One of the most enduringly popular forms of historical writing is the genre of universal history. The universal historian is not simply
trying to chronicle the lives and deeds of one person, group of people, or culture, but rather the chronological story of the entire human race. For
obvious reasons, this is a difficult and trying task. Who do you talk about? How significant is one person or group compared to another? What is worth
mentioning? Who gets to make that determination?
The idea of universal history has been around for millennia. Ancient historians like Herodotus tried -- as concisely and
accurately as they were able -- to trace the history of humanity back to its discernible beginnings. For some authors, this would include
religious conceptions of the beginnings of human existence, but for many, this was not a huge concern. For authors like Thucydides, religious messages
ought to be mentioned only insofar as they were directly related to secular events (e.g., what a given group believed about the afterlife or the peculiar
traditions of this or that tribe).
For almost the entirety of humanity's existence, historians have focused on prominent individuals and mighty states. In
stark contrast to the modern fashionable Marxist paradigm for studying history, historical inquiry has not traditionally dealt with underprivileged
workers or socioeconomic conditions or questions regarding who controlled the means of production in a given society. For all ancient and a large portion of
modern writers, history was about war, politics, great leaders of men, and other distinctly loftier concepts. While the lives and mores of urban
plebeians in Italy did not change too terribly much in the period between 150 BC and 235 AD, the world around them did, as Cassius Dio noted in the
early third century when he described Rome's Golden Age as having succumbed to rust.
For these ancient writers, one of the most important concepts in describing universal history is the study of universal empires. While
these authors did not use this term, the concept itself was well-known, especially as it spread from Greece to both the Near East and the West. The
defining characteristic of the universal empire is that it stands alone in preeminence among its international peers to the extent that it can be said to
rule the known world. Today, we don't really use this term, preferring instead words like "hegemon" or "superpower," although the German word Weltmacht (literally "world power") might be a more accurate contemporary expression. Another salient point is that when another
power rises to a level of strength sufficient to challenge the universal empire, the latter abrogates its title and inadvertently passes it on.
The reason for this classification is pretty easy to grasp, especially from the standpoint of someone trying to write a universal history:
it's impossible to tell a story that is both chronologically perfect and coherent about all peoples in all places. The universal empire model is attractive
because, by definition, there can only be one universal empire at a time. Previous empires cease to be important to the writer's narrative when they
fail to maintain their strength; what happened in Babylon in the 7th century BC is more important than what happened in Greece at the same time, but the
opposite is true in the 3rd century BC. The writer, therefore, can focus on one power at one time and on another later on without failing in his mission to
write a universal history since all of the "important" stuff is happening elsewhere anyway.
Whether you agree or disagree with this model, it's difficult to deny its appeal. As you might imagine, though, the question as to who is and
who is not a "universal" empire is one that did not even find broad agreement among the ancients, and less so today given the movement to avoid ignoring the
significance of states that have not traditionally been considered important in the Western academic tradition (for example, Kush or Korea or the
Totecs). For obvious reasons, membership in the universal empire club changed as the centuries went on.
One of the first proponents of the universal empire model was the Greek writer commonly considered "the father of history," Herodotus (484
-ca 424 BC). To Herodotus, the first universal empire was the Persia built by the Achaemenid ruler Cyrus the Great. As a Greek
living under Persian rule, it's fairly easy to understand why Herodotus felt this way. His near contemporary Ctesias (ca. 440-375 BC) was the first Western
commentator to come up with the idea of the succession of universal empires. It is said that the concept existed in the East before Ctesias' time, but there
is no documentary evidence to support this notion. His attempt at writing a universal history was contained in the almost entirely lost Persica, which
looked individually at the histories of Assyria, Media, and Persia as separate parts of one continuous political unit. The individual empires were
important only to the extent that they accounted for different periods of mastery of what was then considered "the world." Like Herodotus, Ctesias was a
Greek living under Persian rule, so the fact that his perception of the most important historical states is Asiatic in orientation is not particularly
The next significant example of the universal empire concept is found in the Torah, specifically in the Book of Daniel. The Book of
Daniel was likely written in the early second century BC by at least one Hellenistic Jew, although portions of the book are similar to an earlier
series of texts from Ugarit about a figure named Danel. The historicity of the Book of Daniel is questionable since it takes place in the 6th century BC
and makes references to nonexistent people like "Darius the Mede" and Nebuchadnezzar's "son" Belshazzar. Regardless, the relevant part of the narrative is
the second chapter of Daniel where the Jewish exile is called in to interpret the dreams of the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar. Specifically, the dream
concerns a crumbled statue comprised of four types of metal. Daniel interprets the dream to refer to four great kingdoms that would in their time come to be
destroyed by one another and eventually by God. A contemporary Jewish interpretation was that the four metals (gold, silver, bronze, iron) referred
to a sequence in the form of Babylon, Persia, Macedonia (specifically the Macedonian Empire that existed only while Alexander the Great lived), and the
Seleucid Empire. This seems to have been a commonly understood interpretation at the time, and it makes sense from an ancient Hebrew perspective since one
thing that all four of these universal empires have in common is that they ruled over Israel in that same sequence. Indeed, the author(s) of Daniel would
have presided over the time of the Maccabbean Revolt against Seleucid power in Israel and would have witnessed firsthand the collapse of the post-
Alexandrian states in the Mediterranean world. It seems likely that the divine justice hinted at in this chapter refers to the Seleucid retreat from Judea
that would have occurred around this same time.
