The Incan Empire: History & Fall

Instructor: Patricia ONeill
If we look at 15th-century Mesoamerica, we see that the fastest growing empire of the time was the Incan Empire. The Inca created an elaborate society, which, before it fell to the Spanish, was the largest nation on Earth, and it remains the largest native state to have existed in the western hemisphere.

The Romans of South America

Most of us have learned about the ancient Romans and how their civilization expanded to become one of the largest empires in the ancient world. However, we are probably less familiar with the Incan Empire and with the fact that there are remarkable similarities between the Roman and Incan societies.

For example, the Roman Empire was started by a small, warlike Italian tribe whose society was centered upon the city of Rome. Likewise, the Inca were a small tribe, almost constantly at war with their neighbors, who made Cuzco the center of the Incan Empire in the 1400s.

All-Weather Transportation Systems

The Incas, like the Romans, were road builders; they had an elaborate network of roads and bridges that connected the whole empire. Since the Incas lived in the Andes Mountains, the roads took great engineering and architectural skill to build. This system of Incan transport and communication rivaled that of Rome; the 14,000 miles of Incan roads linked the mountain peoples and lowland desert dwellers with the 'center of the universe', Cuzco.

These achievements are even more remarkable when we realize they were accomplished without the use of the wheel. Although the Incas had domesticated llamas, they did not have a wheel to convert the animal into an effective beast of burden.

Quechua Girl and Llama
Quechua Girl and Llama

Flexible System of Rule

The Romans extended their own government, law, and architecture to all their imperial regions while allowing local areas to have an enormous amount of self-government and self-control. They also spread their Latin language throughout the empire.

Similarly, Incan imperial rule exhibited an unusual measure of flexibility and tolerance within their empire, known as Tawantinsuyu, or the Four Regions. The Incas established a system of indirect rule that immersed the incorporated ethnic groups into the imperial culture, life, and government while allowing them to maintain their distinctiveness and self-awareness. A good example of this was that the official language of the Incan Empire was Quechua, but hundreds of local languages and dialects were spoken.

Machu Picchu

Rapid Growth

There were probably three or four things that both the Romans and the Incas did to quickly expand their empires. First, they worked very hard at diplomacy, negotiating relationships with neighbors or with people who were targets for incorporation into their expanding territory; they each tried to use gifts, marital exchanges, and political alliances to further their imperial ends. If all else failed, then they undertook military conquest.

The 'Written' Word

The Roman Empire was responsible for the spread of the Latin language, which has formed the basis for Western languages. The so-called Romance languages (Spanish, French, Portuguese, Romanian Catalan, and Italian) are called that because they all developed from the Roman language: Latin.

Previously, it was thought that the Inca did not use written communication; of all the major ancient civilizations, only the Inca appeared to lack a written language. Archaeologists thought the only possible Incan example of encoding and recording information were the cryptic knotted strings known as khipu.


The khipu (or quipu, in the Hispanic spelling) were arranged as knotted strings hanging from horizontal cords in such a way as to represent numbers for bookkeeping and census purposes. Recently, however, an analysis of some 450 of the 600 surviving khipu has called into question this interpretation.

Although they were probably mainly accounting tools, a growing number of researchers now think that some khipu may in fact have been an Incan form of writing. Dr. Gary Urton of Harvard says the khipu did not record information in graphic signs for words as other ancient written languages did, but rather in a kind of three-dimensional binary code similar to the language of today's computers.

A Galaxy of Gods

Both the Romans and the Incas were polytheistic; they believed in variety of gods and goddesses, many of whom represented natural forces such as the sun, moon, thunder, and lightning. There were differences in their religions. While the Romans had an imperial cult which placed the emperors among the Roman state's pantheon - all the gods of a people considered as a group - the Incas believed their rulers were the direct descendants of the sun god, Inti, who was much more like the ancient Egyptian pharaohs than the Romans. Nonetheless, both the Incas and the Romans tolerated the gods of those they conquered, insisting only on a place of honor for their major deities in religious rituals and festivals.


The Coming of the Spanish

Ten years after Hernando Cortés conquered the Aztec Empire in 1521, the Incan Empire fell to a Spanish conquistador named Francisco Pizarro, who landed on the west coast of South America and began to march to Cuzco, the Incan capital.

Pizarro, as many other Spanish conquerors who landed first in Central America, heard legends of the great wealth of an Amerindian civilization in South America, and he was determined to conquer it at all costs.

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