There is no instance of a nation benefitting from prolonged warfare.

—Sun Shi Huangdi

I am Cyrus, king of the world, great king, mighty king, king of Babylon, king of Sumer and Akkad, king of the four quarters...

—Cyrus the Great

The latter half of the 6th century B.C. is mainly concerned with the history and rise of the Achaemenid Persian Empire and the fall of its rivals, namely the Median, Neo-Babylonian, and Egyptian Empires. Other notable events that also take place include the smaller but still significant rise of the Lydian Empire and the transitions of Rome and Athens from monarchism and tyranny to republicanism and democracy, respectively. The first imperial dynasty of China, the Kǎi dynasty, also rises in this time period and is a crucial influence in eastern Asia for centuries.


In the Neo-Babylonian Empire, the death of Nebuchadnezzar II in 562 B.C. heralded the end of a golden age for Mesopotamia. While Babylon continued to be a shining sample of civilization for another few decades, it would eventfully suffer its own fall from grace to be replaced by a different imperial power.

Babylon hath been a golden cup-large

A depiction of Amel-Marduk in old age. Despite his military prowess he was often depicted as a man beset by corruption and vice.

Nebuchadnezzar II's son, Amel-Marduk, did what he thought was best for the Empire and its peoples. Perhaps realizing the complex ethno-religious situation in the Empire or perhaps acting out of spite or vengeance against his father as some records suggest, Amel-Marduk released the Jewish king Jehoiachin, held captive by Nebuchadnezzar II for thirty-seven years. This action created considerable dissent amongst the noble and priestly casts of society, but Amel-Marduk held firm. Drawing upon previous support from his father's legacy as well as the support of the military, Amel-Marduk survived and defeated a coup attempt by his brother-in-law Neriglissar in 560 B.C. It is believed that Neriglissar was executed shortly after, although the historical record does not reveal his fate.

Continuing his positive relations with the Jews, perhaps seeing them as a potential source of support against enemies both external and internal, Amel-Marduk ended the Jewish Exodus and allowed the Jews to return to Israel and Judah in 556 B.C. This was clearly the most unpopular edict of his reign, and several tablets testify to the discontent that the priests and nobles of the Empire felt towards both this act and Amel-Marduk himself. Despite this, it would appear that Amel-Marduk would manage to hold onto power as king, although he would turn out to be the last of the Neo-Babylonian Empire.


In Persia, the Median Empire had traditionally held sway over the region and its politics ever since its establishment in about 678 B.C. This was to change, however, when Cyrus the Great led an uprising against Media in an effort replace the old order with a new one. Open warfare broke out in 553 B.C. and Persian forces were able to quickly assert their independence and seize the majority of Media's eastern provinces. Astyages, the king of Media, faced off against Cyrus at Pasargadae in 550 B.C. Despite records of apparent discontent amongst the Median forces, the Medians and Persians clashed, ending with a resounding victory for Cyrus. Disgraced and fearing mutiny, Astyages was forced to call upon his allies the Babylonians in order to put an end to the Persian menace. Despite this, the Medians and Babylonians were defeated at Bisitun the following year.


A depiction of Cyrus the Great, founder of the Persian Empire and the Achaemenid Dynasty.

While often described as a terrible administrator, Amel-Marduk was still a competent warrior and tactician, defeating the Persians at the Battle of Opis in 545 B.C. This battle, while saving the Mesopotamian heartland, did not eliminate the present threat facing the allies, and to that end Amel-Marduk decided to take the fight to the enemy. In 543 B.C., Babylonian forces under Amel-Marduk and spare forces from Media marched on the Mesopotamian city of Susa, recently seized by the Persians. In the ensuing battle, the allied forces defeated the Persians and liberated the city and bringing the war to an effective end. The Median heartland, barely saved by actions in the south, was utterly devastated and Amel-Marduk, as arrogant as he is recorded to be, did not dare march into the mountainous Persian homeland. The situation of the Medians was worsened further by the actions the Lydian Empire, which used the war as an excuse to expand into eastern Anatolia, further weakening the Median Empire. Cyrus, knowing that he still had plenty of fight left in his forces, agreed to peace, waiting for what he viewed was the inevitable collapse of two weakened empires. A peace treaty was signed in 542 B.C., ending the Persian-Median War.

True to Cyrus' predictions, the Median and Neo-Babylonian Empires did not last long after the war. Amel-Marduk was assassinated in a conspiracy in 541 B.C. and what succeeded him was a squabbling mix of nobles and priests from the different Mesopotamian cities. With their benefactor gone, Judah breaks off from the Empire in 540 B.C., with Phoenicia following suit a year later. The region of Mesopotamia fractures into numerous smaller states all vying for dominance and power. Notable states that emerged were Nineveh, Ashur, Uruk, Susa, and the weakened but still influential Babylon.

Standard of Cyrus the Great (Achaemenid Empire)

The banner of the Achaemenid Dynasty.

