I have written several articles on postings related to politics. A list of links have been provided at bottom of this article for your convenience. This article will, however address different aspects on these political events.
There has through our recorded history many glorious empires, many no longer even exist. For those that still exist, they are mere shadows of themselves. Once a empire has slid into oblivion, the chances that its leaders will ever be able to reclaim its past glories are next to none. History is against them. History does not lie. I will include a brief history of these empires to so you that I am not making this up.
Greatest Empires in the History of the World
Strongest Era: 19th and 20th Century
Land Area: 33 million sq. km.
The largest empire in human history, the humungous British Empire spanned all 6 habitable continents, as well as the British Antarctic Territory. Due to its size and importance, the sun famously never set on it, both allegorically, signifying its everlasting strength, and practically, because it would always be daytime in at least one of its territories.
The British Empire can be divided in two distinct eras. The first was when Britain was focused on America, and was battling Spain and France for the domination of the two western continents. After the USA became independent in 1783, having first declared independence in 1776, Britain focused on Asia, Africa, and Australia. After Britain quelled the first Indian Rebellion in 1857, the Asian nation became the jewel in Britain’s imperial crown, while their influence in Africa grew without respite. At its height in the 1920s, Britain controlled almost the entire world through military and economic strategy.
After the Second World War, an increasingly strong nationalist movement forced British Prime Minister Clement Attlee to concede its main asset, the Indian subcontinent. The 1950s and ’60s also saw the decolonization of Africa. The British left lasting imprints on their territories, including numerous social and technological advancements, and the English language, which is now considered the language of the world.
Strongest Era: 13th Century
Land Area: 33 million sq. km.
The largest contiguous empire ever created by mankind was borne out of one man’s furious desire to conquer the world. Genghis Khan, born as Temujin, stretched the borders of Mongolia to the Mediterranean, creating an unbroken link from the Pacific to the Mediterranean (and thus the Atlantic), and violently conquered the flourishing kingdoms in China, Korea, Persia, and Russia in the process.
The nomadic Mongol hordes relied on their lightning-fast cavalry attacks, developing a terrible reputation after their victory over the strong Persian Empire. Their march to Europe didn’t just etch Genghis Khan’s name in history, but also helped transmit Asian technology to Europe, chief among which was the Chinese invention of gunpowder.
After Genghis Khan’s death, the empire was divided among his sons. The factions couldn’t survive for long without the fierce vision of the Great Khan, but yielded considerable power over Eurasia for a number of years.
Strongest Era: 19th Century
Land Area: 23 million sq. km.
The Tsardom of Russia, renamed as the Russian Empire by Peter the Great, stretched from eastern Europe to Alaska. It is the second-largest contiguous empire in history, and third overall.
It was reduced in 1867, when Alaska was sold to the USA. It became a constitutional monarchy after the 1905 Russian Revolution, and eventually became the Soviet Union after the second Russian Revolution in 1917. Russia, the principal nation of the Soviet Union, is the largest country in the world.
Strongest Era: 17th-18th Century
Land Area: 20 million sq. km.
The first truly global empire, the Spanish Empire was the original land of the eternal sunshine. In its heyday, Spain held South America’s entire Western seaboard, continuing on into North America up to present-day California, Florida, Philippines, and numerous small colonies in Africa.
By the end of the 19th century, Spain was a shattered reflection of its glorious past. Its South and Central American colonies had become independent, and Cuba, Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Philippines had been taken over by the US. Only its African colonies remained, the last of which was liberated in 1975.
The Spanish Empire’s success introduced the Americas to Christianity, and also promoted the Spanish language. Spanish is now the second-most widely spoken mother tongue in the world, and the third-most widely spoken language. Christianity is now the major religion on both American continents.
Strongest Era: 8th Century
Land Area: 15 million sq. km.
The Umayyad Caliphate created the largest empire the world had ever seen, stretching from Persia, to Andalucia, through North Africa.
Despite their Islamic origin, the Umayyad Caliphate is said to have twisted and bent the tenets of Islam to their benefit. They converted a religious institution (the caliphate) into a dynastic, tyrannical empire. This is best explained by the Umayyad rulers’ referring to themselves as ‘deputies of God’, rather than the traditional (and humbler) ‘successors of the messenger of God’.
Umayyad rule raised the popularity of the Arabic language, and they were also responsible for some famous constructions, such as the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem. Their rule initiated the dominance of Islam in North Africa, seen even today.
Strongest Era: 18th Century
Land Area: 15 million sq. km.
The Qing Dynasty comprised the last emperors of China. This dynasty was formed by the Aisin Gioro tribe of Jurchen people in Manchuria. The tribe formed an alliance with the divided – but still powerful – Mongol tribes in the west, and united Jurchen clans to create a united Manchu political entity. The confederation overpowered the ruling Ming Dynasty in the mid-17th century.
The Manchu Qing Dynasty was successful in mixing the Han-dominated population with the united Manchu people. It was overthrown in 1912, and was replaced by the Republic of China.
Strongest Era: 14th Century
Land Area: 14 million sq. km.
The Yuan Dynasty was formed by Kublai Khan, a grandson of Genghis Khan. This dynasty was the link between the divided and weakened Mongol forces in the rest of Asia, and the imperial system of governance that would continue in China until 1912. It is considered a successor of the 13th-century Mongol Empire, as well as the first royal dynasty of China.
Kublai Khan’s rule was popularized in Europe by the annals of the famous traveler Marco Polo. Kublai Khan was a smart ruler, bringing back the old Chinese system of royal governance, with modifications that made him an absolute monarch. He was a supporter of the exchange of mercantile and technology between the Orient and Europe, and strongly backed the Silk Road. The Yuan Dynasty, notably, was the first Chinese dynasty to use paper notes as the main form of currency.
The dynasty was plagued by infighting as well as discontent among the populace after Kublai Khan’s death, and were usurped by the Ming Dynasty. The Yuan, meanwhile, emigrated to Mongolia, and became known as the Northern Yuan Dynasty.
French Colonial Empire
Strongest Era: 19th Century
Land Area: 13 million sq. km.
The French Colonial Empire was one of the largest empires in the world at its height, only being hindered first by Spain’s and then Britain’s dominance.
In its first era, France established colonies in North America, India, and the Caribbean, in response to the increasing British influence in the same regions. Thanks to diplomatic ties with the First Nations, France was able to extend a web of influence far beyond their actual territory of Eastern Canada and Louisiana (central North America). After the Napoleonic Wars, France was left with little colonial hold on either American continent, and joined the ‘Scramble for Africa’. The second era of the French Colonial Empire consisted of their large North and sub-Saharan African colonies, Madagascar, small colonies in India, Indochina, and French Guiana which remains an overseas region of France.
