BMCR 2022.05.21

Rulers and ruled in ancient Greece, Rome, and China

, , Rulers and ruled in ancient Greece, Rome, and China. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2021. Pp. 448. ISBN 9781108485777 $120.00.

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

The past decade has witnessed several collective volumes and monographs contributing to cross-cultural comparisons between ancient China, Greece, and Rome, with topics ranging from the operation of the empires to historiography, writing and knowledge, ethnicity, and other cultural topics.[1] This reflects an increasing scholarly interest in the emerging field of global and comparative Classics, an intellectual reaction to the future of Classics as a discipline in light of the ongoing process of globalisation. The volume under review is a timely and important addition to this burgeoning trend and an admirable demonstration of scholarly collaboration, especially at a time when a backlash against globalisation and opposition to openness and connection are surging.

The volume’s overarching theme is ‘the conceptual capacity of “the people” in history’, especially the cultural and political dynamics between the rulers and the ruled in ancient China, Greece, and Rome (I). This is new, as previous comparisons of the political cultures of ancient Greece, Rome, and China have mainly centred their focus, at the macro level, on the formation and operation of the empires.[2] The volume is composed of a brief introduction and thirteen chapters, which are divided into four thematic sections. In the introductory chapter, the editors give a brief survey of the cultural meanings of the people—demos (Greece), populus (Rome), and min (民, China)—in their respective cultural and political contexts. The overall methodological principle is to calibrate a balance between generalisation and particularisation (xiii), aiming to ‘make the cultural encoding of universal paradigms visible, and disclose the force it wielded over the historical development (xiv)’.

The three chapters in the first section, ‘Authority and Lifestyle of Distinction’, explore the ways in which social elites and the urban citizens and commoners performed their political and social roles in Han and Roman periods. Griet Vankeerberghen’s chapter compares the similar strategies that the nobles of Western Han China and Republican Rome deployed in facing competition and uncertainty in the maintenance of their social status. The second chapter by Miranda Brown and Zhongwei Zhang makes an innovative comparison of the commemorative practices of honorific statues and steles in Roman Greece and Han China. The two chapters also provide valuable English translations of and useful annotations on two Chinese inscriptions, the steles of Zhao Kuan (趙寬) and Yang Zhen (楊震). Carlos Noreña’s chapter continues his comparative interest in the conception of urban spaces and their relationship with imperial power, investigating the private associations and the lived experience of ‘the urban middle stratum’, including ‘artisans, craftsmen, shopkeepers, traders, and merchants’ (102), in Han China and the Roman empire.

The four chapters of the second section, ‘The People as Agents and Addressees’, examine oratorical traditions and practices, the lives and activities of ordinary female commoners, the mechanisms of the census, and the process of food distribution in the three ancient cultures. Francisco Pina Polo’s chapter compares oratorical practices and their function as a means of political communication between the ruler and the people in Rome and early imperial China. The different practices of oratory before the people, as Pina Polo not surprisingly suggests, were conditioned by the distinct institutional mechanisms and the uniqueness of the concept of Roman citizenship (150). The common feature of the three following chapters is their use of recently discovered legal and administrative documents from Shuihudi (睡虎地), Liye (里耶), Zhangjiashan (张家山), and Yinwan (尹湾), among others. Based on these legal and administrative documents, Robin Yates’ chapter does an excellent job of reconstructing the social, economic, and marital status of commoner women in Qin and Han China. Yates’ investigation of changing female status in imperial China and Rome aims to ‘lay the groundwork’ (158) for future comparisons; he also asks fascinating questions concerning the relationship between femininity and the development of imperial power (168), or whether commoner women in early imperial China were freer than their Roman counterparts (177). Hans Beck’s chapter examines the mechanisms and distinct features of the census in ancient Rome, early imperial China, and classical Greece; the comparative purpose is achieved through his parallel narratives of the three registration practices. The last chapter by Moonsil Lee Kim offers a thought-provoking analysis of the process of food redistribution, arguing that food redistribution in Qin and Han China not only served as a means of sustaining and reproducing the social and political order, but also ‘provided practical solutions to the problems of how to adequately feed people at every level of the social hierarchy’ (256) and the sustainability of the two ‘food empires’ by balancing nutrition and increasing productivity.

