Development of the Aztec, Akkadian and Hittite Empires

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Chris Scarre (2013, p.198) suggests that the development of empires was driven by the desire for security, or for economic gain or by the mere personal ambition of rulers and elites. To what extent do you agree with this statement? Answer using evidence from, and making reference to, at least three of the following empires: the Aztec, the Roman, the Chinese, the Akkadian and the Hittite.

The aim of this paper is to determine as to whether I agree or disagree with the above statement. In order to determine the extent of agreement/disagreement, a range of driven forces will be explored surrounding the empires of the Aztecs, the Akkadians and the Hittites.

To begin with, the word empire will be defined to give a definitive understanding and how it fits into the three aforementioned empires. Empire is defined as:

'a group of nations or peoples ruled over by an emperor, empress, or other powerful sovereign or government: usually a territory of greater extent than a kingdom, as the former British Empire, French Empire, Russian Empire, Byzantine Empire, or Roman'. (Oxford Companion to Archaeology, 2012)

Evidence of suggested forces behind the establishment of empires and their possible demise will be used to support any agreement/disagreement. The first empire to be covered is the Aztecs, which existed during the late Post-Classic period, and located in the densely populated basin of Mexico. The Aztecs came to control large areas of Mesoamerica north of the Gulf of Tehuantepec and were the last of the Chichimec tribe to leave their home at Aztlan by drought or over‐population which my have been the driving force to the establishment of the empire. The desire for wealth seem to have progressed when the Aztecs served as mercenaries through which a series of alliances and rebellions formed, resulting in growth of wealth and cities. To further substantiate the rising of an empire, the Aztecs took control of an area of 200 000 square kilometres with a populace of approximately 10 million. This demonstrates the push for growth in establishing a powerful empire. Having explored the development involving the growth of the Aztec empire. The social complexity as well as the availability of historical evidence of material remains are found amongst the ruins telling the story as it unfolded at the time. To substantiate archaeological evidence I shall focus on the capital, Tenochtitlan (C. AD 1325), which grew to be the largest and most complex city in the new world. Archaeological evidence suggests that much of Tenochtitlan was destroyed in 1521 or later demolished by the colonial Spaniards. It was not until the end of the 14th century that several dozen warring city states existed, one in particular which demonstrates the desire for wealth is that of Mexica-Tenocha receiving a share of tribute from combined military victories. Further evidence of the desire for power and ambition by the rulers during the year 1519 whereby the mature Aztec empire dominated some 400 previously independent polities through intimidation, alliance, and outright conquest. Such processes of military, wealth, alliance and land size is for me a prerequisite to the formation of an empire.

The Aztec empire at the time showed no signs of weakness, was highly organised, hierarchical and warlike. With the rise of an empire came its fall from grace as the empire proved fragile and did not survive the arrival of aggressive European incomers who effectively disrupted the top level of the social hierarchy and so broke the coercive forces that held the empire together. 'The Aztec Empire came to an abrupt end on 13 August 1521, when Hernan Cortés and his Spanish conquistadors took the Aztec capital and its emperor Montechzuma (Montezuma) II' (The Aztec Empire:Guggenheim Museum, 2012).Having explored factors affecting a range of driving forces, I am certain that Scarre has provided a degree of simplification and has not omitted any factors that do not support the development of empires.

Not limited to the Aztecs, the rise of empires occurred on a global basis which brings us on to the second of the empires to be discussed which is the Akkadians. The Akkadians were initiated by the ruler Sargon, who was driven by ruthless ambition through the conquest of the city of Sumer, developing into an expansion into the world beyond. It can also be argued that the Akkadians were also driven by economic gain through the connections with the lands of Dilmun, Magan, and Meluhha. Within this desire for economic gain it can be a plausible and a simplified process of economic growth and security for the people. Although the empire was established, the capital, Akkad, has not been located archaeologically. The statement made by Scarre relies on driving forces and taking into account the Akkadian empire, the interpretations made through archaeological studies seem to fulfil the processes required in the development of an empire. Sargon and his successors also conquered the great city-state of Elba, to obtain goods and raw materials. The key site of Troy where a great deal of activity was seen from seven successive cities, Troy I to Troy VII clearly demonstrates to rise and fall of an empire through natural to warfare. The wealth of Troy was evident when a massive hoard of nearly 9000 objects that have become known as the Treasure of Priam implying power and wealth but fell just as the Akkadian empire did.

