Select Page



Before reading this imperial perspective on human history a more general perspective is discussed in History in 10,000 words. For an animated year-by-year overview of the history of urban empires see https:/
It is extremely difficult to grasp in a general way the sweep of human history without some knowledge of the waxing and waning of empires and civilizations in space end time – from the birth of the first Bronze Age cities and city-states in about 3500 BCE to the great world empires of East and West and the legacy of each to all of us who have followed. Until today, through globalization, we are on the brink of a world society.

It is historically unfashionable to present history in terms of kings, queens, emperors and empires since it presents a one-eyed view of history: it tells u sabout the great and powerful, as though other lives, countries, and cultures are inconsequential. We associate such views with a linear Eurocentric or western interpretation of history as western progress (from Plato to NATO). Though history is poorer for ignoring the ‘also-rans’ it is difficult to ignore the impact of these historical entities on human lives, even though there sre other histories to be written.

Human history can be divided into two distinct phases. The first, and by far the longest, was that of hunter-gather when humans lived in nomadic bands within nature like other primates. population numbers[1] were small and their environmental impact negligible although large scale use of fire could alter the structure and species composition of plant and animal communities, disrupting food chains.

Path of ancient human migration

Migration path of modern humans, Homo sapiens, out of Africa based on mtDNA

The flattened map makes relative distances more clear. Numbers are thousands of years before present
India & Australia were colonized c. 65,000-55,000 BP, Europe c. 45,000 BP, SE Asia c. 30,000 BP, Americas c. 15,000 BP. Reoccupation of northern Europe i.e. British Isles occurred c. 11,000 BP after the last Ice Age

Courtesy Wikimedia Commons – Accessed 18 June 2013

With the advent of agriculture and settled communities there was rapid increase in cultural complexity that dramatically altered human existence. Agriculture produced the surplus in resources that facilitated the economic and population growth that could take advantage of the division of labour and specialization that could take advantage of scale. It resulted in urbanization with walled cities. The environment of evolutionary adaptation became man-made rather than natural (essentially that of a walled city) comprising dedicated physical spaces that would remain constant throughout history up to the present day (for food as farming orchards, market gardens, and vineyards; domestic housing and gardens; a communal forum and market place for entertainment and relaxation; a place for government and administration like a palace, temples and places for the dead; connecting space). These spaces represented, in a physical way the universal general functions, values, and aspirations of urban societies though each expressed this in a different way. City living within these spaces had created a new world of language and meaning that emphasized culture rather than nature. These social structures introduced new categories for thinking about the world.
Agriculture Origins

Map of the world showing approximate centres of origin of agriculture and its spread in prehistory

These arose mostly along fertile river valleys, usually developing into urban communities: eastern USA (4000-3000 BP), Central Mexico (5000-4000 BP), Northern South America (5000-4000 BP), sub-Saharan Africa (5000-4000 BP, exact location unknown), the Fertile Crescent (11000 BP), the Yangtze and Yellow River basins (9000 BP) and the New Guinea Highlands (9000-6000 BP). A proposed centre of origin in Amazonia (Lathrap 1977) is not shown
Adapted from File:BlankMap-World6, compact.svg and Diamond, J. (2003). “Farmers and Their Languages: The First Expansions”. science 300: 597–603. A proposed centre of origin in Amazonia (Lathrap 1977) is not shown

Courtesy Wikipedia Commons
Adapted from and Diamond, J. 2003 Farmers and Their Languages: the first expansions. Science 300: 597-603

One way of ordering our thinking about this process is to trace patterns of historical change emanating from the world’s six major cradles of civilization: Mesopotamia, Egypt, Africa, the Americas, India, and China – noting that not all the regions that developed agriculture in prehistory went on to form urban civilizations (e.g. those in New Guinea, tropical W. Africa. Ethiopia, and E. America). In Mesopotamia agriculture, it appears, was derived completely independently of outside influence by the domestication of local plants and animals, first in the foothills and then using irrigation along the fertile river valleys of the Tigris and Euphrates, while the great early civilizations of Egypt and India were based on founder crops from Mesopotamia. Viewed this way see the origins of human civilization coming from two spheres of influence with limited contact up until the early modern period -those emanating from the Mesopotamian core in the West (first cities c. 3500 BCE) and those emanating from the Chinese civilization in the East (first cities c. 1500 BCE). Though evolving population centres generally followed broadly similar patterns of change after the initial domestication of plants and animals, this was often at widely differing times.[2]

Thus, we have two histories in the world that were largely independent of one-another until the modern era … that of the West, and that of the East.


