In 69 BC a young Herod was learning how to talk, Julius Caesar was busying himself in Gaul and Spartacus was leading slave revolts against Rome. Legend has it that at this time, a strange light shone down from the East Asian sky onto a horse of pure white. The beast was sheltering an egg, from which hatched Hyeokgeose, who went on to be appointed king by local chiefs at the tender age of 13. He inaugurated the Silla dynasty (sometimes spelt “Shilla”, and pronounced that way), which was to go through no fewer than 56 monarchs before collapsing in 935, leaving behind a rich legacy still visible today in the form of jewellery, pottery and temples. Many of the regal burial mounds can still be seen in and around Gyeongju, the Silla seat of power.
Though it was initially no more than a powerful city-state, successive leaders gradually expanded the Silla boundaries, consuming the smaller Gaya kingdom to the south and becoming a fully-fledged member of the Three Kingdoms that jostled for power on the Korean peninsula – Goguryeo in the north, Baekje to the west, and Silla in the east. Silla’s art and craft flourished, Buddhism was adopted as the state religion, and as early as the sixth century a detailed social system was put into use – the golpuljedo, or “bone-rank system” – with lineage and status dictating what clothes people wore, who they could marry and where they could live, and placing strict limits on what they could achieve.
Perversely, given their geographical positions on the “wrong” sides of the peninsula, Baekje was allied to the Japanese and Silla to the Chinese Tang dynasty, and it was Chinese help that enabled Silla’s King Muyeol to subjugate Baekje in 660. Muyeol died the year after, but his son, King Munmu, and promptly went one better, defeating Goguryeo in 668 to bring about a first-ever unified rule of the Korean peninsula. The resulting increase in power drove the state forward, though abuse of this new wealth was inevitable; pressure from the people, and an increase in the power of the nobility, gradually started to undermine the power of the kings from the late eighth century. Gyeongju was sacked in 927, and eight years later King Gyeongsun – by that time little more than a figurehead – finally handed over the reigns of power to King Taejo, bringing almost a millennium of Silla rule to a close, and kicking off the Goryeo dynasty.