BMCR 2021.04.19

Rome, China, and the barbarians: ethnographic traditions and the transformation of empires

, Rome, China, and the barbarians: ethnographic traditions and the transformation of empires. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2020. Pp. xx, 369. ISBN 9781108473958 $120.00.


This volume, based on Ford’s dissertation, compares ethnographical writing in ancient Roman and Chinese empires primarily through Procopius’ Wars and Jin Shu (晉書, published in 648 CE). Both works record China’s and Rome’s active interactions with foreigners in periods of division. Procopius’ Wars records the Justinianic reclamation of the western territories from the Goths and the Vandals. Jin Shu, on the other hand, tackles the bewildering age of the Sixteen Kingdoms” (十六國”, 304-439 CE), during which twenty major barbarian states sprang up in northern and southwestern China.[1] The biographies of the states’ leaders were recorded in the Zaiji section “載記” of Jin Shu. Each of the Chinese and Roman historical works contain rich materials by which to evaluate the contemporary discourse surrounding the civilized-barbarian dichotomy. The renewed contact with foreigners forced these historians to re-evaluate earlier ethnographical traditions in which barbarians occupied a peripheric and inferior position. They faced a renegotiation of political and cultural identities that was to have enormous consequences for the political and cultural history of both Europe and China.” (p. 4) Representation of barbarians, as a result, is “central to the process of perpetuating, creating, and rearticulating conceptual boundaries between Self and Other.” The other salient point to which the author calls attention is that Jin Shu was composed two hundred years after the Sixteen Kingdoms. Its ethnographical perception does not reflect contemporary attitudes towards the barbarian kingdoms. It reflects concepts prevalent in the reunified early Tang Dynasty, when the literati looked back on previous barbarian rulerships (p. 207-208).[2]

Ford explains his methodologies and choice of comparanda in the introduction. Reviewing the scholarship from Lloyd to Scheidel and Mutschler, Ford lists central questions in the field of comparative studies—from ancient mentalities to state formation and the success or failure of reunification after divisions. However, Ford emphasises that he does not employ any quantitative or sociological approaches, nor is he trying to determine historical causality. In fact, he seems to give up on all theories and methodologies and relies solely on the guiding assumption that ancient historiographies are rhetorical perceptions of their contemporary worlds. Depictions of foreign actors are, therefore, manifestations of the eastern and western ideologies of the Other (‘barbarians’ or ‘Yi’ and ‘Di’ in Chinese). Procopius’ Wars and Jin Shu, both written by authors from imperial centres, offer glimpses into “the attitudes, perceptions, and worldviews of the respective imperial literati—crucial components of the ideological construction of imperial landscapes” (p. 21).

Chapters One and Two review the earlier ethnographical traditions of the Graeco-Roman world and ancient China. Both traditions contain records of foreign peoples from their earliest texts, but Ford argues that Greek authors showed greater interest in other peoples. Homer and Herodotus digress to record in detail the customs and traditions of barbarians. In comparison, Chinese records from the “pre-imperial” period (before 212 BCE) do not engage in similar excursions. Instead, foreign ethnic groups are mentioned only to fulfill a geographical and cosmological narrative which centralised the Chinese people. Although both Greek and later Chinese writing attributes mythological origins to the barbarians, Greek thought considers that all peoples are under the sway of fortune, whereas the Chinese insisted on their own superiority and reshaped ongoing conflicts with foreigners as a civil-barbarian antithesis recurring since the mythical age. Although both Greek and Chinese authors discriminate against outsiders, the Greek authors praise barbarians’ noble qualities and do not necessarily consider them as inferior. But in Chinese records, even foreigners who were sinicised and loyal, e.g., 金日磾 (Jin Midi), could not evade an inherent inferiority that originated in their barbaric identity.

The third chapter launches the central comparison between the Wars and Jin Shu. Both Procopius and the authors of Jin Shu inherited their respective classical ethnographical traditions and civil-barbarian dichotomies, but Procopius adhered less strictly to convention. Barbarian groups, such as the Vandals and Goths, are free in the Wars from the cliché of being savages and are instead recognized for their royalty. The Chinese historians, however, traced the lineage of contemporary barbarians to earlier or even mythological foreigners, maintaining the dichotomy as an unchanged archaic theme in which the Chinese always prevailed—at least morally. While Romans had a long tradition of tolerance, incorporating foreigners into the citizen body, Chinese ideology forbade the inclusion of any alternative identities. This is even more intriguing since the Tang imperial house originated in the Liang Dynasty, one of the barbarian kingdoms, but even it made no effort to change the ethnographical narratives and stuck strictly to the sino-centric discourse.

Chapters Four and Five discuss the role of ethnic ideologies in legitimising foreign rulerships. Ford maintains that barbarian ethnogeneaology was not used by Procopius to delegitimize the rulerships of the Franks and Vandals. Instead, they are treated as equal foreign rulers. For the Chinese, however, foreign roots and animalistic ethnonyms were used in Jin Shu to depict the dominions of outsiders as monstrous usurpations. Based on this difference, Ford further refutes two conventional opinions in the field of Roman and Chinese studies. Rebutting Heather, Fords maintains that the differentiation between Romans and barbarians was not stark. As for China, Ford argues that the persistence of ethnic discrimination undermines the traditional belief that the Tang Dynasty was an age of cosmopolitanism and acceptance. The gap between barbarians and the Chinese was still impossible to bridge.

