Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2010.02.24

Fritz-Heiner Mutschler, Achim Mittag (ed.), Conceiving the Empire: China and Rome Compared.   Oxford/New York:  Oxford University Press, 2008.  Pp. xx, 481.  ISBN 9780199214648.  $175.00.  

Reviewed by Damien Chaussende, Centre de Recherche sur les Civilisations d'Asie Orientale (

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

This book is a collection of essays dealing with the formation and the development of the concept of Empire. Most of the contributions were presented in Essen (Germany) at an international conference that gathered Romanists and Sinologists in April 2005. Using a comparative perspective, the articles put Ancient Rome and Early Imperial China in parallel.

Edited by the Romanist Fritz-Heiner Mutschler and the Sinologist Achim Mittag, this book excellently illustrates the interest and the fertility of the dialogue among specialists of these two globally opposite civilizations that share, mutatis mutandis, a common feature: their political organisation.

This book lends new insight and perspective to both classicists and sinologists, for it reveals particularities that are often difficult to identify when a researcher concentrates on only one civilization. As an example, it is common knowledge among Romanist scholars that coinage was a means to disseminate the portrait of the ruler. Statues of him were erected throughout the Empire to glorify his person and reign. However, if we look at the eastern corner of the Eurasian continent during the same ancient period, we observe that no such representation of the Emperor exists in China. Aside from some high ranking officials, no one was allowed to see the face of the Son of Heaven in Ancient China, especially commoners. His charisma was exerted through different ways.1 This book tries to explain the whys and the hows of such differences.

The key issue is to examine the concept of Empire the way it was conceived and expressed in the sources when the two Empires were gradually constituted: from the turn of the Christian era in Rome, and from the end of the third century BC in China. The seventeen papers that form Conceiving the Empire are arranged chronologically and divided into three distinct time frames: the first focuses on the period prior to the creations of the imperial polities; the second deals with the formation of the Empires (Augustan Rome vs. Qin and Han dynasties in China [ca. 221 BC-220 AD]); the third explores the periods of crisis or fragmentation (from third century Rome vs. Early Medieval China [ca. third-sixth centuries]). The articles are not only concisely written but also are organized in pairs dealing with judiciously chosen themes, hence enabling the reader to draw parallels between the two civilizations. Each contributor is a specialist on the topic he treats and never himself draws comparisons, thereby preventing dangerous "jumps to conclusions". An overall comparison is however presented in an epilogue jointly written by the two editors. Among the subjects discussed are political philosophy, historiography, geography and cartography, imperial rhetoric and representations, religions and intellectual trends. As commentary on each article is beyond the scope of this review, I shall concentrate on two particularly important and recurrent topics: the idea of unified rule and historiography.

The book starts with two essays on the intellectual background that allowed the emergence of the idea of Empire. In the case of the Romans, Albrecht Dihle (no. 1) includes in his study the link to the Greek polis and the Eastern monarchies (such as Persia or Macedonia). For the Greeks living under Roman domination, the Empire was after all a large polis. However, as the idea of monarchy was abhorred by Roman citizens, Michael Nylan (no. 2) demonstrates that, in China, all ancient texts promoted the idea of a unified rule under a monarch and did not put monarchy into question. This political system was the norm in ancient China, long before the Empire. Thinkers and historians essentially diverged with respect to the arguments they used to promote unified rule: before the foundation of the Chinese Empire in 221 BC, they argued that such a political organisation would put an end to the interstate wars; during the reign of Emperor Wu of Han (who reigned from 141 to 87 BC and can be considered the consolidator of the Chinese Empire), thinkers tried to limit autocracy and excessive expansionism; after Emperor Wu, they sought to exhort rulers to lean toward moderation and virtue. What emerges from this comparative perspective is that in China, the Emperor appears to have a very different nature than his counterpart in Rome. Rolf Michael Schneider (no. 12) shows the efforts of Roman elites to make omnipresent the image of the emperor in public space, through statues for instance. In China, emperors are not represented directly, as I have already said. Michèle Pirazolli (no. 13) notes that, being the Son of Heaven, the Chinese ruler belongs to a theological reality that does not need to be made visible. The means and methods by which the Emperor's omnipresent influence is communicated are different from those of the Roman Emperor. His court officials pushed the Emperor's message of political, ideological and cultural unification and implemented the public manifestation of his power by erecting steles, following the example of the First Emperor after unifying the territory in 221 BC (Martin Kern, no. 10). The stele inscriptions were an act of political rhetoric because of their content, which intended to glorify the unified rule, including the context under which they were erected: inspection tours of newly conquered regions. The parallel drawn by Christian Witschel (no. 11), who discusses the Res Gestae of Emperor Augustus, is revealing: this text was an act of propaganda primarily directed at the people of Rome (as engraved at the Mausoleum of Augustus) and then toward the elites in the provinces (spreading as far as Asia Minor). The content of the Res Gestae was meant to be read. On the contrary, the erection of the First Emperor's steles was above all a performance in itself, revealing the existing link in China between texts and ritual.

