READER’S NOTE – The purpose of this writing is to familiarize the reader with some broad outlines of basic political history that allowed the Islamic religion and state (inseparable concepts) to become a world power in such a short amount of time. This is obviously not a comprehensive study of the subject, it is simply a broad outline. Pierre Briand for instance wrote a 1,000+ page study of the Achaemenid Persian Empire. Will Durant inked over 1,000 pages covering the aspects of the Abrahamic religions – Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. I assume the reader has a rudimentary understanding of the first two. The concepts of Islam will be laid out in a later essay.
This essay covers over 1600 years, from the 11th century B.C.E. to the 7th century C.E. “B.C.E.” stands for ‘before common era,’ while “C.E.” stands for ‘common era,’ a simple replacement for before Christ, and “Anno Domini,” ‘the year of our lord.” Since the BC / AD dating system of numbering years has been adopted by most people around the world, at least in their dealings internationally, the B.C.E. / C.E. name change was imposed since most people around the world do not center their religion around Jesus Christ.
This outline deals with the Eastern Hemisphere land comprising of much of Europe, northern Africa, western and central Asia, and the Middle East, which is a modern name given to much of the land of around modern day Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Israel, Turkey, Lebanon, Syria, Yemen, Oman, Iran, etc.
There are many ancient civilizations that paved the way for the modern world. There were civilizations considered ‘ancient’ when the Assyrians, Babylonians, and Egyptians first started their civilizations. While leaving out more civilizations than one can count, we shall cover the Israelites, the Achaemenid Persian Empire, The Roman Empire, the Greek civilizations (never an ‘empire’ per se) the conquests of Alexander the Great, the Parthian Empire, the Sassanid Empire, and the Byzantine Empire which will all lead to an understanding of the Islamic conquest of the 7th century C.E. Great books, both old and modern, have been written about each of these empires, such as the Bible, Herodotus’ ‘Histories,” Gibbon’s ‘Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire,’ etc, hence this essay will cover these people in brief.
The ancient nation of Israel has its written roots in the first five books of the Bible, called the ‘Torah’ in Hebrew or the ‘Pentateuch’ in Greek – Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy – and the additional books of the Old Testament – Joshua, Judges, Ruth, Samuel, Kings, etc.
The early parts of the Bible tell wonderful tales of beginnings of the Israelites, from the beginnings of the world and the life of Abraham (hence the term “Abrahamic Religion”) to the slavery in and then Exodus from Egypt. The Jewish laws are given, land is conquered, and a civilization is established.
The apex of ancient Israel came with the famous kingships of David and his son Solomon. The low point comes with the Babylonian captivity when the Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar II conquers the divided Jewish kingdoms of Israel and Judah.
The Jewish civilization is integral to this essay because from this culture came the first great monotheistic religion, or the first ‘Abrahamic’ religion of Judaism. Without Judaism there is no Christianity or Islam. The transmission of this culture is the root of Judeo / Christian “Western” culture and Judeo / Islamic culture in Muslim countries.
ACHAEMENID PERSIAN EMPIRE
Clearing up some misnomers, the word Persian comes from the word / region “Fars” in a land they called “Iran” or ‘Land of the Arians.’ The history of the Arians is complicated, incomplete, and does not belong in this essay. The ‘Persian’ language of ‘Farsi’ comes from the word ‘Fars.” I will use the word Persian instead of Iranian since Iran itself is a nation-state and the scope of these empires goes well beyond Iran’s modern borders.
The Achaemenid Persian empire is the most famous empire of the Persians. The famous leader Cyrus II ‘The Great’ consolidated his rule over the Medes and the Persians and formed one of the world’s great early empires. Cyrus came on the scene in the mid to late 6th century B.C.E. Much of what we know about Cyrus and the Achaemenid empire comes from Greek sources, most famously the ‘Histories’ of Herodotus of Halicarnassus, who wrote his famous work in the early part of the 5th century B.C.E. The names of Cyrus, Cambyses, Darius, and Xerxes are made famous by Herodotus. The Persian empire bordered the Hellenistic (Greek) city-states so familiarity with this empire by the Hellenes makes sense.
Little is known about the policies or conflicts that the Achaemenid empire had in its eastern sphere. There is no treasure trove of writings that have been found. It is known that Cyrus and his successors conquered vast swaths of territory and created a complicated culture and government that included a system of roads and an incredibly organized army with state of the art supply features.
Cyrus famously conquered the city of Babylon and the neo-Babylonian empire in 539 C.E. He liberates the Jews of the area, descendants of those conquered by the Babylonians in the previous century. Cyrus allows them to return to their land and he sets aside funds to help rebuild the Jewish temple that was destroyed by the Babylonians. There is no non-Jewish figure in the Bible who is as adored as was Cyrus. He is mentioned nearly two dozen times.
