From East to West: 8 Lesser Known Kingdoms and Empires That Ruled the World

From East to West: 8 Lesser Known Kingdoms and Empires That Ruled the World

Patrick Lynch - October 1, 2017

Discussions of kingdoms and empires typically involve the usual suspects such as the Romans, Ottomans, Greeks, Persians, Egyptians, and Mongols. In fact, we talk about these civilizations so often that it is easy to forget about the countless other kingdoms and empires that existed throughout history. Here are just 8 of the dozens of lesser-known kingdoms and empires.

1 – The Mauryan Empire (322 BC – 187 BC)

A great general named Chandragupta Maurya founded this relatively short-lived empire. Although it lasted for less than 140 years, it was the largest ever created in the Indian Subcontinent. At its peak, it spanned almost two million square miles during the reign of Ashoka (268 – 232 BC).

With the aid of a man named Chanakya, Chandragupta founded the empire at Takshashila. According to legend, Chanakya traveled to a kingdom called Magadha and was insulted by its king, Dhana Nanda. Chanakya swore revenge and vowed to destroy his new enemy. It is also alleged that Alexander the Great reached the Beas River at this time but refused to cross as he did not want to fight Magadha. He died soon after, and his empire became fragmented.

Chandragupta stepped into the vacuum and subjugated the western border states of India. He invaded Magadha and killed King Nanda. He proceeded to expand his kingdom over the next quarter of a century with a combination of trickery, combat, diplomacy, and alliances. He abdicated in 298 BC and allegedly became a Jain monk while his son, Bindusara, became the new ruler. Bindusara was an able leader and continued to expand the empire along the southern borders. When he died in 272 BC, his son Ashoka became the new leader.

From East to West: 8 Lesser Known Kingdoms and Empires That Ruled the World
The Maurya Empire. Historum

Ashoka inherited a large empire but went to war with a small kingdom named Kalinga which he eventually conquered after a long and bloody war. Thereafter, Ashoka focused on maintaining peace and patronized Buddhism. The empire reached its peak as Ashoka did not attack another kingdom during his reign. Once he died in 232 BC, he was succeeded by a number of weak rulers and the kingdom began to disintegrate.

Over the next half-century, Maurya holdings started to dwindle, and in 185 BC, King Brihadratha was assassinated by the leader of his personal guard, a general named Pushyamitra Shunga who went on to form the Shunga Dynasty which lasted a little over a century. The fall of the Mauryan Empire apparently led to the persecution of Buddhists and the revival of Hinduism; although historians such as Romila Thapar believe claims of religious persecution are greatly exaggerated.

From East to West: 8 Lesser Known Kingdoms and Empires That Ruled the World
A Chola Dynasty Building. Rustik Travel

2 – The Chola Dynasty (300 BC – 1279 AD)

The Chola Dynasty lasted for over 1,500 years and was one of the longest-ruling dynasties in Southern India’s history. Little is known about the early history of Chola Dynasty other than the fact it was probably formed sometime around 300 BC. There are a few mentions of the fledgling empire in Sangnam literature, and according to the Great Chronicle (Mahavamsa), a poem recounting the history of Sri Lanka, a Chola prince called Elara invaded Sri Lanka in 235 BC.

The so-called Interregnum period from 200 – 848 AD is filled with mystery, and more concrete evidence only becomes available upon the rise of a Chola leader named Vijayalaya who is credited with founding the Chola Imperial Dynasty in 848 AD. At some stage in the previous 600 years or so, Chola power was significantly reduced by rivals such as the Pandayas and Pallavas.

From the reign of Vijayalaya, the Cholas reached the zenith of their power and influence as he captured the city of Thanjavur which became the new dynasty’s capital. Rajaraja I (985 – 1014) and Rajendra I (1012 – 1044) are considered to be the two best Chola rulers. At this time, the empire stretched to Sri Lanka in the south, the Godavari-Krishna river basin in the north, the Maldives, Lakshadweep, most of Chera country, and up the Konkan coast in Bhatkal.

Rajaraja, in particular, was reputed to be a leader with remarkable energy as he created a tight administrative grid to keep his expanding empire in check. Rajendra continued the good work and created a new capital which he called Gangaikonda Cholapuram. The Chola’s level of expansion can be seen in the three diplomatic missions they sent to China during the eleventh century.

The period between 1150 and 1279 was marked by almost constant warfare with Pandya princes who wanted independence for their territories. During this time, the Cholas were attacked by other Indian kingdoms at a time when their military expertise was found wanting. The Cholas tried to focus on India’s east coast, but more attacks further weakened the kingdom; the Hoysalas proved to be a formidable foe. Ultimately, the Pandyas defeated both the Hoysalas and the Cholas. The last Chola ruler, Rajendra IV, died in 1279 and there is no further record of any Chola leaders.

