How Long Did the Empires of Ancient Civilizations Last?
Recently, I was talking with a colleague at work and I mentioned that civilizations usually only last 500 years. The only problem was that I couldn't remember where I had heard that. In fact, I wasn't all that sure that I was right. I know that the Roman Empire lasted rougly 500 years but how about the Egyptians, the Chinese, the Ottomons, etc. I thought that it would be interesting to explore different empires and see how long they lasted.
In another article, I talk about the definition of "civilization." There, I explain in detail how I determine when a civilization starts, when it ends, and when it gets listed in this survey.
My survey here will not be complete. For this first article, I will only focus on ancient civilizations (civilizations that existed during 3000 BC to 0 AD). My goal is to analyze some well known civilizations and see how long they lasted. I will divide up the survey by region.
I will most certainly miss some major civilizations so please add your comments and I will add additional civilizations over time.
Africa (3000 BC - 0 AD)
1. Ancient Egypt
Historians traditionally divide up Ancient Egypt into three periods. By my definition offered in a previous hub, I consider all three to be separate "civilizations" of Egypt.
Ancient Egypt begins with the unification of upper and lower Egypt. According to Egyptian lore this was accomplished by Menes around 3000 BC.
Historians place the rise of the first major period of Ancient Egypt's history, known as the Old Kingdom, at around 2686 BC and say that it lasted until 2134 BC. It was during this period that the first pyramid was built by Djoser and Cheops built the Great Pyramid which is the only remaining seven wonders of the ancient world. The capital of Egypt at this time was Memphis. The Old Kingdom fell due to rising power of the regional governors and due to a severe drought that occurred 2200 to 2150 BC. Egypt's first civilization lasted roughly 550 years.
The next major period known as the Middle Kingdom begins around 2040 BC and ends around 1640 BC. Egypt at this time was ruled from Thebes. The Middle Kingdom ended with the invasions by the Hyksos. This second "civilization" lasted roughly 400 years.
The Hyksos ruled Egypt from1648 BC until 1540 BC. Their rule began with their successful invasion and ended 108 years later after the Thebans successfully drove the Hyksos out of power.
The last period of Ancient Egypt is known as the New Kingdom. This is the period of Tutankhamun, Akhenaten, and Ramses II. The New Kingdom lasted from 1570-1070 BC. The New Kingdom as a result of a diminishing of central power, the rise of the High Priests of Amun, and a series of droughts. So,we see that it lasted roughly 500 years.
2. Kerma Civilization (Sudan)
The Kerma Civilization had its high point from 2450 BC to 2050 BC. Its capital city was Kerma.
3. Kushite Kingdom (Sudan)
The Kushite Kingdom began around 800 BC. Initially, their capital city was in Nepata. In 750 BC, Kashta was able to take over Upper Egypt for 10 years. Their expansions ended around the 7th century BC when the Assyrians entered Egypt. The early kingdom came to an end around 590 BC when Egypt invaded Nepata.
Around 590 BC, the Kushite Kingdom shifted its capital to Meroe which was more secure. The Romans invated Nepata in 23 BC but decided to withdraw instead of colonize. The Kushites traded with the Egyptians and the Romans. It is believed that the Kushite Kingdom fell to King Ezana of Axum in 350 AD.
4. Ptolemaic Egypt
Ptolemaic Egypt lasted from 332 BC to 30 BC. It begins when Ptolemy I, a general under Alexander the Great, declared himself pharoah and ends with Queen Cleopatra during the Roman Invasion. So, it lasted rougly 300 years.
5. Carthage (Tunisia)
Carthage was founded by the Phoenicians in what is today Tunisia. According to legend, it was founded by Queen Dido. It lasted from 575 BC until 146 BC. Its end came about by a major loss to Rome. So, the Carthaginian Empire lasted for roughly 425 years.
6. Numidia (Algeria/Tunisia)
Numidia begins as a Berber Kingdom in 202 BC when Massinissa aligns himself with the Rome in its war against Carthage. When Rome wins, Massinissa is given Numidia as his reward. In 112 BC, the ruler Jugurtha took on Rome and lost. He was executed by the Romans in 104 BC. The end came in 46 BC.
