BMCR 2015.09.24

State Power in Ancient China and Rome. Oxford studies in early empires

, State Power in Ancient China and Rome. Oxford studies in early empires. New York: Oxford University Press, 2015. xvii, 303. ISBN 9780190202248. $74.00.


In contrast with a few decades ago intercultural comparison is now an accepted part of historical studies. This holds e.g. for the study of empires, with the juxtaposition of the ancient Chinese and Roman empires being considered especially instructive. The Stanford historian Walter Scheidel has long been a protagonist of this area of research. Here he presents a second collection of essays devoted to the comparison of ancient China and Rome. The new collection has a clearer focus than its predecessor.1 In the context of the inquiry about the ways and means that made possible the “dramatic expansion of the scale of human cooperation” (3) that we observe throughout history, it investigates different aspects of the workings of state power in the two empires.

The eight papers deal with four issues: “the relationship between rulers and elites”; “the recruitment, organization and funding of state agents”; the “interdependences between state power and urbanism”; and “the political dimension of belief systems” (6). The papers vary in the way they compare China and Rome. Side by side we find: co-authorship by representatives of the two fields of research concerned; direct comparative treatment of a given topic by an expert venturing beyond the borders of their original field of expertise; and juxtaposition of a Sinological and a Romanist paper on the same topic.

The first paper “Kingship and Elite Formation” (11-38) is co-authored by P. F. Bang, a Roman historian, and K. Turner, a specialist in East Asia studies. Both are skeptical concerning alleged fundamental differences, e.g. between “aristocratic” Rome and “bureaucratic” China, or Roman militarism and its supposed Chinese opposite (14f., 21ff.). Instead, they stress the commonalities between the two empires, e.g. the role of slaves, eunuchs and family members at court (15f.) ; the often precarious situation of high ranking members of the elite (16) ; the fostering of an “elite with a strong military component” at the beginning of the imperial period (17f.) ; and the later channeling of “elite ambition into a wider set of arenas for the display of social excellence” (23). In particular they draw attention to the development of “a new discourse where monarch and elite could engage to debate their roles” and in which the idea of “impassive, exemplary kingship” was the model which “the elites never seem to have tired of impressing on the ruler” (29). According to Bang and Turner “parallels” like these “reflect the logic of the situation: shared organizational constraints and broad similarities in the constitution of society, the structure of power, and processes of elite formation” (37). To point out fundamental commonalities is certainly worthwhile and to explain them with the analogy of the geo- and socio-political situation and of the tasks arising from it makes obvious sense. On the other hand, commonalities can be overemphasized, as seems to happen here and there in this paper, e.g. with respect to the model of “impassive, exemplary kingship” (29). This simply did not exist in Roman pre-Imperial i.e. Republican political thought and therefore – unlike in Han China – took some time to develop (under Greek influence) in the Imperial period.

T. C. Brennan, a Roman historian, is one of the scholars who venture beyond the borders of their principal field of expertise. The subject of his paper is decision-making processes in the Roman and Han empires (39-55). In a – slightly piecemeal – series of case studies (most though not all of them from the late Republican period in Rome and the Western Han period in China) he demonstrates the importance of advisory councils to those officially in charge of both polities, thus indicating another structural parallel between the two empires. Though this is certainly of interest we should keep in mind that the Roman Senate, even if its consulta were formally no more than submissions of advice to the respective magistrates, was in Republican times far more powerful than any advisory council to the Han emperors.

The following two papers represent the third way of comparative research: juxtaposition of complementary papers dealing with the same topic (with the second making at least some explicit comparison). D. X. Zhao and P. Eich investigate the role of bureaucracy in the Han and Roman Empires, both using – differently accentuated – sets of Weberian characteristics of bureaucracy. Zhao points to early beginnings of bureaucratization in the Western Zhou period and proceeds to analyze in detail the bureaucracy of the Western Han period, discussing its structure (63-67), its methods of recruitment and promotion (68-71), its means of performance-checking (71-75), the role of Confucianism as its moral foundation (75-79), and a number of its weaknesses (79-87). Eich starts from the reflection that according to Weber “the single most important characteristic of a modern bureaucracy” is its reliance “on the superior, specialized technical knowledge of the officeholders” and that in this sense “the Roman empire was never bureaucratic” (93). He considers, however, certain functional principles like the “development of spheres of responsibility”, “hierarchical organization of the staff” and a “high degree of record keeping” as “stereotypical components of all bureaucratic administrations” (94), and with these in mind traces the development of bureaucratic structures in Rome. He traces these from the “completely nonbureaucratic” (95) administration of the Republic (95-98), via the development of a “patrimonial bureaucracy” (101) from Augustus, to the “breakthrough” of “the drive to establish some sort of historical bureaucracy” (114) in the last decades of the 3 rd cent. and the fully developed “late Roman bureaucracy” (133) of the 4 th and 5 th centuries, of which he provides a systematic description (133-141). In his comparative remarks Eich follows Scheidel in pointing, on the one hand, to a high degree of similarity between the operational frameworks of the late Roman and the Han Empire: “the number of basic administrative units was roughly equal”; “leadership was divided into a civilian and military branch”; “an administrative middle level supervised the operators on the ground”; etc. (147). On the other he stresses that bureaucratization in the Roman Empire commenced “much later” than in China, that its “bureaucratic structures, functions, and notions remained much less formalized, more flexible and more deeply embedded in older structural contexts”, and above all that the significance of the professional army for its constitution and organization and of the regional municipal structures for its day-to-day administration were much greater (148f.).

