Book Summary: “Rome and China: Comparative Perspectives on Ancient World Empires” by Walter Scheidel

Title: Rome and China: Comparative Perspectives on Ancient World Empires
Author: Walter Scheidel
Scope: 3 stars
Readability: 3 stars
My personal rating: 5 stars
See more on my book rating system.

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Topic of Book

This book consists of a series of essays comparing and contrasting the Roman Empire and the Han Empire in China. These two empires inhabited opposite sides of the Eurasian continent during roughly the same time period.

If you would like to learn more about history, read my book From Poverty to Progress: How Humans Invented Progress, and How We Can Keep It Going.

Key Take-aways

  • The Roman and Han Chinese Empires shared far more in common with each other than differences.
  • The parallel development was caused by the need to build centralized institutions to extract the food surplus from the peasantry to build a strong army that could out-compete other empires.
  • The key difference for long-term history is that ,while the Han Empire was followed by many Chinese dynasties, after the Roman Empire fell nothing replaced it.
  • The lack of an enduring empire between 500 and 1500 made Europe unique among Agrarian societies on the Eurasian continent.
  • Scheidel calls this the “First Great Divergence” (with the Industrial Revolution being the “Second Great Divergence”).

Important Quotes from Book

[The Roman and Han empires showed] convergent trends over time: shifts from city-states to territorial polities and from military mass mobilization for interstate warfare to professional armies for border control; the growth of a protobureaucratic civil service accompanied by functional differentiation of power; formal dichotomies in provincial organization eclipsed by centralization of governmental control; the settlement and military use of peripheral groups in frontier zones; massive expansion of the money supply through standardized state-controlled minting; state intervention in manufacturing and trade; census registration and formal status ranking of the general population; codification of law; the growth of markets in land and the gradual concentration of wealth among elites; the transformation of smallholders into tenants, coupled with the growing strength of private patronage ties encroaching on state authority; unsuccessful attempts at land reform and eventual rural unrest; ideological unification through monumental construction, religious rituals, and elite education; the creation of a homogeneous elite culture and of corpora of classics; the emergence of court-centered historiography; ideologies of normative empire sustained by transcendent powers; and, later on, religious change leading to the formation of autonomous church systems and a philosophical and religious shift in emphasis from community values to ethical conduct and individual salvation.

Two thousand years ago, perhaps half of the entire human species had come under the control of just two powers, the Roman and Han empires, at opposite ends of Eurasia. Both entities were broadly similar in terms of size. Both of them were run by god-like emperors residing in the largest cities the world had seen so far, were made up of some 1,500 to 2,000 administrative districts, and, at least at times, employed hundreds of thousands of soldiers. Both states laid claim to ruling the whole world, orbis terrarum and tianxia, while both encountered similar competition for surplus between central government and local elites and similar pressures generated by secondary state formation beyond their frontiers and subsequent “barbarian” infiltration. Both of them even ended in similar ways: one half, the original political core—the west in Europe, the north in China—was first weakened by warlordism and then taken over by “barbarian” successor states, whereas the other half was preserved by a traditionalist regime. It was only from the late sixth century c.e. onward that the two trajectories of state formation began to diverge, slowly at first but more dramatically over time, between the cyclical restoration of a China-wide empire in the East and the decline of empire and central government in the West, followed by the slow creation of a polycentric state system that proved resistant to any attempts to impose hegemony, let alone unification, and ultimately evolved into the now-familiar cluster of modern nation states.

I argue that this allows us to speak of a “Great Convergence” that spanned the entire first millennium b.c.e. and the first half of the first millennium c.e., until a “(First) Great Divergence” began to unfold from about the sixth century c.e. onward.

