Rome and Han – A Fascinating Comparison
For the first two centuries of the common era it is estimated that a full 50% of the world’s population lived under either the Roman Empire or the Han Dynasty. The only time in which the human race was, perhaps, more united was during the height of the Achaemenid Empire under which lived about 45 percent of humans, by some estimates, but that height lasted for far less time. There are a number of fascinating similarities between both of these famous and influential empires. They had similar periods of success, similar advances in bureaucracy and city life, similar problems, and similar influences on later life in those regions.
Before delving into some of these fascinating similarities, still little studied or understood, a couple of things should be understood. The first is that despite the size and power of both Empires, they had very little contact with or knowledge of each other, and most of that was information passed through various traders and middle men along what would later be called the Silk Road. The second thing is that I know far less about China (ancient or modern) than I probably should. The third is that these similarities, while fascinating, come largely from the necessities of running a large and administratively complex empire, and one should be careful of reading cultural, or any other such important, significance behind the similarities.
Though the details differ a great deal, one of the first similarities between the Roman Empire and the Han Dynasty are the general path of how they came to power. Both were the culmination of centuries of warfare between political units growing ever larger, cities, then kingdoms, etc., until they ruled the entire region, for the Han the heartland of what is now China and for the Romans the Mediterranean basin. Along with that both powers also made advances in the structure and organization of their military forces which were, for a time, unmatched in their respective regions.
Both powers also made significant advancements in the development of state bureaucracies with which to manage their empires. In fact, it might be considered that both empires independently developed the idea of running an empire by means of bureaucratic procedure as opposed to delegated administration. Their bureaucracies were also designed along similar lines in which people interested in joining would spend years studying to join the administration. Of course, this became much more of a part of the culture of the Chinese and such schooling and rigid bureaucracy were more of a feature of the Eastern Roman Empire after the height of its power. Both were also preeminent in their concept and development of legal systems.
Both Empires were also great road builders and founded a great number of cities in places which had never been so settled before. Both expanded their borders significantly, which lead them into long and troubled relationships with nomadic peoples on their borders. For the Romans it was the Germanic Tribes and for the Han it was a group called the Xiongnu(who some historians think migrated westward after being defeated by the Han and eventually became the Huns which troubled Rome in the 5th century, though there is no conclusive proof of this). Both empires relationships with their neighbors was sometimes hostile, winning and losing at times, and sometimes peaceful, trading and even contracting them as soldiers at different points in their histories. This is, of course, also part of what caused both Empires to fall, namely that they became over-extended which, coupled with internal troubles, left them unable to fully defend their Empires.
The first and most important difference between these two world powers is, of course, culture. That is, naturally, too vast a subject to really go into here, but needless to say, the culture of both was quite different from one another. Another possible difference is that of engineering and architecture. The Roman Empire is often given greater recognition for its engineering and architectural achievements than the Han Dynasty. This is not to say that the Han Dynasty didn’t have some impressive constructions, they were, after all, the first to develop the idea of building a wall along their northern border. It should be noted here that this wall was largely of earthen construction, the famous stone ‘Great Wall of China’ is largely a product of the Ming and Qing Dynasties, 1500 years later. It should also be remembered, however, that because it was by far their most abundant natural resource, the Chinese built a great deal out of wood, which does not last the way that stone does. In the end, it is perhaps unfair to judge the Romans as having greater engineering achievements, because we simply don’t have enough evidence on ancient Chinese engineering and architecture, and they did have many notable scientific achievements of their own.
Another major difference is the success of the Chinese at rebuilding what the Han had created. The Romans similarly inspired the peoples of the Mediterranean basin and left them with dreams of a unified empire which not a few attempted to reestablish. However, none of them succeeded. In China, however, the Tang, Song, Ming, and Qing dynasties, plus the current communist government, has succeeded in not only uniting China but even expanding its borders beyond that which the Han achieved. Perhaps this is because the heartland of China is made up of peoples that were, by and large, culturally unified (or at least had enough similarities to be considered so united). The Romans, however, ruled over a polyglot empire that was never culturally unified(even with the advent of Christianity), the most populous areas of which were taken over by the Islamic Empire within a few centuries of the fall of the Empire in the west. While the Eastern Roman Empire clung on until 1453CE, once the Islamic Empire rose, there was no chance of it ever reunited the Mediterranean basin and neither Europe nor the Islamic Empires ever amassed enough power to conquer the other, although Islam looked like it might succeed in doing so in the 8th century.
Contact Between the Two Powers
There is fragmentary evidence of connection between the Roman Empire and the Han Dynasty but it is difficult to be sure what exactly they knew of one another. This problem is not helped by the fact that the Roman word for the Chinese, Seres, was also used for other people living East of the Persian/Parthian Empire, making it difficult to be sure. The first evidence of a connection is from an account of embassies sent to the Emperor Augustus, which accounts a group of ‘Seres’ which no one seemed to know what to do with. Most historians think this probably refers to the Chinese. In the late first century there is evidence that the Chinese sent other delegates. In the second century, an embassy was sent to China by Antonius Pius, or perhaps Marcus Aurelius, which made contact with the Han court and returned with gifts.
The Historian Homer H. Dubs proposed in the mid 20th century that survivors from the disastrous Roman defeat at Carrhae in 54BCE ended up in China were they settled down in Liqian and helped defend the settlement against the Xiongnu. While many historians doubt this story, as several different aspects of it don’t match up well with known historical facts. However, Chinese newspapers apparently reported in 2010 that the majority of Liqian’s inhabitants were of ‘Caucasian origin’ based on DNA testing.
Due to a variety of factors, including the fact that there were always several powerful states between Rome and China, the majority of contact between those two empires were through the trade routes which would become known as the Silk Road. By the 2nd century CE both did clearly know of each other’s existence, however, as seen by the embassies, though accounts from one about the other are both rather distorted.
That these two concurrent empires had so many similarities, even superficial ones, brings up some fascinating ideas regarding how political powers and societies within empires develop. It also highlights the fascinating things that can come out of studying world history and comparing various, similar empires, ideas, and institutions with each other and I hope you have found this brief rundown fascinating.
Schiedel, Walter, et al. Rome and Han: Comparative Perspectives on Ancient World Empires. Oxford University Press: New York 2010.