Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2009.04.66 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2009.04.66

Walter Scheidel (ed.), Rome and China: Comparative Perspectives on Ancient World Empires. Oxford Studies in Early Empires.   Oxford/New York:  Oxford University Press, 2009.  Pp. xiii, 240.  ISBN 9780195336900.  $74.00.  

Reviewed by Hyun Jin Kim, University of Sydney (

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

As G. E. R. Lloyd comments on the back-cover, this new publication "marks the inauguration of an exhilarating new phase" in the comparative study of Greco-Roman and Ancient Chinese civilizations. In the introduction the book opens with the comment that, despite the vast amount of readily available comparative material, direct, comparative research on Rome and China has largely been overshadowed by a preponderance of interest in "contact and Exchange" (5) exemplified by the great popularity of Silk Road studies. In a marked departure from past works this book finally gives much needed attention to comparative history with a focus on the comparative study of institutions, rather than intellectual history and text based analyses that have until now formed the core of research on Greco-Roman and Ancient Chinese civilizations. In seven chapters the contributors to the book cover a broad range of topics that highlight the institutional similarities and differences between the two world empires. Among the topics discussed are state formation, military institutions, law, eunuchs and women, tribute and trade, gift circulation and charity, and finally monetary systems.

In the first chapter, W. Scheidel takes on the seemingly impossible task of describing the state formation of two world empires that ruled half of humanity in just thirteen pages! Despite the brevity of the analysis the chapter provides a very interesting survey of what Scheidel calls the "Great Convergence" in the State formation and development of the two empires and the sharp "Divergence" that occurred after the 6th century AD. Modifying the approach taken by C. Gizewski,1 he argues that Greek colonization and Zhou expansion in earlier centuries set the tone for the more unified empires of the Romans and the Qin-Han. Both Qin and Rome were situated on the "border marches" of more advanced civilizations and both gradually became the dominant power by exploiting advantages accrued from their favorable, geographical location (13). Both underwent regime change due to adjustment processes (Qin to Han and the Oligarchic Republic to Julio-Claudian Principate). Both Empires, after a period of stability, were then plagued by warlordism (14), which eventually exposed the northern half of the Chinese Empire and the Western half of the Roman state to barbarian conquest.

Minor differences in the period of convergence are pointed out. For instance the Qin state was more bureaucratic than the Roman Republic. Scheidel attributes this difference to the nature of the enemies faced by the two states (16). The late Roman Empire of course did become more like Qin-Han China in developing a more extensive bureaucracy and administrative apparatus in government and Scheidel argues that the actual divergence was not great (19). The great divergence of the 6th century that led to Sui-Tang, imperial reunification in China and fragmentation in the West, is then discussed and Scheidel wisely avoids giving a quick explanation to a topic that requires a book length comparative analysis.

In the second chapter, N. Rosenstein actually attempts to provide an explanation for this divergence by analyzing the evolution of military institutions in Rome and Ancient China. War is seen as being central to the state formation of both empires. The hierarchical divisions of the Qin Empire along military lines, is duly pointed out (27). Again the fact that the Qin state was forced to create an administrative apparatus in order to undertake radical social and economic reforms to cater for its military needs, is stressed (26). This is then contrasted with the Roman practice of seeking external alliances and the enlargement of their citizen body to augment their power, rather than through augmentation of the apparatus of government (30). The fact that military commanders in both Rome (Republic and Principate (35, 39)) and Han China (40-3) were chosen for political reasons, not military expertise is emphasized.

Rosenstein then argues that the restoration of the unified empire in China (6th century AD), in marked contrast to the perpetual fragmentation of Western Europe, was due to the fact that the barbarians who overwhelmed the Jin dynasty were nomads who came from an ecologically different habitat and had a vested interest in the maintenance of the Chinese imperial system which supplied them with Chinese goods (49). The argument would benefit from a more extended discussion and justification of its premises through more evidence. The ecological model works well in the case of the nomadic Xiongnu, who benefited from the Heqin system2 of the earlier Western Han Empire, but does not really apply to the later Xianbei ruling elite of Northern Wei and Northern Zhou who were thoroughly sedentarised and one could argue even sinified to the degree that ecological arguments have no place in explaining their later inclinations towards unified empire.

In the third chapter K. Turner discusses law and punishment in the two empires with a particular emphasis on penal code (53). She notes that in China at local level official abuse was checked by laws, but not at the court level (55). Court bureaucrats did use exempla drawn from Western Zhou to limit imperial prerogatives and power, but a certain degree of arbitrariness in the process of Centralization was favoured over military chaos (56). In contrast, she notes that in Rome the shift to monarchy was a far more significant shift from the past than Qin unification for China (58). The fact that early Roman emperors were seen as being more actively involved in drafting new laws is stressed. In contrast in China law-making processes did occur, but was masked by the reluctance to link a ruler directly to the new laws (62-3). However, even in Rome there was progressively less involvement of emperors in law-making. Eventually laws became codified. In China emperors were distanced from the death penalty to avoid the odium incurred thereof (69-70). The ambiguity of laws relating to treason in both Rome (71) and in Han China (72) is highlighted. Torture, mutilation and bodily harm in Chinese penal laws are then discussed (74 ff.). The chapter concludes with the observation that in China epistemological assumptions about human nature remained narrower than those of the Greco-Romans. Laws were not meant to protect rights and property, but were a means of control to maintain order under an established elite, "confucian or communist" (82).