Many French colonies were occupied by Axis powers in the Second World War, but were restored afterwards. France was involved in two fierce wars over decolonization, the First Indochina War and the Algerian War. Both regions eventually became independent.
Like the British and Spanish Empires, the large spread of the French Empire helped the French language spread beyond Europe. Today, French is spoken by a significant percentage of the population in Canada, Gabon, Senegal, Algeria, Mauritius, Ivory Coast, etc.
Strongest Era: 17th Century
Land Area: 5 million sq. km.
The history of the Mughal Empire is inextricably linked to the history of India. The empire’s founder, Babur Begh, was a descendant of Timur and Genghis Khan, and ruled the Farghana (Fergana) region in Uzbekistan. After being driven out by treacherous relatives and soldiers in the early 1500s, he came to India, where he beat Ibrahim Lodi in the first battle of Panipat, and established Mughal rule in Delhi and Agra.
The Empire was expanded by a succession of rulers, viz. Humayun, Akbar, Jahangir, Shah Jahan, and Aurangzeb. It reached its zenith under Aurangzeb, stretching from Central Asian plateaus to Assam and Bengal. After Aurangzeb’s death, the Mughal Empire was overrun by the Maratha Empire, who conquered much of India, and was ended after the 1857 Indian Rebellion at the hands of the British.
The Mughal style of architecture, art, and cuisine was crafted through a mutually beneficial cultural exchange with Indian traditions. Traditional Indian music underwent a stunning metamorphosis and assumed its present form, many famous Indian architectural landmarks were constructed in the Mughal period, and Mughlai-Indian cuisine, including the universally popular chicken tikka masala and tandoori chicken, is an evergreen favorite all over the world.
These were 15 of the greatest empires ever. All of these left indelible footprints on the sands of time, and influenced history in more ways than one can imagine.
Strongest Era: 16th Century
Land Area: 10.5 million sq. km.
The Portuguese Empire was the very first intercontinental empire in the world. The empire depended largely on Brazil, which even served as the seat of administration of the empire when Napoleon entered Portugal itself. The empire was crippled by Brazil gaining independence in 1825, and turned to Africa as the only other option. In this second era, the Portuguese didn’t call their enterprise an ’empire’, but a ‘pluricontinental nation’. Its African territories, namely Angola, Mozambique, and Benin, were freed in 1975.
Despite being the first Europeans to arrive in the lucrative land of India, Portugal was never the most dominant power in India, and were kept in check first by the Maratha Empire, and then by Britain. Even so, Portugal retained the territory of Goa until 1961, when it was reclaimed through military action by India.
Largely due to Brazil’s large population, Portuguese is among the most-spoken languages in the world, and both Angola and Mozambique have Portuguese as their official language.
Oldest Empires in the World
While the Roman Empire was one the longest empires (lasted about 1,500 years) and is probably the most famous, in the span of human history, it is fairly modern. The earliest empires precede the Roman Empire by over 2,000 years. These early empires were formed by the early civilizations of Ancient Mesopotamia and the surrounding areas. As these civilizations grew, so did their sphere of power and their desire to conquer near and distant lands. Many of these first empires ruled over the same lands, eventually replacing one another as they fell.
Strongest Era: 2nd Century
Land Area: 6.5 million sq. km.
Centered around the Mediterranean Sea, the Roman Empire became the strongest power in Europe and western Asia. Before its division into the East and West Roman Empires, the unified Roman Empire, under Trajan, stretched from Portugal to Mesopotamia, and from Britain to Egypt.
After the division, the Eastern Roman Empire, better known as the Byzantine Empire, flourished for another 1,000 years, before finally collapsing after the fall of Constantinople in 1453.
The Roman Empire arguably had the most impact on modern culture when compared to contemporaneous empires. Roman law was adapted and adopted in many countries, while Roman art and architecture, which influenced centuries of artistic evolution, is still popular.
Strongest Era: 3rd Century BC
Land Area: 6 million sq. km.
The Maurya Empire is the largest empire in the history of the Indian subcontinent, and was one of the largest and most powerful in the world at the time. Founded by Chandragupta Maurya, it was expanded by Bimbisara and Ashoka the Great, before collapsing after the latter’s reign.
At its peak, the Maurya Empire had a population of 68 million – more than 43% of the global population at the time.
The Mauryan Empire – Emperor Ashoka in particular – played an important role in the spread of Buddhism across Asia. Saddened by the gore and violence in the Kalinga War, Ashoka the Great embraced Buddhism, and sent Buddhist emissaries to all major kingdoms in Asia, as well as some in Europe.
Strongest Era: 4th Century BC
Land Area: 5 million sq. km.
Despite the association of the Macedonian Empire with Alexander the Great, its rise actually began with Alexander’s father, Philip II. He defeated Macedon’s local enemies, a coalition of various Greek city-states, consolidating Macedon’s position in the region, and laying the groundwork for Alexander’s famous march into Asia.
Under Alexander, the Macedonian army conquered Egypt, founding the city of Alexandria in the process, and defeated the impregnable, and numerically superior, Persian army. They conquered various kingdoms on the outskirts of India, but were forced to retreat due to the soldiers being tired and homesick. After Alexander’s death, various regional heads of his empire, called satraps, rebelled against the central Macedonian powers, and declared independence. These fiefdoms were later conquered by the Parthian Empire and the Maurya Empire.
Year Established and Ended: c.550 BCE – 330 BCE
Duration: 220 years Land Area: 8 million sq. km.
Founding Country: Ancient Near East (modern-day Iraq, southeast Turkey, southwest Iran, northeastern Syria, and Kuwait)
Capital City: Several, but Babylon was the main capital
The Achaemenid Empire was the first Persian Empires and one of the largest empires ever in history. The empire was founded around 550 BCE by Cyrus the Great. Under his rule the empire expanded from the Ancient Near East to most of Southwest Asia, much of Central Asia, and the Caucasus, making it a larger empire than any previous empire.
In addition to its military prowess, the Achaemenid Empire is notable for its successful model of a centralized, bureaucratic administration, for building infrastructure such as road systems as well as a postal system, the use of an official language across its territories, and the development of civil services. The decline of the empire is attributed to heavy tax burdens and the failure to create a national identity among its subjects from different nations.
Year Established and Ended: 650 BCE – 146 BCE
Duration: 504 years
Founding Country: North Africa
Capital City: Carthage
The Phoenician city-state of Carthage was founded in 814 BCE. It gained its independence in 650 BCE and established its control over the other Phoenician settlements in the western Mediterranean – this was the start of the Carthaginian Empire. At its peak, the empire’s capital city of Carthage served as a major trading hub and was called the “shining city”, which ruled over 300 other cities.
