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Rome and Han China: The Age Old Comparison

Updated on October 2, 2012

Which was the great empire? Rome or Han China?

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China and Rome had, throughout their classical years, been the two greatest nations on Earth. They claimed hegemony over their respective areas of the world and were the most dominant of the known world. Han China controlled vast amounts of territory in East Asia, just as Rome controlled vast amounts of territory in the Mediterranean. These two empires would be politically very similar, and economically much different. Both nations would use a centralized political system with an emperor as the head of the state. Meanwhile, Rome would be a vast trading nation, controlling the Mediterranean and all trade that travels in it. Han China would be isolated from most of the world, participating only in occasional trade. From these differences and similarities, we would see how these two cultures would form the foundations of later empires that would come after their collapse.

Politically, the two empires of Han China and Rome were very similar, with a very centralized system that focused on the emperor. In Han China, the emperor was the “Son of Heaven,” legitimizing him as being of greater importance than anyone else. The emperor would have advisors as well, which would be chosen by the civil service examinations instituted by Emperor Wu Di, giving rise to a meritocracy in classical China. Meanwhile, in the Roman Empire, the emperor was also considered divine, however only after being deified in their death. Also, the Roman Empire had a less centralized system than Han China with the senate of Rome taking care of most day-to-day activities.

Economically, the two empires were somewhat different, with Han China being isolated from most of the rest of the known world. Usually, Chinese merchants would trade with other merchants along the Silk Road, a route that led from Xi’an through northwestern China, into Bactria, through Persia, into Europe, leading to Rome. This road would come to be an important trading lane that would bring the two empires of Rome and China together through trade. This can be seen in Rome where the Roman people heavily coveted Chinese silk, and the Chinese were the only civilization that knew how to make it. However, aside from occasional trade along the road, China did not trade much. Rome, on the other hand, was not as isolated and actually surrounded by other civilizations. The fact that they controlled the entire Mediterranean also allowed a booming sea trade as Roman merchant ships could move unimpeded. This allowed all citizens of the Roman Empire to enjoy the luxuries that was only thought possible in the capital city of Rome.

These two empires of the ancient world dominated their respective areas both economically and politically, establishing cultures that would last far longer than the nations themselves would. The similarities in their political systems allowed for a very centralized rule that would be passed down in the cultures of both areas; it would not be until the industrial area that the tradition of monarchies and centralized rule would be challenged. The differences in the economies would also have a profound effect on their respective areas, with China eventually closing itself off to the world, believing it had achieved autarky, and the Mediterranean continuing a trading tradition that would propel it past China for dominance of the world later on in history. Han China and Rome were empires that were paramount to the development of their respective regions, creating a foundation that would not be disturbed nor challenged until the industrial era.


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