theological discources were important in public life, even emperors taking part in them.

The third period saw a new Dynasty the Comnenes, come to power. This occurred after the Battle of Manzikert in 1071 CE. Here, the Byzantine army under the emperor Romanus IV Diogenes, although reinforced by Frankish mercenaries, was beaten by an army of the Seljuk Turks, commanded by Alp Arslan (“the Lion”).

After the battle, the Byzantine Empire lost Antioch, Aleppo, and Manzikert, and within years, the whole of Asia Minor was overrun by Turks.

During the succeeding years Constantinople was plundered by the Crusaders who, effectively considered the Greek Orthodox Church, which had split from Rome, as heretics. From that moment on Western monarchs controlled that part of the empire based on Constantinople while the Comnenes continued to rule in and around the Anatolian mini-states surrounding Trapezus,  while the Palaiologan dynasty ruled around Nicaea.

These two mini-Empires managed to survive largely because the Seljuk Turks suffered a defeat, in 1243 CE, in a war against the Mongols. The Palaiologans even managed to capture Constantinople in 1261 CE, but the Byzantine Empire was now in decline.

It kept losing territory, until finally the Ottoman Empire (which had replaced the Sultanate of Rum) under Mehmet II conquered Constantinople in 1453 CE and took over government. Trapezus surrendered eight years later.

More on the Byzantine Empire here


1206 AD – 1368 AD MONGOL EMPIRE  – The creation of the Mongol Empire was largely driven by Genghis Khan (born Temujin in the 1160s). Genghis’s first efforts were to conquer all the Mongolian tribes, who had never come together as one people before.

Genghis’s strengths in making strong alliances and in military tactics soon saw him proclaimed Great Khan in 1206 by all the Mongol and Turkic peoples. From there, the Mongols struck out in every direction, east to Chinese lands and west to the Khwarazmian empire that spanned parts of Central Asia, Iran, Afghanistan and parts of Iraq.

Height of the Mongol Empire
The Mongol Empire at its height

Genghis Khan died of natural causes in 1227 while at war against the Tangut people in Xia (northwestern China).

The death of the Great Khan left the leadership role to Genghis’s son Ogedai, who ruled successfully from 1229 to 1241. Ogedai succeeded in expanding the empire even further into Russian territory in the west and into the Jin dynasty territories in China. Ogedai established the Mongolian capital of Karakorum in Mongolia, which became the seat of the empire.

Ogedai’s death in 1241 led to succession struggles between Genghis Khan’s sons, a pattern for the empire from then until the election of the Mongke Khan, the son of Tolui Khan, Genghis’s youngest son. Under his rule the empire continued to expand, into Bulgaria, Eastern Europe and Iraq in the west and into Vietnam in the east.

Mongke’s brother Halagu defeated and occupied Baghdad. Kublai, brother of Mongke and Halagu, campaigned in Song, the south China state. In 1260, after the death of Mongke, Kublai and Ariqboke, another brother, both claimed to be Great Khan. A war for succession ensued, which Kublai eventually won in 1264. By this time, the great Mongol Empire was weakening.

Mongke’s brother Halagu defeated and occupied Baghdad. Kublai, brother of Mongke and Halagu, campaigned in Song, the south China state. In 1260, after the death of Mongke, Kublai and Ariqboke, another brother, both claimed to be Great Khan. A war for succession ensued, which Kublai eventually won in 1264. By this time, the great Mongol Empire was weakening.

Gradually, the Mongol empire broke up into four remaining empires: the Yuan of China, established by Kublai Khan, the Chaganate of Central Asia, the Ilkhanate of the Middle East and the Golden Horde of Russia

More on the Mongols here and here


1300 AD – 1922 AD OTTOMAN EMPIRE – The Ottoman Empire was created by Turkish tribes in Anatolia (Asia Minor) that grew to be one of the most powerful states in the world during the 15th and 16th centuries.

The Ottoman period spanned more than 600 years and came to an end only in 1922, when it was replaced by the Turkish Republic and various successor states in southeastern Europe and the Middle East.

The Ottoman Empire

At its height the empire encompassed most of southeastern Europe to the gates of Vienna, including present-day Hungary, the Balkan region, Greece, and parts of Ukraine; those portions of the Middle East now occupied by Iraq, Syria, Israel, and Egypt; North Africa as far west as Algeria; and large parts of the Arabian Peninsula.

The term Ottoman is a dynastic appellation derived from Osman I (Arabic: Uthmān), the nomadic Turkmen chief who founded both the dynasty and the empire about 1300.

The Ottomans originated from north-central Anatolia, now modern Turkey. Their expansion started with the decline of the Seljuk Turks from central Asia who had established a dynasty in Iran and Mesopotamia. Following the final Mongol defeat of the Seljuqs in 1293.

Osman, and his immediate successors, such as Orhan, concentrated their attacks on Byzantine territories bordering the Bosporus and the Sea of Marmara to the west. Starting in 1354, Orhan’s son Süleyman transformed Gallipoli, a peninsula on the European side of the Dardanelles, into a permanent base for expansion into Europe

In 1361 the Ottomans captured Adrianople, the second city of the Byzantine Empire. Renamed Edirne, the city became the new Ottoman capital, providing the Ottomans with a centre for the administrative and military control of Thrace. By 1389 the Ottomans controlled the whole of the Balkans, except Bosnia, Albania and Belgrade, following the defeat of the Serbs at Kosovo.

While the Ottoman Empire suffered numerous setbacks, including an interregnum (1402–13), during which four of Sultan Bayezid’s sons competed for the right to rule the entire empire, it continued to expand reaching its zenith around 1683 having taken Constantinople in 1453.

More on the Ottoman Empire here


 

ACKNOWLEDGEMENT: While the information in this post is taken from many sources the vast majority comes from the Ancient History Encyclopedia

 

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