Throughout most of the empire’s history, it was at war with the Greeks in Sicily as well as the Roman Republic. These hostilities led to a series of armed conflicts known as the Greek-Punic Wars (c.600 BCE – 265 BCE) and the Punic Wars (264 BCE – 146 BCE). After the third and final Punic War sometime in 146 BCE, Carthage fell to the Roman Republic.
Kushite Empire (Nubian Dynasty)
Year Established and Ended: 760 BCE – 656 BCE
Duration: 94 years
Founding Country: Ancient Egypt ruled by the Nubians from the Kingdom of Kush (modern-day northern Sudan and southern Egypt)
Capital City: Napata
The Kushite Empire, also known as the 25th Dynasty of Egypt and the Nubian Dynasty, occurred when the Nubians successfully invaded Ancient Egypt. The first king of the Kushite Empire was Piye, whose father Kashta had started the invasion of Upper Egypt. Their war brought together Upper Egypt, Lower Egypt, and Kush, forming the largest Egyptian empire since the New Kingdom (c.1550 BCE – c.1077 BCE).
Under Piye, the construction of pyramids was revived and he built the oldest pyramid at the royal burial site of El-Kurru and also expanded the Temple of Amun at Jebel Barkal. The rulers after Piye also took interest in restoring Egyptian monuments and building some of their own. They also attempted to regain parts of Egypt from the Assyrians, but were unsuccessful.
Egyptian Empire (New Kingdom of Egypt)
Year Established and Ended: c.1550 BCE – c.1077 BCE
Duration: 473 years
Founding Country: Ancient Egypt
Capital City: Several cities throughout duration: Thebes, Akhetaten, Thebes again, Pi-Ramesses, and Memphis
Although the ancient Egyptians had first established its kingdom around 2686 BCE, the New Kingdom is the only era known as the Egyptian Empire. This period of ancient Egyptian history spans over the 18th, 19th , and 20th Dynasties of Egypt, which lasted from around 1550 BCE until 1077 BCE. During the Egyptian Empire, Egypt was at the height of its power and prosperity.
Some of Egypt’s most well-known Pharaohs ruled during this time including Ahmose I, Hatshepsut, Thutmose III, Amenhotep III, Akhenaten, Tutankhamun, and Ramesses II (“the Great”). Also under the Egyptian Empire, art and architecture flourished. The Valley of the Kings was built around this time – it is Egypt’s largest funerary complex containing the tombs of several Pharaohs and powerful nobles.
Year Established and Ended: c.1600 BCE – 1178 BCE
Duration: 422 years
Founding Country: north-central Anatolia (parts of modern-day Turkey)
Capital City: Hattusa
The Hittite Empire was established sometime around 1600 BCE and at its peak, encompassed most of Anatolia as well as parts of northern Levant (modern-day Syria) and Upper Mesopotamia (northwestern Iraq, northeastern Syria, and southeastern Turkey). Due to its geographic location, the Hittite Empire often came into fought with the Egyptian Empire, the Middle Assyrian Empire, and the Kingdom of Mitanni for control of the area.
Eventually, the Assyrians dominated the area and annexed most of the Hittite Empire’s lands. With so much competition from surrounding empires, the Hittite Empire had several weak periods with insignificant rulers and reduced areas of control. Not much about these weaker periods is known because the Hittites kept less precise records during these times.
Babylonian Empire (First Babylonian Dynasty)
Year Established and Ended: c.1894 BCE – c.1595 BCE
Duration: 300 years
Founding Country: central-southern Mesopotamia (modern-day Iraq)
Capital City: Babylon
The First Babylonian Dynasty lasted from about 1894 BCE – 1595 BCE. This first era in the Babylonian Empire emerged when an Amorite (a Northwest Semitic-speaking people from the northern Levant – the historical region of Syria) king established a small kingdom that included Babylon, which was a minor town at the time. Eventually, Babylon grew in size and power and reached its peak under the reign of Hammurabi (c. 1728—1686 BCE).
After Hammurabi’s death, the Babylonian Empire began to rapidly decline and eventually reverted back into a small kingdom. Sometime around the end of the First Babylonian Dynasty, the capital city of Babylon was sacked by the Hittites under king Mursili I.
Year Established and Ended: c.2025 BCE – c.605 BCE
Duration: 1,420 years
Founding Country: Assyria (parts of modern-day Iraq, Turkey, Syria, and Iran)
Capital City: several throughout different periods – first capital city was Aššur
The Assyrian Empire is typically divided into four eras: the Early Assyrian Period, the Old Assyrian Empire, the Middle Assyrian Period, and the New Assyrian Period. Although the first capital city of Aššur was first established around 2600 BCE, during the Early Period, Assyrians were under the rule of the Akkadian Empire.
While it was a kingdom during this time, the Assyrian Empire did not emerge until after the fall of the Akkadian Empire. During the height of the Assyrian Empire, it ruled over what the ancient Mesopotamian religion called the “Four Corners of the World”: as far north as the Caucasus Mountains, as far east as the Zargos Mountains, as far west as Cyrpus in the Mediterranean Sea, and as far south as the Arabian desert.
Year Established and Ended: c.2334 BCE – c.2154 BCE
Duration: 180 years Land Area: 8 million sq. km.
Founding Country: Ancient Mesopotamia – around modern-day Iraq
Capital City: Akkad
The Akkadian Empire was the first empire of ancient Mesopotamia, which makes it the oldest empire in the world. Under the empire, Akkadians and Sumerians were united and many people were bilingual, speaking both the Akkadian and Sumerian language. There were eight kings over the duration of the Akkadian Empire: Sargon, Rimush, Manishtushu, Naram-Sin, Shar-Kali-Sharri, Interregnum, Dudu, and Shu-turul.
Although scholars have documented over 7,000 texts detailing the Akkadian Empire, they have not yet located the capital city of Akkad. Most of the archaeological research related to the Akkadian Empire comes from an area in modern northeastern Syria, which became part of Assyria after the fall of Akkad.
Strongest Era: 7th Century
Land Area: 6.5 million sq. km.
The Sassanids, which flourished in the same period as the Romans, was the major power in Caucasus and western Asia. Stretching from Egypt to the outskirts of India, the Sassanids were an important cultural bridge between Europe and the Orient, and were vital in the development of medieval art.
The prosperous empire was defeated and assimilated into the Abbasid Caliphate within 5 years, 632 – 637 AD. The population wasn’t forced to convert to Islam, but gradually accepted it, as the Islamic Caliphate began to exert more influence.
