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Comparing China and Rome: Analytical Essay on Reign of Han Dynasty

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The Master said: “Above all, be loyal and stand by your words. Befriend only those who are kindred spirits. And when you’re wrong, don’t be afraid to change.”[endnoteRef:1] Spoken by the ancient Chinese philosopher Confucius, this saying can also serve as a great way of viewing and comparing the methods of life between the ancient Romans and the people of China during the Han dynasty. As loyalty can be seen through the militaristic and civilian lifestyle of the Romans, the fear and caution towards outsiders and foreigners by the ancient Chinese, and the willingness to change and adapt from both cultures. Even just briefly viewing the basic philosophies found within ancient China and Rome you can tell there is a multitude of different areas where the old civilizations intertwine and think similarly to each other. However, showing no signs of direct contact between the two civilizations except through trade, the odds of these two ancient cultures sharing similar values and traits still puzzles many world historians to this day. To truly compare these two vast empires, one must look at some of the most prominent areas of their civilization. Some of which include: the shape and size of their political boundaries, the roles of the military and its structure, the government and its position of power over the population, the economics and source of wealth in the empires, and finally viewing the collapse and the fall of these mighty civilizations. [1: Confucius, and David Hinton., Analects (Berkeley: Counterpoint, 20140, 75. ]

Beginning to compare these two great societies, it’s important to note how the comparison is made in a traditional and historical sense. For this essay, a comparison will be comprised of similar connections between several altering regions and various cultures while simultaneously shedding light on how each topic is found to be related within this millennium of second-wave civilizations. This technique will be used to highlight and enforce deeper thinking into how there are similar pieces to ancient Roman and Chinese societies and the many variations within each one. Such comparisons will be found throughout this essay regarding several sectors of the ancient civilizations’ ways of life. By creating a connection to things such as networks of communication, combat, and systems of control, we can see how ancient Rome and China were shaped and molded during the time frame being compared.

In a period of conflict between two of the most prominent armies clashing, the Greeks and the Persians, the stages toward two budding civilizations were just taking root. To the western portion of the Eurasian continent laid the Roman empire, and to the far eastern side laid the groundworks for future site of the Chinese Imperial State. Both of these great nations controlled a broad amount of territory and were quite similar in size. The total amount of controlled land by each empire was roughly estimated to be around one and a half million square miles.[endnoteRef:2] These two civilizations would soon grow and expand to eventually control half of the entire human species. In a census recorded in the second century, the Chinese empire recorded roughly 59.6 million people.[endnoteRef:3] Meanwhile the Roman imperial census showed that the population was approximately between 65 to 75 million by the middle of the second century.[endnoteRef:4] This is all speculation that has yet to be finalized as the current estimates show that the total number of humans living on the earth at that time varied between 170 to 330 million individuals.[endnoteRef:5] [2: Strayer, Robert W., Ways of the World: A Brief Global History (Boston, MA: Bedford/St. Martins, 2019), 99] [3: Scheidel, Walter, Rome and China : Comparative Perspectives on Ancient World Empires (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), 11] [4: Scheidel, 11] [5: Scheidel, 11]

While its great to know where the civilization would reach its peak in terms of population and territorial expansion, the path these civilizations took to reach this status can be comparable. Rome began in the eighth century as a poor nation state in central Italy on the western side.[endnoteRef:6] Starting out the population of this city-state was relatively low, and it has been rumored that to keep the population numbers up, the ancient Romans were forced to go out and kidnap women from neighboring settlements.[endnoteRef:7] This greatly improved the population so much so that Rome transitioned into a settlement that surrounded the entire Mediterranean basin along with key areas in Europe like modern-day Britain, North Africa, and the Middle East.[endnoteRef:8] This in turn left them to earning the title of an imperial state. [6: Strayer, 100] [7: Strayer, 100] [8: Strayer, 100]

Meanwhile, as the Romans were first making their marks in Eurasia, the imperial state of China was currently being formed and taking shape. China was brought up in a similar fashion with just a few key differences. While Rome had to start from scratch and become something new, China’s legacy was built off something older. China’s rise in the Han Dynasty is considered the revamping and restoration of ancient China. In fact, the Chinese state can be traced back as early as 2200 B.C.E. and has gone through three different dynasties before reaching the Han Dynasty.[endnoteRef:9] Although these dynasties greatly expanded the Chinese nation, by the time the Han Dynasty rolled around the nation was left almost in ruins and on the brink of collapse. Seven individual kingdoms were formed within China and the unity of the nation had disappeared as each of these smaller states had turned to conflict and war amongst each other.[endnoteRef:10] [9: Strayer, 103] [10: Strayer, 103 ]