The Achaemenid Persian empire lasted until the defeat of Darius III by Alexander the Great of Macedon (pronounced Mak-eh-don). The later Parthian and Sassanid Persian empires are heirs to the great Achaemenid empire.
THE ROMAN EMPIRE
Possibly the most famous empire of all time, the Roman Empire had humble beginnings. The timeline of the Roman Empire begins in myth, the founding of Rome on the 7 hills by the brothers Remus and Romulus (hence the name “Rome”) and in bitter reality with the conquest of Constantinople by Ottoman Sultan Mehmet II “The Conqueror” in 1453.
Much has been written about Rome and the reader would be wise to at least study some of the basic works that explain the history and the cultural legacy of such an important empire. A political summary would go as follows: The ‘age of kings’ lasted from the founding to 510 or 509 B.C.E. This is a quasi-mythical era in which seven kings ruled Rome in succession. Rome would slowly expand, absorbing other city-states around it. By the 4th century B.C.E. Rome did not even control the entire Italian peninsula, much less become a world power. It was not until the ultimately victorious wars against Mediterranean rival Carthage that Rome would become a power on the world stage. (The famous Punic Wars were named so due to the Latin word for Phoenician, ‘Punica,’ which was the lineage of the Carthaginians.)
In 146 B.C.E. the Romans sealed the victory against Carthage. At the same time they put down rebellions in Greece and and began to conquer much of the territory there. While claiming to be a ‘republic’ Rome was ever expanding. Greats like Pompey and Caesar captured great amounts of territory before the technical age of Empire under Augustus. In the age of Empire, Trajan expanded Rome to its territorial peak.
Eventually the Empire began to decline. There are many theories about the reasons for this. Whatever the reason, steppe people from the plains of Asia made their way west due to a myriad of reasons from being moved off of their land by more powerful tribes to simple want of different land. These people, coupled with Germanic tribes along Rome’s Danube frontier began to invade the western portion of the Roman Empire. Ultimately the western empire collapsed in 476 C.E. with the final emperor Romulus Augustulus deposed.
The Roman Empire survived in the east in its capital of Constantinople, named after emperor Constantine who ruled in the early 4th century C.E. Constantine is famous for being the first Christian emperor of the Roman Empire. The empire at first persecuted Christianity as a threat to the polytheistic religion of the state. After Constantine, pagan religion was discarded for the monotheism of Christianity.
The eastern Roman Empire that survived after the fall of the western empire is today called the Byzantine Empire, named after the Greek city of Byzantium, where Constantinople was eventually built. The empire was still referred to as the Roman Empire. The language was Greek as opposed to Latin, and the religion was a different version of Christianity than that of Roman Catholicism.
The Byzantine Empire would steadily shrink in size after the rule of Justinian. By the time of the siege of Constantinople in 1451, the empire barely covered anywhere outside of the city itself, having been encroached by Turkish Ottomans for about 400 years. (Turkey is an anachronistic term before the Turkish conquest. The Turkish people originally came from the aforementioned steppe of Asia.)
The fall of Constantinople in 1453 did mark the end of the Roman Empire. What the empire gave to Western Civilization is incalculable. The spread of Roman law and culture and the later spread of Christianity are a huge inheritance. We will revisit the Byzantine Empire when the rise of Islam is explained.
CONQUESTS AND AFTERMATH OF ALEXANDER THE GREAT
Alexander the Great’s conquest of modern-day Greece, Egypt, the Middle East, parts of Pakistan and Afghanistan is one of the most incredible stories in ancient history. The Greco-Roman writer Arrian wrote about Alexander’s exploits in his “Anabasis Alexandri.” The larger than life personality of Alexander and his brave if not foolish exploits on the battlefield are not the subject of this essay. What is most important is what happened to these conquered lands when Alexander died.
Alexander III of Macedon took over where his father, Philip II left off. Were it not for his assassination in 336 B.C.E. the world could possibly know Philip as “The Great.” No matter the details of the assassination, Alexander now controlled the realm of his father. Alexander consolidated his control over what we call Greece and then proceeded to conquer the world. While he didn’t conquer the world, he did conquer a ridiculous amount of territory in a very short time. His realm included all or parts of modern day Albania, Macedonia, Greece, Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, Israel, Egypt, Iraq, Iran, Pakistan, and Afghanistan (Alexander reached “India” but not the modern nation-state of India.) Alexander puts an end to the Achaemenid Persian Empire with his victory over Darius III. He conquered Egypt as the Achaemenids did under Cyrus the Great’s son Cambyses II two centuries earlier.
