World 500 BCE

Some of the greatest thinkers in all world history are living at this time. Their teachings will have a lasting impact on the history of humanity, right up to the present day.

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World history in 500 BCE - the classical world takes shape

Great thinkers

At this time, many of the classical civilizations of the ancient world enter their period of greatness: Greek, ChineseIndian and Israelite civilizations all experience a burst of creativity, each producing thinkers who will profoundly shape the future course of world history. The Buddha in India, Confucius in China, the Greek philosophers of the Ionian school, and the Jewish prophets of ancient Israel – all lay down modes of thought whose influence is still with us today.

Technology and culture

Over the past few centuries, Iron Age technology has been spreading far and wide in the Eastern Hemisphere. It has now reached South East Asia, and is rippling down into Africa. Wherever it arrives it replaces the Stone Age tools used by farmers for millennia. This allows agricultural productivity to rise, populations to expand, towns and cities to grow, and civilization to advance. It is one of the great turning points in global history.

At the same time, the use of alphabetic scripts has been becoming widespread. The Aramaean script is now used throughout the Middle East. Its employment is fostered by the rise of huge imperial states in the region, and the transfers of population that this has involved.

Beyond the Middle East, the closely-related Sanskrit script has evolved amongst the Aryans in India. To the west, Phoenician traders have carried the alphabet to the Greeks, Italians (including of course the Romans) and other peoples of the Mediterranean.

The Middle East

In the Middle East, the past few centuries have seen the rise and fall of a succession of great empires – the Assyrian, the Neo-Babylonian and the Median. Now the Persian empire rules, the largest empire so far.

Europe and Asia

The Celts are now coming to dominate France and other parts of western Europe, populating it with their hill forts and warlike chieftainships.

In the steppes of central Asia, the nomadic horsemen have become a major threat to the settled civilizations of Eurasia. In the East, these “barbarians” have already had an impact on Chinese history by helping break up the unified Zhou kingdom into numerous different states; and in the West, deep raids by the Cimmerians have caused much destruction.

North of the Black Sea, the Cimmerians have been replaced as the dominant people by the Scythians, whose tribes are fanning out over a huge area from eastern Europe to central Asia. In the Easter steppes it was the Quanrong – probably related to the later Xiongnu (Huns) – who seem to predominate.


In Africa, Iron Age farming has taken root amongst the Bantu peoples of the West African rainforest. They have started expanding outwards from their homelands.

Civilization is penetrating inner Africa from the north via the kingdom of Nubia, becoming more “African” as it travels.

The Americas

In the Western Hemisphere, several centers of the Olmec civilization of Mexico have experienced a mysterious development, with the ritual burial of great sculptures accompanying the destruction of their communities. Nevertheless, by now the Olmec culture’s influence has spread over a large area of central America.

Far to the south, the Chavin civilization, the first of a long series of urban cultures in the Andean region of South America, has appeared.

Next map: the world in 200 BCE

Dig Deeper

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

Early Civilizations

China at the time of Confucius

India at the time of the Buddha

 Classical Greece and Persia in 500 BCE

The Middle East: Age of Empire

World Trade





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