List of empires
At great risk for Ukraine and Russia, Putin signals a dark endgame
MOSCOW — Russian President Vladimir Putin, posing one of the biggest security threats to Europe since World War II, is staking his legacy on an irredentist invasion of Ukraine that poses significant risks to his own country and raises worrisome questions about his ambitions to bring Kyiv to heel.
Putin’s defiant decision to use full-fledged military force represents an unprecedented level of risk-taking for the Russian leader and threatens to isolate his country even further from the West and its allies. Punishments being leveled by Western nations could land Washington in an escalatory cycle with Moscow, if Russia responds to the measures in kind.
The attack also carries a direct challenge to the post-Cold War global order. Putin’s sweeping ambition involves hammering out a new international balance, setting the scene for a club of powerful nuclear powers to dominate smaller states and carve out spheres of influence — by force if they see fit.
On the eve of his attack, Putin invoked Russian battles against invaders going back to the 1612 Battle of Moscow to depict a Ukrainian nation taken hostage by the United States and its European allies and in need of liberation. A day earlier, he remarked that using military might to resolve problems was a good thing. The main thing, he added, was to avoid weakness.
“Well, why do you think that the good must always be frail and helpless? I do not think that is true,” Putin said at a news conference Tuesday, after gaining lawmakers’ approval for military action abroad. “I think good means being able to defend oneself.”Default Mono Sans Mono Serif Sans Serif Comic Fancy Small CapsDefault X-Small Small Medium Large X-Large XX-LargeDefault Outline Dark Outline Light Outline Dark Bold Outline Light Bold Shadow Dark Shadow Light Shadow Dark Bold Shadow Light BoldDefault Black Silver Gray White Maroon Red Purple Fuchsia Green Lime Olive Yellow Navy Blue Teal Aqua OrangeDefault 100% 75% 50% 25% 0%Default Black Silver Gray White Maroon Red Purple Fuchsia Green Lime Olive Yellow Navy Blue Teal Aqua OrangeDefault 100% 75% 50% 25% 0%
Putin declares military operation in UkraineRussian President Vladimir Putin declared on state television on Feb. 24 that Russia was beginning a military operation in eastern Ukraine. (Reuters)
He has multiple goals in his sights: not just toppling Ukrainian leader Volodymyr Zelensky, but also securing Ukraine’s capitulation to become a modern version of a Soviet-style satellite state, such as neighboring Belarus.
More broadly, he remains determined to reshape European security to suit Moscow and put NATO forces on the back foot through his display of military force against Ukraine. Russia’s military assault has communicated to Ukrainians that their choice isn’t between Russia and NATO — but between Russia and destruction.
On a global level, Putin seeks to communicate to U.S. partners that Washington will go only so far in backing them against existential threats.
Putin’s ‘risk tolerance’
“Our prior assumptions about his risk tolerance need to go out the window,” said Samuel Charap, a senior political scientist at the Rand Corp. think tank. He noted that Putin had taken on a “qualitatively different level of risk” with his full-scale invasion of Ukraine that would force Western capitals to recalibrate.
For years, the Russian leader has sensed the decline in the relative power of the United States and come to believe he has spotted a widening geopolitical vacuum that he can fill — in the Middle East, Africa and the Arctic, as well as closer to home.
His actions reflect a man steeped in Soviet geopolitics and traditional Russian Orthodox conservatism, fired with an almost spiritual view of his historical mission to transform his vast nation. At home, that has come with increasing repression — with his government removing opponents, quashing dissent, and hobbling Internet and press freedom with ever more vigor as his government ages.
Putin may be betting that his forces can take control of the bulk of Ukraine without significant urban fighting that could leave thousands of civilians dead. Already, his military has struck dozens of Ukrainian military targets across the country and crossed the Ukrainian border with relative ease. Zelensky said Thursday that 137 Ukrainian citizens had died in the hostilities so far. Russia did not give casualty figures, but the United Kingdom said there were “heavy casualties” on both sides.
But the initial “shock and awe” stage of a military conflict is often less difficult for an attacker than the stage that follows — as the American military learned in its invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. Upon completing his military offensive, Putin will then need to carry out his political objective to end Western influence in Ukraine and return the former Soviet republic firmly to Moscow’s domain.
Ukraine’s Western path
One critical obstacle to that is a Kyiv political elite that has grown deeply pro-Western.
How Putin intends to replace the leadership with a group of pro-Russian Ukrainians is unclear. But U.S. intelligence has suggested as much and he signaled his possible intention to do so in his speech Thursday, when he vowed to “denazify” Ukraine and hold accountable those responsible for Ukraine’s “crimes.” He talked of a new Ukraine that can turn the page on its relationship with Russia.
While Putin said Russia does not intend to occupy Ukrainian territory, he strongly suggested that his aim was to elevate authorities allied with Moscow and possibly carve up the country using referendums similar to the one the Kremlin organized in Crimea in 2014.
Fear and confusion in eastern Ukraine after Russian attacks
Following a night of explosions in Kharkiv, a family with a 5-month-old baby wondered what they should do next, and where they could go to find safety. (Whitney Leaming, Erin Patrick O’Connor/The Washington Post)
Russian forces are concentrated in the east, north and south, suggesting they may seek to cut off the western part of Ukraine, a region that didn’t fall within the country’s borders before World War II. That portion of the country — which includes the cities of Lviv, Uzhgorod and Ivano-Frankivsk — has long been an epicenter of anti-Moscow sentiment in Ukraine. Without that territory, Russia may see the country as controllable by a Moscow-friendly government installed by Russia.
Keith Darden, a professor at American University who studies Ukraine, said that kind of territorial change would completely reorder the politics of the nation as a whole in a way Moscow would see as favorable.
Putin could go further. Russian state television on Wednesday aired a map of Ukraine with the territorial “presents” gifted to Kyiv by czars, Bolsheviks and Soviets. His military campaign may entail slicing away Ukraine’s coast and eastern industrialized regions, in addition to the west, leaving a small, unviable rump state, while annexing parts of the country to Russia.
Darden said Putin is risking a full-fledged break with the West. For example, he said, Russia could respond to harsh Western sanctions with a cyberattack against the United States, which would then force Washington to respond again, bringing the United States closer to a direct conflict with Moscow.
“We don’t want to go to war over Ukraine, and we have made that very explicit, but we also don’t want the war against Ukraine to go unpunished, but those two things might not be compatible,” Darden said. “It is hard to contain an escalatory cycle like this.”
Launching a war on Ukraine will isolate Russia’s economy, damage its trade and hinder technological development. It could also potentially trigger an exodus of young urban Russians and tech engineers uncomfortable with Putin’s revanchist vision who aspire to live in a modern, open world.