The four chapters in the third section, ‘Inversions of the People: Emperors and Tyrants’, move the focus from the ruled to the ruler, exploring the construction and representation of imperial power in historical writings and the interplay between calendrical knowledge and imperial power. The first chapter by Alexander Yakobson discusses the old question of the reasons behind Augustus’ refusal of dictatorship in 22 BCE and the political nature of the early Principate. The section’s second chapter comes from Garret Olberding, whose comparative focus is the satiric aspect of the historical narrative of Jing Ke’s assassination of Lord Qin in Shiji (史记). Adopting James Scott’s concept of ‘a dissident subculture’, Olberding concludes that the satiric narrative of Jing Ke’s regicidal assassination conveys the historian’s dissenting voice to Emperor Wu. The following chapter by David Engels takes a different approach to one-man rule, examining ‘the power of historical dynamics’ (331) from the standpoints of the unity of the empire, the social structure of the political elite, the idea of clemency, the problem of censorship, and the reference to the mythical past, although it is alarming that no original Chinese sources are used. The comparative focus of the chapter by Rebecca Robinson is on the consultative processes, writings, and motivations of the two calendar reforms under Emperor Wu and Julius Caesar, arguing that both the Taichu reform of 104 BCE and the Julian calendar reform of 46 BCE were not only technical but also political, serving to disseminate imperial ideology.

The last section, ‘Identities and “Others”’, discloses how early Greece and China constructed their identities through comparison with ‘Others’. The two chapters from Yang Huang and Hyun Jin Kim focus on the formation and development of concepts and terminologies that describe the outsiders, that is, barbaros on the Greek side and man rong yi di (蛮戎夷狄) on the Chinese side. Yang Huang’s chapter traces the processes of the formation of the idea of the ‘barbarian other’ in early China from the Shang to the Warring States periods. He suggests that the binary categories of Huaxia/Zhuxia/Central States on the one side and Man Yong Yi Di on the other were generalised alongside the formation and expansion of the earliest Chinese dynasties. Huang’s analysis is supplemented by Hyun Jin Kim’s chapter, and from a different angle to boot. Reiterating his thought-provoking argument that has been well-articulated in Ethnicity and Foreigners in Ancient Greece and China, Kim situates the different processes and features of the construction of the ‘barbarian other’ in their respective contexts of different geopolitical and cultural needs.

In all, one of the great merits of the volume lies in some contributors’ use of ‘new’ materials such as early Chinese inscriptions, bamboo strips, and wooden tablets, which concern administrative practices and various other facets of social elites and commoners in Qin and Han China. These materials, which are likely to be unfamiliar to classicists, enable the authors to claim new comparative topics: the commemorative practices and strategies of the social elite (Griet Vankeerberghen, Miranda Brown and Zhongwei Zhang), the legal status and daily experience of commoner women (David Yates), the process of food distribution to the commoners (Moonsil Lee Kim), the process of the census (Hans Beck), etc. The detailed analyses of these materials also allow the contributors to discuss issues concerning early Chinese history in detail and from a local and micro level, uncovering the historical complexity rather than simply reiterating the traditionally top-down view of ancient Chinese history. Furthermore, the volume contains nine maps of ancient China, Greece, and Rome; lists of Chinese characters are provided at the end of most of the chapters to help the readers to navigate. Both sinologists and classicists will find the glossary helpful.

The authors’ abilities to access here Greco-Roman and there ancient Chinese materials are not equal. This is understandable, given the contributors’ different research expertise, but this imbalance raises important questions concerning the practice of cross-cultural comparison. Comparative studies are closely related to the questions of historical specificity and causality. Most of the authors in the volume demonstrate a sound awareness of historical and causal complexity. Yet one might occasionally find that certain chapters’ basis for comparison—and the ways that the questions are formulated—is not always satisfactory, and their conclusions tend to have one’s own hypotheses or explanative paradigms confirmed.[3] For instance, Carlos Noreña’s characterisation of urban experience in imperial Rome and Han China and his ‘genetic’ and ‘structural’ explanation are unconvincing, as his main choice of the ancient Chinese analogue to Roman private associations is youxia (游侠), which he acknowledges to be a ‘very loose’ parallel (107). But the rural or urban orientations of Roman and Han private associations and their functions are worth reflecting on. From Qin and Han periods, local communities had formed various types of sishe (私社), literally translated as ‘private associations’, as one type of sheyi (社邑), which were voluntarily founded by local members for mutual aids and distinct from the officially founded lishe (里社).[4] It would be of great interest to compare the different rural and urban settings, developments, and functions of the two types of ‘private associations’ in their respective historical and social milieus.This last point leads to another issue: how should we frame the comparative questions so as to not risk the reduction of the historical complexity and diversity of the comparanda?

