The Empires You Didn't Learn in School - OZY | A Modern Media Company

The Empires You Didn't Learn in School

The Empires You Didn't Learn in School

By Isabelle Lee


Because history holds some some important lessons for today.

By Isabelle Lee

Rome, Greece, perhaps a dash of Genghis Khan: We all get the basics on empires in school. But that was only the tip of the iceberg, and there is much to learn from how other empires rose and fell. Today’s Daily Dose explores these forgotten empires, including their female rulers and the surprising lessons we can take away. Then we imagine what the empires of the future could look like, a journey that takes you from your wallet to the stars.

failure to erase

The King of Kush. Piye, the King of Kush in modern-day Sudan, invaded a splintered Egypt to become the first pharaoh of the 25th dynasty around 745 B.C. Under this century-long dynasty, the headdress bearing both the crown of lower and upper Egypt was created, while a strong government and revitalization of state religion led to a period of stability and growth. Subsequent Egyptian rulers tried to strike the Kushite Kingdom from the history books; thankfully, they failed. The Kushites survived another thousand years in Meroë, a port city ideally positioned by the Nile, where irrigated farms flourished next to lucrative gold and iron mines. The region carries so much cultural oomph that one necropolis in Meroë contains more pyramids than all of Egypt.

Buddhism in India. One of the bloodiest conflicts in Indian history erupted when the Mauryan Empire clashed with the small state of Kalinga in 261 B.C. The death toll, estimated in the hundreds of thousands, was so horrific that the once-sadistic Indian emperor Ashoka the Great converted to Buddhism and vowed never to conquer through bloodshed again. In addition to carving Buddhism’s pillars into stone across his domain, Ashoka sent missionaries to spread the religion far and wide, making him largely responsible for Buddhism’s status as the fourth most popular religion in the world with more than half a billion followers. The rise of Hinduism centuries later threatened to erase Buddhism’s origins in India, but the legacy of Ashoka’s turn from war to peace lives on. Read more on OZY.

The Lion King. Sundiata Keita, whose legend some scholars say inspired the Disney film, founded the Mali Empire, which grew to become one of Africa’s wealthiest. It began when Keita led a revolt against a Sosso king in the 1200s, then grew rich by seizing trade routes across West Africa, including the prized cities of Djenné and Timbuktu, which had enormous cultural wealth on display in elaborate mosques and massive libraries. But it was their coin that made the most noise, with one legend holding that the empire’s generous ruler, Mansa Musa, handed out so much gold during a pit stop in Egypt that the metal’s value crashed for several years. Despite that colorful mythology, Disney still insists its animated film was based on William Shakespeare’s Hamlet. In response to which I quote Mansa Musa … err, I mean, Mufasa, when I say: “Remember who you are. ”

Hawaii. The years between James Cook’s “discovery” of Hawaii 1778 and it becoming the 50th U.S. state in 1959 were turbulent ones. In the early 19th century, King Kamehameha I instituted a monarchical government. White, property-owning non-natives later overpowered native Hawaiians to seize control from the monarchy and petition for American statehood. Native Hawaiians held out until the Spanish-American War, when the U.S. needed a military base in the Pacific. It only took a simple majority to vote to annex the former kingdom. Read more on OZY.

Queen Zenobia Addressing Her Soldiers

women at the helm

Zenobia. There are high school “rebels, ” and then there are badass women rebels like Zenobia, the third-century queen who achieved more than other kings did over entire lifetimes despite her brief reign. Known as the “warrior queen,” Zenobia ruled the Palmyrene Empire (in modern-day Syria), challenging the authority of the Romans by conquering the Levant and Egypt and even making a play for the East Roman Empire. Today she is lauded as a nationalist hero, even if her reign was cut short when she was defeated by Rome’s Emperor Aurelian.

Cleopatra. Contrary to most of her pop culture mentions, Cleopatra was much more than the sum of her infamous affairs. Her rule was one of the quietest in Egyptian history for its lack of rebellions in the countryside. She navigated complex politics, commanded a sprawling army and navy, and regulated Egypt’s failing economy into relative prosperity. Her journey from child goddess to teenage queen saw her at one point control virtually the entire eastern Mediterranean coast while overseeing the last great Egyptian kingdom before her death at age 39. Ever since, she has had “one of the busiest afterlives in history,” writes Stacy Schiff in Smithsonian Magazine, her name attached to everything from an asteroid and cigarette brand to a video game and strip club.

Yennenga. The 12th century king of Dagomba, in present-day Burkina Faso, had no male heir. So he taught his daughter Yennenga all he knew, grooming her into his fiercest warrior. Legend has it that while she enjoyed her status as the leader of her father’s army, she wanted to be married and have children. The princess defied the king and her stallion carried her to the hut of a farmer, and together they had a son named Ouédraogo, after her trusty horse. And while Yennenga is beloved as a cultural icon and warrior, it is her faithful steed whose name and likeness appear throughout her native land, including the capital city of Ouagadougou.

