Ancient Empires before Alexander

For 23 centuries, the figure of Alexander the Great has fired the imaginations of all who hear his story: The heroic young king led his army thousands of miles across the Near East and never lost a battle, conquering the largest empire the world had ever known, only to die a month short of his 33rd birthday. But Alexander’s brilliance was so dazzling that it has obscured the fact that he was only the latest in a series of conquerors who had pursued the dream of empire across the stage of Near Eastern History, a grand procession that had already been underway for 2,000 years when Alexander first set foot on the shores of Asia in 334 B.C., a procession composed of names renowned in their own time but now mostly forgotten: Sargo, Ur-Nammu, Hattusilis, Thutmose III, Tiglath-pileser, Cyrus… conquerors whose empires lay buried beneath the lands across which Alexander marched. Some of those were nearly as grand and mighty as Alexander’s; others were more modest. Some of those empires, like Alexander’s lasted only a few decades; others endured for half a millennium. Most of those empires, unlike Alexander’s are now forgotten.

This is a course about those forgotten empires. Its purpose is to resurrect them from the dust and to restore them to their proper place in the panorama of ancient Near Eastern history. We explore 13 of them, beginning with the empire of Sargon of Akkad in the 24th century-the very first empire in all of human history-and ending more than two millennia later with the empire of Carthage, which outlived Alexander’s empire but fell at last before the rising power of Rome. The course is arranged chronologically, and because it is a course about empires rather than about cultures, it focuses on the political¬† and the military and concerns itself with religious, economic, or social issues only as they bear on imperial affairs. In treating each empire, it ask three questions fundamental to understanding any empire in any era: First, how and why did this empire come into being? Was it the creation of one man’s genius and leadership, or did it arise out of broader forces? What is the story of its emergence? What opposition did it face, and how did it overcome that opposition? Second, how was this empire governed and defended? What was the relationship between its rulers and their subjects? How was it taxed? How was its army organized, equipped, and commanded? What threats did it face, and how did it confront them? And third, how and why did this empire fall? Was its decline sudden or prolonged? What factors led to its decline and fall? Did it fall due to internal decay, outside attack, or both? And how did the story of its collapse unfold? Answering these questions will require a mix of lecture formats: Some lectures will emphasize the narrative of history, while others will emphasize its analysis. In the end, these forgotten empires will stand revealed for what they were: important chapters in the drama of the story of the ancient world.

The course comprises four broad series lectures. The first series focuses on the earliest empires in Near Eastern history, all of them concentrated in Mesopotamia. We begin with mysterious and romantic figure of Sargon the Great, according to legend a foundling child who went on to conquer Mesopotamia and Syria. His empire was followed by the empire of Third-Dynasty Ur-the last flowering of Sumerian civilization and the only empire that Sumer ever forger. After the collapse of Sumer, Babylon first rose to greatness under Hammurabi, a great conqueror as well as a great lawgiver.¬† Hammurabi’s empire First-Dynasty Babylon was short-lived, and in its wake, during the middle of the 2nd millennium, two empires rose to fill the void: the kingdom of the Hurrians in northern Mesopotamia, better known as Mitanni, and the Kassite empire in Babylonia. Tantalizingly little is known of either of these states, even though Mitanni dominated the northern Fertile Crescent for more that two centuries and Kassite Babylonia was the longest-lived of all Mesopotamian empires, enduring for over 400 years.

While empires rose and fell in Mesopotamia, to the north and west other empires were coming into being, which together with the empires of Mesopotamia formed what some scholars have called “the Club of the Great Powers.” these will be the focus of the second series of lectures. To the north, the Hittite peoples of central Asia Minor forged the great empire that they called Hatti. To the west, in the coastlands of the eastern Mediterranean, Egypt emerged from its nest in the Nile Valley and conquered an empire that stretched as far north as Syria, where it battled for control with both Mitanni and Hatti. As these empires jockeyed for position in the Near East, on the island of Crete, the Minoans created history’s first thalassocracy, or sea empire. Meanwhile , on the mainland north of Crete, the Greeks made their bold entrance onto the stage of history as the Achaeans, under their high king at Mycenae. they quickly developed their own unique political culture and soon spread east across the Aegean to challenge Hatti for supremacy in western Asia Minor.

A terrible cataclysm brought the 2nd millennium to a end, along with the empires that had belonged to the Club of the Great Powers. Mitanni was destroyed by Hatti, nut Hatti then vanished in its turn. The Egyptians were driven back inside the confines of the Nile Valley, and the empire of the Kassites collapse. Out of the ashes rose new powers. It is to these that the third series of lectures is devoted. The hill tribes of Cannan, worshipping a god called Yahweh, united as the kingdom of Israel, briefly filling the power vacuum left by the demise of Egypt’s empire before dissolving after the death of its third king, Solomon. More enduringly, a group of peoples formely subject to Mitanni began the long process of building the empire that would cast its long shadow across the first four centuries of the last millennium: Assyria. From its heartland in northern Mesopotamia, Assyria went on to conquer Babylonia, Syria, southeastern Asia Minor, the Levant, and eventually Egypt, making it the greatest empire the Near East had yet seen, but Assyria collapsed before a last revival of Babylonian power, aided by the Medes of western Iran. The Neo-Babylonian empire spread across the Fertile Crescent, taking up the mantle of Assyria and snuffing out of the last remnant of the empire of Israel with the destruction of Judah in 587. But the Neo-Babylonians were to enjoy Assyria’s mantle only briefly, for the Medes soon were overthrown by Cyrus, lord of Persis, who went on to overthrow the Neo-Babylonians as well, and all else that stood in his path, and lay the foundations of the greatest of all Near Eastern empires: Persia.

The final series of lectures focuses on the last great Near Eastern empires, the empires of the mid-1st millennium. We begin with Persia. By the midpoint of the 1st millennium, the empire Cyrus had founded was vastly larger that any that had come before: It spanned the entire Near East, from Egypt and the Balkans to central Asia and the Indus Valley. But its size and its power failed to intimidate the tiny city-states of Greece, and Persia soon found itself locked in a 20o-year-long confrontation with Greece that only ended when Alexander gave a royal funeral to Persia’s last king and placed the Persian crown on his own head. The Greek conquest of Persia left only one Near Eastern power in existence, located not in the Near East but in the western Mediterranean: Carthage, a colony of Tyre, had built an empire for itself among the Phoenician settlements along the Spanish and African coasts and managed to hold its own against the Greeks in Sicily and Italy, but not against the stirring giant that was Rome. With Rome’s defeat of Hannibal in the Second Punic War, the story of the empires of the Near East comes to an end.

The final lecture looks back at the common threads that link the 13 empires of the course together and at the ways in which they are unique. It also looks forward to the one great legacy that the half-forgotten empires of the ancient Near East bestowed on Alexander and all the conquerors who followed him, from Caesar to Napoleon: the dream of empire.