Alexander the Great is one of those rare figures in world history who genuinely deserves the accolades given by the “Great Man Theory” of history. From his base in Greece, he conquered most of Eurasia in just a few years, extending the reach of Hellenistic (Greek) culture and thought which already dominated the Mediterranean.
Yet his empire died with him in 323 BCE. An empire that large simply could not last at that time, at least without intense leadership and the sharp edge of a sword.
Fast forward a mere three hundred years, and Eurasia was dominated by four great, permanent empires which included as much as three quarters of the 300 million or so people on this planet. They were largely at peace with each other, too. What happened? What made this possible? More to the point, what can we learn from this incredible change in how people were organized and lived their everyday lives?
Any deep dive into history is going to be subject to the politics and perspective of the person looking into it. This bias can be minimized, but it can never be eliminated. We all simply see the world differently in 2019 than we might did just a few hundred years ago. Going back much further, beyond 2,000 years, is an exercise in revisionism no matter how hard we try.
Yet we can start with the simple question that even the most surface read of history pauses. There were no large empires before about 100 BCE, and then suddenly there were many. Not just large empires, but vast sprawling expanses of imperial rule which came almost from nowhere to dominate the way people lived and, in a more lasting sense, their identity as part of something larger.
Before this time there were no such structures. People lived in cities or areas dominated by local lords. In such a system, squabbles over territory are inevitable and war of some kind is continuous. Civilization and learning? Not as important as staying alive when the people from the next city-state over are coming to kill you.
All of that changed rapidly. By 0 AD there were four great empires stretching along the northern temperate zones of Eurasia. Rome and the Han Dynasty of China had the enviably safe ends, each with about one quarter of the planet’s population. In the middle were Parthia, the reconstituted Persia, and the Mogul Empire of India, which together comprised another quarter.
We can see from Alexander’s conquests that, at least to some, such an arrangement was desired. But what made it possible?
In the years between Alexander and Augustus of Rome there were a few key changes in technology that were evolutionary, not revolutionary. They were an improvement in literacy, or a general reverence for the written word, which seemed to advance in all of these Eurasian cultures roughly simultaneously. The other innovation were massive road building projects made possible by the creation of a strong central government and techniques for administration of such a thing, which also appears simultaneously.
This may not seem like much, but one thing is essential for empire: a runner arriving at the provincial capital with orders from the Emperor. Two things, really, once you add the potential for soldiers to come up the same road if the orders are not followed.
Such developments, occurring as they did as if in concert, are impressive enough. What makes this period of time so fascinating is not just that it was strongly centralized, however. Chinese call themselves “Han” to this day, recognizing the structure which made them not just a nation but a people. Latin is still the universal base language of Europe, following nearly 2,000 years of being the language of science and learning. The people of the world became who they are, more or less, as a reflection of these first great empires.
At the time, however, there was much more. The new infrastructure opened up travel, and the stability of these great empires brought peace. With both of these, trade became possible. The Silk Road opened up just after the Peace of Augustus between Rome and Parthia, bringing silks and spices from the east and iron and gold from the west. Everyone’s life became better immediately. In a more lasting sense, this trade brought philosophies and religions across the continents, opening up new ways of looking at the world.
That a new and popular religion, born in a mixing of many cultures at the crossroads of three continents, came to rise at this time seems inevitable.
What is the point of this exercise? This is where a modern person might read too much into history, but we do have to learn from our foundational past. This is, after all, the time when the world as we know it started to form. There are no significant biological differences between us and the people who made these empires, given only 80-100 generations between us. The only thing that separates us is everything that was written down, and shared, since that time.
In this example we can see how technology, particularly communications, changes every single aspect of life. This starts with identity but also includes what we eat every day and what medicines we have as well as what perspectives come to bear on how we see the world.
It was all made possible by a strong centralizing which built the infrastructure necessary for its own purposes. That centralization made de-centralization possible, opening up the world beyond the impressive new empires. Without the empires there would have been no roads, no peace, and no sense of the great value of civilized life. Without empire, there would be no place for large scale trade and advanced learning alike.
What can we learn from this history? The short answer is that like the yin and the yang, connection between people and objects and ideas is not just a function of one type of arrangement. Some kinds of centralization lead to natural decentralization, at least when applied in a certain way. Stability is essential to progress as most of us would define it – whether materially, intellectually, spiritually, or holistically.
Our world, as a unit, has changed significantly at several times in its past. One of them was 2,000 years ago when peace and prosperity was made possible by large empires. Another of these times is today, with instantaneous communications available to nearly everyone. In each case, there is a role for a strong, centralized authority to the extent that it creates infrastructure and peace.
We can learn a lot from history if we keep our eyes open. We also need to remember that we are making history right now. What can we learn from the past? What, indeed, can we learn from the present?