3. Empires

600 BC – AD 200

Two thousand five hundred years ago, an age of empires began across Asia. With the conquest of large territories came the responsibility to rule diverse peoples, to administer their lands and extract tributes and taxes. Ruling subjects who were born of different cultures and traditions, and who held different faiths and spoke different languages, required the assertion of authority. Rulers won and consolidated their supremacy through a variety of means, including military force, religious validation and self-publicity. These included erecting images of the emperor, or sharing their words as inscriptions on stone – such as Ashoka’s edicts.

The Achaemenid Persian Empire (550–330 BC) was, at its time, the largest ever to have existed. Other empires arose later including the Romans and Qin China, whose first emperor made the famous terracotta warriors to protect his tomb. The Mauryan Empire (326–180 BC) was the largest ancient empire in South Asia and showed remarkable openness in its acceptance of different religions, which helped maintain the stability of the state.

Objects in conversation: Power and Exchange

An image of a Persian guard and the top of an Indian stone pillar. Each made with great skill to impress and emphasise the might of those who commissioned them. Both fragments come from the cities from which two great empires were ruled: one from Persepolis in Iran, the other from Pataliputra near Patna. It is from ruins and fragments like these that we are provided with an insight into how power was made manifest through architecture and imagery. They also provide an insight into the connections between empires – the pillars of Mauryan palaces and temples harnessed Achaemenid Persian and Hellenistic Greek sources to communicate the message of a cosmopolitan empire.

Persian Achaemenid relief

599–400 BC
Persepolis, Iran
British Museum

Founded by Cyrus the Great (reigned 559–530 BC), the Persian Achaemenid Empire stretched from Turkey to Pakistan. It lasted for over two centuries until it was conquered by Alexander the Great in 330 BC. This relief comes from Persepolis, one of the capitals of the empire, and was originally part of the decorative façade of the apadana or great hall. It shows a soldier holding a spear, wearing a long robe and a pleated headdress.


Mauryan pillar capital

Unpolished sandstone
About 320–270 BC
Pataliputra, Patna, India  
Patna Museum

The Mauryans had strong connections with both the Persian Achaemenids and the Greek successors of Alexander, called the Seleucids. This Mauryan pillar was probably one of a pair, which may have been placed at the entrance to an ambassadorial residence at Pataliputra, frequented by visiting dignitaries. The rosettes on the pillar are commonly seen in Persian Achaemenid art, while the palmette and egg and dart designs are characteristically Hellenistic Greek motifs.

Image of the Emperor

Officially-commissioned portraits were a powerful propaganda tool and allowed a ruler to assert his presence in the remotest corners of the empire.

Alexander the Great_1612945817 HIGH RES TIFF.jpg

Head in the style of Alexander

AD 100–200
Roman (probably a copy of Greek work of about 330–300 BC)
British Museum


Alexander the Great (reigned 336–323 BC) ruled from Egypt to the Indus. He was adept at using his own image as a tool of political propaganda. He commissioned heroic portraits designed to project his character and virtues. This vision of the ruler-hero was copied by later rulers, including several Roman emperors. Their characteristics may be recognised in this idealised head with its lion’s mane-like hair, clean-shaven face, full lips and tilted neck.

Kushan King

Spotted red sandstone
About AD 150
Mathura, Uttar Pradesh, India
National Museum, New Delhi

This sculpture of a man wearing an Indo-Scythian helmet is likely to be that of a Kushan king, and would originally have come from a large statue. Many of these royal portraits were found at the village of Mat, near Mathura. Mat once had an impressive shrine called a devakula, with portrait statues of the Kushan kings. The Kushans (about AD 30–375) were descended from the Yueh Chih, a nomadic community that spread their influence from Central Asia.


