The Fifth Century's Extraordinary Rise Beyond Rome


| LAST UPDATE 05/19/2023

By Stanley Wickens
fifth century empires history

As Rome crumbled in the fifth century, other powers were on the rise. While the fall of the Roman Empire was a major event, it wasn't the only extraordinary occurrence of the time. From flourishing pre-Hispanic cities to ancient Mexican metropolises, powerful African kingdoms, and important Asian trade routes, this period saw some of the most significant events and cultural phenomena in human history.

The city of Chichén Itzá in Mexico was a major political and economic power founded in 455. Its inhabitants traded far and wide, bringing obsidian from central Mexico and gold from southern Central America to the city. Its densely concentrated structures covered almost two square miles, with the stunning step pyramid, the Temple of Kulkulkán, standing out. The shadowy shape of a serpent appears as the sun sets, descending the steps to join a stone serpent head at the base of the great staircase up the pyramid’s side. Teotihuacan, another Mexican metropolis, was one of the Western Hemisphere’s first great cities and reached its height of sophistication and dominance in the early fourth century. Its more than 100,000 residents lived among an impressive array of pyramid-temples, palaces, plazas, and residential compounds along a gridded street system within 8 square miles.

Roman empire fifth century
Sir Francis Canker Photography via Getty Images
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The Wagadu Empire, also known as the Ghana Empire, emerged in West Africa in the late fifth century, with the capital at Kumbi Saleh. The empire traded in ivory, salt, kola, and cloth, but its most important asset was gold. A king, or “ghana,” ruled the empire, overseeing a complex system of government and administration. The empire peaked around 1000 A.D., with a standing army of 200,000 soldiers armed with iron weapons. But it wasn't just kingdoms and empires that were on the rise during this time. The Silk Road buzzed with traders traveling between China and the Mediterranean region, carrying a bounty of goods, culture, and religion. The route also conveyed new diseases; some researchers believe the Black Death, which devastated Europe in the late 14th century, spread from Asia along the Silk Road.

As Rome faded, these powers were flourishing, each in their own unique way. Though vastly different, they all shared one common element: the drive to build and prosper in the face of adversity. They offer us glimpses into the complexity and richness of human history, and remind us that even in times of great change and upheaval, there are opportunities for growth and innovation.

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