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UNIT 11: Early Empires



The word "empire" evokes visions of grandeur and glory, conquest and slavery. Indeed, empires live in memory long after they have faded from power. We are probably most likely to think of empire in connection with Rome; the term, in fact, comes from the Latin imperium, with its root meaning of order and command. Tacitus, the Roman historian, also used it to refer to the immense size and diversity of the Roman world.

But many different empires beyond that of Rome — Mesopotamian, Chinese, Aztec, and Mughal, for example — have appeared throughout history and around the world. By exploring the diverse historical, cultural, and geographical settings of empires, historians aim to understand how and why empires emerged when and where they did, how they were maintained, and how and why they came to an end. Like all history, the answers to these questions depend on the kinds of sources we have and on the ways historians use them to provide multiple perspectives on the past.

This unit seeks to understand the rise, maintenance, and fall of empires by comparing the empire experience in different parts of the world. We can identify both similarities and differences among the processes that led to the rise and fall of empires in diverse historical, cultural, and geographical settings.

In most cases, physical environment, charismatic leaders, and a large and strong military were critical to empire building. While empires generally introduced new political and administrative institutions, they also frequently adapted to existing institutions and local elites. Finally, most empires spent much energy and resources in order to control production and trade within their realms.

Ultimately, however, what is most interesting and important about the comparative study of empires is that peoples widely separated by time and place independently created common forms of political and social organization.


Time Period: 1200-1500 CE

The period between 1200 and 1500 CE was an era of empire-building in Eurasia, sub-Saharan Africa, and the Americas. In addition to the case studies explored in this unit, empires and other centralized states developed in east and south Asia (the Ming in China and the Mughals in India), as well as in Central and North America (the Mayans and Mississippians, respectively). Increased trade often went hand-in-hand with the development of empires and other powerful, centralized states. In the Indian Ocean region, for example, maritime trade benefited from the political stability and economic expansion provided by centralized states; in sub-Saharan Africa and Western Europe, economic expansion helped encourage political change towards centralized structures. Also as a result of increased trade across imperial frontiers in this period, religious ideas and traditions continued to spread across the world.

AP Themes:

  • Examines interactions in economies and politics by focusing on the relationship between the trade networks and the creation of empires.
  • Explores systems of social structure by comparing contemporary but geographically distant empire systems with one another.
  • Discusses changing functions of states by comparatively exploring the nature of the shift to imperial structures in a variety of regions around the world.


  • Question 1: What historical and environmental conditions enabled the creation of centralized empires?
  • Question 2: How were early empires administered and maintained — politically, economically, and ideologically?
  • Question 3: How did early empires connect the peoples of Eurasia, South America, and West Africa in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries?
  • Question 4: What was the legacy of early empires in Eurasia, Africa, and the Americas?


How is this topic related to Increasing Integration?

Early empires were able to integrate peoples of different religions and cultures under a common political system. They also provided stability and protection for trading enterprises across vast territories, and thus helped facilitate connections between distant peoples.

How is this topic related to Proliferating Difference?

Early empires also helped create differences between peoples by establishing political, social, and ethnic hierarchies within their realms.

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