Famously, Alexander’s army forced the conqueror to turn back upon reaching modern day Afghanistan. Upon reaching the city of Babylon Alexander was overcome with some malady – health problems, a sickness, poison, nobody is certain – and died in 323 B.C.E. Alexander failed to leave even a spoken will. There is legend that on his deathbed when asked about his legacy he said to leave the empire to the strongest. This obviously can not be ascertained but the results are similar. There was war and a parsing out of the empire among Alexander’s generals.
The two most famous generals, Seleucus I Nicator and Ptolemy were the first rulers of the Seleucid Empire – much of central Asia, Persia, the Levant, Mesopotamia, Afghanistan, parts of Pakistan, Turmenistan – and Ptolomaic Egypt respectively. (Ptolemy’s account of Alexander was a main source of Arrian’s “Anabasis Alexandri.”) Much of the Seleucid Empire was gobbled up by Rome in the mid 1st century B.C.E. Ptolomaic Egypt’s last Pharaoh was Cleopatra, who along with Marc Antony, was defeated by future 1st Roman Emperor Augustus Caesar in 30 B.C.E.
PARTHIAN and SASANIAN EMPIRES
The Parthian Empire is little known outside of history circles but it was an important and powerful empire that gave the Roman Empire a good bit of trouble on it’s far eastern border. This empire existed from the mid 3rd century B.C.E. to the first quarter of the 3rd century C.E. The Parthian Empire came to life as a rebellious province of the Seleucid Empire. This empire was basically Iranian in composition with obvious Hellenistic influences in culture and government.
The successor to the Parthian Empire, the Sasanian Empire, lasted until 651 C.E. Both the Parthian Empire and the Sasanian Empire are largely heirs of the Achaemenid Persian Empire in culture, religion, and government. The Sasanian Empire was the final Iranian empire to exist before the rise of Islam.
THE POLITICAL CLIMATE ALLOWING FOR THE RISE OF ISLAM
The rise of Islam occurred in the early part of the 7th century C.E. out of Mecca and Medina in modern-day Saudi Arabia, or simply ‘Arabia’ at the time. The two powerhouse empires were the Roman Empire which we shall call the Byzantine Empire and the Sasanian Empire. These two empires were constantly at war with each other aside from a peaceful time period in the 6th century C.E.
As among countries today, there was constantly games of influence, direct wars, wars by proxy, gaining and switching alliances, etc. The Byzantine and Sasanian Empires were always jockeying for position. While areas of its periphery were important, Arabia was largely ignored by both empires. After all, there had never been a real power in the area that was a threat to either entity. Each empire was trying to outdo the other and by the early part of the 7th century C.E. these empires were exhausted.
As they say, nature abhors a vacuum. Well, so does politics. The Sasanian empire bordered much of Arabia to the north and east. When the Muslims moved north the Sasanian Empire was totally vulnerable. The Byzantine Empire to the north west was not as vulnerable in its entirety, but its eastern periphery was generally up for the taking. The Muslims were able to put an end to the Sasanian empire in 651 C.E. and conquer much of the eastern realm of the Byzantine Empire. Christian forces would not be a presence in much of these places until the Crusades of the 11th through 13th centuries.
Islam also spread west along the former Roman provinces in north Africa – modern day Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, Algeria, and Morocco – all the way to the Strait of Gibraltar (a now Arabic name denoting the area of modern-day Morocco and Spain that is separated by a very narrow waterway leading into the Mediterranean Sea.) Muslims would conquer much of the Iberian Peninsula beginning in 711 C.E. and make their way nearly to Paris where they were defeated by Charles ‘The Hammer’ Martel, grandfather of Charlemagne, in 732.
Muslims were able to conquer the entirety of the Byzantine Empire, but it would take over 800 years to do so and it would be done by the Ottoman Empire, a Turkish-led Muslim Empire that was a player on the world stage until the end of World War 1 in 1918.
The beginnings of Islam will be covered in a future essay. The time period will be much smaller than above. This essay will not cover a long portion of Islamic history, simply the beginning of it with the Prophet Muhammad through the Shia – Sunni split.
I did not use a specific resource for this essay. This is generalized knowledge from past study and reading. I referenced some maps in Bernard Lewis’ “The Middle East – A Brief History of the Past 2000 Years” to ensure I was correct in labeling certain geographic points.
To understand modern history, one must have a rudimentary understanding of ancient history. I would read a book on each of the empires mentioned above. I definitely recommend Lewis’ “The Middle East.”
The Landmark version of Herodotus’ “Histories,” Arrian’s “Conquests of Alexander” (Anabasis Alexandri) and Julius Caesar’s Complete Works are phenomenal resources.
Hardcore History by Dan Carlin is phenomenal. Tides of History by Patrick Wyman is great. Shields High is a new pod by Buck Sexton that is very listenable.