Historiography is well represented in this volume with six articles directly related to this field. Two deal with the emergence of the idea of unified rule or universal Empire before or during the rise of the imperial polities. Yuri Pines (no. 4) discusses the notion of territorial unity in Chinese pre-imperial literature: although texts of the Spring and Autumn period (771-453 BC) tend to project such an idea back to a golden past, without challenging the feudal system in which they lived, thinkers of the Warring States period (453-221 BC) promoted the idea of total unification in the future. Such a unity would be, for them, the only solution to the wars that plagued China at that time.2 In exploring three centuries of historical accounts from Fabius Pictor (ca. 254-201 BC) to Livy (59 BC-17 AD), Huang Yang and Fritz-Heiner Mutschler (no. 5) show that such a phenomenon does not exist in Roman historiography. The concept of Empire first appears along with the Empire itself; at most, the Romans were aware of their military and political superiority over the other polities. In China, texts such as the Records of the Grand Historian (Shiji) of Sima Qian (ca. 145-86 BC), the Book of Han (Hanshu) of Ban Gu (32-92) or the prefaces in the Classic of poetry (Shijing), written when the imperial system was firmly established, came to reinforce the idea of Empire and the concept of dynastic cycle. Hence a sort of "pact", as Achim Mittag says (no. 7), was established between imperial power and historiography. The Roman case is very different from this point of view. Fritz-Heiner Mutschler (no. 6) describes a large difference between the historians Sima Qian and Tacitus (ca. 56-117) in the way they see imperial power. Tacitus wrote his Histories and his Annals when the Augustan Principate definitively replaced the Republic. Tacitus, having a senatorial background, felt uncomfortable with the restoration of a form of monarchy. This was not the case earlier, as Mutschler explains. Virgil (70-19 BC), Horace (65-8 BC) and Velleius Paterculus (19 BC-31 AD) witnessed the rise to power of Augustus and/or his successor Tiberius and seemed to accept the idea of a monarchy. In Rome, it is only after the imperial system was established that critics emerged. Mutschler's article would have thus given a fuller historiographical account had he included the Lives of the Twelve Caesars by Suetonius (ca. 69/75-after 130). Even if it did not have the grandeur of annalistic accounts, the Lives of Suetonius, a contemporary of Tacitus, is still a usable historical source, particularly from the perspective of the representation of the Principate. Suetonius' portraits do illustrate a real political tension between aristocracy and political power. Roman aristocrats (especially senators), as they felt nostalgic of the Republican era, tended to present negatively monarchs that had excessively dismissed them from the process of decision, hence the black legends on emperors like Caligula (r. 37-41), Nero (r. 54-68) and Domitian (r. 81-96).3 The last two papers on historiography present a selection of work compiled after the collapse of the Han dynasty (220 AD) and after the crisis of the third century AD in Rome. Achim Mittag and Ye Min (no. 15) analyse the biases of well-known Chinese historians such as Chen Shou (233-297), Fan Ye (398-445), Xi Zuochi (died 381) and Wei Shou (502-572), focusing on the question of political legitimization. Legitimacy was an important topic at that time, for these authors lived in a period of territorial fragmentation. As there could only be one Son of Heaven (i.e. the emperor), which of the polities described in their work was the legitimate one? These historians were greatly conditioned by the context in which they lived. For example, Chen Shou, in his Records of the Three Kingdoms, had to legitimate the Wei kingdom, because the dynasty under which he lived (the Jin) founded its legitimacy on the Wei. Others, such as Wei Shou, wrote their work under direct imperial command. Hans Armin Gartner and Ye Min (no. 14) present the Roman parallel, discussing how the notion of crisis was perceived by historians, especially after the defeat at Adrianople in 378 AD. The awareness of the Empire's weakness against Germanic peoples influenced the Roman historians' accounts differently, depending on whether they were pagan or Christian. In this essay, emphasis is put on Ammianus Marcellinus (ca. 332-400) who represented the pagan tradition; he believed that Rome would be eternal, and the Romans could resolve all the crises, as long as they cultivated their moral virtue.