7. Aksumite Empire (Ethiopia)
The Aksumite Empire was a kingdom that resided in what is today Ethiopia. Its capital city was Aksum. It lasted from the 100BC to roughly 1000 AD. So, it lasted 1100 years. It did not so much disappear as lose its central importance with the rise of the Islam.
Mesopotamia (3000 BC - 0 AD)
8. Akkadian Empire (Sumer)
The first great leader of the Akkadian Empire was Sargon who became ruler around 2270 BC The Akkadian Empire lasted from 2270 BC to 2083 BC. Its center was the city of Akkad. The empire collapsed due to the invasions by the Gutians. So, the Akkadian Empire lasted roughly 200 years.
9. Third Dynasty of Ur (Sumer)
After the invasion by the Gutians, there was a resurgence of the Sumerian Kingdom around 2050 BC. This lasted only until around 2004 BC when Sumer fell to invasions by the Elamites It was at this time that Gilgamesh was written. So, the Third Dynasty of Ur lasted roughly 50 years.
10. First Babylonian Dynasty
The Old Babylonian Empire begins with Sumu-abum. It rose to power and influence with the rise of Hammurabi. It lasted from roughly 1830 BC to 1531 BC. From 1770 to 1670 BC, its capital city, Babylon, was perhaps the largest city in the world. The last king, Samsu-Ditana was overthrown after a Hittite invasion. So, the First Babylonian Dynasty lasted roughly 300 years.
11. Assyrian Empire
The Old Assyrian Empire begins with the founding of Ashur. The Old Assyrian Empire lasted from 2000 BC to 1759 BC. The Old Empire fell to Hammurabi's forces. The Old Assyrian Empire lasted roughly 340 years.
The Middle Assyrian Empire begins with the rise of Ashur-uballit to the thrown of Assyria around 1360 BC and ends around 1047 BC. The main cities were Ashur, Ninevah, and Nimrud with Ashur still the capital. The empire declined around 1047 BC after the reign by Tiglath-Pileser I. So, the middle period lasted rougly 315 years.
The Neo-Assyrian Empire lasted from 934-609 BC. Some historians have claimed that the Neo-Assyrian Empire was the first "real" empire in human history. The Neo-Assyrian empire ended in 612 BC with the fall of its capital city Ninevah to invasions by the Chaldean Dynasty. The empire lasted roughly 330 years.
12. Chaldean Dynasty (Babylon)
The Chaldean dynastry also called the Neo-Babylonian Empire lasted from the rise of power of Nabopolassar in 626 BC to the invasions by Persia in 539 BC. So, the Chaldean Dynasty lasted roughly 80 years.
The Old Hittite Empire was founded around 1750 BC by Hattusili I. The ruler Mursili was able to conquer Babylon in 1595 BC. The invasion overextended the resources of the Hittites and Mursili was assassinated when he returned from the invasion. The successor to Mursili, Telepinu reigned until roughly 1500 BC and was the last ruler of the Old Hittite Empire. So, the Old Empire lasted roughly 250 years.
The Middle Hittite Kingdom begins after Telepinu's rule around 1500 BC. Unfortunately, there is very little information regarding this period. Historians believe that it lasted from 1500 to 1430 BC. So, it lasted roughly 70 years.
The New Hittite Kingdom begin with the rise of Tudhaliya around 1400 BC. This began a major resurgence of Hittite power. Its capital city was Hattusa. The empire declined with the rise of the Meditteranean Sea Peoples who succeeded in cutting off the Hittite trade routes. In 1180, Hattusa was destroyed by invading armies. So, the new Hittite Kingdom lasted roughly 220 years.
Lydia emerges at the collapse of the New Hittite Kingdom around 690 BC. According to Herodotus, the Lydians were the first to have gold and silver coins. Lydia was conquered by the Persians in 546 BC.
