Top 6 Most Powerful Empires of Ancient History
While powerful empires have dominated most epochs of human history, the concept of an empire first began in the Ancient world. From 3000 BC to 500 AD, many of the world's most famous and most influential empires dominated the globe.
These great civilizations ruled over huge swathes of the Earth's population, ushering in major advancements in culture, religion, and science that have shaped the world as we know it.
In this article, we'll take a look at the six most powerful empires of Ancient history, ranking them based on their influence on the world's population.
When the Qin Dynasty collapsed in 207 BC, China was split into several warring states. A civil war between Liu Bang, the leader of the Han, and Chu ruler Xiang Yu, erupted as the two warlords fought for control. Liu Bang emerged victorious and crowned himself as Emperor Gaozu of the Han, and the dynasty would rule China for over 400 years.
Gaozu used the prestige of the Imperial Court to reduce the power of the regional warlords, essentially turning them into feudal vassals. Subsequent Han Emperors nationalized many of China's most prosperous industries.
At its height, the Han Dynasty ruled over a staggering 32% of the global population at that time. Trade routes along the Silk Road carried Han goods across Asia and even into the markets of the Roman Empire.
There were two distinct eras of the Han Dynasty. The Western Han covers the period from the dynasty's formation up until 25 AD, when Emperor Guangwu came to the throne and began the reign of the Eastern Han. However, the Eastern Han period saw powerful eunuch factions within the Imperial Court exerted more and more influence.
In 184 AD, a peasant revolt known as the Yellow Turban Rebellion plunged Han China into turmoil. The Imperial Court petitioned regional warlords to quell the uprising. With their influence bolstered, warlords such as Cao Cao, Sun Quan, and Liu Bei began to exert more control. China became fractured into the Three Kingdoms of Wei, Wu, and Shu, leading to the end of the Han Dynasty.
Arguably the most famous empire in history, the Roman Empire ruled over much of the known Western world for over 500 years. At its height under Emperor Trajan in 117 AD, the empire stretched from Britain in the West to Mesopotamia in the East.
Before becoming an empire, Rome had been the center of an expansionist republic guided by the Senate. But after a series of civil wars between powerful governors like Julius Caesar, the Republic was taken over by Caesar's nephew Octavian, who became the Roman Emperor Augustus in 27 BC.
Over the next five centuries, Rome expanded its territories through the use of its powerful legions, one of the mightiest military forces ever seen in history. These armies conquered much of Europe, Asia, and North Africa. At its zenith, the Roman Empire controlled 30% of the world's total population.
Where the legions went, cities were built, forming the basis of several capitals of the modern world. Taking knowledge from the Greeks and other civilizations before them, the Romans created architectural and engineering marvels such as amphitheaters, aqueducts, fortresses, forums, and temples. Many of these monuments still survive today.
However, the Roman Empire eventually began to fracture and decline. Barbarian tribes from Europe attacked more frequently, sacking cities and pillaging towns. In 395 AD, the Empire was split into East and West and ruled by different emperors. The Western Empire disintegrated in 476 AD, while the Eastern Empire survived in various incarnations until 1453 AD.
Before the Qin Dynasty emerged, China was divided between competing states that were ruled in name only by the king of the Zhou Dynasty. The Zhou had lasted for almost 800 years, but was fractured between rival warlords in what became known as the Seven Warring States period.
In 247 BC, a warlord named Qin Shi Huang became ruler of the powerful Qin state in Western China. Qin Shi Huang had a dream of unifying China under a single ruler. When he came to the throne of Qin, seven rival states were vying for power across China.
In an irresistible campaign, Qin forces quickly subjugated the weakened Zhou dynasty before conquering the other rival states one by one. The process took 26 years of war, but in 221 BC, China was finally unified under Qin rule.
To further unify the land, the Qin dictated a universal writing system and standardized things like coinage, weights, and measures. The Qin also authorized and constructed one of the first incarnations of the Great Wall of China. Upon his death, Qin Shi Huang was buried with a vast life-size retinue of warrior statues now known as the Terracotta Army.
At its height, the Qin Dynasty commanded 24% of the world's population. But after 15 years, the Qin dissolved into a war of succession after their emperor's death and were taken over by a rival state. Despite such a short reign, the Qin Dynasty laid the foundations for over 2000 years of imperial rule in China.