Ford starts his concluding chapter by criticising the encroachment of modern ideologies on the study of ancient ethnography. He laments that “[m]odern Chinese scholars, working within the prescribed parameters of the nationalist propaganda of the Communist Party” (p. 314) overly emphasized the inclusiveness and assimilation of other ethnic groups, without paying enough attention to discrimination against these peoples. In the end, Ford comes back to the central question of the volume: why would the classicized and conservative Roman historian Procopius represent the defeated enemies of Justinian in a positive light while Tang authors refused to admit the legitimacy of previous foreign dynasties (and this despite the foreign origin of the new imperial house)? Ford summarizes his two answers as follows. On the one hand, “the Roman community was conceived as an artificial and legal, rather than consanguineous and biological” one (p. 327). As a result, barbarian lords’ foreign identity did not obstruct their legitimacy in the eyes of the Roman Empire. On the other hand, the “strength of inherited literary traditions” (p. 329) also influenced Procopius and the authors of Jin Shu. The Wars inherits Homer and Herodotus’ pan-human sympathy and portrays the barbarian enemy in sympathetic and even valorising light. Similarly, the authors of Jin Shu, though working under an emperor of barbarian origin, continues earlier ethnographic paradigms and disdained foreign rulers. Centuries of discrimination against foreigners allow no room for alternative ethnic identities. The imperial family of the Tang Dynasty has no choice but to give up on their foreign roots and become sinicised in order to consolidate their rule.

Rome, China, and the Barbarians is an impressive study vis-à-vis the author’s mastery of materials and languages. Limiting the scope to two works and carefully choosing its time periods promised an interesting comparison between the eastern and the western ethnographical traditions. One unfortunate miss is the absence of the intermediary works between the earliest traditions and Procopius and Jin Shu. Ammianus Marcellinus receives only marginal discussion, although his depiction of the barbarians may reflect a stricter boundary between Romans and barbarians.[3] As for China, Ford briefly mentions the histories San Guo Zhi (三國志) and Hou Han Shu (後漢書), from the third and fifth centuries respectively. Ford includes these two works within the sino-centric tradition of ancient Chinese historiography, which, while not off the mark, perhaps paint the matter with strokes that are a little too broad; in fact, these works have much richer information on foreign peoples than their predecessors. Hou Han Shu even recorded the founding myths of foreign kingdoms without resorting to traditional Chinese myths.[4]

Ford’s avoidance of methodological frameworks is also not without problems. The phenomena he observes, when not tied to historical events/trends, do not give a full picture of ancient Chinese and Roman ideologies, nor do they offer the promised answer to the respective success and failure of imperial reunification. The presumed relationship between reunification and ideology may not be taken for granted. Scheidel questioned the correlation more than a decade ago, since the commitment to one state was equally strong in the east and the west.[5]

Lastly, Ford’s presentation of ancient Chinese texts can be misleading. For the ancient texts, modern commentaries are sometimes cited as primary sources, other times as secondary.[6] Ford also rarely consults Shi Liu Guo Chun Qiu (十六國春秋), the only contemporary records of foreign peoples during the Sixteen Kingdom Period. Ford claims that they are lost, but fragments of this book have been compiled in Shi Liu Guo Chun Qiu Ji Bu (十六國春秋輯補).

Overall, Ford’s work offers a thought-provoking study on the ethnographical traditions of eastern and western antiquity. Yet ideology and self-perception, though often addressed in the fields of Roman and Chinese studies, still have not received significant attention in the field of comparative studies.[7] Ford’s project, as a result, has the potential to lead to more future studies of ancient ethnic perceptions and ideologies.


[1] Even after the Xianbei (鮮卑”), one of the foreign peoples, reunited the northern half, China still underwent another 150 years of stand-off between the south and the north until the Sui Dynasty reunited the whole territory in 589 CE.

[2] Ford mentions this only once in the book, although readers may appreciate more frequent reminders of the hazard of anachronistic interpretations.

[3] This argument has been recently reiterated by Guy A. J. Williams in his PhD thesis. Ammianus, as Williams noticed, generally reserved bravery for the Romans. “Barbarians do possess a form of bravery, but Ammianus generally deems this to be stubbornness (‘obstinatio’) rather than true valour” (p. 49)

[4] Two outstanding examples are the kingdoms of Yelang (“夜郎國”) and Ailao (“哀牢國”). The mythical king of the former was born from bamboo and the latter from the union of a woman with a piece of wood sunk in the water. Neither case has much to do with the traditional Chinese myths.

[6] For example, the Lvshi chunqiu jiaoyi of Chen Qiyou is listed as secondary. Yang Bojun’s Lunyu yizhu, wrongly cited as 論語釋注 is quoted as primary.

[7] The only other academic volume which comes to mind is Hyun Jin Kim, Ethnicity and Foreigners in Ancient Greece and China (Bloomsbury, 2009). The same author also used Chinese sources to challenge the perception of the Hun people in The Huns, Rome, and the Birth of Europe (Cambridge University Press, 2013). However, the latter is not a comparative study.