3.I: Introduction: Empires and World Religions

Religion mythology legend

History emerged continuously from the depths of legend and myth. The world religions were shaped by events on both sides of the water’s surface.

A.  From the Mists of Time

B.  Autocracy and Unregulated Competition

C.  Church and State

D.  Nomenclature

E.  Citations

A.  From the Mists of Time

The age of past millennia has a vivid hold on our imagination.  It is a world that is recognizably ours, yet exotic and romanticized.  This is the chapter of Roman conquerors, Jesus Christ and the Buddha, and knights in shining armor.  Supernatural tradition was so palpable that the world may as well have been a magic kingdom.

Of course, it was not.  Chapter 3 was part of the continuum of natural human history.  It was a period of major sociological transitions: after civilization but before industrialization, during the development of rational thought but before widespread education.  This is an especially interesting chapter, then, to chart out the history of reality and the history of ideas, and to examine how they deeply affected each other.

In classical education, many of our foundational ideas about the world came from the literature of the -1st millennium.  Yet that was a time when history was still lost in the mists of mythology.  Many texts were written accounts of undated oral traditions.  It was common for them to claim exaggeratedly ancient origins, even going back to the beginning of the world.  In a post-enlightenment age, we have a lot of unlearning to do.

B.  Autocracy and Unregulated Competition

In the real world, this was the period when cultures and values spread beyond their local homelands and exerted wider influence.  The strongest states grew into empires and competed on the global stage.  Though the age of empires has passed, it shaped the national and religious identities that we know today.

The earliest nations and states were discussed in Chapter Four. 1 Over the last few millennia, many more came into existence – far too many to enumerate.  Instead, the focus of this chapter will be on the very largest and most influential states, those that became major empires.  An empire is defined as a state that has grown beyond its own nation of origin. It crosses frontiers into the lands of “foreign” peoples and asserts land ownership, legislative power, tax collection, and / or military authority over them.  Empires dominated geopolitics with their size, strength, and cultural carrying capacity.

Empires were small and rare before -1000, when civilizations were still too few and far between to subsume one another.  As states grew and came into contact, they competed for further growth.  “Growth” literally meant acquisition of land, as the economy was primarily based on natural resources.  There was no body of international law at the time.  It was an unregulated competition, a contest of brute force.

Autocracy was another guiding principle.  Empires often behaved anthropomorphically, because at the head of each empire was the one man who effectively owned it. 1 Empires were the pinnacle of super-ambitious or -fortunate men becoming as wealthy as possible.  Once a single man was in control of a government’s military and treasury, his empire became the instrument of his personal incentives.  As with any form of wealth, an emperor’s concerns were primarily to protect his domain and secondarily to enlarge it.  These objectives required military activity at the fringes.  Expansionist war was justifiable when its benefits exceeded its costs from the emperor’s perspective 2 – and war was common, if not nearly constant.  When emperors were not at war over territory, warlords were throwing their armies against each other over succession to a throne.  Almost without exception, these motives were the impetus of war.

Since WWII, global society has rejected imperialism.  Empires were not entirely evil, though.  At their best, they provided stability, civilization, and multicultural cities.  Moreover, their place in history was essential.  Empires accelerated change and created a more unified planet.  They even helped reintegrate the global family tree.  Chances are that if you choose any living human at random, you and that person share a common ancestor within these last few thousand years. 3

C.  Church and State

Within the same time frame as the ancient empires, the religious map also changed dramatically.  Of course, this is no coincidence.  It is difficult to discuss the history of civilizations apart from the history of religions.  They were virtually inseparable.  Every small nation had its own religious traditions, and religion was a state function.  As empires grew, diverse beliefs collided and consolidated.  In this way, religions passed from one people to another, and some of them spread very rapidly.

There were numerous models for religious practice within an empire.  On the active extreme, many governments sought to spread their religion by force or persuasion.  This was especially the case with Christians and Moslems, 4 a major factor behind these religions’ growth to the world’s largest.  At other times, emperors permitted native religions to continue.  Tolerance could be a good way to minimize disruption and keep peace, an effective strategy for the Hellenistic Empire.  More passively, the invading force occasionally assimilated itself into its acquired territories.  Seljuk Turks, for example, adopted Islam after conquering Arab lands. 5 Religion even spread independently of politics.  Buddhism was carried to China by monks and missionaries.

Empires were extremely effective at homogenizing religious beliefs worldwide.  In the long run, a few religions actually outperformed the empires that had served as their vessels.  Today, just four large religions – Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism – account for ¾ of the global population. 6

D.  Nomenclature

1.  Times

2.  Places

1.  Times

This is the period that included “Year 1”.  It is common to use the dating system “BC” or “BCE” for years counting backward before 1 and “AD” or “CE” for years since 1.  It works just as well to use positive / negative year numbers, and that is the convention of this book.  As a historical consensus, there was no such thing as Year 0; -1 was immediately followed by 1.  The first century ended in the year 100, so most of its dates were before 100.  That pattern continues, eg the current 21st century consists of the years from 2001 to 2100.  The -21st century ran from -2100 to -2001.

2.  Places

Terminology using “east” and “west” is arbitrary and often inaccurate. For example, Europeans describe Islam as an “eastern” culture although it derived from Judaism, interacted constantly with Christendom, and extended west to Morocco and Spain. In Asia, there was no gap between a western and eastern world, but a continuum of civilizations. This chapter will use objective geographic terms such as “Mesopotamia” rather than relative terms such as “the Middle East”.

Continue to Section 3.II: The Ancient Mediterranean

E.  Citations


  1. Stephen Howe, Empire: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford University Press, 2002), 38.
  2. Surprisingly few books discuss monarchs’ motivations in a rational way.  Two that do are Leo J. Blanken, Rational Empires: Institutional Incentives and Imperial Expansion (University of Chicago Press, 2012), and Philip T. Hoffman, Why Did Europe Conquer the World? (Princeton University Press, 2015).
  3. Douglas L.T. Rohde, Steve Olson, and Joseph T. Chang, “Modelling the recent common ancestry of all humans”, Nature 431 (9/30/2004): 562, http://www.stat.yale.edu/~jtc5/papers/CommonAncestors/NatureCommonAncestors-Article.pdf (accessed 8/30/16 and saved).
  4. Howe, 14.
  5. John Haywood, Atlas of Past Times (Borders Press, 2003), 77.
  6. Pew Research Center, “The Global Religious Landscape” (12/18/2012), http://www.pewforum.org/2012/12/18/global-religious-landscape-exec/ (accessed 6/18/16)
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