Phrygians were a short lived kingdom. King Midas came to the throne in 738 BC and he was defeated by the Cimmerians in 695 BC. The capital city was Gordion.
India: (3000 BC - 0 AD)
16. Harappan Civilization (Indus Valley Civilization)
Around 2600 BC, the Indus Valley civilization had city centers including Harappa, Mohenjo Daro, and Lothal. Over 1,052 sites have been found of cities and community settlements. Around 1800 BC, there are signs of a major decline with ost fo the cities abandoned. Climate change may have been the cause of the decline. Unfortunately, little is known about this early civilization.
17. Vedic Civilization (India)
The origin of Vedic Civilization is controversial but for purposes of this hub, I will follow Wikipedia and place its beginning around 1500 BC. The period ends around 500 BC with the rise of the Mahanjanapadas. This period lasted from 1500 - 500 BC. So, it lasted roughly 1000 years.
18. Mahanjanapadas (India)
These are the16 "Great Kingdoms" of India. The kingdoms emerged from the nomadic Jana tribes around 600 BC. This is also considered the golden age of Sanskrit literature. Around 400 BC, they had merged to four major kingdoms. Their major period was 600 BC to 400 BC.
19. Magadha Empire (India)
Magadha was one of the sixteen Mahanjanapada kingdoms. Its first capital city was originally Rajagriha but later it was Pataliputra. This lasted from 684 BC to 320 BC. The Magadha Empire declined around 320 BC after the death of King Udayan. It eventually fell to the Nanda Dynasty.
20. Nanda Empire (India)
The Nanda Dynasty ruled Magadha from roughly the 5th Century BC to the 4th Century BC . The empire lasted roughly 100 years and it fell to Chandragupta Maurya and his Maurya Empire.
21. Maurya Empire (India)
This empire unified most of India. The empire began in 322 with the ascension of Chadragupta Maurya. It lasted until 185 BC when the Sunga Dynasty was founded after the assassination of King Brhadrata. The empire had begun to fall apart in 232 BC after the death of Ashoka the Great when in-fighting between rulers and invasions from external groups destabilized the empire.
22. First Chera Empire (India)
This was a dynasty that lasted from 300 BC to 200 AD. Its capital was Vanchi Muthur. The first Chera ruler was Perumchottu Utiyan Cheralatan. Around 200 AD, there empire comes to an end with the invasions by the Kalabhras.
23. Early Chola Empire (India)
The early Chola Empire lasted from 300 BC to 200 AD. Its major cities were Urayur and Kaveripattinam with the original capital being at Urayur. Around 200 AD, they were conquered by the Kalabhras.
24. Sunga Empire (India)
The Sunga Empire was started in 185 BC after the downfall of the Maurya Empire. Its capital was Pataliputra. The Sunga Empire lasted until 73 BC with the rise of the Kanva Dynasty. So, the Sunga Empire lasted 112 years
25. Kanva Dynasty (India)
The Kanva Dynasty lasted from 71 BC to 26 BC. The dynasty started when Vasudeva ousted the last ruler of the Sunga Dynasty. They eventually fell to Satavahanas Dynasty. The dynasty lasted less than 50 years.
26. Satavahana Dynasty (India)
This dynasty lasted from 230 BC to around 220 AD. The Satavahanas took power after the death of Ashoka. Around 200 AD, the central state was losing power to local authorities. The end of Satavahana Dynasty occurs as small dynasties divide up the territory. The dynasty lasted roughly 450 years.
Persia: (3000 BC - 0 AD)
27. Elam Civilization (Iran)
Elam is an ancient civilization in southwest Iran whose major city was Susa. Their civilization is divided into three periods.
The Awan Dynasty lasted from 2240 BC to roughly 2083 BC. Elam under the rule of Kutik-Inshushinak declares itself independent of the Akkadian Empire around 2240 BC. Around 2083, the dynasty comes to the end with invasions by the Guti people.
The Eparti Dynasty was founded in 1970 BC by Eparti I. Susa once again is the capital. The dynasty comes to an end around 1760 BC when they are driven out of their territory by Hammurabi.