From East to West: 8 Lesser Known Kingdoms and Empires That Ruled the World
An obelisk from Aksum. Encyclopedia Britannia

3 – The Kingdom of Aksum (100 – 900 AD)

In approximately the third century AD, a Persian philosopher referred to Aksum (also called Axum) as one of the world’s four great kingdoms along with Persia, Rome, and China. The Ethiopian Kingdom of Aksum was located in the Horn of Africa, and at its peak, it controlled Eritrea, modern-day Ethiopia, Western Yemen, Sudan, the south of Saudi Arabia, and parts of Somalia.

The city of Aksum was first populated in around 400 BC, and it had developed into a kingdom that dominated its region by around 150 BC. The continuing expansion of the Roman Empire helped Aksum to prosper. The city was in an ideal location on the Red Sea and was considered a crossroads to three continents: Arabia, Africa, and the Greco-Roman world.

The kingdom is first mentioned in Periplus of the Erythraean Sea in the first century AD and one of its rulers at this time was King Zoskales. Aksum reached its peak between the third and fifth centuries AD and its ‘golden age’ began in earnest during the reign of King Ezana who converted the kingdom to Christianity. Indeed, the coins minted during his reign were the first ever to feature the symbol of the cross and Ezana also believed in the importance of written documents. The Ezana Stone features details of the monarch’s conversion to Christianity and the subjugation of various peoples.

Aksum is also believed to have invaded the Kingdom of Meroe and caused its decline in the fourth century. Archaeologists have discovered some interesting things about Aksum; including the seemingly lavish burial practices amongst the wealthy. They would build giant monuments known as stelae which were carved with inscriptions. The largest stelae were up to 100 feet high.

The empire began to weaken in the sixth century. King Kaleb wasted a huge amount of men and resources in trying to depose a general named Abreha who took over Yemen in the 520s. Aksum suffered a double blow as it was probably badly affected by the Plague of Justinian soon after the war.

The rise of Islam in the seventh century proved to be the death knell for the Kingdom of Aksum. When the Islamic Empire took control of the Red Sea, it ensured that Aksum was isolated economically and it was only a matter of time before the kingdom collapsed. A series of climate changes also impacted Aksum, but historians are not entirely sure how and when the kingdom ceased to exist.

It is suggested that a Jewish Queen named Yodit defeated the empire in 960 and burned its literature and churches although modern historians are not sure she ever existed. At some point in the eleventh century, a new empire was formed in the region; it was known as the Agaw Zagwe Dynasty which lasted until 1270. Today, there are around 50,000 inhabitants in the city of Aksum which means it is Africa’s oldest continuously inhabited city.

From East to West: 8 Lesser Known Kingdoms and Empires That Ruled the World
King Daufer of the Lombards. The History Files

4 – Kingdom of the Lombards (568 – 814)

Also known as the Langobardi, the Lombards were a Germanic tribe that possibly originated in Scandinavia. They were mentioned by several Roman writers in the first century AD including Strabo and Tacitus. They migrated to the Danube region towards the end of the fifth century, and in the sixth century, they allied with the Byzantine Empire against the Ostrogoths.

By 526, they had moved to Pannonia and were ruled by King Wacho. They left Pannonia and invaded Italy in 568 under King Alboin who set up the Kingdom of the Lombards after defeating a small army left behind by the Byzantines under the leadership of Narses. Immediately before their invasion of Italy, the tribe thrived under the leadership of Wacho and Audoin in Pannonia and had a formidable army by the time they launched their Italian invasion.

The capital of the fledgling kingdom was Ticinum which is modern-day Pavia located in the region of Lombardy. Soon after capturing Ticinum in 572, Alboin was assassinated in a plot formed by his wife, Rosamund, and her lover, Helmichis, but the couple had to flee when they failed to get support. The new king, Cleph, was murdered within two years and there was no king for another decade. Maurice, the Byzantine Emperor, set up an Exarchate at Ravenna in a bid to reclaim Italy from the Lombards in 582.

The attempt came to nothing, and the Lombards expanded their territory in Italy during the seventh century. By around 640, they controlled the north of the country and most of the south. After the assassination of King Rodoald in around 653, the Lombard Kingdom split in two; with rulers at Pavia and Milan. The kingdom reunited in 712 under the reign of Liutprand who reigned until 744.

Liutprand was one of the greatest Lombard kings and expanded the kingdom to its greatest extent while also securing an alliance with the powerful Franks. Daufer was the last king of the Lombards and attacked Rome in 755. The Franks intervened when Daufer attacked papal territories in 774, and he was defeated by Charlemagne who proclaimed himself as King of the Lombards. Although the kingdom technically lasted until the death of Charlemagne in 814 (there were kings named Pepin and Bernard who ruled under the authority of Charlemagne), its rule in Italy ended in 774.

