Not Built to Last: Top 5 Greatest Forgotten Empires

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When most people think of ancient empires, their thoughts go right to the Romans, history’s spotlight hogs. And while perhaps the Roman civilizations hundreds of years of known-world dominance deserve a good measure of respect, there were plural other massive, mighty empires that also merit slices of the ancient empire pie. Many of them are well-known, such as that of Persia or the Aztecs; others are today all but forgotten by any but historians and archeologists, even though in their own time they were near peerless in size, power and influence.

5 The Nubians

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The Ancient Nubians were civilizing northeastern Africa way before the Egyptians—like millennia before, that is. By 3800 B.C. there was a distinct Nubian Kingdom built up along the Upper Nile (remember: that actually means the part farther south!) but there may have been a Nubian society as far back as 5000 B.C. The Nubians had distinct language, farming techniques, beliefs, and so on, and were also feared and respected far and wide for their skill at archery. The Nubian Empire eventually merged with Ancient Egypt, but not before several back-and-forth bouts of conquest and domination between the two societies.

4 Tu?i Tongan Empire

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The Tu?i Tonga Empire (or just “Tongan Empire”) spanned some five hundred years, lasting from the mid-10th century all the way to around 1500 A.D. The Tongan Empire was centered on the present-day island of Tonga, hundreds of miles east of Australia in the middle of the South Pacific. As the “empire” was made up of many loosely federated island communities which shared a somewhat common oral tradition but had their own beliefs and practices, as well, it’s amazing that any continuity of influence existed for so long, but it did, starting in about 950 with the king-like figure u’i Tonga ‘Aho’eitu, who claimed divine ancestry.

3 Etruscan Empire

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And before Rome took over all of present-day Italy, not to mention most of the rest of Europe and north Africa and the near east, the Etruscans held court. Their civilization lasted from around 900 B.C. all the way until the last century before the Common Era, when Rome said “We’ll take that now, thanks.” The Etruscan Empire was defined by a distinct language, religious beliefs and artistic practices (like the good old Archaic Smile). They both battled and traded with the Greeks, they allied with Carthage, then got attacked by Gauls, and eventually Rome swallowed their civilization up whole.

2 Hunnic Empire

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Move over, Rome, for the Hunnic Empire! But you’ll only have to move for about a hundred years. That’s because the Huns did everything fast, even establishing an empire that spanned from modern Germany to Kazakhstan. The Hunnic Empire lasted from around 360 to 470 A.D., and it was never a well-defined area, largely because Huns spent most all of their time riding around on horses and killing people. Had they decided to settle down, one can only imagine how long their reign would have lasted, especially with the infamous king Attila in charge.

1 Olmec

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The Olmec civilization was, in its day, nearly as powerful and vast as the Aztec empire for which it indirectly laid the foundations. And the Olmec Empire rose to its zenith centuries before the Aztecs. In fact, their empire spanned the years from roughly 1500 BC to 400 BC, a great run by any standards. The Olmec peoples had a form of writing and counting, they had a calendar, they had established cities and temples, and even had recreational games.

Steven John is a published novelist and competitive pole vault champion. (The latter is not true.) His writing runs the gamut from speculative fiction to essays fueled by a mix of mirth and derision. He has never been to Lisbon but, statistically speaking, is probably taller than you.

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