Head of Roman Emperor Hadrian

AD 117–138
London, United Kingdom
British Museum

At its largest extent, the Roman Empire encompassed much of Europe and North Africa, and most of the Middle East. Portrait statues of the emperors were set up in every province as a permanent mark of imperial authority, evoking the emperor’s presence and reflecting his ideals and personality. This head of Hadrian was found in Britain, the northernmost province of the empire. It was cut off a larger statue in London and found in the River Thames.

Word of the emperor

Inscriptions allowed rulers to spread their message to their subjects – whether it was listing their military achievements or spreading their philosophy of religious tolerance.

Roman imperial inscription

AD 90
Qift, Egypt
British Museum


Inscriptions helped to record the achievements of the Roman emperor, allowing him to publicise laws, honour gods and commemorate important events, buildings or people. They were a means of governance and asserting power.

This inscription in Latin comes from Egypt. It commemorates the building of a new bridge by the Emperor Domitian (reigned AD 81–96). Listed on this inscription are several powers and titles which he held. However, Domitian’s name itself has been erased.

Rubbing of a Chinese inscription

AD 900–1000 (original)
AD 2006 (rubbing)
British Museum


The word of the emperor was of great importance in projecting the power of the Chinese ruler. Later rulers would record and copy the words of earlier emperors to associate themselves with their powerful predecessors. 

This is a contemporary rubbing made of an accurate copy of the original inscription, created 900 years later. The original inscription was ordered by the first emperor of China – Qin Shi Huangdi (reigned 219–210 BC). It eulogised his virtuous power.

An edict of Emperor Ashoka

Mauryan, about 250 BC
Nallasopara (near Mumbai), Maharashtra, India
CSMVS, Mumbai (SI 167)


The inscriptions of the Mauryan Emperor Ashoka (reigned 268–232 BC) are unique. This was the first time a ruler tried to unify his subjects by promoting peace and ethical conduct, importantly, written in their regional languages and scripts. This fragment comes from the ancient port town of Sopara in Thane, near Mumbai. In the mid-third century BC, Ashoka sent one of his missionaries to Sopara to spread the message of the path of dhamma, which gives merit that lasts lifetimes.

Power of the Emperor

The power of the emperor could be asserted through military might but also by linking themselves to the power of the gods. 

Festivities around the relic of the turban

Satvahana, about AD 150
Phanigiri, Telangana, India
Department of Archaeology and Museums, Government of Telangana

This sculpture in the Amaravati style comes from the congregation hall of a Buddhist temple in the village of Phangiri. In an age of empires when ideas of kingship were based on the assertion of power, this sculpture reveals a parallel concept from Indian philosophy of not holding on to power. A significant model for this was the Buddha or Prince Siddhartha who gave up the promise of kingship, symbolised by the removal of his kingly turban, to fulfil his quest for Enlightenment instead.


Roman Montefortino helmet

299–200 BC
Puglia, Italy
British Museum


The Montefortino helmet was introduced to Italy by invading Celts. It is arguably the most successful type of helmet ever designed. The type is distinguished by its neckguard, topknot and cheek-pieces, though these attachments rarely survive. The Roman army deployed this style of helmet unchanged for centuries. It is a prime example of the Romans incorporating the most successful elements of opposing armies into their strategy.

Model of Han military watchtower

AD 25–220
British Museum

This model of a defensive structure was probably made in north-central China. Towers such as this were built to protect farming estates during the Eastern Han Dynasty. These large agricultural estates were often fortified with multi-storeyed watchtowers made of wood with tile-covered roofs. This pottery model was probably placed in a burial of a landowner, alongside models of people, houses and farm structures. This was intended to provide for the afterlife.

Axe shaped ornament_393234001 HIGH RES TIFF.jpg

Siguas ornament

AD 1–200
British Museum


This gold axe-shaped ornament could have been sewn onto a crown or headdress, possibly worn by a ruler of the Siguas people of the south coast of Peru. Gold was an important material in ancient South America, prized for its symbolic association with the creative energy of the sun.

The circles surrounding the face on the ornament might represent drops of water, indicating that this could be Tunupa – an Andean thunder god who controlled the weather.