From East to West: 8 Lesser Known Kingdoms and Empires That Ruled the World
The Kingdom of Khazaria. Wikipedia

5 – The Kingdom of Khazaria (650 – 969)

The Khazars were a semi-nomadic Turkic people. The Kingdom of Kharazia was established at a time when the Muslims were on the rise and in the process of almost destroying the Byzantine Empire. For centuries, the kingdom operated as a buffer state between the Byzantines and the Umayyad and Abbasid Caliphates and some historians believe the Khazars did as much to slow the Arab advance into Europe as Charles Martel.

The origins of the Kingdom of Khazaria go back to the West Turkish Empire which was a confederation of Turkish tribes including the Khazars. At some point in the seventh century, this empire dissolved and the Khazars became the most powerful tribe in the region north of the Caucasus. Interestingly, the tribe supplied the Byzantine Emperor Heraclius with 40,000 troops in 627 to help defeat the Sassanids.

The Khazars fought a series of wars against the Arabs in the seventh and eighth centuries and won an important victory over the Arabs in a battle near the Khazar capital at the time, Balanjar. A second war began in the early eighth century and lasted until around 741. There was peace for a couple of decades as the Third Muslim War ultimately saw the Umayyads replaced by the Abbasids. Caliph al-Mansur tried to strengthen ties with the Khazars in 758 with a royal marriage, but when the Khazar woman died, hostilities broke out again.

While the Khazars were on better terms with the Arabs in the ninth century, a new threat arrived in the form of the Varangian Rus’ who reached Kiev and Constantinople by 860. The Khazars often shifted alliances between the Byzantines and the Rus’. By 880, they began losing control of the region of the Middle Dnieper from Kiev because the city was taken by Oleg of Novgorod who formed a new empire.

Khazar relations with the new Kievan Rus’ deteriorated throughout the tenth century, and at the same time, its alliance with the Byzantines also began to collapse. Finally, Sviatoslav I of the Rus’ destroyed the imperial power of the Khazars; first by taking Serkel in 965 and finally, by capturing the Khazar capital of Atil in 969.

From East to West: 8 Lesser Known Kingdoms and Empires That Ruled the World
Pecheneg Noble Horseman. Pinterest

6 – The Pecheneg Khanates (860 – 1091)

The Pechenegs were another group of semi-nomadic Turkic people who migrated from Central Asia. They were forced to leave the homeland after harassment by tribes including the Karluks, Kimaks and Oghuz Turks. Their migration possibly began towards the end of the eighth century although it may have been a few decades later. They invaded the homeland of the Hungarians and forced them to leave; by 860, they had settled along the Kuban and Donets Rivers.

Soon after they settled in Europe, the Pechenegs allied with Byzantium; the Byzantines used them to deal with tribes such as the Magyars and the Rus’. However, the Pechenegs were once against forced to leave; this time by the Uzes, but their old tormentors, the Oghuz, Kimaks, and Karluks also pestered them.

The Pechenegs decided to bully someone else, so they drove the Magyars west of the Dnieper River by the early 890s. Then they helped Tsar Simeon I of the Bulgarian Empire to fend off the Magyars; the Pechenegs were very successful in this endeavor as they forced their enemy to the Pannonian Plain where the Magyars eventually settled and founded the Hungarian state.

The Pechenegs spent most of the rest of their history in a succession of wars and alliances with the Kievan Rus’. Examples include the full-scale war declared by Igor of Kiev on the Pechenegs in 920 and the siege of Kiev in 968. They ambushed and killed Prince Sviatoslav I of Kiev four years later. The Russian Primary Chronicle alleges that the Pecheneg leader, Khan Kurya, used Sviatoslav’s skull as a chalice; it was seemingly common practice at the time.

The Pechenegs began to lose their influence and suffered defeats to Vladimir I of Kiev in the late tenth century and to Yaroslav I the Wise in 1036. Eventually, the Pechenegs simply made too many enemies. Throughout the eleventh century, they fought the Bulgarians, Kiev Rus’, Byzantines, Magyars, and Khazars.

Eventually, the Pechenegs ceased to be an independent kingdom after a crushing defeat at the Battle of Levounion in 1091. They lost most of their army of 80,000 men when up against a combined force of Byzantines and Cumans. While the Byzantine Emperor, Alexios I Komnenos, recruited the remaining Pechenegs, who settled in modern-day Macedonia, most of them were slain in an attack by the Cumans in 1094. Another heavy defeat to the Byzantines took place at the Battle of Beroia in 1122. Ultimately, the Pechenegs in the Balkans lost their national identity and were assimilated into other kingdoms.

From East to West: 8 Lesser Known Kingdoms and Empires That Ruled the World
Kievan Rus’ village.