To conclude, the variety of the comparative approaches that the contributors take in the volume reminds us not only that comparison deals with similarity, difference, and causation, but also that through using ‘new’ materials one can also ask refreshing questions and gain new insight into old questions. It represents a commendable example for those who will venture into comparative studies and will be of great interest to sinologists, classicists, and comparativists alike.

Authors and titles

List of Figures
List of Tables
List of Maps
List of Contributors
Chronology of the Ancient Mediterranean
Chronology of Ancient China
Maps of Ancient China, Greece, and Rome
Hans Beck and Griet Vankeerberghen: Introduction: The Many Faces of “the People” in the Ancient World: δῆμος – populus – 民 min

Part I Authority and Lifestyles of Distinction
1 Griet Vankeerberghen: Of Gold and Purple: Nobles in Western Han China and Republican Rome
2 Miranda Brown and Zhongwei Zhang: A Tale of Two Stones: Social Memory in Roman Greece and Han China
3 Carlos F. Noreña: Private Associations and Urban Experience in the Han and Roman Empires
Part II The People as Agents and Addressees
4 Francisco Pina Polo: Rhetoric, Oratory and People in Ancient Rome and Early China
5 Robin D. S. Yates: Female Commoners and the Law in Early Imperial China: Evidence from Recently Recovered Documents with Some Comparisons with Classical Rome
6 Hans Beck: Registers of “the People” in Greece, Rome, and China
7 Moonsil Lee Kim: Food Distribution for the People: Welfare, Food, and Feasts in Qin/Han China and in Rome
Part III Inversions of the People: Emperors and Tyrants
8 Alexander Yakobson: Augustus, the Roman Plebs and the Dictatorship: 22 BCE and Beyond
9 Garret Pagenstecher Olberding: Liberation as Burlesque: The Death of the Tyrant
10 David Engels: Historical Necessity or Biographical Singularity? Some Aspects in the Biographies of C. Iulius Caesar and Qin Shi Huangdi
11 Rebecca Robinson: Employing Knowledge: A Case Study in Calendar Reforms in the Early Han and Roman Empires
Part IV Identities and “Others”
12 Yang Huang: The Invention of the “Barbarian” and Ethnic Identity in Early Greece and China
13 Hyun Jin Kim: Ethnic Identity and the “Barbarian” in Classical Greece and Early China: Its Origins and Distinctive Features


[1] For instance, Lloyd, G. E. R. and Jingyi Jenny Zhao, eds. 2018. Ancient Greece and China Compared. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

[2] For instance, Mutschler, Fritz-Heiner, and Achim Mittag, eds. 2008. Conceiving the Empire: China and Rome Compared. Oxford: Oxford University Press; Scheidel, Walter, ed. 2009. Rome and China: Comparative Perspectives on Ancient World Empires. Oxford: Oxford University Press; 2015; State Power in Ancient China and Rome. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

[3] The potential issues of researchers’ preconceptions and the appropriateness of comparative topics have been noted by Phiroze Vasunia in his review article ‘The Comparative Study of Empires’, JHS, 101 (2011): 222-237.

[4] The existence of sishe has one attestation in Hanshu (《漢書·五行志》) and is well attested in Han bamboo and wooden documents. In Eastern Han China, there were different types of sishe, such as Jiu dan (‘酒單’), Zi dan (‘字單’) , Tongzi dan (‘同志單’), and Xiaozi dan (‘孝子單’). The paucity of evidence makes it hard to systematically study the function and organisation of sishe (religious sacrifices and feasts appear to be the main social functions, but some of the sishe were organised according to occupation) and whether it was only a rural phenomenon.