Isolated by choice
One of the pretexts Putin cited — the need to “denazify” Ukraine’s leadership and save the people from the Western governments that had taken them hostage — horrified many Russian liberals. It risks leaving Putin a global pariah isolated from all but the handful of autocrats he has cultivated. On Wednesday, several antiwar protests broke out across Russia, but security forces in many cases detained demonstrators.
If there was any hope that someone in Putin’s inner circle would challenge him over the wisdom of an open war with Ukraine, it was dashed during the extraordinary spectacle of his Security Council meeting on Tuesday. Putin barked “Speak directly!” at his trembling foreign spy chief, Sergei Naryshkin, who fumbled his words like a boy in front of a schoolmaster, eyes bulging with fear.
Putin used the carefully staged televised episode to co-opt Russia’s entire political leadership group in a war for which there was no legal basis. In his speech, Putin cited Article 51 of the U.N. charter, which enshrines a nation’s right to self-defense if attacked.
Over the past two years, under the veil of the coronavirus pandemic that kept him isolated and brooding, Putin has made a profound shift.
Russians had been contemplating a possible political transition in 2024, when Putin conceivably could step down or bring on a clear heir to replace him in Russian politics. Few thought he would try to cling to power until 2036, when he would turn 84. But he engineered a vote changing the constitution in 2020, allowing him to stay that long.
He also grasped for a more forceful set of tools — to subdue opposition at home and also in Russia’s neighborhood.
In Belarus, he bailed out another autocrat, President Alexander Lukashenko, when he faced anti-government street protests. Putin leveraged that political debt to co-opt Belarus as a staging ground for his military operation against Ukraine.
Ukraine is a far greater challenge, with its jostling, often chaotic political and business rivalries and its class of pro-Western activists.
Putin tried multiple approaches to undermine Ukraine’s growing Western bonds over the years. When one failed, he escalated. He had political allies ensconced in Kyiv for years. But Ukrainians launched two uprisings in 2004 and 2013 to oust them and build ties with the West.
After the Maidan uprising eight years ago, Russia annexed Crimea and fomented a separatist rebellion in eastern Ukraine. It foisted a 2015 peace deal on Kyiv, forcing it to give two regions autonomy, meaning they could veto Ukraine’s pro-Western shift.
That didn’t work either, because the deal was never implemented. From 2019, Russia issued 800,000 Russian passports to Ukrainians in the separatist regions, forming a pretext for military action to defend them.
In a final escalation, Putin declared that Ukraine was committing “genocide” against the separatists, called the rebel regions independent countries and launched a battle to topple Zelensky, a former comedian who played the Ukrainian president in a popular TV series.
Jailed opposition leader Alexei Navalny posted on Twitter in an English-language thread that Putin resembled a drunken grandfather who spoiled family celebrations.
Navalny, who is facing another Russian trial that could add 15 years to his more than two-year prison sentence, wrote: “It would be funny if the drunk grandfather was not a man of 69 who holds power in a country with nuclear weapons.”
Here’s Why Putin Invaded Ukraine – And How He Just Shattered The World Order
So, Russia has now invaded Ukraine.
The invasion has been a long time in the making. Contrary to Putin’s protestations – and those of his apologists – the invasion of Ukraine was never about concerns over Ukraine joining NATO. First off, the claim that Ukrainian membership would threaten Russia’s borders is absurd on its face: Estonia and Latvia have been members of NATO for years, and both border Russia.
Furthermore, the question of Ukrainian membership in NATO has been a relative dead letter since approximately 2010, when Viktor Yanukovych took over the presidency of the country. “Entry into NATO is not realistic for our country today,” Yanukovych stated at the time. In 2016, president of the European Commission Jean-Claude Juncker estimated it would take 20-25 years for Ukraine to join NATO and the EU. Yanukovych’s successor, Petro Poroshenko, signed a constitutional amendment dedicating the country to seeking membership in NATO and the EU in 2019, but acknowledged that the country was a “long way” from meeting membership criteria. In reality, Ukraine has flirted with both NATO and Russia for a long time, maintaining a stance of strategic independence.
So, what drove Putin?
The answer comes from Putin’s own mouth. Just days ago, he gave a militant speech in which he said, “Ukraine is not just a neighboring country for us. It is an inalienable part of our own history, culture, and spiritual space. Since time immemorial, the people living in the south-west of what has historically been Russian land have called themselves Russians.” He added that Ukraine had been created by the Soviets, and that it was time to reconstitute the Russian empire. “The disintegration of our united country was brought about by the historic, strategic mistakes on the part of Bolshevik and Soviet leaders,” Putin said. “[T]he collapse of the historical Russia known as the USSR is on their conscience.” According to Putin, Ukrainians are being subjected to tyranny by Western powers:
Ukraine itself was placed under external control, directed not only from the Western capitals, but also on the ground, as the saying goes, through an entire network of foreign advisors, NGOs and other institutions present in Ukraine….Are the Ukrainian people aware that this is how their country is managed? Do they realise that their country has turned not even into a political or economic protectorate but has been reduced to a colony with a puppet regime?
Putin has offered a variety of excuses for his action. He says that he has been welcomed into Ukraine by separatists in Eastern Ukraine – but he is invading Kiev itself. He says that Ukraine wants its own nuclear weapons – a wild accusation given that Ukraine gave up its 5,000 nuclear weapons in 1994 at the behest of both Russia and the United States. He says that America does “not need a big and independent country like Russia around. This is the answer to all questions.”
The real reason Putin is moving now is threefold.
First, Russia has a major advantage right now: natural gas and oil. Europe has spent the last decade destroying its own energy capacity at the behest of Greta Thunberg and company. Simultaneously, they have shipped in enormous amounts of Russian carbon-based fossil fuel. One-third of all EU natural gas is provided by Russia at this point – and the price of natural gas, which was low in the 2015-2020 period, has now skyrocketed, giving him tremendous bargaining power. Indeed, Deputy Chair of the Security Council for Russia Dmitry Medvedev tweeted, “German Chancellor Olaf Scholz has issued an order to halt the process of certifying the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline. Well. Welcome to the brave new world where Europeans are very soon going to pay €2.000 for 1.000 cubic meters of natural gas!” There is a reason that the West has thus far exempted Russian energy markets from sanctions – according to the State Department, it would do too much economic damage.
