Three Kick-Ass Empires You’ve Probably Never Heard Of
The Sasanian Persians
You might remember the Persians from that movie 300 (you know, despotic, giant army, tons of monsters). Those Persians, the Achaemenid Persians, were conquered by Alexander the Great in the late 4th century BCE.
But if there’s one thing Persians have a knack for besides decorating with blue carpets and gold curtain rods, it’s founding empires and kicking tremendous amounts of ass. In the 220s CE, over five hundred years after Alexander, the Persians came back with a bang under the brand-new Sasanian Dynasty.
They promptly set out to lay claim to the title of ‘Most Badass Empire Ever’. For one thing, they conquered a huge swath of territory, reaching from modern-day Iraq clear through Iran. Oh yeah, and they were an elite warrior society, and by ‘elite warrior’ I mean they had freakin’ knights.
Sasanian cataphract (knight).
The key reason the Sasanians are really impressive, though, is the fact that they fought the Roman Empire next door and, at their best, wiped the floor with the Romans. For example, the Sasanians’ second emperor, Shapur I, defeated Caesar Philip in 244 CE and forced him to pay tribute for peace.
Sixteen years later, Shapur I struck again, this time defeating and capturing Caesar Valerian in 260 CE. The captured Caesar Valerian spent the rest of his days as a mounting-block, and after his death his flayed skin was preserved as a trophy (you know, kind of like Silence of the Lambs).
I’m going to let author Tom Holland take this one:
[T]he dignity of the [Roman] imperial throne reached its nadir, when Shapur captured the latest emperor, Valerian, and used him from that moment on as his mounting block… Even death did not bring an end to the humbling of the wretched emperor: his skin, flayed from his body after his death and dyed a lurid red, was lovingly preserved in a temple as one of the supreme treasures of the House of Sasan
And then there was the fact that they worshiped fire. See, before Islam came along, the main religion in Iran was Zoroastrianism, which teaches that the good god Ahura-Mazda is at war with the evil god Ahriman, or Angra Mainyu. Besides having gods who sounded like heavy metal band names, the Zoroastrian priesthood also had fire-temples, making Zoroastrianism hands-down the most metal religion ever promoted by an empire.
Why You've Probably Never Heard of Them
I’ll say this for the Sasanians: they pretty much went out with a bang. In 602, the Sasanian Emperor Khusrau II Parvez used the assassination of the East Roman (Byzantine) Emperor Maurice as an excuse to flat-out invade. They took Syria and Jerusalem, Egypt, and even managed to menace Constantinople itself. After many years of warfare, however, Khusrau was defeated by the equally epic East Roman Emperor Heraclius in 628.
The war left both empires exhausted, and that turned out to be a very bad thing indeed, because just a few years later the Muslim Arabs showed up and scooped the entire Sasanian Empire, plus a huge chunk of the East Roman Empire.
Again, author Tom Holland says it best:
A bare three decades after the conclusion of the terrible war between Iranshahr [Persia] and the New Rome, the balance of power that for centuries had divided the Fertile Crescent into two rival spheres of influence was no more. In the East, Persian rule had collapsed utterly. All the glory of the House of Sasan had been trampled into the dust…
The Grand Duchy of Lithuania
Quick, where the hell’s Lithuania? Oh yeah, here we go, map. Doesn’t look like much, does it? A little Eastern European country sitting there on the Baltic. Well, believe it or not, but back in the day, it was one of the largest countries in Medieval Europe. Oh yeah, and it was also the last *pagan* European country, which is a pretty big deal when you consider that this is the late Middle Ages that we’re talking about here.
This is the ultimate underdog story, and somehow it still hasn’t been made into a feature film. Back in the early 13th century, the Roman Catholic Germans were all intent on crusading in the Baltic, so they could kill or convert the pagans and take their shit. The worst of them were the Teutonic Order, who ground up a whole mess of pagan Baltic tribes. And in the 1240s, the freakin’ Mongols attacked.
As author Peter Turchin puts it:
The situation changed dramatically with the arrival of the disciplined and rapacious knights of the Teutonic and Sword-Brother orders. During the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, the ‘proto-Lithuanians’ were squeezed from the western and northern directions simultaneously. They saw their Baltic brethren annihilated or subjugated by the German juggernaut. Beginning in the 1240s, they were also assaulted from the east by the Mongols of the Golden Horde.
Talk about ‘sh*t just got real’! But even though the other Baltic peoples were conquered, the Lithuanians hit back—hard. First, they got organized under Mindaugas in the mid-13th century, who turned them into a proper army, complete with mounted knights and infantry.
This Lithuanian William Wallace was murdered by his own brother-in-law in 1263, but the Lithuanians got back on their game under Gediminas in 1316. They kept fighting the Teutonic Order, but now they were able to start expanding, too.
They conquered a good chunk of Eastern Europe, effectively taking it from the Mongols, and their conquests reached all the way to the Black Sea. And despite the fact that they were conquering areas in modern-day Belarus and Ukraine that had been Eastern Orthodox Christian for centuries, the Lithuanians clung to their paganism until late in the Middle Ages.
Late in the fourteenth century, Lithuania and Poland realized they had a common enemy in the form of the Teutonic Order (sadly it would not be the last time Germany had designs on Poland), and so they decided to get hitched by having their royals tie the knot. The Lithuanian Grand Duke Jogaila married the Polish Queen Jadwiga in 1385, and as part of the deal Jogaila converted to Roman Catholicism.