The Middle Elamite Period is from 1500 BC to around 1158 BC. The Elamite state comes back around 1500 BC. It reaches the peak of its power around 1200-1100 BC. The collapse of the Middle Elamite empire occurs when they they are conquered by Nebuchadnezzar I of Babylonia.
The Neo-Elamite Period is from 742 BC to 539 BC. In 742 BC, there is mention of a king of Elam. It appears that during this period, the Elamite region is divided into separate warring regions. The period comes ot an end in 539 BC when they are conquered by the Assyrian Ashurbanipal.
28. Medean Empire (Iran)
The Medean Empire was found around 625 BC when Cyaxares succeeded in uniting all the Medean tribes under his rule. The empire lasted until 559 BC when Cyrus the Great succeeded in conquering the Medean Empire.
29. Achaemenid Empire (Iran)
The Acheamenid Empire begins with the rise of Cyrus the Great who won a decisive victory against the Medes in 550 BC. The Achaemenid Empire lasted until its military defeat by Alexander the Great in 330 BC.
30. Seleucid Empire (Iran)
Seleucid I was a general under Alexander the Great. When Alexander died, Seleucid established his empire in Persia around 312 BC. Over time, the empire began to decline. In 83 BC, Tigranes the Great, King of Armenia, invaded Syria. In 63 BC, they were conquered by Rome.
31. Parthian Empire (Iran)
Around 245 BC, Adragorus, a satrap under the Seleucid rule was able to declare his independence. Although he was killed in 238 BC by a political rival, the Parthian Empire continued. The empire eventually fell in 224 AD to the Sassanian Empire.
China (3000 BC - 0 AD)
32. Xia Dynasty (China)
The Xia Dynasty is the first dynasty mentioned in traditional histories. According to legend, the dynasty begins around 2100 BC when the rule Shun abdicated in favor of his minister Yu. The dynasty ends around 1600 BC with a corrupt king Jie who is ousted by Tang, the head of the Shang people. So, it lasted for 500 years.
33. Shang Dynasty (China)
Tang takes over the northeastern region of the Yellow River valley in 1600 BC from the Xia Dynasty. Its capital city was Yin. The dynasty comes to an end in 1122 BC when the Shang lose a major battle to the Zhou and the last Shang leader Shang Zhou commits suicide. So, it lasted for roughly 500 years.
34. Zhou Dynasty (China)
The Zhou Dynasty began in 1122 BC with the suicide of Shang Zhou. The Zhou Dynasty begins with Ji. Its capital city is Hao. This is the time of Confucius, Lao Tzi, the founder of Daoism. The dynasty changes significantly in 771 BC when King You decides to leave his queen and marry a concubine. This first period is called the Western Zhou period.
In 771 BC, a war is fought between King You and the family of his former queen. The queen's son Ji Yijiu becomes king and the capital is moved to Luoyang. This period is called the Eastern Zhou period. It ends around 441 BC when the feudal lords rise in power and are able to eclipse the power of the Zhou family. This first half of the Eastern Zhou period is called the Spring and Autumn Period.
The last half of the Eastern Zhou period is called the Warring States Period. It lasts from 771 BC until around 260 BC. In this period, the Zhou ruling family are primarily figureheads. This is the time when Sun Tzu wrote the Art of War. The state of Qin becomes very powerful and in 316 BC, it takes over the Shu area. In 260 BC at the battle of Changping, the Qin win a decisive victory.
35. Qin Dynasty (China)
The Qin Dynasty begins in 221 BC when Qin Shi Huang succeeds in conquering all of China. He becomes the first emperor of China. This is the beginning of Imperial China. The dynasty comes to an end around 207 BC when the Qin are defeated in the Battle of Julu. The emperor Huhai is forced to kill himself.
36. Han Dynasty (China)
In 206 BC, the Kingdom of Han is established. The Han Dynasty begins officially with the rise of Liu Bang. This is the when the Silk Road was established. The first period of the Han Dynasty is called the Westen Period and it lasts until 9 AD. At this time, Wang Mang successfully led a revolt against the Han which lasted 15 years (9 AD - 24 AD).