Second, the West has demonstrated utter incapacity to challenge Putin’s prior predations. He invaded Georgia in 2008, to no serious consequences. He invaded Crimea and Luhansk and Donetsk in 2014, to no serious consequences. Even while the United States complains about Putin’s Ukrainian adventure, special climate envoy John Kerry maintains that we must work with Russia on climate change: “I hope President Putin will help us to stay on track with respect to what we need to do with the climate.” Even as President Biden condemns Putin, the United States continues to broker with the Russian government to come to a conclusion on an ill-advised nuclear deal with the Iranian mullahs. Putin has no reason to think that any consequences will be either long-lasting or significant. And on a broader level, Putin has watched as the West surrenders to aggressive dictatorial powers repeatedly, from Hong Kong (2020) to Afghanistan (2021).
Third, Putin envisions a reimagined world order. He clearly lusts for a return to Russian glory, and he sees that China has oriented itself under Xi Jinping toward a similar purpose. Both Russia and China see themselves as enemies of the United States, and are acting accordingly. Putin believes that if he takes Ukraine and Xi takes Taiwan, the West will be put back on its heels – the unipolar era of American power will be effectively ended, and a multipolar world in which Russia plays its historic role will re-emerge.
It is this most important rationale that the West simply cannot understand. As it turns out, cultures around the world value more than access to bank accounts and McDonald’s. Putin and Xi and the mullahs all think in terms of historic greatness, empire, and national glory. This is particularly true in Russia, where Stalin still bears a 70 percent approval rating. In Svetlana Alexievich’s Nobel Prize-winning book, Secondhand Time, she tells the story of a factory worker imprisoned and tortured by the communist regime. After the end of the Cold War, this factory worker told Alexievich, “When I go into my grandchildren’s room, everything there is foreign: the shirts, the jeans, the books, the music…Savages! I want to die a Communist. That’s my final wish.”
This sentiment was well understood by George Orwell. In 1940, he wrote of Hitler’s appeal:
[H]e has grasped the falsity of the hedonistic attitude to life. Nearly all western thought since the last war, certainly all ‘progressive’ thought, has assumed tacitly that human beings desire nothing beyond ease, security and avoidance of pain. In such a view of life there is no room, for instance, for patriotism and the military virtues. The Socialist who finds his children playing with soldiers is usually upset, but he is never able to think of a substitute for the tin soldiers; tin pacifists somehow won’t do. Hitler, because in his own joyless mind he feels it with exceptional strength, knows that human beings don’t only want comfort, safety, short working-hours, hygiene, birth-control and, in general, common sense; they also, at least intermittently, want struggle and self-sacrifice, not to mention drums, flags and loyalty-parades. However they may be as economic theories, Fascism and Nazism are psychologically far sounder than any hedonistic conception of life. The same is probably true of Stalin’s militarised version of Socialism. All three of the great dictators have enhanced their power by imposing intolerable burdens on their peoples. Whereas Socialism, and even capitalism in a more grudging way, have said to people ‘I offer you a good time,’ Hitler has said to them ‘I offer you struggle, danger and death,’ and as a result a whole nation flings itself at his feet.
Many other cultures and countries understand that appeal. In fact, Americans used to believe in a higher purpose for themselves than mere increases in GDP. No longer. In the West, we’re not concerned with things as base as national mission or the legacy of Western civilization,. We are, in other words, a weak horse.
Putin knows that. Xi knows that. The mullahs know that.
All of which means that Putin’s invasion of Ukraine is merely the first crack in the dam that holds back the floodtides of global chaos. Our material comforts are premised on a global order with the United States at its unchallenged head. Putin has challenged that order. The West seems unlikely to respond. We’re too busy blowing out our debt and naval-gazing about climate change, with gender fluidity, with supposed systemic racism, with income inequality. Russia and China can’t touch the West in terms of wealth or military might. But without a higher purpose, no country of any GDP can stand up to the naked aggression of nations animated by grim purpose of its own.
Unserious Leadership In A Serious Time
We live in a deeply serious time with deeply unserious leaders.
Historian Niall Ferguson has written that the “extreme violence of the twentieth century” was precipitated by three preconditions: “ethnic conflict, economic volatility, and empires in decline.” It is difficult not to see such preconditions repeating themselves in this century. The West is currently tearing itself apart over concerns about birth rate, immigration, and multiculturalism. Economic volatility is raging: after a decades-long reshifting of manufacturing away from the West and a reorientation toward finance and service, the hollowing out of the Western energy sector in pursuit of utopian environmentalism – all punctuated by the Great Recession, the covid mini-depression, and now sky-high rates of inflation — the global economy sits on a razor’s edge.
And then there is the problem of empires in decline.
We tend to think of our world as empire-free, a world of nation-states. But that’s not really correct. The United States, however hesitant, is a de facto empire, even if not in the colonialist mold of the British Empire; the European Union would, in any other context, be considered a continental empire; Russia has always considered itself an imperial power, and Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine represents merely the latest iteration of this claim; China has an empire of its own, not merely a nation-state – as author Ai Weiwei recently wrote, “the people who live in China or come from it are a jumble of more than 50 ethnic and linguistic groups.”
The Russian empire is far past decline; it is an economic backwater armed with antiquated military systems, in grave demographic trouble. But China is the area of highest risk today. The Chinese economy underwent tremendous economic growth over the course of the last two decades, but that growth now appears to be stalling out: state-run mercantilism is not self-sustaining, and as China scholar Michael Pettis recently wrote, “China’s excessive reliance on surging debt in recent years has made the country’s growth model unsustainable….[it is likely] that the country will face a very long, Japan-style period of low growth.” China’s demographics are entirely upside-down; its population is expected to reduce by nearly 50 percent by 2100. And Xi Jinping is about to declare himself dictator for life.
In all of this, China strongly resembles Nazi Germany on the precipice of territorial aggression against its neighbors. Nazi Germany saw tremendous GDP growth, rooted largely in debt, state-sponsored mercantilism, and military spending; Germany’s fertility rate dropped from above 4 in 1910 to well below 2 by 1935. Nazi Germany’s underpinnings were fragile; Hitler saw his window closing. Military aggression was therefore not unpredictable.
So, what would China’s next logical step be? Its eyes are fixed on Taiwan: given China’s historic lust for Taiwan and Taiwan’s domination of the all-important production of sophisticated semiconductors, a Chinese invasion of the island is not-at-all unpredictable.
Which brings us back to the deeply unserious leadership of the West.
Faced with the prospect of ethnic tensions, economic volatility, and the internal instability of China, the West is opting for weakness. Economic growth is the prerequisite for military power; moral strength is the prerequisite for internal cohesion. The West has decided, over the course of years, to abandon its commitment to economic strength, instead fighting a losing war with the climate and promising endless giveaways from the unfunded welfare state; simultaneously, the West has fallen into the self-doubt of dying civilizations, pitting its citizens against each other, labeling them “semi-fascists” and “threats to democracy.” We lie somewhere between the moral collapse of Rudyard Kipling’s “Recessional” (1897) and Philip Larkin’s “Homage to a Government” (1969). This doesn’t mean that the West is on the verge of collapse; China is far more vulnerable than we are. But it does spell a future of chaos and difficulty – the kind of chaos and difficulty only strength, economic and military and moral, can successfully keep at bay.
