Timeline: the evolution of ancient empires

Peter Jones highlights the most significant moments in the history of the world’s first great civilisations...

The tomb of Pharaoh Djoser, built at Saqqara

c3100 BC

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.

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c2686 BC

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.

c1550 BC

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).

c1323 BC

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.

This solid-gold death mask, thought to be that of the boy king Tutankhamun, was discovered in 1924. (Photo by Hannes Magerstaedt/Getty Images)
This solid-gold death mask, thought to be that of the boy king Tutankhamun, was discovered in 1924. (Photo by Hannes Magerstaedt/Getty Images)

559 BC

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.

509 BC

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.

508 BC

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’).

Pnyx, Athens
Steps lead to the speaker’s platform of the Pnyx, the rocky hill in Athens where the Ecclesia (Assembly) gathered. (Photo by Emmanouil Pavlis | Dreamstime.com)

490 BC

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.

336 BC

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.

241 BC

Rome defeats Carthage at the battle of the Egadi Islands near Sicily, concluding its victory in the first Punic War 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.

221 BC

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.

Terracotta Army
The Terracotta Army – some 8,000 warriors guarding the tomb of China’s first emperor, Qin Shihuangdi – was discovered near Xi’an in 1974. (Photo by Konstantin32 | Dreamstime.com)

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.

Vesuvius eruption bodies
Human remains of people buried when Vesuvius erupted in AD 79, featured in a 2011 exhibition. (Photo by Mario Laporta/AFP via Getty Images)

c250 AD

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.

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.

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This article was originally published in BBC History Magazine’s ‘The Story of the Ancient World’ bookazine