Throughout its history, the Indian subcontinent has been ruled by several powerful empires. One of the most influential of these civilizations during the Ancient era was the Maurya Empire. Founded in the northwest regions of India by the leader Chandragupta Maurya in 322 BC, the Maurya Empire eventually expanded to control much of India and Southeast Asia.
Chandragupta is one of India's most famous historical figures, and his empire became an inspiration for Indian politics for centuries. He formed his civilization after overthrowing the Nanda Empire and set about expanding his territory.
At its height, the Maurya Empire presided over 19% of the world's population, possibly as many as 30 million people. The Maurya emperors, especially Chandragupta's grandson Asoka, ruled a centralized civilization that ushered in a flourishing of culture, industry, and religion.
When Asoka came to the throne in 272 BC, he was an aggressive ruler. He expanded Maurya territory in a series of bloody campaigns. But after seeing the destruction and death that his armies had wreaked, Asoka despaired. Gripped by guilt and remorse, the young prince turned to Buddhism, which rapidly spread across his territory.
For over 40 years, Asoka's rule became one of benevolence and peace. He left stone pillars proclaiming his deeds across his lands, known as the Edicts of Asoka. Many of these monuments still stand today. Over the 50 years after Asoka's death, the Maurya Empire gradually declined and was eventually overthrown in 184 BC by the Shunga empire.
After centuries of conflict between the Greek nations and the Achaemenid Persian Empire, a new force arose that came to briefly dominate both Greece and Persia; the Macedonian Empire. Founded by Philip II of Macedon in 359 BC, the new empire quickly conquered its Greek neighbors.
In 336 BC, Philip was assassinated, and his son Alexander took the throne. Alexander soon set out across the sea and began his invasion of Achaemenid Persia. He defeated a small Persian force at the Battle of the Granicus before inflicting his first defeat on the Persian King Darius III at Issus in 333 BC.
Subjugated nations such as Egypt quickly saw Alexander as a liberator. In 331 BC, Alexander wrestled Egypt away from the Persians and founded the city of Alexandria. He then continued to rampage across Persian territory, conquering modern-day Lebanon and razing the defiant city of Tyre before finally facing Darius again.
At the Battle of Gaugamela, Alexander defeated his Persian adversary one last time and took control of the once-great Achaemenid Empire. But the young conqueror wasn't done yet. Alexander relentlessly marched his army eastwards and conquered territory in India.
At its height during Alexander's final campaigns, the Macedonian Empire ruled around 15% of the world's population and spread Greek culture across much of Asia. But in 323 BC, after 12 years of campaigning, Alexander the Great fell ill and died.
For the next 40 years, the Macedonian Empire would be eroded by civil wars between Alexander's successors, who established their own smaller kingdoms across Greece and Asia by 300 BC.
Achaemenid Persian Empire
The region of Mesopotamia was the cradle of the world's first major empires. But the most powerful and influential of these civilizations came from a backwater state called Persia. In 550 BC, the Persian king Cyrus the Great began a twenty-year campaign to conquer most of the Near East and establish the Achaemenid Persian empire; the world's first true superpower.
After Cyrus's death, Egypt was conquered before a period of civil unrest saw Darius the Great take the throne. Darius led the Achaemenid Empire to its greatest extent, with Persian subjects making up 12% of the world's population.
Achaemenid Persia was famed for its religious tolerance and incredibly efficient administration. Darius standardized weights, measures, currency, and language across the empire. A great Royal Road that spanned most of Persian territory was constructed, allowing a messenger to travel from one end of the empire to the other in just nine days.
In 499 BC, a Greek revolt in modern-day Turkey caused Darius to invade Greece, but the mighty Persian armies were defeated at Marathon. Frustrated, Darius made plans to invade again but died before he could finish. His son Xerxes launched his own invasion but was repelled by a coalition of Greek states.
After Xerxes's assassination in 465 BC, the Achaemenid Empire began to decline under his successors. In 334 BC, the young conqueror Alexander the Great invaded Persian territory. In four swift years of campaigning, he defeated the Persian king Darius III and obliterated the great Achaemenid Empire for good.