The Roman and Han Chinese Empires are two of the world’s most powerful empires at their peaks. Each empire in this sample essay represents a foundational moment in Western and Eastern history, and this paper explores some of the comparisons and contrasts that can be drawn between the two empires.
Rome and Han: A comparison of empires
The Roman Empire is thought to be the primary foundation of Western culture and modes of government. The Han Dynasty, on the other hand, provided the basis for culture and government in China, one of the most powerful Eastern influences. Eastern and Western ways are thought to be very different, but perhaps the requirements of ruling vast empires are similar. This paper will look at how the Han Dynasty and the Roman Empire are alike, or dissimilar, by comparing their bureaucracies, their cultures, attitudes toward expanding their empires, policies, and how environment affected their politics.
Organization of the empires
Both the Han and Roman empires were so large that they had to break up their land into districts, so an indispensable part of their bureaucracies were those appointed to administrate each.
- The Han Dynasty separated China into districts called commanderies, and “A civilian official and military commandant administered each commandery…”
- The Romans instead had provinces,“…each headed by a governor appointed by the emperor.”
The number of head officials for each commandery was larger for the Han than the number of governors for each Roman province, but the Han also had a more extensive bureaucracy in general. While Roman governors had advisors, the citizens were part of the ruling class along with the senate and the military consuls, each of which had its distinct functions. The Han Dynasty, on the other hand, did not allow every member of the populace to participate in the government. Instead,
“…a grand counselor headed the civil bureaucracy drawn from the educated men representing powerful local communities.”
Roman bureaucracy was less, and incorporated a balance of powers with the people, while in Han China the bureaucrats were a distinct class with special education and training which looked after their local areas.
While the ruling was handled differently in each empire, cultural differences were probably even more distinct. In China during the Han Dynasty the prevailing cultural thread was one of Confucianism, which included values like honor to one’s ancestors, producing porcelain, and a relationship between the earth and heaven. This attitude was shown by historical writings which claimed that the first Han Emperor
“…would go to visit his father, the “Venerable Sire,” observing the etiquette proper for an ordinary son toward his father.” The Luxuriant Gems of the Spring and Autumn Annals also states that ““Man receives the mandate from heaven and is therefore superior to other creatures.”
For Rome there were many gods, and towns were expected to support the local cults. More important to Roman thought was military discipline. Techniques such as bastinado were “so severe…” that “…every thing that belongs to the guards of the night is performed with the most exact diligence and care.” This had to be the case since military conquest was a main part of Roman expansion and wealth.
Expansion of empires
Expansion occurred in each of the empires, but the Han were more defensively minded than the Romans. Taking more land by force was a major source of wealth for Rome, and if not for the ocean and African desert, and competing empires to the east, they might have expanded further. The Chinese, though, built their famous Great Wall to keep out the rest of the world, and were able to bring in revenue from the Silk Road, partly due to diplomacy.
Marrying Chinese women to barbarian tribes was one kind of diplomacy which made it into poetry:
“my people have married me in a far corner of earth; Sent me away to a strange land, to the king of the wu-sun.”
Romans were not so diplomatic to their northern tribes, and mostly dealt with them for slaves when they were not at war.
There were imperial policies regarding the military for Rome and for the Han Dynasty. For the Chinese these policies had to do with military resources, but for Rome the policies treated military conscripts as resources. While the Chinese ordered state ownership of the salt, iron, and wine trades,
“Rome demanded that defeated communities provide men for the Roman army every year.”
The Chinese also instituted state schools to train new bureaucrats, while the Romans had complex rules for organizing their military forces.
The environment had a more profound effect on the Chinese empire during the Han period than it did to the Romans because of the cultural influence of Confucianism. According to Confucianism the mandate of heaven legitimized the Emperor’s rule,
“A cluster of calamities or celestial omens was taken as a sign that the emperor had lost the mandate of heaven.”
Such natural disasters could spell rebellion in China. Not so in Rome. This made Roman politics, starting with Julius Caesar were more stable in relation to their environment.
This paper has outlines several similarities between the Han Dynasty and Roman Empire, as well as key difference. Each empire divided its land into separate parts, and each had policies that helped them maintain military control. However, the Chinese government was headed by a special aristocratic class, while in Rome the power was shared by the military, senate, and the citizens.
Culturally, they were also different, in that the Han Dynasty was based on Confucian philosophy, while the Romans worshipped many gods and believed in strict military discipline. The Romans were more aggressive than the Chinese, who were often just as content to rely on diplomacy and foreign trade. Finally, Roman politics were more stable when it came to their surroundings. Apart from structure and the need for military each empire was quite different.