Cyrus the great’s liberation of the jews, image source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Cyrus_II_le_Grand_et_les_H%C3%A9breux.jpg

The Rise and Fall of Multicultural Empires

How empires were built from diversity and unity

Michael Koy
Apr 22 · 5 min read

From the Ancient Romans to the Austro-Hungarian Empire, multiculturalism had been the core of great empires for thousands of years. As such, stories from the past will teach people of today how to solve modern problems regarding multiculturalism and coexistence.

No matter how successful or brutal, the lessons from the great and diverse states of history must be learned, and their failures and advancements must be laid bare for all to see in order for the modern world to move forward.

The Achaemenid Empire was the first and greatest example of multiculturalism on a grand scale, and the framework provided by the great “King of Kings” had been a model strived towards by many rulers for thousands of years. The core beliefs and ideals of the Achaemenids, namely basic human rights and religious tolerance, were laid out in the Cyrus Cylinder by its greatest ruler, Cyrus the Great.

In the wake of his unprecedented conquests, the King consolidated the new provinces by integrating himself into the wide variety of religions and cultures of his new empire. For instance, he appealed to his Jewish subjects by rebuilding their destroyed temple, which earned Cyrus the title of a Messiah in the Bible, and he publicly performed religious ceremonies in Babylonia which endeared him to the people of the ancient city.

The system made Cyrus and his successors the string that held the Empire together, as the popularity granted to them by the diverse groups of the empire made taxation easier and it kept the state in one piece for 200 years. However, the empire relied on tolerant rulers and abled administrators who protected the numerous different cultures, and the moment a tyrant assumed the throne, the dominos fell.

Titles of Cyrus the Great showing his identity to the different groups of the empire. Source.

The Roman Empire had a wildly different approach to multiculturalism, as their philosophy was based on the process called Romanisation. Due to the idea of Roman superiority, the empire forced its ideals and religions onto their minorities and conquered peoples, and this oppression is known as Romanisation.

Although the process had been brutal for certain groups such as Judaism, the empire as a whole benefited. From the numerous Barbarian tribes of the West and the rich Hellenic states of the East, most had been Romanised, and they saw the Roman culture as superior to their native religions and beliefs. This process rewarded the empire with many advantages, as it made recruitment easier and the state experienced a period of stability due to the lack of revolts during the Pax Romana (“Roman peace”) period.

However, Romanisation relied on the similar cultures and religions between the Hellenized East and Romans, since it made the integration of these people easier. In contrast, the Celtic cultures of the Western Provinces of Gaul, Britannia and Africa were openly hostile towards the Romans, which made Romanisation far more brutal and resistance greater. As such, there were limits to how far Romanisation could go, and the brutality of the process had disillusioned many groups from the intolerant Roman culture.

Roman-Gallic Wars, image source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Siege-alesia-vercingetorix-jules-cesar.jpg

In contrast to its predecessors, the Austro-Hungarian Empire allowed its conquered peoples to divide the state rather than have a set of morals and ideals that served as a unifying force. Since the Austrians wanted to retain control, they did the bare minimum to keep the state together without surrendering large amounts of political control.

For instance, in the 1867 “Austrian Hungarian compromise” the Austrians ceded their jurisdiction over the Hungarian half of the empire, but the emperor kept control of matters over foreign policy by becoming the King of Hungary alongside his titles in Austria. Through the unification of the Crowns of Austria and Hungary, the empire became a dual monarchy, thus keeping the empire together despite the separation of internal affairs. The compromise not only saved the empire but gave it half a century to create a system that incorporated the numerous ethnicities living in the empire.

The Hungarian half served as the agricultural center of the empire, while the Austrians were the economic and industrial heart. However, the empire consisted of more than two nationalities, including Poles, Slavs, and Italians, and the two kingdoms struggled to appease all of its minorities. Despite rapid economic growth and increasing amounts of liberalization in its last decades, nationalism among the minorities increased, and no empire can unite when its people want separation.

Ethnic groups of Austria-Hungary, image source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Austria_Hungary_ethnic.svg

The Achaemenids nurtured their empire from unity through diversity, while the Romans imposed their own culture upon their subjects. In contrast, the Austrians were a hybrid, as they gave autonomy and freedoms only so they could retain some semblance of control.

Subsequently, the stories of these three empires highlight the many successes and failures of their unique approaches towards their minorities, namely instability and unity. What this means is that there is a scale to multiculturalism, and the lessons from each empire will help people understand the benefits and ramifications that diversity can bring.

Exploring History

Delving into the past to understand the world we live in today

Sign up for Historical Insights

By Exploring History

A newsletter highlighting our new articles, historical findings, and stories from the past.  Take a look.

By signing up, you will create a Medium account if you don’t already have one. Review our Privacy Policy for more information about our privacy practices.

Check your inbox
Medium sent you an email at to complete your subscription.

Michael Koy

Written by

I write articles about history and politics. My goal is to tell history in an interesting and epic narrative with a unique and “larger than life” writing style.

Exploring History

Exploring History is a publication about history. Instead of focusing on any particular time period of history, we explore anything about the past that helps our readers understand the world they live in today. We pay special attention to historiographical rigor and balance.

Michael Koy

Written by

I write articles about history and politics. My goal is to tell history in an interesting and epic narrative with a unique and “larger than life” writing style.

Exploring History

Exploring History is a publication about history. Instead of focusing on any particular time period of history, we explore anything about the past that helps our readers understand the world they live in today. We pay special attention to historiographical rigor and balance.

Medium is an open platform where 170 million readers come to find insightful and dynamic thinking. Here, expert and undiscovered voices alike dive into the heart of any topic and bring new ideas to the surface. Learn more

Follow the writers, publications, and topics that matter to you, and you’ll see them on your homepage and in your inbox. Explore

If you have a story to tell, knowledge to share, or a perspective to offer — welcome home. It’s easy and free to post your thinking on any topic. Write on Medium

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store