As far as the ecological context is concerned, both imperial entities shared the fundamental requirement of being located within the temperate zone of Eurasia, which thanks to its climate, flora, and fauna had long favored the development of social complexity and large polities.3 The two empires also had in common a division into two different ecological spheres: in the case of Rome, a Mediterranean core and a continental European northern periphery, and, in China, a loess and river plain core and a hotter and wetter southern periphery. In both cases, albeit well after the end of antiquity, the locus of development eventually shifted into these former peripheries. However, the environment also accounted for substantial differences, most notably the fact that the Roman Empire centered on a temperate sea core that was highly conducive to communication, the transfer of goods and people, and the projection of power, whereas China consists of river valleys that are separated by mountain ranges and, at least prior to the creation of ambitious canal systems from the sixth century c.e. onward, posed far greater physical obstacles to integration. Moreover, whereas the main western rivers such as the Rhone, Danube, and Nile converge upon the inner sea core, Chinese rivers all fl ow eastward, thereby reinforcing regional separation.

Both the Roman and Qin-Han empires were built on templates provided by antecedent states and expanded into a widening ecumene: in the West, from the river cultures of the Middle East into the Mediterranean and on to continental Europe, in the East from the Wei and middle Yellow River valleys into the Central Plain and then on to the south.

[Their histories] illustrate the striking degree of parallel movements at the most basic level of state formation. The  first stage (down to about 500 b.c.e.) witnessed the creation of polities at the western margins of a much wider ecumene, a positioning that favored a focus on military capability, in both Rome and Qin. The main difference was that whereas Qin was already tied into a wider state system, the feudal network of Western Zhou, Rome, farther removed from the “Great Powers” of the Levant, was autonomous and embedded only in regional city state clusters (Latins and Etruscans). At the second stage, in the  fifth and into the fourth centuries b.c.e., both entities grew into autonomous middling powers and experienced confl ict with comparable competitors: within central Italy in the case of Rome, and in the “land within the passes” (Guanzhong) in the case of Qin. Both polities continued to retain their independence because they were physically shielded from “Great Power” confl icts in more developed regions farther east. Making the most of their “marcher state advantage,” this allowed them to accumulate military capabilities without encountering the superior absorptive capacity of more powerful states. The third phase resulted in hegemonic power over a large sector of the ecumene in the Rome and China fourth and early third centuries b.c.e., all over Italy for Rome and expansion into Sichuan in the case of Qin. Once again, this growth occurred without triggering major conflict with the leading powers of their respective koine but nevertheless brought it closer, driven by Rome’s encroachment on the Greeks in Italy and Qin pressure on the kingdom of Wei in China. Both Rome and Qin benefited from low protection costs thanks to strong natural borders, the sea and Alps in Italy and mountain ranges in Qin and Sichuan. Successful expansion strengthened Rome’s aristocratic collective leadership and Qin’s monarchy (this difference in regime type will be considered below). The fourth step brought hegemony over the entire core ecumene in a series of high-stakes wars, in the third through  first centuries b.c.e. in Rome and in a more compressed format in the third century b.c.e. in China. In both cases, hegemony preceded direct rule, although the protobureaucratization of Qin facilitated more rapid outright annexation than the much more limited administrative capabilities of the oligarchic regime in Rome. Also in both cases, large-scale conquest triggered violent adjustment processes: in the East, a shift from the “war-machine” state of Qin to the less overtly centralized regime of the early Han, and in the West a more protracted transition that replaced the established oligarchy with a military monarchy. Owing to the more profound character of this latter shift, conflict in Rome was more sustained, but in both cases the result was the same: a monarchy with, at least at  first, strong aristocratic participation.