I have included a description of the most important of the most important empires in our history and also a fairly complete list of all the known empires.
I challenge the reader to name even 10 of the empires on the list. I consider myself to be fairly well read in history. However, I think I would be hard pressed to do it myself. On this list you will find very few duplicate names indicating a rebirth of an empire, so I have shown you that most empires once they fail, very seldom every recover their former glory. So I want to ask you what the hell Putin thinks he is doing by invading Ukraine. A country firmly entrenched in capitalism. I have been watching the news since Russia invaded that sovereign country, and I have not heard one Ukrainian say he was happy that Russia was coming. As a matter of fact, many have indicated that they would fight to the death to stop them from taking their country over. Governments are supposed to govern at the pleasure of the people, not the other way around. It seems that in the last few years our governments have forgotten this little detail. It also seems when they are reminded of it, like say in Canada, they fight back. I think it is about time that the people stand up for their rights and open up a “can of whoopass”. Why do you think governments try to take away our rights to bare arms? They do so, so that we cannot protect our freedoms, our families and our way of life. Too many people have died to give us those rights. As the self proclaimed guardians of the people’s rights around the world, we owe our brethren those rights too. There are far too few democracies left, for us to let dictatorships take any of them over. We may wake up one day to find that we are the sole democracy left. Take a look at the once capitalist mainstays Canada, New Zealand and Australia for instance, they are now fast turning into socialist countries. Yes Ukraine, may not matter much in the grand scheme of things, but that is precisely why it is so important. Because that is where it all starts.
oldest.org,”8 Oldest Empires in the World.” By Victor Eaton; historyplex.com, “Greatest Empires in the History of the World”; en.wikipedia.org, “List of empires.” By Wikipedia editors; washingtonpost.com, “At great risk for Ukraine and Russia, Putin signals a dark endgame.” By Robyn Dixon and Paul Sonne; dailywire.com, “Here’s Why Putin Invaded Ukraine – And How He Just Shattered The World Order.” By Ben Shapiro; nationalgeographic.com, “History’s first superpower sprang from ancient Iran: Under the leadership of Cyrus the Great, Persia ruled the world’s first true empire, centered in Iran and stretching from Europe to Egypt to India.” By Jaime Alvar Ezquerra; dailywire.com, “Unserious Leadership In A Serious Time.” By Ben Shapiro;
Governmental and Political Posts Both National and International
History’s first superpower sprang from ancient Iran
Under the leadership of Cyrus the Great, Persia ruled the world’s first true empire, centered in Iran and stretching from Europe to Egypt to India.
I am Cyrus, king of the universe, the great king, the powerful king, king of Babylon, king of Sumer and Akkad, king of the four quarters of the world . . . Found on a cylindrical tablet in the 19th century, these words commemorate Persia’s conquest of Babylonia and the taking of its capital city, Babylon, in 539 B.C. (Babylon was the jewel of the ancient world.)
After Cyrus came to power in 559 B.C., Persia expanded its holdings to become the world’s original empire. Previously, other peoples such as the Assyrians had held sway over vast tracts of Mesopotamia, but none had reached the geographical extent as Persia, whose territory stretched from eastern Europe to the Indus River. Strengthening the empire, Cyrus’s policy of tolerance toward the conquered allowed local peoples to maintain their languages, traditions, and religions, which in turn allowed Persian culture to benefit from a truly global exchange.
Cyrus’s construction of an imperial identity made up of many religions and languages continues to inspire the modern world. As the Greek historian Xenophon wrote, “Cyrus eclipsed all other monarchs, before or since.”
Origins of empire
When crowned king of Persia in 559 B.C., Cyrus II was little more than a tribal leader of the Parsua (Persian) people who lived in the south of present-day Iran. The latest ruler in the Achaemenian dynasty, Cyrus inherited a kingdom that was effectively a vassal state of the more powerful Median empire to the north.
In 612 B.C., the Medes had taken the Assyrian capital Nineveh, giving them control of a territory that stretched across Mesopotamia. Later, at the height of his power, the Median king Astyages decided to marry his daughter, Mandane, to the king of Persia, Cambyses I, in the 580s B.C. Their son, Cyrus II, would rise up to not only conquer the Medes but also build the world’s first true empire.
A famous tale about Cyrus’s birth comes from the Greek historian Herodotus, writing about a century after the king’s death. His account mirrors several Greek myths, such as the story of Oedipus, in which a prophecy of being overthrown by a son causes a king to try (and often fail) to thwart fate by killing the child. Herodotus tells how King Astyages had a dream in which his daughter Mandane “urinated so much that the urine filled his city, then went on to flood all of Asia.”
The king consulted his sages. They interpreted the dream as an omen that his grandson would one day conquer the Medes. To challenge the prophecy, Astyages married his daughter to a Persian ruler, so her offspring could not take the Median throne. Later, however, Astyages dreamed that a vine sprouted from his daughter’s womb and spread over Asia. Alarmed, the king placed his daughter under guard.
After Cyrus’s birth, the legend goes, Astyages ordered his general Harpagus to kill the baby. But instead of carrying out the murder himself, Harpagus handed over the newborn to a shepherd, asking him to abandon the baby in the mountains. The shepherd’s wife was grieving, as she had just had a stillborn child, so the shepherd brought the baby Cyrus home with him. The couple adopted him after placing the body of their own dead son on the mountainside instead.
Road to Sardis
Herodotus’s story clearly includes many mythical elements, but—as with many legends—contains a kernel of truth. Later in life, Cyrus did indeed threaten his powerful grandfather Astyages when he invaded Media in 550 B.C. Astyages’s general, who really was called Harpagus, did betray his king, by defecting to Cyrus’s side, allowing the Persian king to seize the Median capital, Ecbatana.
From this moment, Herodotus recounts, the Persians and Medes were united under Cyrus II, soon to be known as Cyrus the Great. With Ecbatana under his belt, Cyrus turned his attentions to the kingdom of Lydia, in modern-day Turkey. Lydia was certainly a tempting prize: Renowned for commerce, the Lydians invented the basis for the metal coinage system still in use today. In 547 B.C., the Lydian king Croesus made incursions into Median territory, providing Cyrus with the perfect excuse for invasion. According to the Babylonian Chronicles—the Persian account of this period, later set down on clay tablets—Cyrus crossed the Tigris River, and marched to the Lydian capital, Sardis, along what would become the famous Royal Road, later built by Darius I to link Sardis with key cities across the Persian Empire.
