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Iron Age Empires




In this section, you should become familiar with the following terms:

  • Iron Age Empires, The Classical Empires, Lao-tze, Confucius, The Era of the Warring States, Zoroastrianism, Mauryan Empire, Buddhism, Hinduism, Aegean Sea, hoplite, phalanx, Athens, democracy, aristocracy, Sparta, The Peloponnesian War, and Alexander the Great.

And you should be able to discuss:

  • The rise of the Iron Age Empires in China, India, Iran, and Europe.
  • How Greece differed from other centers of civilization and what the effects of those differences were.
  • The Greek development of the hoplite phalanx, and how it and the building of navies of rowed ships affected the political institutions of the city-states.
  • the origins and effect of rule by aristocracies and democracies in the Greek city states.
  • The results of the conquests of Alexander the Great.


The title of Iron Age Empires is a bit misleading, since, technically speaking, we are still in the Iron Age. The subject might be better expressed as The Iron-Age Powers That Preceded and Laid the Foundations For the Classical Empires That Followed, but that's far too long and confusing.

What I would like to discuss are those powers that arose out of the era of upheaval that attended the introduction of iron and allowed mass armies of foot soldiers to dominate the field of battle. These states gradually expanded their powers until they reached the point at which they had to become more concerned with uniting their lands and peoples and less on extending their power still further. When that happened, they became what we call The Classical Empires, and we will be discussing them in a later lecture. Just to keep things in order, let's simply review each region.


From about 800 B.C. to about 400, the Chou dynasty slowly lost power until it was finally carved up by the rulers of the petty states that surrounded it. These little kingdoms fell into a period of conflict known as The Era of the Warring States that lasted from about 400 to 220 and was ended only with the conquest of all of these states by rulers of the Ch'in dynasty (from which our word "China" comes). The Ch'in emperors then began to expand, particularly southward toward the Yang-tze River valley. It was during this period that Chinese philosophy flourished in the persons of such men as Confucius and Lao-tze.


From about 800 B.C. to about 550, the Aryans expanded, primarily eastward, but they were unable to retain any unity to their conquests. By about 550, their lands were divided into a number of small principalities, all of which were usually ready to war with the other. Meanwhile, invaders from the west occupied large sections of the Punjab. It was during this period that Hinduism took formal shape and that Buddhism arose and spread. This situation ended in about 320 B.C. with the great ruler Chandragupta, who managed to unite all of the Ganges River Valley and establish the Mauryan Empire, a state that would persist until about 180 B.C.


The peoples of the Iranian plateau were divided among themselves and subject to frequent attacks from outside powers such as Assyria until 550 B.C. It was during this period that Zarathustra introduced a reform of traditional Aryan belief called Zoroastrianism, a religious belief that is still practiced and has, over time, exerted a great influence on Christianity. In 500, the Medes and Persians, the two most powerful peoples of the plateau, were united under Cyrus the Great. The Persian empire expanded swiftly and soon controlled Mesopotamia, Egypt, and Asia Minor. In 490 B.C., however, they came in conflict with the peoples of Greece, before whom the Persian empire fell, at least temporarily by 323.


Civilization in Europe was concentrated in the region of the Aegean Sea and differed in several ways from the other centers of civilization on the Eurasian continent. The other civilizations occupied great river valleys and extended their power and population into the surrounded plains. Greek civilization was confined to a number of small islands and valleys, no one of which was capable of supporting a large population. Consequently, Greek civilization consisted of a number of independent city-states, a form of political organization that had been superceded in most of the civilized world a thousand years earlier. Such small tracts of land could not support much of an increase in population and, from about 800 B.C. to 600, the Greeks solved this problem by sending out settlers to found colonies elsewhere in the Mediterranean. This solution proved insufficient, and, from 650 to about 500, many if not most of the Greek city-states experienced internal conflict between the economic elite and the masses, each contending for the control of the limited land available.

With a limited population, it was difficult for any single city state to put a large number of fighting men onto the battlefield, so the Greeks concentrated on developing quality in place of quantity. This was accomplished partly by exalting the communal spirit of the citizens of the state, and partly by developing a slave economy that ensured that a large number of men would have leisure time. The Greeks developed a heavy armor and long-spear for a particularly well- equipped warrior called a hoplite. These hoplites were trained in close-order drill so that they could move in unison in a tightly-packed formation called a phalanx. As is usually the case, the citizens who served as hoplites eventually gained political power within the state. Although they did not include the entire free population, they formed a larger body than most ruling elites and were able to shape their states as they wished. As a result, the Greek city states in 500 B.C. displayed a bewildering variety of forms of organization and principles of governance.

In 490 B.C., however, Darius sent an expeditionary force to punish Athens for having assisted the Greek cities of Asia Minor that the Persians were in the process of conquering. The Persians were decisively defeated, and Darius's son, Xerxes, gathered a large army and invaded Greece in 480. The Greek city-states united against the Persian invaders and, in a series of desperate battles, defeated them and drove them off. In the course of this war, Athens and some other cities developed navies consisting of ships that were rowed. The commoners of these cities were recruited as rowers and they soon gained political power, creating a rule of the people that the Greeks called democracy.

The unity of the Greek states did not last, however, and the various states were soon divided into two opposing camps, those ruled by an aristocracy under the leadership of Sparta, and the democracies, who joined together behind Athens. The two sides clashed in The Peloponnesian War, which lasted from 432 B.C. to 404 and ended with the defeat of Athens and the exhaustion of all participants.

In 336, The Greek Peninsula was conquered by Alexander the Great, king of Macedon, who immediately began planning the invasion of the Persian Empire. By 323, he had accomplished just that and was working to unify his realms when he died. His conquests were divided up among his generals. Although the Greek language and culture was spread through these kingdoms and formed a common thread for all, unification proved impossible, and there was warfare between and within these states until the conquest of the entire region by Rome.



These assignments will give you an opportunity to survey the great ethical religions that arose in the wake of the break-up of the old Bronze-Age Empires. There is a great deal of browsing you might do if you have the time, but you should concentrate on the origins and early history of the religion and its basic beliefs.

For China, you might wish to begin with the review offered by Washing State University's page on Chinese philosophy, since Chinese religion and philosophy are not easily separated. India's contribution to the ethical religions of the world is two- fold, Buddhism and reformed Hinduism, for which you might wish to browse through Ancient India Moving east to Iran, you might visit the site providing an overview of the dualist religion of Zoroastrianism. Finally, it would be useful to revisit the site on the Hebrews


That is probably more than enough to keep you busy, but, if you have time, you might wish to browse through a bit of the classic work of Confucius, the Analects. And, of course, You really should make time to read at least a few passages from the classic work of Taoism, Lao-tze's puzzling yet compelling Tao Te Ching, "The Way and the Power." There are many other things to see on the web, but this is more than enough for today.

You know, teaching one-semester classes covering all of world history is pretty frustrating for instructors. We know so many nifty things that we would like to show you and tell you about, but there's no time...

This text was produced by Lynn H. Nelson, Department of History, University of Kansas.
8 February 1998
Lawrence KS