The 6 Greatest Empires to Exist in the Years B.C

The 6 Greatest Empires to Exist in the Years B.C

Stephanie Schoppert - September 7, 2016

Today many people are familiar with some of the great empires in history, those that spanned continents and ruled over millions, such as the Roman Empire, the British Empire and the Ottoman Empire. But few are very familiar with the early empires, those that existed in years long before the modern era, long before the medieval era. The first empires to conquer and change the world occurred in the years B.C. according to the Christian calendar.

These empires are chosen based not only on their size but on their influence on the world around them and the people and empires that would come after them. Some you may know while others are often forgotten.

1. The Maurya Empire 322 – 185 B.C.

The 6 Greatest Empires to Exist in the Years B.C

The Maurya Empire was founded by Chandragupta Maurya and Chanakya. Chandragupta Maurya’s rise to power is largely unknown but his empire began when he conquered the Nanda Empire at just 20 years old. At the time the empire spanned through the northern part of what is now modern day India. In 305 B.C. Chandragupta expanded the borders to the Northwest following his victory over Seleucus I Nicator of the Seleucid Empire. In the final expansion under his reign, he drew the borders further south to encompass nearly all of modern day India by 300 B.C.

The Empire was divided into four provinces, each headed by a royal prince who would govern as a representative of the King. There was a vast infrastructure with a civil service that was in control of everything from trade with other empires to the hygiene of the local populace. The empire also maintained one of the largest armies of its time with over 600,000 infantry, 9,000 war elephants and 30,000 cavalry. A spy system gathered information on enemies both local and abroad.

The stability of the empire led to a growing economy and a fair taxation system. Chandragupta Maurya created a single currency throughout the empire which made it easier for farmers to sell their crops for a fair price. The empire also developed a profitable system of international trade with the Greek states and the Hellenic kingdoms. The economy was so well managed it would later be compared to that of the Roman Empire.

At its height the Maurya Empire ruled over nearly 60 million people, making it one of the most populated empires in ancient history. Spanning over 2 million square miles it was also one of the largest ancient empires ever to exist. The Shunga coup in 185 B.C. ended the Mauryan dynasty and the peace and stability it had brought to the region.

2. The Egyptian Empire 1550 – 1077 B.C.

The 6 Greatest Empires to Exist in the Years B.C

While the Egyptian civilization extended long before and long after this period, the Egyptian empire largely refers to the New Kingdom period of the Egyptian civilization. During this period the Egyptian Empire reached its territorial peak. During the 18th, 19th and 20th dynasties the Egyptian empire sought to increase its borders to have a buffer against the Levant and to maintain control against the powerful Kush.

This was the period of Egyptian history that saw many of the Pharaohs and monuments that ancient Egypt has become known for. Thutmose III expanded the army and consolidated the empire during his reign in the 18th dynasty. He was followed by other famous pharaohs such as Amenhotep III and Tutankhamun. The 19th and 20th dynasties included the Ramesses pharaohs who went on a prolonged military campaign that had some victories but largely weakened the empire until it was taken over by Smendes.

The New Kingdom period was marked by some of the most impressive structures of the ancient world, including the funeral complex built by Ramesses II for his sons which is the largest of all the tombs in the Valley of the Kings. This period of the Egyptian Empire was one of art and tombs, with pharaohs moving away from pyramids and choosing tombs carved into the rock instead. The New Kingdom is responsible for the famous Valley of the Kings.

At the height of its empire, the Egyptians controlled over 380,000 square miles and about 5 million people. Today it is remembered not for its size or its population but for the tombs and history that it has left behind. The Egyptian Empire is one of the most researched, recognized and understood empires in the ancient world, largely because of how much survived due to the protection of the tombs.

3. Macedonian Empire 336 – 323 B.C.

The 6 Greatest Empires to Exist in the Years B.C

Quite possibly the shortest empire in ancient history, for a period the Macedonian empire was the largest in the entire world. During his reign, Phillip II (359-336 B.C.) consolidated Macedonia into a great European power. He was able to get all of Macedonia’s neighbors under his control, including the Greeks. Phillip II paved the way for his son Alexander III the Great to carve himself the largest empire in the world.

Alexander III the Great earned his name through building the most powerful army in the world and conquering armies on three continents. His armies were able to conquer Egypt and the Persian empire. At its largest, the Macedonian empire included parts of Europe, Asia and North Africa. He used his armies and his influence to spread Greek culture and language throughout his empire.

The empire of Alexander may have been brief but it had a lasting effect on the areas that were conquered because of the spread of Greek influence. The Hellenistic period occurred because of the newly founded Greek-speaking western cities of Persia. Thanks to Alexander the Greeks discovered the world was far bigger than they ever imagined. Alexander was viewed by many as a God because of his ability to conquer armies that far outnumbered his own and commandeered empires that were far larger than any the Greeks had commanded before him.

Alexander III died at the age of 32 and upon his death, his generals divided up the massive empire into provinces for each of them to rule. The division was tenuous and warfare was nearly constant, even Macedonia experienced a civil war. But at its height, the empire spanned over 2 million square miles and ruled over a very diverse populace. Alexander was able to bring his empire together by not destroying the people and the culture he conquered but by simply adding his own.

