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Differing AttitudesToward Technology in the Han and Roman Empires

Updated on March 3, 2013


Two of the most powerful empires of the ancient world were the Han, in China, and the Romans, in Italy. While both were great and powerful, Han and Roman similarities and differences in valued class, occupation, and government can be found in their attitudes toward technology.

Han Dynasty

The Han’s attitude toward technology can be discovered through the type of technology they used. Agriculturists and craftsman were one of the largest classes in the Han Empire. Because of this, innovation was simple and intended to benefit the lives of the working class. Huan Tan, a Han philosopher, wrote about the invention of the pestle and mortar and its evolution with the addition of animals and water power, and Huan Guan, a Han government official, speaks of the processes of iron foundry work and salt making. Later, in 200 AD, Tu Shih, a Han governor invented a water-powered engine that forged iron agricultural implements for the Han people. Pestle and mortar, iron tools, and salt to season crops were technologies the Han valued, because they were used for the most popular occupations in the empire: agriculture and craftsmanship. The Han did not only invest in the technology small tools provided. We can infer from a report by a Han government official regarding flood prevention that the Han Dynasty also enjoyed waterways that went through several, if not all, districts of the Han Empire. The Han Dynasty’s attitude toward technology was characterized by the necessity of its people, who were agriculturists and craftsman.

Roman Empire

Rome’s attitude toward technology can be found not only in the type of technology they created, but also through the types of technology they intentionally avoided. Since their inception, Roman’s have had a fierce sense of nationalism and patriotism. Nationalism is a sense of complete loyalty to a nation, and the belief that it is greater than all others. Because the Roman’s had a devoted loyalty to their nation and believed it was greater than all others, they desired to show this through their far-reaching innovations. For example, the grand project of road building, put forth by political official Gaius Grachus, would become one of Rome’s most prized technologies. Another Roman innovation was the implementation of waterways. Frontinius, a Roman general and water commissioner, wrote a report on the expanse of Roman waterways, detailing that that the supply was sufficient enough to be used for both necessity and pleasure in “fountains, public buildings, and for multiple public uses.” Looking at the types of Roman innovation in ancient times, it is easy to see that they were grand undertakings compared the Han’s pestle and mortar. The intention was to send a message. Any traveler, trekking through Rome would know the might and ingenuity of Rome by their impressive roads and waterways. Most have heard the saying, “all roads lead to Rome,” referring to the layout of the roads throughout the Roman Empire, all of them leading to the capital. Even this shows Roman pride. One does not travel through Rome, one travels to it. At the end of his report on Rome’s waterways, Frontinius both humorously and arrogantly tacks onto the end, “Compare such numerous and indispensible structures carrying so much water with the idle pyramids, or the useless but famous works of the Greeks.” Swaggeringly comparing Rome to two of the greatest civilizations in history, the Egyptians and the Greeks, Frontinius illustrated the nationalism of the Roman government. Another way to see Rome’s attitude toward technology is to look at the technology Rome avoided. While advocating large projects, Rome believed that small innovations, like those in Han China, were not to be invested in. Displaying this mentality further, Seneca, an advisor to Roman emperor Nero said, “ I do not believe that tools for the crafts were invented by wise men.” Of course, there was a place for laborers in Roman society, but they were not valued in Rome as they were with the Han. Simple tools that benefitted the individual were widely used, but not looked upon as special technology. Roman attitude toward technology was characterized by an affinity for large scale innovations to show off their power rather than simpler innovations, which they avoided.

Han and Roman Similarities

While the Han Dynasty and Roman Empire’s attitudes toward technology are very different, similarities can be found in that the state was heavily involved in the technologies of both civilizations. Initially, Han citizens were able to make their own tools and participate in other technologies like salt making and metal foundry work. Eventually, these technologies were taken over by the Han government, which caused a decrease in innovation and quality. Huan Guan writes in the first century BC, “Today, the iron tools that workers are required to use are produced by the state using convict labor; these tools are often crude and not very functional. In previous times, the tools manufactured by workers for their own use were of excellent quality. Now that the state has monopolized the salt and iron trades, most of the tools provided to the workers are hard and brittle and the responsible government officials are often not available to take complaints.” Similarly, Rome had heavy state involvement in innovation as well, mostly because Roman technologies were such vast undertakings that they had to be done at a federal level. However, the reason why state involvement worked for Rome and not Han China is because of incentive. When the Roman government undertook a project, laborers were paid and therefore had incentive to do well. However, the Han government received labor from convicts, who had no incentive to do well, as they would continue to be punished for their crimes no matter how exceptional their work was. However, it seems that later in 200 AD, Han governor Tu Shih invented a water-powered blowing-engine to cast iron tools. Although it is government-sponsored history, the work that details Tu Shih’s work says that because of his invention “people enjoyed great benefit for little labor.” Despite their differences in the type of technology they created, the Han Dynasty and the Roman Empire were similar through state involvement in the production of their technologies.


The Han Dynasty and the Roman Empire were both very powerful nations with very different attitudes toward technology. Where Han technology focused on the individual, Rome technology focused on the state. Despite the differences that can be found through their technology, their similarities in state involvement can be found there as well. When analyzing a civilization, technologies and innovations can reveal the spirit of the nation. Such is the case with the Han Dynasty and the Roman Empire.

Ancient Roman roadway
Ancient Roman roadway | Source
Pestle and mortar (neither ancient nor authentic)
Pestle and mortar (neither ancient nor authentic) | Source
Pont Du Gard: ancient Roman aqueduct bridge in France.
Pont Du Gard: ancient Roman aqueduct bridge in France. | Source


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