In summary, this volume, clearly written and carefully edited, is not only a remarkable demonstration of a well-done comparative study, it is also an excellent state-of-the-field compendium on the concept of Empire in both civilizations. If not a required reading, Conceiving the Empire should at least be greatly recommended for a classical history or sinological course. The only regret is its exorbitant price, which will considerably limit its diffusion. A paperback version would be most welcome.

Table of contents:

1. Albrecht Dihle, "City and Empire ", pp. 5-28.

2. Zhu Weizheng, "Interlude: Kingship and Empire", pp. 29-37.

3. Michael Nylan, "The Rhetoric of 'Empire' in the Classical Era in China", pp. 39-64.

4. Yuri Pines, "Imagining the Empire? Concepts of 'Primeval Unity' in Pre-Imperial Historiographic Tradition", pp. 67-89.

5. Huang Yang, Fritz-Heiner Mutschler, "The Emergence of Empire: Rome and the Surrounding World in Historical Narratives from the Late Third Century BC to the Early First Century AD", pp. 91-114.

6. Fritz-Heiner Mutschler, "The Problem of 'Imperial Historiography' in Rome", pp. 119-141.

7. Achim Mittag, "Forging Legacy: The Pact between Empire and Historiography in Ancient China", pp. 143-165.

8. Helwig Schmidt-Glintzer, "Diagram (tu) and Text (wen): Mapping the Chinese World", pp. 169-193.

9. Katherine Clarke, "Text and Image: Mapping the Roman World", pp. 195-214.

10. Martin Kern, "Announcements from the Mountains: The Stele Inscriptions of the Qin First Emperor", pp. 217-240.

11. Christian Witschel, "The Res Gestae Divi Augusti and the Roman Empire", pp. 241-266.

12. Rolf Michael Schneider, "Image and Empire: The Shaping of Augustan Rome", pp. 269-298.

13. Michèle Pirazzoli-t'Serstevens, "Imperial Aura and the Image of the Other in Han Art", pp. 299-317.

14. Hans Armin Gartner, Ye Min, "The Impact of the Empire's Crises on Historiography and Historical Thinking in Late Antiquity", pp. 323-345.

15. Achim Mittag, Ye Min, "Empire on the Brink: Chinese Historiography in the Post-Han-Period", pp. 347-369.

16. Gerard O'Daly, "New Tendencies, Religious and Philosophical, in the Roman Empire of the Third to Early Fifth Centuries", pp. 373-396.

17. Thomas Jansen, "New Tendencies, Religious and Philosophical, in the Chinese World of the Third through Sixth Centuries", pp. 395-419.

18. Fritz-Heiner Mutschler, Achim Mittag, "Epilogue", pp. 421-447.


1.   Cf. for example the imperial euergetism more sinico in Mark Edward Lewis, "Gift Circulation and Charity in the Han and Roman Empires", in Walter Scheidel (ed.), Rome and China: Comparative Perspectives on Ancient World Empires. Oxford/New York: Oxford University Press, 2009, pp. 121- 136.
2.   Cf. Yuri Pines' latest publication, Envisioning Eternal Empire: Chinese Political Thought of the Warring States Era. Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press, 2009. See my forthcoming review in Etudes chinoises, vol. XXVIII, 2009.
3.   Cf. Yves Roman, Empereurs et sénateurs: Une histoire politique de l'Empire romain. Paris: Fayard, 2001; John Matthews, "The Emperor and his Historians", in John Marincola (ed.), A Companion to Greek and Roman Historiography. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2007, pp. 290-304.

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