World 500 CE

A key step in the intellectual history of the world has been taken - in two very different locations. One is in the Eastern Hemisphere and the other is in the Western.

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World history in 500 CE - the end of the ancient world

This period in world history is seeing the “Ancient World” giving way to the “Medieval World”. Apart from being a convenient demarcation to help us moderns make sense of the past, does this actually mean anything? Perhaps it does, in the Eastern Hemisphere at least. The Medieval epoch (roughly 500 to 1500) is a time of building on the achievements of the Ancient World, but also of moving societies in new directions, preparing the way for the modern world.

From Ancient to Medieval

The “universal” empires which marked the latter phases of the Ancient World (Roman, Parthian/Persian, Mauryan/Gupta, Han) consolidated the achievements of the previous centuries, and spread them beyond their original core areas. Now we enter a period where the connections between different regions and civilizations expand and deepen, as do conflicts. In each of the major civilizations, religion or ideology plays a more dominant role than in the past: Europe becomes “Christendom”, and goes to war against “the world of Islam”, now ruling the Middle East and North Africa. In India, a three-way contest between Buddhism, Hinduism and Islam plays out; and in China and East Asia, Buddhism and Confucianism interact with each other. In South-East Asia, Hinduism, Buddhism and then Islam mould the new societies developing there.

All this arises from – and contributes to – old boundaries becoming more fluid, and links between regions becoming more intense. Despite setbacks, this stimulates continuing technological and economic progress, and prepares the ground for the coming of the modern world.

South Asia

Indian history has witnessed the rise of the greatest empire since the Mauryan empire, in the 4th and 3rd centuries BCE. This is the Gupta empire, and this period is widely seen as one of the high points of Classical Indian civilization. By this date, however, the Gupta state is in decline.


Another great state in decline is the Roman empire. The city of Rome itself has been sacked on more than one occasion, and all the empire’s western provinces have been lost to it. Here, the level of civilization has fallen drastically. In the eastern half of the empire, however, the Graeco-Roman way of life is still intact. Cut off from its Latin roots, the empire, now ruled from Constantinople, is becoming more Greek in language and culture: it is in fact becoming what modern scholars call the “Byzantine empire”.

Both within the Roman empire and the barbarian kingdoms of the old western provinces, Christianity has become the official religion. From now on, European civilization will become synonymous with “Christendom”.

East Asia

In East Asia, China is weak and divided, its northern parts ruled by emperors of barbarian origin.

The weakness of China has not prevented her from exporting her civilization wholesale to neighboring peoples. States modeled along Chinese lines are being built in Korea and Japan, and their inhabitants are importing Chinese culture and religion in large doses. This includes Buddhism, which is now spreading throughout East Asia and South East Asia. Here, Chinese cultural elements vie with Indian influences to produce a unique synthesis.

The Asian steppes

The Sarmatians continued to dominate the western steppes and eastern Europe until the coming, first of the Goths, a German tribe from the Baltic region (3rd century), and then the Huns (4th and 5th centuries). The Huns brought a huge swathe of territory under their control, from the grasslands north of the Black Sea west into eastern Europe.

Under their king, Attila, the Huns struck terror into the Roman empire, but after Attila’s death in 453, their power swiftly disintegrated.

The Huns had brought with them many confederate tribes from the steppes of eastern Asia, and these had established themselves as the ruling warrior elite within the Hun-dominated territory. The Indo-European chieftains of the steppe had had their day. These new Turkic groups probably included the ancestors of the Avars, Bulgars and other peoples destined to play a large part in East European history.

The fall of the Huns precipitated a free-for-all amongst these peoples.

On the eastern steppes, meanwhile, the collapse of the Han empire of China allowed various steppe tribes to occupy large areas of northern China. Hundreds of thousands of nomads flooded into China, causing a power-vacuum on the steppes themselves. This has been filled by the Rouran confederacy, which briefly covers a vast area of central Asia.

The Middle East

In the Middle East, the Parthian empire has been replaced by the more effective Sassanid empire. Under the Sassanids, classical Persian civilization is brought to a peak.

Africa sees the emergence of the Christian kingdom of Ethiopia. Far to the south, the Bantu have reached the limit of their migration – which happens to be the southern limit of the tropical crops they rely on.

In the Pacific, the Polynesians have settled the islands of Hawaii and Easter Island.

The Americas

The Mayan civilization of central America is now at its height.

In North America, the Hopewell farming culture of the eastern forests has vanished; in South America the Moche civilization continues to flourish.


This period of world history sees one of the most important advances in human know-how. This is the development of the decimal number system, which uses the concept of zero. Without this breakthrough it is hard to see how modern mathematics and science could have evolved. Although this conceptual advance is the basis for what are known as “Arabic” numbers, in fact it originated in India. However, this is not the only place in the world that such a discovery has been made. Quite separately, and thousands of miles away, the Maya use the concept of zero in their calendars.

Next map: the world in 750 CE

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World history

The Steppe peoples of Central Asia

For details of the different civilizations, click on the relevant timeline above. 

More ‘Dig Deeper’ links may be found in the regional maps. To access, click on the markers in the world map.

Premium Units

The rise of the Gupta empire

The decline of the Roman empire

China divided



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