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Comparison: Rise of empires

Comparing what led to the rise of Achaemenid Persia, Maurya India, Han China, and the Roman Empire.

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Video transcript

- [Instructor] What we're going to do in this video is think about the rise of empires and make the comparison with four very early empires that we have studied, Achaemenid Persia, the Maurya Empire in India, Han China, and the Roman Empire. So let's just start with a general framework. So the first question is what is an empire? A broad definition of an empire is when one group has control over a fairly diverse population. One group has control over another group that might have different linguistic practices, different culture, that's when it is considered an empire. Well what's the general framework for how empires tend to form? Well let's say that I am a ruler and I control this territory right over here and either through my charisma, my military tactics, maybe I have a new weapon, some political intrigue, some weak neighbors, I'm able to conquer some more territory right over here. What does that do for me? As I expand, this gives me more land and more people to rule over and I can tax that land and people to have more wealth and larger armies and so these two things are pretty good ingredients to be able to take on even more of my neighbors and expand even further. And so you might say well, why doesn't that process just keep on going on indefinitely? Well it does go pretty far, you see these various empires are quite large especially when you consider the technology of the time, the communications ability of the time but at some point, you might have weak leadership, you might have trouble controlling these large and spread out empires especially if you can't communicate, if you can't get good information. But now let's dive a little bit deeper into the four empires we just referred to. So let's start Achaemenid Persia, founded in 550 BCE by Cyrus the Great. This is so far in the past that most of our accounts of how Cyrus comes to power come from the Greeks who were not friends with the Persians, they were famous rivals, but one thing comes clear in the narrative, which is that Cyrus the Great was considered a very strong and effective leader so I'll definitely put leadership there. He starts off as a relatively minor king subject to you could say the emperor of Medes, who is his grandfather, and he's able to overthrow him but because of his military leadership, his ability to bring people into the fold, he was known as being tolerant of the people he would rule over, that that all helped him control and expand a large empire. So I would say leadership is definitely first for Cyrus the Great and then I would say culture would be part of it. Now let's think about Maurya, India. Maurya, India was founded by Chandragupta Maurya and here once again, I would say leadership was a major factor, he was aided by his political advisor Chanakya who is famous in Indian history for his strategic thinking. Chandragupta Maurya, legend has it, met Alexander the Great when he came into the Indus but once Alexander the Great left, there was a power vacuum. You could say that that power vacuum helped the Maurya Empire be founded. It's similar to the notion of having weaker neighbors once Alexander the Great left. And so Han China, Han China is interesting. The first emperors of Han China aren't the ones to first unify China, that happens under the Qin Dynasty, Q-I-N, Qin Dynasty that preceded the Han Dynasty and they were able to do that by being very strong, very authoritarian, very centralized but once the Qin emperor dies, it leaves a clear power vacuum and then you have a succession battle but eventually the Han Dynasty is formed. One of the ways that the Han Dynasty is able to keep power despite not being as authoritarian as the Qin is that they revitalized Confucianism and used that ideology and used that culture in order to more unify the Chinese people. The Roman empire we study in some detail. It's hard to pin a date on exactly when it becomes an empire. On this timeline, this first period right over here is when we have the Roman kingdom, then you have the Roman Republic, and then you have the Roman Empire. And so you could debate when it actually becomes an empire, even when it was an early kingdom, it was conquering neighboring people on the Italian peninsula and at that time period, it might have felt like an empire because those people might have felt different. As time passed and they were under a unified state, under a unified kingdom, they probably felt more similar but then when they conquered even more territory, that might have felt more and more like an empire. But what is clear is even as we get into the late republic period, it was an empire. Julius Caesar famously conquered Gaul, these Germanic peoples, before coming back and essentially taking control to be succeeded by the first official Roman Empire after a long and bloody civil war, Augustus Caesar. These other three empires happened relatively quickly, we're talking within a period of less than 50 years while the Roman Empire took hundreds of years to form. And so it's hard to ascribe the empire to any one leader. You could say that there was a culture of expansion, one could make the argument that they were more technologically sophisticated than some of their neighbors, especially when it came to military might and as it expanded, it definitely was able to take advantage of weak neighbors so now let's just take a step back. What we've done in this exercise is a rough approximation of the various dimensions that might lead to an empire rising. It's by no means comprehensive and I suggest for you to think about what dimensions would you add to this? Maybe you could add a political dimension or maybe that's captured by leadership. Maybe you would add an economic dimension, how much wealth a nation has. And as we go forward in history, we're gonna see different weights on these different dimensions for how important they are for empire formation. Especially as we get closer and closer to modern times, technology increases as a factor in terms of creating an empire. Ideology plays a significant role in empires based on religion but we also have empires based on economic ideology, communism versus capitalism. And on political ideology. And does an empire have to be strict control? Can you have a cultural empire without necessarily having direct control over people? So I will leave you with these questions, they're fascinating questions to think about within the context of these empires but also as we study all of world history.