Anatomically modern humans spread out of Africa as hunter-gatherers in around 70,000 BP (see map) eventually between bout 10,000 and 3000 BCE mostly coalescing into settled farming communities with their own suites of domesticated animals and plants.

New urban settlements spread outwards from the six regional centres with trade at first beirg local and concentrated along the fertile river valleys where most settlements had become established. Trade would later expand between coastal areas. In Asia this was most evident in the seas around China and Japan, and the coasts of India In the West the river valley communities of Egypt and Mesopotamia increased their trade across the Mediterranean this being a feature of the Mycenaean and especially Phoenician civilizations the Greek and Roman Emipres supported trade with sophisticated imperial administrations based on written records Trade routes were like life-giving arteries and between 120 BCE-1450 CE the Silk Road (a network of overland communication routes between the West and East across the steppes of Central Asia) passed mostly luxury goods between the two hemispheres thriving especially during the period of the Rman Empire in the West and the Han Dynasty in the East.

The benefits of commerce as a way of enhancing the material conditions of life became clearly evident when from the 15th century, in an Age of Discovery, western culture which was established around the Mediterranean, but mainly in the east, broke out of the Mediterranean to cross the Atlantic. This opened new possibilities for settlement and access to lucrative resources that transferred political and economic power to the coastal cities of northwest Europe. European science, technology, commerce, and general scholarship resulted in the Great Divergence, the increase of European global political and economic power during a period of colonial expansion at the same time as Enlightenment voyages of scientific exploration.

In the West there have been two Dark Ages, the first was the Late Bronze- to early Iron Age Collapse of the Fgyptian and Mesopotamian worlds that lasted about 100 years from 1200 to 1100 BCE in which there was rapid and largely unaccounted decline in Mycenae, the Hittites, Anatolia, Syria, and Egypt during which trade and written language virtually ceased. Wandering semitic tribes of Egypt moved to the Levant, setting up their own kingdom, and it was these people, known as Phoenicians, that revived the lost language, created a 22 letter alphabet using paper and revived trade around the Mediterranean. The second Dark Age occurred in Europe after the collapse of the Roman Empire around 400 CE when literacy and trade was again curtailed with religion and learning confined to monasteries with a small Romanic Renaissance about 900 CE followed by an Arabic revival of learning before the Italian Renaissance of classical learning of the 13-14th centuries.

In the 16th and 17th centuries increasing social integration and complexity enabled Western Europe to overcome the barrier of the Atlantic Ocean to establish a trading highway with the New world. By the 19th century Britain had seized the lion’s share of this resource exchange making it the world’s first global power and establishing a truly global economy. As, through the 20th century, the Indian and Pacific Oceans opened up further to the Western influence, by the 21st century the United States had deposed the United Kingdom and it was the Pacific that was becoming the world focus, accelerating East Asian development and enabling China to challenge America for global political and economic dominance.

Viewed from a Western imperialist perspective we see a transition from small agricultural village societies highland Mesopotamia that moved into the fertile rver valleys of the Tigris and Euphrates which offered the benefits of river trade. From here large-scale agriculture was subsequently adopted in the river valleys of the Nile in Egypt and Indus in India. But as cities and trade grew the scale of activity expanded and the focus of civilization moved westward following maritime trade within the Mediterranean Sea which provided resources on a scale necessary for yet more social development and complexity that would see the rise of the Mediterranean Phoenician trade network and eventually the ascendancy of the Greek and Roman Empires. When the Atlantic Ocean was conquered giving access to the resources of the New World it was cites on the Atlantic seaboard of western Europe that would now thrive, those of Spain, Portugal, Holland, France, and England. These countries would, in turn, forge global empires through sea power that broke out of the introspective classical world of the Mediterranean to claim the Atlantic, Indian, and Pacific Oceans.