In 25 AD, the Han are able to take back their power. This period is called the Eastern Han Dynasty. The Eastern Han Dynasty lasts until 220 AD when with the rise of local overlords, the Han effectively lost their power.
Europe (3000 BC - 0 AD)
37. Minoan Civilization (Greece)
It is believed that Minoan Civilization began roughly around 2200 BC. This is the time when the Palace at Knossos is believed to have begun. Around 1700 BC, the entire center was destroyed. It is believed that this may have been caused by a natural disaster or a successful invasion. Historians call this the Protopalatial Period.
After this sudden change, the civilization is rebuilt. Around 1700 BC begins the next period which is known as the Neopalatial Period. Then, in 1500 BC, there was perhaps one of the largest volcanic explosions of all time at Thera. it is believed that this had a major impact on the Neopalatial Minoan society. By 1450 BC, the Mycenae have conquered Crete.
38. Mycenae (Greece)
Mycenae is an early Greek civilization that lasted from 1600 BC to 1200 BC. From 1200 BC, the Mycenaean Civilization has been destroyed. According to legend, this came from a Doric Invasion from Persia but there is little evidence to support this. There is evidence that the palace was burned down around 1250 BC. From this point, Greece enters into a Dark Age.
39. Classical Greek Civilization
Ancient Greece emerges from its dark ages around 776 BC. The Classical Period lasts from 776 BC to 323 BC. From the view of historians, it ends with the death of Alexander the Great in 323 BC. So, it lasts roughly 350 years.
40. Hellenistic Civilization (Greece)
The Hellenistic period begins with the death of Alexander the Great. During this type Greece was ruled by the Antigonid Dynasty started by Antigonus I "the One-Eye" who was one of Alexander the Great's generals. The period lasts until the Battle of Pydna in 146 BC when the Roman Republic decisively defeats the forces of the Antigonid Kingdom. So, it lasted roughly 180 years.
41. Ancient Rome (Italy)
According to legend, Rome was founded in 753 BC by twin brothers Romulus and Remus after escaping the Trojan War. Archeological evidence supports this date as the founding of Rome. This earliest period lasts until 510 BC when the king, Tarquin the Proud was ousted from power. So it lasted roughly 140 years.
42. Etruscans (Italy)
The origins of the Etruscans is not well known but it is believed that they began around 800 BC and were prior to Rome, the major power in the region. The Etruscan Civilization lasted until 396 BC when they were conquered by Rome. So, they lasted for roughly 400 years.
43. Roman Republic (Italy)
The Roman Republic begins in 510 BC with the ouster of King Tarquin the proud and the establishment of a republic based on a constitution. The republic lasted until 44 BC when Julius Caesar was assassinated. It lasted for roughly 450 years.
44. Roman Empire (Italy)
The Roman Empire begins in 44 BC when Augustus takes absolute power. Romes starts to greatly decline in power around 330 AD when Constantine made Constantinople the new capital of Rome. In 410 AD, the Visigoths successfully destroyed much of Rome. The empire formally ends in 476 AD with the abdication of the last emperor Romulus Augustus to the Germanic chief Odoacer. So, it lasted for roughly 520 years.
Armenia (3000 BC - 0 AD)
45. Urartu (Armenia)
The kingdom of Urartu begins in 860 BC when King Aramu unites the tribes of the region. Its capital is at Arzashkun. The kingdom is able to resist Assyrian attacks until 714 BC when it falls to the armies of Sargon II. Urartu still continues until 635 BC when it is effectively part of Assyria.
46. Orontid Dynasty (Armenia)
The Orontid Dynasty begins around 612 BC after the fall of Urartu to the Medians and the Scythians. It ends in 72 AD when it becomes part of the Roman Empire. So it lasted roughly 500 years.
