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Lesson summary: the rise and fall of empires

Key terms

empirea centralized state that controls extensive territory, often containing diverse populations
bureaucracyan administrative structure in which the government employs people to oversee and carry out certain functions
Achaemenid Persian Empirea large empire in southwest Asia that lasted for two centuries until it was conquered by Alexander the Great
Alexander the Greatbecame king of Macedon in 336 BCE and conquered the Persian Empire by 327 BCE; he died in 323 BCE at the age of 33 and his generals divided his empire.
Diadochicollective name for the generals who succeeded Alexander the Great and subsequently divided and fought over his empire
Maurya Empireempire in India the appeared as Alexander the Great's empire began to decline; the Maurya Empire reached its peak under Ashoka, who worked to spread Buddhism.
Han Dynastysecond centralized dynasty in China; the Han ruled for about four centuries and built many of the institutions that later Chinese governments would use.
Roman Empireempire centered on the Italian city of Rome that became the largest and most powerful in the ancient world
Gupta Empireempire in India from the fourth to the sixth centuries CE; the Gupta period is sometimes called the "Golden Age of Hinduism" due to Gupta rulers' promotion and support of certain Hindu sects.

Key dates

c. 550 BCE—330 BCEAchaemenid Persian Empire; conquered by Alexander the Great
336 BCE—323 BCEReign of Alexander the Great as king of Macedon and later Persian emperor
322 BCE—187 BCEMaurya Empire in India
206 BCE—220 CEHan Dynasty in China
509 BCE—476 CERoman Republic/Empire in Europe, Asia, and Africa
320 CE—550 CEGupta Empire in India

Key themes

State-building: As states grew, governments had to come up with new ways to govern larger and more diverse populations. Many empires created new administrative systems and bureaucracies to oversee and carry out different functions. For example, the Han Dynasty used civil service tests to appoint the most qualified people to government jobs. In the Roman Empire, the emperor appointed people to oversee the road systems and aqueducts. As an empire became very large, it became harder for a central government to oversee all its territory and address all needs.
Social structures: Empires brought many diverse people under a single government and had to find ways to keep their subjects under control. For example, Rome offered citizenship to former enemies, and the Persians allowed freedom of religious belief. When groups within empires became unhappy with imperial rule, it could lead to conflict and the fragmentation of the empire.
Economics: Empires increased trade by connecting many regions through a shared government and transportation and communication networks because subjects of an empire could travel freely and safely within that empire. Empires often included diverse regions and climates that allowed for a variety of goods to be produced. When these networks were broken or disrupted, empires suffered economically and often lost power or fell entirely.

Review questions

  • Why did empires often need to create administrative institutions and bureaucracies?
  • What were two factors that could lead to internal conflict in classical empires?
  • What were some of the ways in which different empires encouraged economic activity?

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