Why You’ve Probably Never Heard of Them:
Ask yourself this: other than Napoleon and Hitler invading Russia, and the Cold War, how much do Westerners really know about Eastern Europe? I sure wasn’t taught this shit in high school. To the degree that you learned about Medieval Europe in school, you probably learned about Western Europe.
Wait, what? We’ve all heard of the Comanches, right? I think they were probably the bad guys in a John Wayne film or three. Well, it turns out they were a hell of a lot more interesting than any John Wayne film might have you believe, and by 'interesting' I mean 'oh boy, where to start on this one?'
Well, how about the fact that the Comanches kicked the ever-loving shit out of just about everybody? They raided the freakin’ Navajo and Apaches, undisputed badasses of the Old West, for captives to sell as slaves to Spanish New Mexico. They were so good at it that within about a decade from the 1710s-1720s, they actually managed to force the Apaches off the southern plains. Later, in the mid-18th century, they drove the Apaches out of most of modern-day Texas.
In the process of raiding the Jicarilla and Carlana Apaches for slaves to sell to the Spanish in New Mexico, the Comanches pursued their quarry out onto the southern plains, and then settled there. This was great for them, but really bad news for the thousands and thousands of Apaches who had to relocate. In fact, so many Apaches were displaced from the southern plains that they started causing trouble for the Spanish settlements and ranches south and west of the Rio Grande.
But it wasn't just Apaches the Comanches had it in for. In fact, they pretty much took the whole game of ‘Cowboys and Indians’ and turned it on its head: they raided the hell out of Spain’s empire in New Mexico, Texas, and northern Mexico like it was going out of style.
Early on, the Comanches really had it in for New Mexico: until the late 1700s, the Comanches raided it all the time, making off with livestock, especially horses, and captives. At the same time, they traded with *other* parts of New Mexico, especially Taos Pueblo, peddling their stolen horses and their bison robes for corn, metal tools, and firearms.
See, Comanches understood supply and demand, and they had absolutely no problem creating a little demand through raiding livestock. This let them turn right around and trade what they'd stolen to communities like Taos Pueblo, in other parts of New Mexico, so that those people could trade them back to their original owners!
I’m going to let author Pekka Hämäläinen explain:
…Comanches lashed New Mexico with more than a hundred attacks, turning the Rio Grande valley into one of the most violent places in early America. Mixing small hit-and-run guerrilla raids with massive destroy-and-plunder operations, they killed and captured hundreds of settlers, stole thousands of horses and mules, slaughtered countless sheep and cattle, and left dozens of villages burned and abandoned. When [the governor] Pedro Fermín de Mendinueta… retired in 1777, New Mexico was a broken colony.
Later, the Comanches made peace with the Spaniards, and used the newfound trade opportunities to pretty much take over New Mexico… and turn it into a thriving place. And this is a big part of why the Comanches are number one on this list: not only were they badasses who managed to beat the Spanish hollow and take their shit, but they were also very capable of taking over a Spanish colony, New Mexico, through trade and politics.
But that didn’t stop them from raiding the hell out of Texas and northern Mexico for horses and mules to trade to the Americans. In fact, not only did they mess with Texas, but they really messed Texas up, with consequences that proved to be a heck of a lot bigger than you might think.
Why You’ve Probably Never Heard of Them:
You can probably thank Manifest Destiny for this one. As far as the American settlers and soldiers were concerned, they were bringing civilization and progress, and Native peoples were just savages that were in the way. And then there’s also the whole part where the Comanches were going up against the Spaniards and the Mexicans long before John Wayne came along—so basically it wasn’t our ‘Wild West’.
Believe it or not, but a part of the Comanches’ legacy is still very relevant today: the part that has to do with the U.S.-Mexico border. Between the Comanches starving New Mexico with their raids, and then fattening it up through trade, New Mexicans started paying a hell of a lot more attention to the Comanches than they did to Spanish officials. And in Texas, Comanche raiding led to the Mexicans’ decision to let in American settlers… which led to the Alamo.
Yes, one of the most iconic events in American history was the indirect result of the successful imperialism of a Native American group. But hey, don't take my word for it, here's Hämäläinen again:
The decades of Comanche raiding in Texas and northern Mexico… had a lasting hemispheric legacy... Historians have customarily attributed Mexico’s capitulation to the overt material and military superiority of the United States, but they have missed a crucial element: the Native American expansion that paved the way for the Anglo-American one.
In other words, we in the U.S. can thank the Comanches for New Mexico and Texas.
Frucht, R. C. (Ed.). (2005). Eastern Europe: An introduction to the people, lands, and culture (Vol. 1). Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, Inc.
Hämäläinen, P. (2008). The Comanche empire. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
Holland, T. (2012). In the shadow of the sword: The birth of Islam and the rise of the global Arab empire. New York: Doubleday.
Kaegi, W. E. (2003). Heraclius: Emperor of Byzantium. New York: Cambridge University Press.
Kennedy, H. (2004). The Prophet and the Caliphates (2nd ed.). Edinburgh Gate: Pearson Education Ltd.
Kennedy, H. (2009). The great Arab conquests: How the spread of Islam changed the world we live in. Philadelphia, PA: Da Capo Press.
Plakans, A. (2011). A concise history of the Baltic states. New York: Cambridge University Press.
Turchin, P. (2007). War and peace and war: The rise and fall of empires. New York: Penguin Group.