The Antiquities of Two Worlds: Roman and Chinese Empires
I’m dealing today with two Ancient Empires: Rome and China. Some would argue
that one is still going in a way. We’ll look at those arguments later.
Firstly, I want to justify this lecture. There’s a lot we could talk about in this unit.
Why bother with two Ancient empires that are not part of the survey of world
empires in focus in this unit.
Rome casts a long shadow over Western history. Its legacy is obvious in many
ways, but in other ways, the heritage of the Roman Empire is less visible.
China’s Empire, properly speaking, is more recent than many of its own
nationalist perspectives suggest. There‘s plenty of talk of the rise of China as a
regional if not world power today. This is not without precedent however and it
should surprise no-one.
Today’s lecture therefore proceeds according to this overview (Slide two). I’ll look
at the historical outline of Rome and then the significance of its empire. Then I’ll
do the same for China.
Rome’s origins are not entirely known. Myth surrounds it to a great degree. The
legend is that two abandoned boy children, Romulus and Remus, were reared by
a she-wolf. They founded Rome in 753 BC. Remus was murdered by Romulus.
Little archeological evidence exists to tell us the real story oddly enough. Just as
the origins are shrouded in myth, so also is its imperial legacy, which the modern
Western empires inherited.
Let’s get to what we know for certain. The timelines of the Roman Republic and
the Empire goes like this (Slide three). The Republic was founded in 508 with the
last of the monarchs expelled. It lasted until the early years of the first century
BCE. Its political structure would endure however. Two Praetors (later consuls)
would hold executive power. A popular Assembly would debate and the patrician
elite-appointed Senate would act as a check to dictatorial and popular forms of
power. There were steady democratic concessions by the wealthy to the ordinary
citizens. In territorial terms, its expansion was remarkable. It conquered Italy,
then Sicily and then Spain, North Africa and Greece. It was the premier
Mediterranean power. Its decline coincided with growing dictatorship and chaos.
Its timeline can also be represented thus (Overhead one – Timeline from Greer
and Lewis, p.94). The Empire emerged from the ruins of the Republic (sound like
Star Wars?). Corruption, denial of citizenship to country folk and lack of military
capacity brought about its downfall. Two triumvirates ruled, including Caesar who
was dictator for a period. It is with Augustus that the emperorship commences
and, in effect, the empire (back to Slide three)
Republican institutions did not disappear of course. The Senate continued, as did
Roman law and citizenship. The state apparatus thinned out however, with the
obvious exception of the army. Taxes lightened on the citizens at least. Gaul
(France) and Egypt were secured.
Pax Romana emerged, a phrase that is both repeated and embellished
throughout Western history. Today, we hear political pundits refer to the United
States’ current position as Pax Americana. What was Pax Romana? Within the
empire, commerce was encouraged. Large-scale communications and transport
infrastructure was developed, as was a system of defenses. Administration
improved throughout the whole zone. Above all, the privileges of citizenship were
spread beyond the city of Rome to the entire empire. This helped to win the
loyalty of elites throughout the entire empire. This was new-ish. The idea that
citizenship should be an empire-wide social status, and not based on
identification with a city-state, or with people in Italy, was different to Ancient
Greece. Of course, not all were citizens, far from it. There were slaves naturally
and peasant non-citizens. Its spread came later in the empire, but was a facet of
Pax Romana nonetheless. Pax Romana was the creation of a vast Roman world.
Think Gladiator and you get an inkling of it.
This was remembered as a bit of a Golden Age. It’s an image of Empire that
would endure for Western successors in the Middle Ages and the early modern
era. There are even echoes of Camelot in it, although that myth has separate
origins. Future empires would want a return to Pax Romana. One crucial
difference between this archetype of empire and the world empires of modern
times is that the latter explored. Oddly enough Romans were not great explorers
and they tended to conquer what was known to them. There are some Roman
explorers of note, but for the most important voyages in the period, those that
connected the Mediterranean region with Asia, others were responsible.
This empire reached its territorial height in 117AD (Show Map Kirchner, p.124).
Economic decline, territorial losses, the debasement of citizenship and a failure
in the institutions of the law precipitated it. Finally, the emergence of Christianity
undermined established polytheism and its ethics. But when did it end? 476 as
this timeline would suggest? (Show Greer and Lewis, p. 106) when the formal
empire collapsed. Or (Slide again) 395 when it split into Eastern and Western
empires (and Christendom and the Eastern Orthodox Church)? Latter is favoured
now, but it’s a subject of dispute.