The other four papers again treat their topics from both sides, though it has to be said that Michael Puett’s essay, “Empire and Religion in Early China and Ancient Rome” (230-259), however Sinologically interesting, makes so little reference to Rome that a comparative perspective does not really open up.

In contrast Walter Scheidel presents a well balanced study on “State Revenue and Expenditure in the Han and Roman Empires” (150-180), focusing on the late Western Han Empire and the Roman Empire of the 2 nd cent. CE. Though the source material is such that his comparison “involves more conjecture than many historians will feel comfortable with” (180) Scheidel’s “guesstimates” are throughout plausible, and telling. It is interesting to see that the scale of state revenue and expenditure was similar, and that in both cases it was relatively limited, i.e. “both (empires) were, or became, essentially ‘low-tax regimes’ benefiting from the lack of peer competitors that could have exerted serious pressure” (178). Just as interesting, however, are certain differences. They concern e.g. the distribution of “agency costs”: “top officials were dramatically better compensated by the Roman emperor than by his Han counterpart” (168), a fact which Scheidel convincingly connects with the Roman “tradition of aristocratic dominance and regime vulnerability” (172). Other differences concern the distribution of “protection costs” with the Roman Empire spending significantly more on its military than its Chinese counterpart, whereas in the Han Empire the subsidies paid to foreign peoples in order to avert open conflict made up for a much larger share of “defense spending” than in Rome (174-176).

The remaining two papers deal with the role of cities in the two empires. The Romanist C. F. Noreña in “Urban Systems in the Han and Roman Empires” (181-203) sets out “to assess the extent to which cities were the product of … state power… and whether or not they served as effective instruments of social control” (181). With respect to the first question he investigates the coming into being of the imperial capitals (189-193) and of what he calls “artificial cities” (193-196). In both cases the differences are striking. Whereas Changan was built from the scratch by the first Han emperor as an instrument and symbol of imperial power, Rome grew over centuries and was given the appearance of a truly imperial capital only under Augustus. Similarly the towns that served the maintenance of the imperial tombs near the Han capital came into being through massive state intervention including the resettlement of large numbers of people from distant places, while the Roman settlements in the Danube area were the result of the voluntary relocation of formerly dispersed regional population – though favored by incentives of the state.2 In the final section (196-203) Noreña contrasts the firm control that the Han Empire exercised over its cities through centrally appointed officials with the relative autonomy of the local elites under the High Roman Empire, and suggests that this difference may have contributed to the divergence that we can observe from the 6 th cent. CE, with the reconstitution of central state power in China and the absence of such reconstitution in western Europe.

The Sinologist M. E. Lewis investigates the physical organization of the cities and its connection with the social interaction between their inhabitants (204-229). Taking for granted basic similarities between the functions of cities in the two empires, he, too, focuses mainly on differences. The most important one concerned the role of public spaces and buildings. Roman cities were characterized by spaces and building complexes – most of them donated by the emperors or local elites – that served as venues for social activities and public entertainments. In Chinese cities public buildings were reserved for state agents, “forbidden” to outsiders and accessible only in case of official business. Rome – and to some extent other Roman cities – filled its public spaces with monuments commemorating historical events and personalities, with military achievements playing a particularly important role. The Chinese capitals presented themselves as brand new structures – built not in stone but in packed earth and wood, without historical commemorations, without triumphal monuments – symbols of the dynasty’s imposition of peace, order and hierarchy. Thus in spite of many common features of the Roman and the Han Empires, at the city level important differences remained.

This conclusion corresponds in miniature to the overall impression made by the collection as a whole. In certain respects the similar task of establishing and maintaining an empire led to similar solutions. The convergence of the imperial administrations of the mid Han and the late Roman periods is perhaps the most striking but not the only example. On the other hand each of the two empires preserved distinctive characteristics. Thus imperial control of the regions and their centers, the cities, was clearly stronger in China than in the West where the local elites continued to play an important role in the administration of the regions. Perhaps not unconnected with this difference was the significance of the military: very pronounced in the more segmented Roman Empire, less important in the more centralized Han system. The list could be continued.

However, these observations are not only interesting in themselves. Again and again it becomes clear how they can contribute to a wider understanding of the functioning of those great polities we call empires, of their coming into being, their development, their dissolution or regeneration. In this way, the volume certainly fulfills its claim to provide a “building block for more ambitious edifices” (10). Let us hope that it serves as an encouragement to others to engage in similar comparative adventures. ​


1. Rome and China. Comparative Perspectives on Ancient World Empires. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009.

2. At this point a certain reservation concerning the significance of this comparison might be appropriate: The tomb-towns in China were a relatively special phenomenon, while the settlements near army camps were a phenomenon widely spread throughout the Roman Empire.