Rome and China: Comparative Perspectives on Ancient World Empires

Rome and China: Comparative Perspectives on Ancient World Empires

Rome and China: Comparative Perspectives on Ancient World Empires

Rome and China: Comparative Perspectives on Ancient World Empires


Two thousand years ago, up to one-half of the human species was contained within two political systems, the Roman empire in western Eurasia (centered on the Mediterranean Sea) and the Han empire in eastern Eurasia (centered on the great North China Plain). Both empires were broadly comparablein terms of size and population, and even largely coextensive in chronological terms (221 BCE to 220 CE for the Qin/Han empire, c. 200 BCE to 395 CE for the unified Roman empire). At the most basic level of resolution, the circumstances of their creation are not very different. In the East, the Shang and Western Zhou periods created a shared cultural framework for the Warring States, with the gradual consolidation of numerous small polities into a handful of large kingdoms which were finally united by the westernmost marcher state of Qin. In the Mediterranean, we canobserve comparable political fragmentation and gradual expansion of a unifying civilization, Greek in this case, followed by the gradual formation of a handful of major warring states (the Hellenistic kingdoms in the east, Rome-Italy, Syracuse and Carthage in the west), and likewise eventualunification by the westernmost marcher state, the Roman-led Italian confederation. Subsequent destabilization occurred again in strikingly similar ways: both empires came to be divided into two halves, one that contained the original core but was more exposed to the main barbarian periphery (thewest in the Roman case, the north in China), and a traditionalist half in the east (Rome) and south (China). These processes of initial convergence and subsequent divergence in Eurasian state formation have never been the object of systematic comparative analysis. This volume, which brings together experts in the history of the ancient Mediterranean and early China, makes a first step in this direction, bypresenting a series of comparative case studies on clearly defined aspects of state formation in early eastern and western Eurasia, focusing on the process of initial developmental convergence. It includes a general introduction that makes the case for a comparative approach; a broad sketch of thecharacter of state formation in western and eastern Eurasia during the final millennium of antiquity; and six thematically connected case studies of particularly salient aspects of this process.


Walter Scheidel

The “History of the Later Han Dynasty” reports the customs of Da Qin, or “Greater China,” a distant realm near the western ends of the earth. Its inhabitants were tall and shaved their heads, wore embroidered clothes, and planted silkworm mulberry trees. Their ruler occupied five palaces whose columns were made of crystal glass. Wary of natural disasters that would require him to step down and be replaced by someone else, he was known to honor this convention without complaint. That these features bear no discernible resemblance to the Roman Empire as we know it may well have something to do with the fact that access to this remote place was inconveniently blocked by “many lions and ferocious tigers which intercept and harm travelers: if the party does not include over a hundred men furnished with arms, they are invariably devoured.” Roman observers faced a similar predicament: for them, the easternmost reaches of Asia were “not easy of access; few men come from there, and seldom.” This made it difficult to visit the Seres or “Silk-People,” atheists who lived for more than two hundred years, occupied themselves with scraping silk from trees, were fierce and warlike as well as gentle and peaceful, sported blue eyes and flaxen hair, and never talked to strangers.

1. Hou Hanshu 88d, translated by Leslie and Gardiner 1996: 47–52. (The work itself dates from the fifth century C.E. but processes information from the first three centuries C.E.) The final observation seems to pertain to the route to Da Qin rather than the country itself: ibid. 52, n.89. For the probable meaning of the term “Da Qin,” see ibid. 232. Leslie and Gardiner 1996 is now the most comprehensive collection and detailed discussion of the relevant sources, superseding Hirth 1885.

2. Difficult access: Circumnavigation of the Erythrean Sea 64 (first century C.E.); atheists: Kelsos in Origenes, Against Kelsos 7.62–3 (second century C.E.); longevity: Strabo, Geography 15.37 (first century C.E.); silk trees: Pliny the Elder, Natural History 6.53 (first century C.E.; Pausanias, Description of Greece 6.26.6–9, from the second century C.E., is the earliest extant source to ascribe silk production to an animal source, a “silk insect”); fierce and warlike: Avienus, Description of the World 935 (fourth century C.E.); gentle and peaceful: Pliny 6.54; physical appearance (for which cf. Liebermann 1957) and silence: ibid. 6.88. For collections of relevant references, see esp. Coedès 1910; Dihle 1984; Leslie and Gardiner 1996:121–27. Dihle 203–4 rightly stresses the topical nature of many of these alleged attributes. Faint traces of factual information about the Chinese state may not have become available in the west until the seventh century C.E.: see Theophylactus Simocatta, Histories–11, with Boodberg 1938: 223–43.

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