'Archaeological evidence has shown that the Akkadian civilization collapsed abruptly near 4170 ± 150 calendar yr B.P., perhaps relating to a shift to more arid conditions' (Cullen, 2000). Although records detailing this are rare, the changes in regional aridity are preserved in adjacent ocean basins. There is also evidence of volcanic ash shards which may have held a direct but temporal link between Mesopotamian aridification and social collapse. With this sudden shift to a more arid condition within the region,this may have also been a contributing factor to the fall of the Akkadian Empire. Not only did the empire collapse from environmental factors but also by invading forces from the east. Although I tend to agree with the processes of empires rising and the driving force behind them, it is more difficult to confidently support factors attributing to their downfall. The Akkadian empire is known to have risen through conquest and economic gain but with two varying factors of natural and man-made forces, we cannot assume that warfare or environmental factors played a singular part in the collapse of that empire. I am not convinced that warfare brought down the Akkadian empire and am not convinced that environmental factors played a sole part in their demise. A key site which also reinforces the desire for wealth and power.

Little is known about the next empire, the Hittites who were lost to history. What we do know are found on clay tablets (Explore/World Cultures: Hittities British Museum, 2013). It was during the periods from about 1650/1600 to 1200 BC that the kings of Hattusha ruled an empire that reached across the broad lands of Anatolia, extending at times even into the north of Syria. 'They conquered Babylon, and Troy was apparently one of their vasals. Besides Egypt and Assyria/Babylonia, the Hittites were the third superpower of the Ancient Near East' (The Excavations at Hattusha, 2011)

The Hittites as with any other empire established the capital Hattusa which comprised sources of both written and archaeological evidence, however, research into this region is still ongoing. As little is known, one thing however does come into light which surrounds the ambition of the king. It was Hattusili I who at the time became the first king to launch a campaign in Northern Syria. Such a campaign implies that the king knew of the importance surrounding the desire to have access to the sea and for the take-over of trade routes. It was through this campaign that the king was driven purely by economic gain through trade and power. Due to little other evidence, there is little to point to any concrete data on the levels of social complexity either through archaeological findings. From what evidence we have, there is no indication of any complexity of growth giving the impression of simplicity in the establishment of the empire.

Although the collapse of the Hittites is not very clear, evidence does show destruction and abandonment which occurred around 1200-1185 BC at the end of the bronze age. One other indication points to about 1200 BC when the empire was overwhelmed by invaders, the identity of whom is uncertain but who were probably part of the general movements of people in the period of unrest in the Mediterranean at the time.

To conclude, I can see no discrepancy in Scarres argument and fully support and agree that empires were and are still driven by power, economic gain, security and personal ambition. If we take into account the processes involved, I do not think that there are any complexity. Social and technical ability does however determine the progress of a civilization but as with any other empire, the leadership determines its stability and longevity. The greater the leader, the greater the empire. Archaeological evidence exists regarding empires through the Roman and Greek ruins highlighting the desire for wealth and the push for power through warfare. I can categorically say that I agree with the statement in that empires do rise and fall as evidenced with the Roman empire, the British empire in India and the three listed above and that all are driven by one way or another even to this day.

(1588 words)


Asher, N. (2012) The Oxford Companion to Archaeology (2nd Ed) Available at: Accessed: 31 January 2014

Cullen H.M. et al (2000) A scholarly article on the collapse of the Akkadian empire from Geology, April 2000, volume 28, no. 4; pp.379–382. Available at: (Accessed: 1 January 2014)

Scarre, J. (Ed.) (2013) The Human Past: World Prehistory and the Development of Human Societies 3rd Edition London: Thames and Hudson, pp. 454, 455, 456, 457

Scarre, J. (Ed.) (2013) The Human Past: World Prehistory and the Development of Human Societies 3rd Edition London: Thames and Hudson, p. 198

The Guggenheim Museum, Exhibitions-The Aztec Empire-Overview Available at: (Accessed 1 January 2014)

The British Museum, Explore/World Cultures (2013) [Hittites] Available at: (Accessed 28 December 2013)

The Excavations at Hattusha - A project of the German ArchaeoIogical Institute (2011) Available at: (Accessed 31 January 2014)