A first, indecisive clash with the Lydians took place at Pteria, in what is today northern Turkey. Following the battle, Croesus withdrew his troops to their winter barracks and urged his allies—the Spartans, the Egyptians, and the Babylonians—to send reinforcements in spring. Cyrus, however, chose to risk an immediate attack on Croesus. His military commander, Harpagus, pulled off a stunning Persian victory, placing Sardis and its treasure into the hands of the Persian emperor. Shortly afterward, Cyrus extended his control over the Ionian Greek cities along the western coast of modern-day Turkey.
The next decade of Cyrus’s reign was dedicated to expanding the eastern empire. Placing this territory under his control gave Cyrus control over the caravan trading routes. His campaigns took him as far as Bactria in modern-day Afghanistan, eventually reaching Maracanda, today known as Samarqand, in Uzbekistan.
By the waters of Babylon
With operations successfully tied up in the east, Cyrus set his sights on the greatest prize of all: Babylon, capital of Mesopotamia. The internal politics of Babylon at this moment could not have been more favorable for the Persians to strike. Nabonidus, the Babylonian king, had lost the confidence of the priests of Marduk, the city’s principal deity, because they believed that the king was denigrating the religious rites of the city.
Cyrus intuitively grasped that respect toward the diversity of religious customs in the huge territories under his command was a key ingredient of imperial stability. This policy only consolidated his power. The Cyrus Cylinder tells how Marduk sought an “upright king . . . [and] he took the hand of Cyrus . . . and called him by his name, proclaiming him aloud for the kingship over all of everything.” The cylinder describes the Babylonians’ reception of Cyrus as a liberator in the fall of 539 B.C.
In 1879, archaeologist Hormuzd Rassam found an eight-inch clay cylinder embedded in the ruins of Babylon that dated back to the sixth century B.C. Broken in several places, the 36 intact lines of cuneiform text revealed a declaration by Cyrus the Great following his conquest of Babylon in 539 B.C. The Cyrus Cylinder portrays this event as a liberation carried out with the blessing of Babylon’s own deity, Marduk, who favored King Cyrus for his justness. One line in particular seems to corroborate the biblical version of the return of the exiled Jews to Jerusalem: “I collected together all of their peoples and returned them to their settlements.”
The priests of Marduk were not the only ones to celebrate Cyrus’s conquest of Babylon. Many Jews had been living in captivity in Babylon since Nebuchadrezzar II had brought them there following his conquest of Jerusalem in 586 B.C. The arrival of Cyrus forms the backdrop to the stories of Daniel in the biblical book Apocrypha. The emperor’s decision to repatriate the Jews to Jerusalem is yet another example of Cyrus’s embrace of multiculturalism, earning him a eulogy in the Bible itself: “Thus says the LORD to his anointed, to Cyrus, whose right hand I have grasped,” wrote the Prophet Isaiah, one of the Jewish exiles in Babylon, “to subdue nations before him and ungird the loins of kings, to open doors before him that gates may not be closed.”
Cyrus had reached the pinnacle of his power. He did indeed seem, as the Cyrus Cylinder claims, to have become “King of the World.” Following this victory, kings from across Asia scrambled to pay homage to him, the leader who had created the largest empire the world had ever seen. Written in cuneiform, the Cyrus Cylinder recounts how sovereigns from the Upper Sea (the Mediterranean) to the Lower Sea (the Persian Gulf) came to offer tribute to Cyrus in Babylon and kiss his feet.
Policy of Tolerance
Cyrus’s spectacular conquests forced him to create an administration fit for an empire. Inspired by the sophisticated model of the Neo-Babylonian Empire, Cyrus created a network of public administration and tax collection while recruiting the best military generals from among the Medes.
Following the conquest of Lydia and the Greek cities of Ionia in the west of modern-day Turkey, the Persian administration was split up into provinces. Later, Babylonia and the other conquered areas were also converted into provinces, ruled by satraps, or governors, a system later completed under Darius I.
Remarkably, Cyrus had no intention of imposing Persian religion, language, or culture on his new conquests. His style of government was based on respect for the many peoples over whom he reigned, and tolerance toward their customs and religions, setting him apart from earlier empire builders.
Displaced peoples were allowed to return to their homes—most famously in the case of the Jews exiled in Babylon, to whom Cyrus gave his blessing to return to Jerusalem. Local governors could conserve their autonomy, provided that they paid respect, and tribute, to the great king.
If the rise of the Persian emperor was stellar, his end was a grim anticlimax. In 530 B.C., when he was approaching his 60s, Cyrus led a campaign to the northeastern frontier of his empire. According to Herodotus, he believed that “against whatever country he turned his arms, it was impossible for that people to escape.”
Do Herodotus’s words hint at hubris? Cyrus was killed during a battle against a local tribe, the Massagetae. According to the Greek historian, the queen of the tribe, Tomyris, had lost her own son in the battle and plunged the emperor’s severed head in a pail of blood.
Cyrus’s gruesome end did not diminish his astonishing legacy, nor did it stall the ongoing expansion of his already colossal empire. His immediate successor, Cambyses II, conquered Egypt, establishing its 27th dynasty. Attempts by Cambyses to push even farther afield into Ethiopia, and west toward Carthage, were frustrated, and it was left to his successor, Darius I, to take the Persian Empire to its widest span, conquering the Indus Valley and crossing the Danube into Europe.
Cyrus began construction of his own capital city in Persia, Pasargadae, in 546 B.C., but it was unfinished when he was killed in battle. His tomb sits in the step-based monument that dominates the plain just outside ruins of the ancient city, which boasted two royal palaces and an extensive, walled hunting park with wild animals roaming free. Despite its attractions, Pasargadae was abandoned when Darius I, successor of Cambyses II, founded Persepolis nearby, a city that became a byword for luxury. When the 16th-century English writer Christopher Marlowe wanted to evoke the wonders of majesty in his play Tamburlaine the Great, he has the title character proclaim: “Is it not brave to be a king / and ride in triumph through Persepolis?”
The son of a provincial governor, Darius had to prove his mettle by quashing numerous revolts. But his greatest legacy was his administrative genius: His schemes to standardize weights and coinage across his vast territories became a blueprint for the world’s future empires. Continuing the religious policy set by Cyrus, faiths within the empire were allowed to flourish, including those of the Jews and the Egyptians. Darius’s bid for westward expansion was checked at the Battle of Marathon in 490 B.C. The failure by his successor, Xerxes I, to break the Greeks at the Battle of Salamis a decade later, opened a new chapter in world history: the flourishing of fifth-century B.C. Athens.