Empires & Civilization

Defining civilization and empires is not easy. Is it cities, literacy, metal-working, social hierarchy… maybe social complexity? There were not always monarchic rulers, forms of government varied, and the ‘cradles’ were not all in river valleys. Religion was a common factor and those in power were expected to maintain a balance between the people on Earth and the inhabitants of the spiritual world. A strong military was also a common factor. In general, though we can define an empire as an international fully centralized polity often using social organization and forms of governance to achieve conquest and domination.

Why settle down?

This is discussed in more detail in the Neolithic Revolution
We have not yet resolved our assessment of the benefits and disadvantages of both the nomadic and urban lifestyles. In the 19th century the urbanization that arose out of agriculture was regarded almost universally as process of natural human progression and improvement such that those who had not undergone this social transformation were designated savages or barbarians and treated as being morally inferior. Some of this impression is still conveyed today as we look at coloured animated maps of urban civilization steadily devouring apparently inconsequential and peripheral tribal lands. Clearly the important people here are the city-dwellers, their economies, governments, and technology. But today we are ambivalent about this juggernaut- as it clearly has downside as well as upside.

Death was much more likely in frequently feuding nomadic societies than in cities. States reduced the general level of violence albeit within the framework of clashing armies and interstate rivalry. Military allegiance and the desire for heroic achievement in war were unquestioned manly virtues until well after World War I. However, state protection took a considerable toll on personal freedoms since it occurred within a rigid social hierarchy that exacted taxes, military service, and relentless physical toil. Perceptions of everyman have always vacillated between the extremes of being, on the one hand, a proud citizen (this was particularly encouraged by nationalistic movements in the 19th century) and, on the other, a subjugated and exploited slave to the system. Clearly no empire benefits if there is internal conflict and this is often emphasised when attention is focused to outward warfare or exploration when long periods of peace may be sustained. We have seen this curb on internal violence during the Pax Romana, Pax Britannica, even Pax mongolica.


The following is a brief summary of major dates, extents and legacy of the world’s major empires and civilizations. In Wikipedia can be found a List of Empires (185) with their capitals, dates, and durations; also a List of Largest Empires (49) with their maximum extents in land area. In what follows the known legacy of each empire will be outlined in italics. However, there are certain features that were held in common. Periodization needs careful scrutiny as it may frame our understanding of history in a misleading way. Does the modern world start with the Renaissance or the rise of Islam? It is difficult to think of change as we tend to think in a linear way holding limited ideas in our minds at any one time. Perhaps we can reframe the usual periodization by regarding the years 1000-300 BCE as an Age of Ideas, 300 BCE-250 CE as an Age of Empires and 250-750 CE as an Age of Transformation.

Imperial decline

Empires are like giant organisms: to grow and expand they require energy in the form of food and resources; to flourish each part must successfully achieve its objectives while being harmoniously integrated with the whole; achieving this has required astute governance, generally with a hierarchical chain of command. The constraints of discipline and conformity to these general rules are weighed up against the benefits of scale – what can be achieved by the collective that cannot be achieved its individuals, not least of which is a degree of security and order. Also like organisms empires seem to grow and flourish before entering a phase of decline that may be abrupt or protracted.

Each of these characteristics – energy, flourishing growth and expansion, the benefits of scale, decline – needs further explanation’

Empires are ephemeral, they wax and wane – some lasting longer than others – but eventually they die. That is what we learn from history. Like an organism their strength lies in the strength of their social organization – the health of the various parts – and the security and harmony of their structural integration. When empires compete, we see the influence of additional factors, of military and other technology – anything that provides advantage. The weakening of social organization, leading to final decline, has occurred in many ways, often in combination: through the depletion of resources, natural disasters and, most frequently, by invasion and occupation. Internal breakdown can occur through a lack of confidence or respect … in cultural foundations, social structures, or political leadership. This erodes the sense of common purpose and direction that are evident in buoyant societies. Nineteenth century European nationalism, however ill-founded, helped bind communities together.

Media gallery

What on Earth Happened to the Old Indo-Europeans?

Masaman – 2019 – 11:43

How did The British Empire rule the World?

Knowledgia – 2020 – 10:53

Comparison: History’s Largest Empires

WatchData – 2020 – 2:59

Roman Britain – The Work of Giants Crumbled

Fall of Civilizations – 2020- 1:03:29

100 Largest Empires in History

Cottereau – 2019 – 4:21

First published on the internet – 1 March 2019

Print Friendly, PDF & Email