Timeline: the evolution of ancient empires
Peter Jones highlights the most significant moments in the history of the world’s first great civilisations...
King Menes rules over a newly united Egypt, joining the Upper (southern) and Lower (northern) Kingdoms at the start of what is now termed the Early Dynastic Period. Menes is credited with founding the capital at Memphis, 15 miles south of the modern city of Cairo.
The period known as the Old Kingdom of ancient Egypt begins with the founding of the Third Dynasty. A series of great pyramids is built, beginning with Djoser’s step pyramid at Saqqara (c2650 BC), pictured above, followed by the three great pyramids of the Fourth Dynasty at Giza.
The Theban rulers of Egypt’s 17th Dynasty drive out the Hyksos – a group of people from western Asia – from the Nile delta region, launching the so-called New Kingdom period that lasted till c1070 BC. This new dynasty of pharaohs are buried in deep, rock-cut tombs in the Valley of the Kings on the west bank of the Nile opposite their capital, Thebes (modern-day Luxor).
The Egyptian boy king Tutankhamun dies, aged around 18, and is buried in the Valley of the Kings in a spectacular golden coffin. Tutankhamun had restored the ancient pantheon of gods after his father, Akhenaten, had installed the sun-disc Aten as the only deity.
Cyrus II becomes king of the vassal state of Persia. Conquering the Medes in 550 BC and Babylon in 539 BC, he founds the mighty Persian (Achaemenid) empire, which within a century controls nearly 50 million people – 44 per cent of the world’s population. In 525 BC, his son Cambyses conquers Egypt.
The last king of Rome, Lucius Tarquinius Superbus, is deposed in a revolt. After further disquiet, two legislative bodies of citizens are established, creating a Roman republic that endures for nearly five centuries.
Find out more with our guide to ancient Greece
Professor Paul Cartledge answers key questions about one of the world’s greatest civilisations, and gives an overview of the key events that shaped the civilisation’s existence
Cleisthenes reforms the constitution of Athens, giving each adult male citizen a say in the government of the city by contributing to decisions made in the Ecclesia (Assembly) – creating the system of democracy (from the Greek demos, meaning ‘people’, and kratos, ‘power’).
The 600-strong fleet of the Persian king Darius lands on the Greek coast at Marathon, determined to punish Athens for its role in a revolt in Asia Minor (modern Turkey). Athenian forces led by Miltiades, supported by the city-state of Plataea, attack at pace, taking the Persians by surprise and driving them into the sea. A messenger, Pheidippides, is reputedly dispatched to request help from the Spartans before the battle of Marathon.
- The Peloponnesian War: Athens fights Sparta for dominance in ancient Greece
Alexander III inherits Macedon from his father, Philip II, who had plotted to break the power of the Persian empire. Alexander becomes known as ‘the Great’ for his succession of conquests. His army sweeps through the Middle East, Egypt and Asia, as far as India, before his death in 323 BC, creating a vast empire.
- Alternate history: what if Alexander the Great had lived longer?
- Has Alexander the Great's tomb been found?
Rome defeats Carthage at the battle of the Egadi Islands near Sicily, concluding its victory in the first of the Punic Wars and establishing its dominance across the western Mediterranean. Over the following three centuries, Greece, north Africa, Spain, Gaul, Egypt and Britain are subjugated, becoming Roman provinces.
Ying Zheng, the king of Qin, completes his conquest of competing states, creating a Chinese state that effectively continues to this day, and takes a new title, Qin Shihuangdi: ‘Divine August Emperor of Qin’ – the First Emperor. After his death in 210 BC, his tomb is guarded by an army of some 8,000 terracotta warriors.
2 September 31 BC
Octavian defeats the forces of Roman general Mark Antony and Queen Cleopatra VII of Egypt at the battle of Actium in the waters off Greece, cementing his rule of Rome. Four years later he takes the name Augustus, marking the end of the Republic and the birth of the Roman empire. Egypt becomes a Roman province.
24 August AD 79
Vesuvius, a volcano believed by local residents to be dormant or extinct, erupts with tremendous force, burying the nearby cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum under up to 6 metres (20 feet) of ash, pumice and rock. Pompeii had been a thriving agricultural city, grown prosperous thanks largely to wine produced from the grapes grown in the fertile volcanic soil.
- Listen: Daisy Dunn revisits the eruption of Mount Vesuvius and considers the history that was preserved at Pompeii and Herculaneum
The Maya begin to build huge pyramids, of which some of the later examples include El Castillo at the city of Chichen Itza in Mexico. Other great cities built in Central America include Tikal in Guatemala, Copán in Honduras and Lamanai in Belize.
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24 August AD 410
Rome is sacked by the Visigoths under Alaric – the first time the ‘eternal city’ has fallen in nearly 800 years. Though the capital had moved to Ravenna in 402, the attack shocks the western Roman empire after a century of decline. Rome is sacked again in 455, by the Vandals under Geiseric; the last western emperor, Romulus Augustulus, is deposed in 476.
This article was originally published in BBC History Magazine's 'The Story of the Ancient World' bookazine
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