Taking advantage of the chaos, Cyrus leapt back to war, invading Media in 539 B.C. and effectively annexing it the same year. For the next four years, Cyrus also conquers the disorganized Mesopotamian states, who fail to cease their infighting and offer any meaningful resistance. In 535 B.C., Persian forces under Cyrus battle Lydian forces under Croesus fought each other to a stalemate in Cilicia. It is believed that this battle persuaded the Persian Empire to expand south and east and the Lydian Empire to expand west and north.

Unable or unwilling to fight further with the Lydians, Cyrus turned towards the rest of the Levant for his Empire's next expansions. The city states of Phoenicia and the Arab tribes of Sinai crumbled under the power of the Persian armies, but the Jews resisted firmly. After several brutal and bloody battles, the Jews were subjugated in 527 B.C. by Cyrus' son Cambyses II, who succeeded his father on his deathbed in 530 B.C. Cambyses II went on to defeat the Egyptians, weak from internal dispute, and later the Nubians and Berbers, resulting in the Achaemenid Persian Empire stretching from Cyrene in Africa to the banks of the Indus in India, the largest empire the world had ever seen in terms of both size and population. Cyrus' legacy was not just this great empire, but also his influence in military strategy and the concept of human rights. Cyrus, while hated by some for his military campaigns, was seen by many as a just and fair ruler, even to those who resisted his armies.


For most of the 6th century B.C., the Lydian Empire under king Croesus was the dominant power in Anatolia, and this position would only grow as time went on. As the Medians were being thoroughly thrashed by the Persians in the 540s, Croesus took advantage of this and marched an army across the Halys River, the agreed boundary between the Lydian and Median states, and seized Cappadocia from the weakened Medians. Shortly after this, Croesus further continued his campaigns, taking Pisidia and much of Cilicia shortly after. A battle between Croesus and Cyrus in Cilicia essentially settled the border between the two empires, and Croesus essentially began the expansion of the empire west towards the lands of Europe.

The first of these lands to fall to the might of Croesus was Thrace, which was defeated and absorbed into the empire around 536 B.C. The Greco-Illyrian kingdom of Macedon was submitted as a vassal shortly afterwords. Upon completing these conquests, Croesus died and was succeeded by his eldest son, Sadyattes II, in 520 BC. At this point Lydia was one of the strongest states in the west, stretching from Cappadocia to Macedonia, the most powerful and largest Anatolian state since the Hittites. However, it was not to last. 


At this time Greece was still a land divided by a patchwork of numerous squabbling city-states scattered throughout mainland Greece, the Aegean Sea, the western coast of Anatolia, the Black Sea, and the Italian peninsula. While the collective influence of Greece and Greek culture was relatively widespread, the Greeks themselves were not nearly as powerful as some of the other consolidated states like Lydia and Egypt and had greater issues flexing their power abroad. Indeed, many of the city-states in Anatolia had fallen under the yoke of the Lydians over the past few decades. 

Internally, the Greek states often marched against each other and for the most part there was little cultural or social progression. Notable examples include the exemplary works of Euclid in mathematics and the transition of Athens, one of the more important city-states, from a tyrannical dictatorship to a functioning democracy for free, landowning, citizen males. 



The Senate after the transition of Rome from a monarchy to a republic. The Senate would rule for another five centuries.

Italy remained a largely stateless territory for this century, with notable exceptions of the powerful Carthaginians in Sardinia and western Sicily and the Greek states of Neapolis, Tarento, and Syracuse. In the growing city of Rome, a republican revolution removed the Etruscan Tarquinii dynasty from the throne and instituted the Roman Republic in its stead. Numerous reforms to its political and martial institutions allowed the new state to adapt and evolve over the course of its lifetime, enabling at first a form of aristocracy and later a limited form of citizenship republicanism. This republic would follow the footsteps that the monarchy before it established and continue to grow and expand throughout the Italian peninsula and and eventually the western world. 


Carthage remained the dominant naval power in the Western Mediterannean and maintained its considerable trading might. At this time, Carthage was in effect a constitutional monarchy, ruled by descendents of the legendary Queen Dido. Her descendant Malchus ruled since about 556 B.C. Malchus was unable to maintain his position on the throne in the face of political threats and soon lost it to the more capable Magonids, who married Malchus' daughter in order to derive additional legitimacy from Dido's lineage.  

In 540, Greek colonists on the island of Corsica threatened the political hegemonies of both Carthage and the Etruscan League, and the two powers resolved to handle the issue. At the Battle of Alalia in northern Corsica, the Greeks were completely defeated by the navies of the two allies. Even though the Etruscans established control over Corsica, the Carthaginians were successful in expanding their influence and maintaining their trade dominance. 


In this time period, the subcontinent of India was not yet unified yet it still experienced a remarkable period of cultural and scientific advancement. The leaders of two future religions, Buddhism and Jainism, were both born in the latter half of the century. Of the two Buddhism would ultimately grow and spread across not only the Indian subcontinent but throughout much of Asia, becoming one of the world's major religions. India also moved further along in literature and mathematics, as the grammar of the Sanskrit language was standardized and the concepts of the number zero and the binary number system begin to be implemented by Indian mathematicians. 


Chinese plain 5c. BC-en

The political divisions of the Zhou state towards the end of the Spring and Autumn period. While the Zhou technically had dominion, in practice each state was completely independent.