7 – Kievan Rus’ (882 – 1240)

The Kievan Rus’ kingdom was comprised of a group of East Slavic states during the reign of the Rurik Dynasty. Inhabitants of Ukraine, Belarus, and Russia can all claim the Rus’ as their cultural ancestors with the latter two nations deriving their name from these warriors. According to The Russian Primary Chronicle, a Viking named Oleg of Novgorod founded the state in 879. Three years later, he conquered Kiev and Smolensk and created a state that lasted for over 350 years.

Oleg was, by all accounts, a very successful ruler. He united local Finnish and Slavic tribes, defeated the Khazars and entered into trade agreements with the Byzantines in 911. Igor was Oleg’s successor and is credited with founding the long-lasting Rurik Dynasty. However, he was not as good a leader as Oleg, and his trade agreement with Constantinople in 945 was inferior to the one secured by Oleg.

Vladimir I became the king in 980, and his reign is deemed to be a golden age in the history of the Kievan Rus’. He accepted the Orthodox Christian faith in 988 as part of a pact with Byzantine Emperor, Basil II. After Vladimir died in 1015, his son, Svyatopolk the Accursed, murdered three of his brothers and seized the throne. However, his failure to kill his fourth brother, Yaroslav, proved costly as Yaroslav defeated his brother in 1019. Upon his death in 1054, history repeated itself as his sons went to war and divided the kingdom once again.

The Kievan Rus’ suffered when Constantinople started to decline as the Byzantines were one of their main trading partners. Mstislav the Great was the last ruler to reign over a united kingdom. When he died in 1132, the Kievan Rus’ kingdom started to crumble rapidly. By the end of the twelfth century, it was divided into a dozen principalities and the Sack of Constantinople in 1204 all but destroyed their main trade route.

The Mongol invasion of Rus’ was the final nail in the state’s coffin. The Battle of the Kalka River in 1223 was the beginning of the invasion. While the Mongols retreated after victory, Batu Khan launched a full-scale invasion in 1237 and annihilated the city of Ryazan. Chernigov and Pereyaslav both fell in 1239 and finally, the Mongols stormed Kiev in 1240. The age of Tartar rule had begun.

From East to West: 8 Lesser Known Kingdoms and Empires That Ruled the World
The Split After The Sack of Constantinople in 1204. Wikipedia

8 – Empire of the Trebizond (1204 – 1461)

The so-called ‘empire’ of the Trebizond was one of the several kingdoms that formed in the aftermath of the Sack of Constantinople in 1204. It survived the longest of any Byzantine successor state. The empire was formed when Alexios Komnenos and his brother, David, captured the city of Trebizond when the Crusaders were busy focusing on Constantinople. The brothers also took the province of Chaldia with the aid of troops from their relative, Tamar of Georgia.

Alexios and David occupied Trebizond in April 1204, and Alexios was proclaimed emperor. According to Alexander A. Vasiliev in History of the Byzantine Empire, 324 – 1453, Alexios intended to create a buffer state to protect Georgia from the Seljuks rather than trying to reclaim Constantinople. The kingdom spent most of the thirteenth century in conflict with the Seljuk Sultanate of Rum and the Ottomans.

While it wasn’t much of an ‘empire,’ Trebizond was located close to the Black Sea and had much of the trade infrastructure used during the Byzantine Empire. Manuel, I became the leader in 1238 and was known as an excellent military commander. One of his best achievements was the capture of Sinope in 1254. When Baghdad was destroyed in 1258, Trebizond benefitted tremendously as it was used as a starting point for journeys into Asia. Marco Polo is one of the most famous visitors to the city.

By the end of the thirteenth century, Trebizond gave up its claim on Constantinople and forged links with the restored Byzantine Empire. The kingdom enjoyed a fantastic period of prosperity in the early fourteenth century and even occupied the city of Erzurum for a short while. The kingdom started to crumble after the death of Alexios II in 1330. A combination of internal stability with several people fighting to become ruler, sieges by the Turks, and the Black Death, almost brought Trebizond to its knees.

Alexios III became leader in 1349 and restored a semblance of order and once again, the kingdom enjoyed a prosperous period marked by increased trade and artistic accomplishment. The empire was under severe threat from the Ottomans in the fifteenth century, and while it was protected by the Mongols for a short period, it was soon under constant pressure. Sultan Murad II tried to take Trebizond in 1442, but rough seas prevented him from landing.

While the Ottomans failed to take the city in 1456, the writing was on the wall. David took over as leader of the Empire of the Trebizond in 1459 and appealed for help in Europe. Sultan Mehmed II captured Sinope in 1461 and turned his attention to Trebizond itself. He isolated the city and besieged it for a month. Finally, the city surrendered on August 15, 1461. Its fall marked the end of the last remnant of the Byzantine Empire.