47. Kingdom of Armenia
An independent Armenian Kingdom was founded by Artaxias in 190 BC. This was a kingdom that lasted from 190 BC until 252 AD. For the most part, it was a buffer zone between Rome and Persia, In 252 AD, the Kingdom of Armenia was conquered by the Sassanid Persians.
Asia (3000 BC - 0 AD)
48. Phoenicians (Middle East)
The Phoenicians were a maritime culture whose central period was 1200 BC to 539 BC. Around 1200 BC, for reasons that are currently unknown, the people of the Canaan area took the the seas. Their capital was Byblos. By 1000 BC, the cities of Tyre and Sidon had taken center stage. The Phoenicians were conquered by Cyrus the Great in 539 BC.
49. Kingdom of Israel and Judah
According to the Bible, the Kingdom of Israel begins with King Saul around 1020 BC with Jerusalem as its capital. Around 930 BC, the kingdom breaks into two kingdoms: Israel and Judah. The Kingdoms of Israel and Judea fall to the Assyrians around 722 BC.
50. Scythians (Central Asia/Eastern Europe)
The Scythians were a group of nomadic tribes that settled into a kingdom around the time of Herodotus. The Scythians migrated from the Steppes of Central Asia to Southern Russia. They form a loose kingdom called Scythia around 600 BC. Their kingdom lasted until 200 AD when they were defeated by the Sarmatians.
51. Xiongnu Empire (Mongolia)
The Xiongnu Empire begins around 220 BC with the reign of Touman. The earliest records of the Xiongnu Empire comes from Chinese records. The empire begins to weaken around 127BC. There is a major rebellion in 85 BC and by 36 BC, they are conquered by the Han Dynasty.
52. Three Kingdoms of Korea
The Kingdom of Silla according to legend was started in 57 BC by Bak Hyeokgeose. The Kingdom of Goguryeo was founded by Jumong in 37 BC. The Kingdom of Baekje was founded in 18 BC by King Onjo. These three kingdoms dominated ancient Korea from 57 BC until 668 AD and for this reason this time is known as the Three Kingdoms Period. The period comes to an end in 668 AD when Silla is able to conquer Goguryeo.
Ancient Americas (3000 BC - 0 AD)
53. Olmecs (Mexico)
The Olmecs began in San Lorenzo around 1200 BC. Around 900 BC, San Lorenzo has greatly declined.
A second center emerges at La Venta around 900 BC. By 400 BC, La Venta has lost its importance. Indeed, Olmec civilization seems to come to an end around this same time.
54. Teotihuacans (Mexico)
The first building of the Teotihuacans were built around 200 BC. The Pyramid of the Sun was finished in 100 AD. It is believed that their culture came to an end around 535 AD as the result of climatic changes including droughts and internal unrest.
55. Norte Chico Civilization (Peru)
The Norte Chico Civilization is a very early civilization that left no artifacts of ceramics or art. The knowledge of this civilization is still at its earliest stage. It is believed that the society may have been founded around 2627 BC in the north-central coast of Peru. It seems to have declined around 1800 BC.
56. Chavin Culture (Peru)
According to the archeological record, the Chavin Culture emerges around 900 BC in the Andean highlands of Peru. The evidence indicates that this culture declined around 200 BC.
So, what does this survey tell us?
When I break the 56 civilizations down into phases (for example, Ancient Egypt has three phases), the total number of "distinct" civilizations is 74. The average length of time that a civilization lasts is 349.2 years. The median is 330 years.
The civilizations that lasted the longest seem to be the Aksumite Empire which lasted 1100 years and the Vedic Period of India which lasted 1000 years. The shortest period of time is the Third Dynasty of Ur at 50 years, the Qin Dynasty at 14 years, and the Kanva Dynasty at 45 years.
So, how did I do in my estimate? It seems that I was correct in saying that most civilizations do not last more than 500 years. In fact, if these 40 civilizations are representative of all civilizations, then it seems that civilizations usually don't last 400 years.
This of course raises additional questions:
- Do these number holds for other periods of time?
- What are the reasons for collapse of these civilizations?
- Do these trends reveal an underlying dynamic for the concept of a civilization lifecycle?