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Comparative studies of the Roman and Han empires

The Roman Empire and the Han Empire around AD 1
Political map of the Eastern Hemisphere in AD 200

Comparisons between the Roman and Han empires involve the comparative study of the roughly contemporaneous Roman Empire and the Han dynasty of early imperial China. At their peaks, both states controlled a large portion of the world population and produced political and cultural legacies that endure to the modern era; comparative studies largely focus on their similar scale at their pinnacles and on parallels in their rise and decline. The vast majority of studies focus on one or the other; however, the comparison of the two has attracted somewhat increased interest in the 21st century, with several studies examining the concepts of ethnicity, identity, and the views of foreigners.


Walter Scheidel reviewed the previous scholarship when he explained the purpose of Stanford University's Ancient Chinese and Mediterranean Empires Comparative History Project and the framework of its study in the early 21st century. Max Weber and Karl August Wittfogel both wrote works comparing the ancient Mediterranean and China; however, their studies have had little influence on later historians of the ancient world. Scheidel gives this as a contributing cause to the relative paucity of comparative studies between the two. The majority of the research in the subject area has concentrated on looking at the intellectual and philosophical history of each society. He also noted a change in the direction of research in the 2000s, with a refocusing on the "nature of moral, historical, and scientific thought" in Ancient Greece and China.[1]

Several scholars have made comparative studies of the two empires. As historian Samuel Adshead puts it, "Other comparisons could be made ... None, however, offers so close a parallel with Han China as the Roman empire".[2] These have tended to focus on the philosophical and intellectual histories of China and the Greco-Roman world, and despite modern interest, gaps remain in the scholarship comparing Rome and the Han Empire. Scheidel notes that there are no comparative studies of high culture; there is also a virtual absence of work on "political, social, economic or legal history" of the Greco-Roman world and ancient China.[1] However, he does note that Adshead does briefly address the issue. Wittfogel's work has come in for criticism by later historians, but his studies have not fully been supplanted by up to date theses. In modern studies of imperialism, ancient China has generally been overlooked. In Scheidel's words, "[compared to the study of Europe and China in the early modern period] the comparative history of the largest agrarian empires of antiquity has attracted no attention at all. This deficit is only explicable with reference to academic specialization and language barriers".[1]

The emergence of the United States of America as effectively the only superpower in the world after the fall of the Soviet Union in the late 20th century led to a renewed interest in empires and their study. For instance, the Roman Empire has occasionally been held up as a model for American dominance.[3] The United States' hegemony is unprecedented in the modern system and thus the only illuminating cases can be found in pre-modern systems: “One difficulty with analyzing unipolarity is that we have mainly the current case, although examining the Roman and ancient China could be illuminating.”[4]

In general, with the rise of the American primacy the study of historical empires, such as Han China and Rome, increased. In the field of comparative studies between empires, not just Rome and China, Shmuel Eisenstadt's The Political System of Empires (1963) has been described as influential as it pioneered the comparative approach.[5] The act of comparing the Roman and Han empires is aided by the amount of written evidence from both, as well as other artefactual sources.[6] In the words of Fritz-Heiner Mutschler and Achim Mittag, "Comparing the Roman and Chinese empires contributes not only to understanding the trajectories along which the two civilizations developed, but also to heightening our awareness of possible analogies between the present and the past, be it with regard to America or China."[6] Recent work by Ronald A. Edwards shows how such comparisons can be helpful in understanding ancient Chinese and Roman political institutions.[7]


Principles of sociological examination have been identified that can be applied to the study of China and Rome. They draw on analytical and illustrative comparisons.[8]

Political structureEdit

One of the most appealing reasons for historians to begin comparing China and Rome, is their ascent to political hegemony over the Mediterranean and East Asia. However, political comparisons by Adshead have received negative response from Chinese history experts; citing his lack of use of Chinese sources, poor support of his arguments and an eagerness to take poorly supported points as facts.[9][10]

Nonetheless more recently, China scholars have been engaging in comparative work on political institutions between China and Rome – see work by Ronald A. Edwards[7] – and between China the early modern Europe – see work by Victoria Tin-bor Hui.[11]


According to Adshead's book China in World History, comparing Han China and the Roman Empire gives context and assists understanding of China's interactions and relations with other civilisations of Antiquity. In his China and the Roman Empire before Constantine, their "differences outweighed the similarities".[2] In the opinion of Scheidel:

only comparisons with other civilizations make it possible to distinguish common features from culturally specific or unique characteristics and developments, help us identify variables that were critical to particular historical outcomes and allow us to assess the nature of any given ancient state or society within the wider context of premodern world history.[12]

See alsoEdit



  1. ^ a b c Scheidel, Walter, The Stanford Ancient Chinese and Mediterranean Empires Comparative History Project (ACME), Stanford University, retrieved 2009-12-27
  2. ^ a b Adshead 2000, p. 4.
  3. ^ Mutschler & Mittag 2008, p. xiii.
  4. ^ Robert Jervis, “Unipolarity: A Structural Perspective,” World Politics, 61/1, (2009): p 200.
  5. ^ Mutschler & Mittag 2008, p. xiii–xiv.
  6. ^ a b Mutschler & Mittag 2008, p. xiv.
  7. ^ a b Edwards 2009
  8. ^ Bonnell 1980 in Scheidel, Walter, The Stanford Ancient Chinese and Mediterranean Empires Comparative History Project (ACME), Stanford University, retrieved 2009-12-27
  9. ^ Jenner, William John Francis (March 1990). "Review: China in World History". The China Quarterly (121): 151. JSTOR 654084.
  10. ^ Farmer, Edward (August 1989). "Review: China in World History". The Journal of Asian Studies. 48 (3): 583–584. doi:10.2307/2058649. JSTOR 2058649.
  11. ^ Hui 2005
  12. ^ Scheidel 2009, p. 5.


Further readingEdit

  • Adshead, S. A. M. (October 1961), "Dragon and Eagle: a comparison of the Roman and Chinese empires", Journal of Southeast Asian History, Cambridge University Press, 2 (3): 11–22, doi:10.1017/s021778110000034x, JSTOR 20067345
  • Motomura, R. (1991), "An approach towards a comparative study of the Roman empire and the Ch'in and Han empires", Kodai, 2: 61–69

External linksEdit