Enheduanna. The high priestess of the most important temple in the Akkadian Empire is credited with creating the writing format used in the Bible and even Homer’s hymns. Enheduanna wrote religious poetry praising the Akkadian gods — 1,700 years before Sappho arrived on the scene — and kept a detailed, poetry-styled journal about her personal frustrations and hopes. She is remembered as the “world’s first author” known by name. While her father, Sargon the Great, was technically in charge, Enheduanna used her position to create a legacy lasting far beyond both their lifetimes. Read more on OZY.

Mehmed Said Efendi and his Retinue, 1740s. Artist: Schroeder, Georg Engelhard (1684-1750)

what can we learn?

Disastrous Drought. Some historians argue the Akkadian Empire failed more than 4,000 years ago because of an unsustainable conquest strategy. However, I blame it on the curse — the “Curse of Akkad,” levied upon the grandson of the empire’s founder, who thought it would be a good idea to raid the temple of a weather god. A poem written a century after the empire’s collapse recounted his fateful error, saying it led to clouds that refused to rain and farms that produced no grain. But while historians scoffed, Yale archaeologist Harvey Weiss published a theory in the early 1990s that the empire had choked from drought and famine rather than military missteps. It’s a lesson climate change deniers should take to heart: Nothing spells political collapse quite like a weather crisis. Read more on OZY.

PR Pros. Roman emperors are remembered for many things, but public relations isn’t typically at the top of the list. Still, some emperors were particularly adept at crafting a narrative … that is, until Nero took the self-aggrandizing a tad too far. While many of his predecessors were immortalized as gods after they died, Nero wanted the worship to start early, flirting with divinity while still alive by building his palatial “Golden House,” featuring a 120-foot statue of himself, and playing gods and goddesses onstage. His dance for deification ultimately got him killed in a swift and bloody civil war. Proving that while his people would likely have granted him immortality in death, he probably should have left the godly PR campaign to others while he enjoyed eternal slumber. Read more on OZY.

To Each Their Own. Sultans at the launch of the Ottoman Empire, which lasted from 1299 to 1922, had a general live-and-let-live policy when it came to religion: Conquered people could practice their own faiths as long they accepted the political rule of their Muslim caliphate. The policy was in part inspired by the Roman Empire’s lack of interest in proselytization. And, as a result, the Ottomans made massive leaps in science, art and medicine, while creating one of the longest-lasting empires known to man. They educated women, trained civil engineers, built an observatory to seek the stars and led the earliest experimentations with steam power, among other advancements. Read more on OZY.

Blinded by the Silk. Marcus Licinius Crassus was one of Rome’s richest men in 53 B.C., but his wealth was no defense against a band of clever, creative Parthians in what is now Iran. The Parthian forces charged in the middle of the Battle of Carrhae, wearing animal skins, banging on drums and making bizarre noises. Suddenly they dropped their skins … revealing bright Chinese silks and distracting the Roman soldiers long enough to fire off a barrage of arrows that turned the battle in favor of the Parthians, who were outnumbered 4 to 1. Which proves that military leaders shouldn’t be afraid to include some theatrics in their playbook. Read more on OZY.


empires of the mind and wallet

Hiding in Plain Sight. Modern Middle Eastern regimes are taking a cue from the Roman Empire, using social media influencers and vloggers to wash over human rights abuses. From raves sponsored by the Saudi government to showcase a “cultural revolution” to controlling influencers by requiring them to purchase licenses, Arab leaders are mounting and directing public relations campaigns to enhance their public image. The formula has also been picked up by Syria, where travel vloggers extol the wonders of Damascus even as Bashar al-Assad retains power after killing his own citizens with sarin gas. Read more on OZY.

Big Media. Friend me on Facebook. Follow me on Instagram, TikTok and Snapchat. Like and subscribe to my YouTube. Empires have always been rooted in maintaining influence over the masses, and the key to building a successful media empire is going viral on every available platform. For singer Jason Derulo, a freshly crowned king of new media, TikTok offers him the chance to become the next Will Smith, as he recently said on The Carlos Watson Show. Watch Now.

Next Amazon. The tech giant’s empire, at least on the battlefield of grocery home delivery, is facing a new rival in Instacart. The popular app has the advantage of using local grocery chains’ existing inventories, rather than the extensive, yet still limited, products in Amazon’s warehouses. Plus, Instacart partnered last year with Walmart to offer same-day delivery. Jeff Bezos and his Amazonian empire may want to learn something from today’s Parthian equivalents and never underestimate an opponent, no matter how outnumbered they may seem.

The Empire Strikes Out. Elon Musk’s brainchild, SpaceX, had both a triumph and another setback this month. Its rocket, Starship, made a voyage into the atmosphere and then landed successfully, which is a pretty solid accomplishment. Only minutes after reaching the ground, it exploded, which is less than ideal. With Musk insisting that SpaceX’s first crewed Mars mission could launch as soon as 2024, his team will want to make sure their astronauts are able to safely put their best feet forward. We will find out soon enough if the Empire of Elon can go interplanetary.

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