4. Han Dynasty 206 B.C. – 220 A.D.

The 6 Greatest Empires to Exist in the Years B.C

The Han Dynasty is considered to be the golden age of Chinese history and even today China’s majority ethnic group calls itself the “Han people.” The Western Han existed from 206 B.C. until 9 A.D. and started with Liu Bang who united fractured China and later became known as Emperor Gaozu.

The empire was heavily divided with 13 commanderies in the Western third of the empire and 10 kingdoms in the other two-thirds. Liu Bang tried to appease some of his generals by making them Kings. Throughout the Han dynasty, the Hans were rivals with the Xiongnu who were nomadic tribes to the north. The empire expanded throughout much of Xiongnu territory to the north and down south to modern-day Vietnam and Korea.

In order to pay for the military campaigns, the empire created several government monopolies to extract money from the populace. Liquor, salt, coinage and iron were all monopolies under the government for a period. Education and Confucianism were important to the Han and many important philosophical works came out of this period. Dictionaries, biographies, histories were written and defined how Chinese history would be written for ever after. The Silk Road was also created during this dynasty and changed the future of China. A system of law and order even allowed women to seek redress against men for crimes and less brutal forms of punishment were adopted.

Thanks to the oldest surviving census in history it is known that the population of the Han dynasty was 57,641,400 at the height of its power. It controlled 2.3 million square miles or just over 4% of the total land area in the world. It remains as an era of Chinese innovation and one where Chinese power was unmatched in the world.

5. Achaemenid or First Persian Empire 550 – 330 B.C.

The 6 Greatest Empires to Exist in the Years B.C

The Achaemenid Empire began to be recognized as a world power with the reign of Cyrus the Great. In 550 B.C. he conquered the Medes to create the first Persian empire. Cyrus was a shrewd man in terms of tactics and politics and this allowed him to incorporate Lydia and the Neo-Babylonian Empire into the Persian Empire. Later the empire would expand into Egypt by defeating the 26th Egyptian dynasty.

Cyrus the Great was shrewd in his management of his empire, choosing not to force the varying groups to adhere to one culture. He allowed his subjects to all have equal rights and responsibilities no matter their ethnicity or culture, as long as they obeyed the laws and paid their taxes. While this may have worked for a period and secured the loyalty of the Babylonians, it did little to quell rebellion or maintain order. This meant that troops spent more time maintaining the peace within the empire rather than protecting the empire’s borders.

The first Persian empire had numerous advancements including the creation of Persepolis which served as a capital for the empire and would become the home for generations of Persian kings. The Persian culture during the first empire was unique in that boys were taught to ride a horse, draw a bow and tell the truth. Few things were considered worse than telling a lie in Persian culture. The Persian Empire was filled with massive cities, temples, mausoleums and palaces that featured inspiration from numerous cultures, much like the empire itself.

The empire ended largely due to the taxes that were levied on nations and citizens. Each nation was expected to provide goods, services and up to $180 million a year in taxes, a fee so large it caused the entire empire to go into an economic decline. When Alexander III the Great arrived he easily conquered the Persian army and provided money for the impoverished nations to rebuild cities. As Alexander largely kept the structure of the government the same he was considered by some to be the last of the Achaemenids.

6. Seleucid Empire 312 to 63 B.C.

The 6 Greatest Empires to Exist in the Years B.C

The Seleucid Empire was founded by Seleucus I Nicator after the fracturing of Alexander the Great’s empire. As his share, Seleucus took Babylonia and eventually expanded his own empire to include many of Alexander the Great’s near eastern territories. The Seleucid empire grew to include Persia, the Levant, Anatolia and Mesopotamia. Seleucus even went as far as India where he reached an agreement with the Mauryan Empire to give up his eastern territories for 500 war elephants. The elephants helped Seleucus take control over the Anatolia and part of Syria.

After Seleucus was assassinated his son was left with a very large empire to maintain, but Antiochus I Soter still managed to expand the empire and conquer much of Alexander’s former European conquests. The empire was hard to control and the successive rulers struggled until Antiochus III the Great who managed to expand the empire all the way to India and into Greece until he was stopped by the Roman Empire.

The Seleucid Empire was so vast that it was always hard to manage and unstable. The empire did follow Alexander the Great’s example and created Greek towns and cities throughout the empire which allowed for colonization from the Greek mainland. In order to establish trade, many cities were compelled to follow Hellenistic religion, politics and practices in order to make trade easier. Some were eager to switch to the Greek model, while others like the Jews revolted and gained their independence from the empire.

The Seleucid empire came to an end largely due to instability. Few of the Seleucid empire’s rulers were able to maintain order over such a vast empire with such a diverse populace. The empire declined following the defeat of the Romans and the large indemnity that was required to be paid. Antiochus IV Epiphanes tried to expand the empire but he faced the Parthians and the Romans who also wanted to expand and the rebellion within his territories. The empire then fell into civil war and collapsed by 63 B.C.


Sources For Further Reading:

Scoop Whoop – The Incredible Story of Chanakya’s Revenge Which Brought Down an Entire Empire

The Culture Trip – An Introduction to China’s Han People

We Forum – China’s $900 Billion New Silk Road. What You Need To Know

History Collection – 8 Lesser-Known Kingdoms and Empires That Ruled the World