In the fourth chapter M. H. Dettenhofer provides an interesting sketch of the role of eunuchs and women in the two imperial systems. Eunuchs were drawn from the lowest strata of society (86) and were often loyal to the emperors who hired them. They therefore formed a useful counter-weight against the aristocracy (96-8). Of the two empires, obviously, it was in China that the institution was more extensively used and a formal eunuch agency, the Zhongchangshi, exercised immense influence on imperial politics under the Eastern Han until a massacre of 2000 eunuchs by He Jin's supporters broke their power (92). Dettenhofer provides brief summaries of the career of famous Chinese eunuchs such as Zhao Gao (89) and Luan Ta (88). The power of the eunuchs often earned them the hostility of the Confucian bureaucratic elite and most court sources blacken the eunuchs as scapegoats for the policies undertaken by the emperors. The eunuchs also often formed political links with palace women. Livia, the empress Lu and the younger Agrippina are mentioned. The chapter, however, adds little to what is already known about eunuchs in both cultures.

In the fifth chapter P. F. Bang discusses the economic history of the two empires. Political discourse was frequently hostile to merchants and trade, but ironically markets and commercialism were widespread in both empires. Moses Finley and Mark Elvin's works are described and the old question of why Rome and China failed to develop capitalist economies is revisited. It is shown that the explanations offered by both critics need some revision (101). Bang argues quite convincingly that economic integration in both empires is often over-estimated (102) and defines both entities as tributary empires that controlled and distributed wealth (103). He also advances the theory that both empires were conspicuously successful because they both managed to maintain their hegemony at relatively low costs (108). Both empires, it is argued, had rather lean bureaucracies and were more dependent on agriculture than is commonly thought. Peasants under tributary systems were forced to increase production to cater for the needs of the state and the elite. These surpluses in turn facilitated markets that allowed the government to sell or buy needed commodities and resources (112). This imperial consumption sponsored a regionally distinct culture of agricultural and artisan production, especially in the Roman Empire. The consumption also generated an upsurge in long-distance trade that linked the two empires. The chapter ends with the comment that they were comparable worlds at least economically (119).

In chapter 6 M. Lewis discusses the phenomenon of imperial gift giving and charity. He provides a list of eight types of imperial gifts and charity under the Han emperors. They are categorized as the bestowing of ranks, pardons, poor relief in the form of tax relief and distribution of money to those affected by natural disasters, land distribution, gifts to the aged, gifts to officials, gifts to non-Chinese, and state sacrifices for the public weal (22-8). The list is then compared with the better known practice of imperial beneficence in imperial Rome. A major difference, that euergetism in Rome was inseparable from the city defined by its urban frame, is stressed. Primary forms of public benevolence in Rome were the construction of new buildings for public use, the sponsorship of games and maintenance of roads and aqueducts. In contrast, in China the bulk of imperial gift giving went to the countryside (131). It is explained that political power in Rome rested in the control of a multiplicity of urban centers, whereas in Han China it derived from the registration, taxation and mobilization of rural households. In Rome a public space was fashioned and maintained by the elite to display their authority, distinct from the government. In Han China there was no such public space (132).

In the final chapter, Scheidel provides a detailed analysis of the monetary systems of the two empires. It is pointed out that the monopolization of minting in both empires tied the success of these currencies to the fortunes of the state. The rise of standardized currency systems were the result of imperial unification. However, crucial differences are noted. The Roman monetary economy was dominated by silver and gold, the Chinese by a system of bronze coinages supplemented by uncoined precious-metal bullion. A long survey of Chinese monetary practices is provided and is then followed by a shorter summary of Roman practices. It is argued that the relative scarcity of precious metals in early China militated against the creation of empire-wide gold and silver currencies (181-7). In both monetary systems, the exchange value of coins was determined by a combination of intrinsic metal value and the user's willingness to accept them at their nominal value (188). It concludes that the distinction between a western preference for full-bodied coin and the fiduciary monetary tradition of China are at best exaggerated and at worst seriously misleading (195-6) and that the Roman Empire was considerably more monetized than the Han Empire (205). An appendix with a useful glossary of weights and denominations is also provided (206-7).

The book is an admirable demonstration of the great potential that lies in comparative analysis of the Greco-Roman world and Ancient China. It is hoped that this book will form the basis for more, exciting comparative research, which will surely broaden the horizons of Ancient history beyond its current compartmentalization and excessive departmentalization.

Table of Contents:

Chapter 1: W. Scheidel, "From the "Great Convergence" to the "Great Divergence": Roman and Qin-Han State Formation and its Aftermath", pp. 11-23.

Chapter 2: N. Rosenstein, "War, State Formation, and the Evolution of Military Institutions in Ancient China and Rome", pp. 24-51.

Chapter 3: K. Turner, "Law and Punishment in the Formation of Empire", pp. 52-82.

Chapter 4: M. H. Dettenhofer, "Eunuchs, Women, and Imperial Courts", pp. 83-99.

Chapter 5: P. F. Bang, "Commanding and Consuming the World: Empire, Tribute, and Trade in Roman and Chinese History", pp. 100-120.

Chapter 6: M. E. Lewis, "Gift Circulation and Charity in the Han and Roman Empires", pp. 121- 136.

Chapter 7: W. Scheidel, "The Monetary Systems of the Han and Roman Empires", pp. 137-207.


1.   Gizewski, C. (1994), 'Römische und alte chinesische Geschichte im Vergleich; Zur Möglichkeit eines gemeinsamen Altertumsbegriffs', Klio 76, 271-302.
2.   Barfield, T. J. (1989), The Perilous Frontier: Nomadic Empires and China, Cambridge, Massachusetts; Oxford, 46-7.

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