The  fifth stage, in the  first two centuries c.e. in Rome and from the second century b.c.e. to the second century c.e. in Han, was characterized by slowing expansion and increasing internal homogenization. In both cases, we witness the strengthening of powerful local elites who cooperated with the state but also constrained its range of action. This process was interrupted in phase 6 by warlordism and temporary fragmentation in the third century c.e., a crisis that was more readily contained by the professional military of the Roman Empire than by the warlords of Three Kingdoms China. The seventh phase of attempted restoration was much more prolonged and at least temporarily successful in Rome than in the internally riven state of Jin but in both cases ended in barbarian conquest, from the early fourth century c.e. in northern China and from the early  fifth century c.e. in the western Roman Empire. The subsequent phase 8 saw the already-mentioned division into rump states in the Roman East and the Chinese South and “barbarian” successor states closer to the northern frontiers. In both cases, conquerors increasingly merged with local elites, and transcendent religions that claimed autonomy from the state—Christianity and Buddhism— made considerable progress. Sixth century c.e. attempts at reunification were more successful in China than in the Mediterranean. However, it was only afterward, in phase 9, that developments  finally diverged sharply, between the Tang consolidation in the East and the near-destruction of the East Roman or “Byzantine” state by Persians and Arabs and the subsequent political fragmentation of both the Islamic and the Frankish successor states, a process that was particularly prolonged and intense in western Europe.

These developments mark the onset of the “First Great Divergence” that led to the creation of the Song, Yuan, Ming, and Qing empires in China, culminating in the current People’s Republic, and to the gradual entrenchment of state polycentrism in Europe.

The Warring States of China implemented parallel self-strengthening reforms designed to increase their military competitiveness vis-a`-vis their rivals.. These reforms, however imperfectly they may have been implemented in practice, went some way in creating a homogeneous territorial state, sought to extend state control across all levels of society, concentrated power in the hands of the king, raised both the power of the state and the autonomy of the central government to unprecedented levels, and reputedly enabled Qin to mobilize and deploy military and corvee work forces numbering in the hundreds of thousands… When the state of Qin finally absorbed its six rivals in the 230s and 220s b.c.e., the regime of the First Emperor attempted to impose and perpetuate this system across China.

In the last three centuries b.c.e., Rome accomplished conquests on the same scale as Qin that were not accompanied by comparable intensification of government. In both cases, however, successful expansion was made possible by mass conscription of peasants. In the fourth century b.c.e., when Rome faced competitors of comparable strength and military organization within the Italian peninsula, it introduced a series of self-strengthening reforms that echoed many of Qin’s reforms in the same period, albeit usually in a more muted fashion: the introduction of direct taxation to fund war making (tributum); the strengthening of the peasantry by abolishing debt-bondage; the expansion of conscription across the entire citizenry; periodic registration of adult men; the creation of thirty- five conscription districts (tribus), functionally at least in some ways comparable to the thirty-one xian of Qin; land grants to soldiers drawing on annexed territories; and political reform to accommodate social mobility at the elite level.

In a manner of speaking, Warring States Qin and Republican Rome started out at opposite ends of the spectrum: Qin was unusually centralized and bureaucratized, whereas Rome was run by a collective and greatly depended on private administrative resources. These dramatic differences may have affected the differential pace of conquest but did not impact ultimate outcomes, that is, eventual domination of the entire ecumene. Over time, both political systems converged, a process that began around 200 b.c.e. in China and in the late  first century b.c.e. in Rome. It is the mature Roman Empire of the fourth century c.e. that most resembles the Han Empire in institutional as well as practical terms.

The most significant differences between Rome and China were retained at the city level. For one, Han cities did not feature self-governing city councils or elections. For another, a recently discovered provincial archive from the end of the Western Han period indicates that just as in later and better documented periods of Chinese history, even low-level government officials were recruited from outside the province they served in.

Trajectories of state formation signally diverged from the sixth century c.e. onward. Instead, intense interstate competition, internal social and intellectual upheavals, the creation of new kinds of maritime empire, and (eventually) technological progress gave rise to the modern nation state in the eighteenth (or perhaps only nineteenth) century. In sixth century c.e. China, by contrast, imperial reunification restored the bureaucratic state that largely succeeded, albeit with substantial interruptions, in maintaining a core-wide empire under Chinese or foreign leadership until 1911 and, in effect, up to the present day.

If you would like to learn more about history, read my book From Poverty to Progress: How Humans Invented Progress, and How We Can Keep It Going.

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