At this point in time China remained under the Zhou dynasty, ruled by the Ji family as kings. However, the power of the king, derived from the Mandate of Heaven, was effectively non-existent by this point and powerful warlords and nobles controlled large areas and were effectively independent from the Zhou, who only ruled over a small enclave. This time period, known as the Spring and Autumn Period, was about to give way to a new period as the various states battled for supremacy over China. 

By 506 B.C., the states of Wu and Jin made an alliance to diminish and ultimately vanquish the state of Chu, widely seen as the most powerful state of them all. That same year, King Helü of Wu, along with his younger brother Fugai and his generals Wu Zixu and Sun Wu, launched an invasion of Chu, swiftly leaving them broken after five battles and razing their capital of Ying to the ground. Shortly thereafter, Jin invaded from the north, hoping to sweep up whatever was left of the now devastated state. In response Chu begged the Duke of Qin for assistance, and the Duke, fearful of being surrounded by the Wu-Jin alliance, intervened and invaded Jin, but the battles resulted in a stalemate with little change, thus beginning the Zhànguó shídài, the Warring States period.

Sun Tzu

A statue of Sun Wu as a general, a position he held for most of his life.

Now the strongest state in China, Wu and its alliance with Jin roused concerns with the other states in the region. While Fugai and the Jin battled the Qin in the west, the states of Qi and Yan, hoping to take advantage of the dynastic power struggles that were slowly paralyzing the Jin state, invaded. Hoping to protect his ally, King Helü ordered Wu Zixu and Sun Wu to launch an offensive to conquer Yan and Qi. To do so the Wu troops needed to pass through the state of Lu, which had been neutral beforehand. Lu denied the generals permission to cross their territory, fearful of being targeted as a Wu ally and the implications of being surrounded by Wu on both sides. Deciding that it was their duty to fulfill their mission at any cost, the generals invaded Lu as well and quickly conquered the three states with Jin assistance by 504. 

At this point King Helü demanded that his generals begin integrating the land into the Wu state as provinces. Sun Wu, believing that such a practice during a time of continuous war was a poor decision, delayed implementing such policy and instead maintained control of the occupied territory through his officers. In addition, Sun Wu believed that it would be in the best interests of Wu if Jin was fully united, and as such Sun Wu led a Jin army in 403 throughout the state rooting out and destroying those in opposition to the legitimate ruling family. Helü interpreted this action as a power grab and declared Sun Wu a traitor and ordered Wu Zixu to kill him. It has also been suggested that Helü, seen as a "barbarian" by the other Chinese states, was suspicious of Sun Wu's popularity with the people of the states he had conquered, and thus wanted to eliminate a potential threat to his rule. 

Sun Tzu Emperor

Sun Wu as Sun Shi Huangdi, first Emperor of the Kǎi Dynasty and a united China.

In any case, Chu, sensing weakness, revolted in later that year. Unexpectedly, his younger brother Fugai turned against Helü and he was forced to fight against the Chu while his Sun Wu effectively conquered the north and defeated Wu Zixu, sparing his life but forcing him to return to Wu with nothing. Trusting their armies into his hands and effectively surrendering their independence, Jin forces were able to conquer the Qin and unify almost all of China. In 501, Sun Wu defeated King Helü at the Battle of Qufu and had him executed. The smaller states of Cai, Cheng, Song, Cao, Wei, and Zheng were conquered with little resistance and the Ji family was deposed as the Zhou Dynasty came to an end. Sun Wu declared himself Sun Shi Huangdi, Emperor of China, putting an end to the Warring States period and inaugurating the Kǎi dynasty. 

The rise of the Kǎi dynasty put an end to the cultural stagnation of the late Zhou and allowed many new ideas to flourish, in particular those of a prominent government minister and philosopher named Confucius. Sun Wu himself wrote a book about his experiences and strategies behind warfare, and the Art of War remains one of the most examined sources regarding military strategy. To this day Sun Wu is idolized within China and in the Western World he is best known as Sun Tzu, or Master Sun


Across the Atlantic, in lands still unknown to the old world, the Olmec civilization was the first to rise amongst the peoples of the Anahuac region. Developing a sophisticated culture and establishing many of the cultural legacies of the region, the Olmecs dominated their section of the valley even after the rise of other civilizations like the Mixtec, Zapotec, or Maya. However, volcanism and other environmental issues stunted their growth significantly and turned their once prosperous region into a backwater. Despite this setback, the Olmec remained a consolidated state, the first in the new world. 


Further south, another unique cradle of civilization was continuing to develop. The so named Chavin Culture continued to dominate much of the Peruvian coast and penetrated a bit into the interior valleys. The Culture, while not united, had considerable achievements of its own. Chavin cities showed a degree of central planning and a sophisticated political leadership apparently centered around theology with shamanism at its core. Compared to many nascent cradles of civilization, the peoples of Peru depended upon harvests of fish and other aquatic fauna to develop a sedentary lifestyle as opposed to the agriculture utilized elsewhere. This culture would continue to dominate the Peru region for another few centuries. 


Guardian World Map 500 BC


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