The innovation and then fracturing of the Macedonian Empire was an important but not unique event in the development of the universal empire
theory. The Greek author Polybius (200-118 BC) comments on it, but seems not to have been filled with too much dread about it since he saw it as a natural
cycle. Polybius is interesting because he was a Greek aristocrat taken hostage and sent to Rome who decided to embrace Roman dominion. Following Herodotus,
he saw Achaemenid Persia as the first universal empire, followed by Sparta, and then Macedonia. Until the ultimate destruction of Carthage in the Third
Punic War, he was unsure as to which power would succeed Macedon, but came to believe that Rome was destined to expand and consolidate its control over the
Mediterranean world (as indeed it did). Despite espousing the virtues of Rome, he did not wince from criticizing others who portrayed Rome in too glorious a
light. Polybius was generally unbiased in his writings, choosing as he did to concentrate on subjects with which he had intimate familiarity and first-hand
knowledge: he accompanied his former pupil Scipio the Younger on his campaigns and wrote about them in a relatively even manner.
Polybius' biases are really only evident in his choice of Sparta as a universal empire and in his writings relating to the Scipios. Obviously, he would
not want to badmouth his student (who became his protector and patron in adulthood) and he therefore exerted much effort in defending him and his family. His
bias toward Sparta is really more of a bias against Athens and the status he grants Sparta as a universal empire is really due to the fact that at the end
of the Peloponnesian War, Sparta was the preeminent power and events in Persia made it clear that that great kingdom would fall in due time. Polybius
presciently has Scipio quoting a passage from the Iliad during his soldiers' celebration at the fall of Carthage, saying "a day will come when
sacred Troy shall perish." The clear implication is that Scipio viewed the victory as transient in the long run, as all of them essentially are. The
Greco-Roman historian Appian (ca 95-165 AD) agrees somewhat, having Scipio ponder the deaths of Assyria, Media, Persia, and Macedonia. While it seems
unlikely that the general would actually take time to ruminate on such things amid the chaos of a burning city and the rampaging of his men, the fact that
this sequence of empires appears again is significant because it demonstrates the endurance of this idea across time in that part of the world.
During the early Imperial period of Rome, the soldier and author Velleius Paterculus (19 BC-31 AD) wrote a short text called the History
of Rome that contains a quote from the otherwise unknown writer Aemilius Sura describing again the sequence of Assyria, Media, Persia, and Macedonia as
the universal empires with the conclusion that "following closely upon the overthrow of Carthage, the world power passed to the Roman people." A clear
intellectual trend, starting from the time of Scipio and carrying through to Marcus Aurelius, is that Roman and Greco-Roman observers believed the Roman
Empire came into being as a result of the fall of Carthage and that there was a very serious notion that Rome essentially filled the vacuum left by the fall
of the Macedonian (and specifically the Seleucid) Empires in the mid to late first century BC. There likewise seems not to be a belief that Roman power was
an entirely intentional occurrence, but rather a combination of historical factors and forces that coalesced in exactly the right time and place to favor
Rome. The clear implication starting with Polybius is that if it hadn't been for one or two events going the right way, Carthage would have succeeded
Macedonia as the next universal empire. This causes me to wonder if a Roman tourist ever told a native Greek "if it weren't for us, you'd be speaking
Phoenician right now," but I digress.