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Going back to ancient Rome, how was the rule of law and how did the governmental body affect the population and history in this region? Well, ancient Rome originally started out as a land ruled by a king. Around the year 509 B.C.E, the aristocrats established a republic in this region after overthrowing the previous monarchy.[endnoteRef:11] Now under this new republic, the patricians (a group of wealthy men in the higher class of society) rule the land. Now it may not sound as exciting and glorious now, but back then it was a revolutionary concept. The power of the king had been distributed amongst a larger group of individuals, although they were just the upper men of the land. The power balance had been shifted to be out of the hands of one person and into the hands of multiple. [11: Strayer, 100]

Comparing this to the Chinese civilization, here the remnants of an already established government had been established. Prior to the Han Dynasty, there had already been a form of bureaucracy currently being practiced. This state had equipped its army and military with advanced weapons made of iron, a growing population, and a rising amount of agricultural goods.[endnoteRef:12] The ideology and philosophical practice of Legalism held a great influence in the region which clearly laid out a system of punishments and rules to keep the citizens in line.[endnoteRef:13] This helped reinforce a common goal and similar pattern of thought within the Chinese civilians. In fact, the philosopher Laozi, in his classic of the way of virtue, describes China as a state that is ruled by measures of correction; “weapons of war may be used with crafty dexterity, but the kingdom is made one’s own only by freedom from action and purpose.”[endnoteRef:14] Here we can see how Laozi perfectly describes China’s increased military arsenal of iron weapons and how the ruling of the kingdom was made primarily based off of actions that promoted its law system. [12: Strayer, 103 ] [13: Strayer, 103 ] [14: Andrea, Alfred J., and James H. Overfield., The Human Record: Sources of Global History, (Australia: Cengage Learning, 2016), 92. ]

As with the end of any great civilization, all great civilizations have a rise in power, a period of dominance, and prolonged success, and eventually, they come to a halt. This leaves historians with the unanswered question of what contributed to their fall from grace. China and Rome shared a common set of reasons that lead to their eventual demises. It is estimated that Han China ended around the year 220 C.E. and the acknowledged date for the decimation of the Roman Empire is approximately 476 C.E.[endnoteRef:15] Although the dates of their collapse appear to be fairly prolonged, the strains that led to the eventual fall of the empires were felt generations prior to these dates. Some areas of the empires hadn’t been subjected to the total collapse entirely either, an example would be ancient Rome. In the Eastern half of the Roman Empire, the Byzantine Empire refused to fall. They managed to uphold their culture and traditions and survived apart from Imperial Rome for another thousand years.[endnoteRef:16] [15: Strayer, 108] [16: Strayer, 109 ]

What was a major factor that led to the decline of these great civilizations? Well, a variety of sources point towards invasion and pressure from outside forces. However, some sources also believe it was due to improper leadership and internal struggles created by the greed of the government.[endnoteRef:17] Such is true when observing Rome in the third century. There is a plethora of sources that state the great power the senate had, and how the power of the Senate almost seemed endless. Thus, being said, the corrupt individuals in the Senate can be blamed for the success of barbarians intruding on the Roman ways of life.[endnoteRef:18] The wealth of the people had been drained and the bureaucracy that was once idolized as its main source of pride was eventually the very thing that would lead to their demise. [17: Mutschler, Fritz-Heiner, and Achim Mittag, Conceiving the Empire : China and Rome Compared (OUP Oxford, 2008), 323] [18: Mutschler, 333


Andrea, Alfred J., and James H. Overfield. The Human Record: Sources of Global History. 7th ed. Vol. I. Australia: Cengage Learning, 2016.

  1. Confucius, and David Hinton. Analects. Berkeley: Counterpoint, 2014.
  2. Mutschler, Fritz-Heiner, and Achim Mittag. Conceiving the Empire : China and Rome Compared. Oxford: OUP Oxford, 2008.
  3. Scheidel, Walter. Rome and China : Comparative Perspectives on Ancient World Empires. Oxford Studies in Early Empires. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009.
  4. Strayer, Robert W. Ways of the World: A Brief Global History. 2nd ed. Vol. I. Boston, MA: Bedford/St. Martins, 2019. ]

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