While Hellenistic thinkers such as Polybius and Appian might have been able to reconcile themselves to Roman rule, others were less than
enthusiastic and indeed sought to undermine Rome's claim to the status of universal empire. In early imperial Gaul, the Celto-Roman writer Pompeius Trogus
(so named because his grandfather had been granted Roman citizenship by Pompey the Great) agreed with the familiar Assyria-Media-
Persia-Macedonia sequence of world rule, and even allowed that Rome has arrogated to this status after its defeat of Carthage, but claimed that Roman power
was irreparably harmed by the defeat of Marcus Licinius Crassus at Carrhae and that the best Rome could hope for was a type of joint world rule with the
Parthian Empire. The Parthian Empire, of course, was essentially a reconstituted version of the Persian Empire that Alexander had conquered minus direct
access to the Mediterranean Sea. While Trogus would not live to see the Roman Empire at its greatest geographical extent (he likely died around 10 AD),
Persia remained Rome's greatest rival throughout their respective histories. Perhaps it is significant that the only help Persia received before its fall to
the new Islamic Empire in the seventh century AD was from a Roman garrison stationed along their mutual border. Then again, perhaps it is
While not the largest intellectual trend by any means, the most significant current in Jewish thought (in this context) from the time of the
fall of the Seleucid Empire up to the destruction of the Second Temple of Jerusalem in 70 AD was a feeling of apocalypticism. After the Roman conquest of
Judea in the middle of the first century BC, the second chapter of the Book of Daniel was reinterpreted somewhat: Macedonia and the Seleucids were condensed
into one kingdom and Rome became the fourth kingdom. The great conciliator Flavius Josephus (37-100 AD) made reference to this theory, but bizarrely
obscured the identification of Rome with the fourth universal empire so as not to offend his new masters. That he had to do this indicates that this reading
had widely replaced the previous one at the time he wrote his Antiquities of the Jews.
The early imperial period of Rome also took place simultaneously alongside the development and spread of early Christianity. This is not coincidental. Early
Christianity was the offspring of apocalyptic Judaism and Hellenistic spiritualism, two ideas that flourished under the solidification of Roman rule in the
Eastern Mediterranean region. Since the original Christians were almost entirely Hellenized Jews, it makes sense that their ideas would closely follow those
of their predecessors. Early Christians adopted the Assyria-Persia-Seleucia-Rome sequence of universal empires, but believed that the fifth kingdom would
either be the monarchy that led to the end times or that it would be the actual Kingdom of God. The Book of Revelations (written at the end of the first
century AD during the reign of the Emperor Domitian) obscures the point somewhat by focusing more on individual kings than empires, but the fourth century
theologian Jerome asserts that the Assyria-Persia-Seleucia-Rome sequence is the correct one, demonstrating the staying power of the idea. Most contemporary
Christians and Jews who are interested in the subject accept this reading of the second chapter of Daniel, although they differ as to whether or not the
fifth empire will be the kingdom of heaven or something else entirely. Interestingly, since there was no single state power in Western Europe strong enough
to utterly dominate the continent in the way that Rome had, an argument could be made that the Roman Catholic church represented the next
universal empire after the end of the fifth century AD.
One thing that startles me about the ancient discussions regarding universal empires and their correct sequence is that none of them as far
as I have been able to tell allow for Egypt to be considered among them. Far older than Assyria, Egypt was undoubtedly the universal empire from the 2000s
BC up until the advent of Assyria. It's particularly unusual given the reverence that Greeks and Romans had for the Egyptian empire and the significance that
it had on early Jewish history (or mythology, if you'd prefer). Perhaps it's because the universal empires we're talking about are generally centered
around (or control) the Fertile Crescent region and Egypt never quite expanded that far. It could also be due to the fact that ancient Egypt was relatively
culturally homogenous while the other candidates for universal empire (with the exception of Polybius' inclusion of Sparta) were anything but.
As stated earlier, the idea of universal empire still exists today in slightly more politically correct language. The Cold War could be
viewed essentially as an ideological battle between two would-be universal empires. There is only one recognized superpower today, namely the United States
of America, which would perhaps make it a candidate for the current universal empire. The US, unfortunately, does not seem to have its own Polybius ready to
proselytize on its behalf and much of the world is less inclined to accept continued US hegemony. Rome was an aberration among universal empires in that it
was not intimately tied to the East, and indeed, Trogus espoused the belief that the mantle of universal leadership would return there some day. Whether we
see this now is a matter for interpretation, but Scipio's reflection on the fall of Troy ought to give the complacent observer food for thought.