What did it leave behind? What was its significance? Why might it be called the
archetype of empires (as far as the Western world empires are concerned)?
It left the West with a political language; a vocabulary to express the nature of
power. The Roman Empire was a model of power that took center stage in the
political imagination of Europeans. So they use the phrase imperium romanum to
give a name to state power in general. You might say that they had invented the
idea of empire.
In the Middle Ages, there was an allusion to Western Christendom in this.
Christendom was seen as analogous to the Roman Empire. The Pope exercised
imperium over his world, in this interpretation. He had a duty of care for humanity.
This privileged role accorded the Pope started to decline as the Church’s earthly
Early modern writers started to dismiss this proposition that the Pope was ‘lord and monarch of all the world’. While the proposition went the way of the dodo, its
implicit universalism remained in Western culture; that is, the idea that our culture
concerns itself with the universe and all things in it.
In this context, this word ‘imperium’ is important to understand – it’s the Latin
origin of our word ‘empire’. The Latin term is used in reference to Spain, France
and England up to the eighteenth century. From the nineteenth century, the word
‘empire’ comes into common usage (at least in English). Let’s look into the
change of meaning in the word.
When Ancient Rome became an empire, the word and the idea were linked to an
office and a role. Hence the imperium is the ability to wage war and make laws.
The first figure is a general and the second is a law maker or magistrate. Figures
of authority symbolize the empire, in this conception and word usage. Most of all,
no-one is above them: they are sovereigns – meaning that their positions were
invested with power. The association with law and organized armed might also
connoted civilization as opposed to Barbary.
Imperium was still in use in the early modern period. It directly invoked Rome in
the early modern mind. Because of the spread of its powers, it was associated
with the state directly. Everything within Rome’s borders was civilized and
everything outside of it was not. To the early modern mind, however, it implied
unlimited rule and so was a word that was used sparingly. Instead, they picked
up on another Roman term monarchia. This meant monarchy and pointed to a
more limited form of rule. The other term in the mix was respublica = republic.
Debates in political theory in early modern times revolved around the limitations
to the powers of government and of the sovereign. Those debates were partly
carried out through the medium of discussion of the meanings of the words
The universalism associated with the ideal of empire in the early modern period
meant the following (Slide five). All participated in the Americas and all had
Rome in mind as they did it. Spain initially dominated and projected itself as the
universal empire. Its intrusion into the Americas was contextualised by its
worship of the image of Rome. However, all of them claimed to be the bearers of
the legacy of Rome. The example of Rome’s Ancient greatness paralleled all
other tributaries of Iberian, French and English imperial self-understanding.
Spain’s claim over the known Americas (indeed over the entire Atlantic world)
was contested by the other states, which were keen to get a slice of the action.
Spain projected this in their art and their political theory. The Portuguese
believed that they succeeded the Roman heritage due to the size of their empire
and the excellence of their sciences. The French incorporated Roman art into
sixteenth century ceremony and legal codes into juristic theory. English
possession in the North Americas was legitimated by reference to the literary
classics. Later, in the Victorian era, the English compared their global empire to
that of Rome and believed themselves to have surpassed that ancient inspiration.
Foreigners too looked at the global empire and concluded that Rome had finally
It was by reference to the heritage of Rome that states sought to make their
claims to just imperial rule legitimate in the eyes of other European rulers. This
included legitimate in a legal sense also.
Roman influences over legal concepts are especially important (Slide six) and
we’ll spend a few minutes considering them. Their influence on the Western
world is largely invisible, but it is no less substantial for that invisibility. The legal
code that the Romans established provides the basis for much of Western law.
They came up with the idea that law should be based on justicia that is ‘justice’.
More importantly, it is the basis of international law that has been built up through
the world empires, then the League of Nations and finally in the United Nations.
At the root of international law today are concepts derived from Roman traditions.
So, we had better have a sense of what the Romans established.
The Republic began some of these traditions. So much of what underpins jurism
itself started in this era. Law was an interpretive matter and responsibility for
interpretation lay with secular authorities and not priests. jus civile and jus
gentium were especially important. The former guaranteed property rights and
provided stability. The latter established the norms of relationships with
foreigners, trading partners and allies. It allowed for the legal norms of other
powers that Rome was in touch with. Another way of looking at it is the former
applies to Roman citizens, the latter to foreigners. Later in the life of the empire,
notions of universal laws that apply to all equally developed. This too was an
innovation. The idea of contractual relationships found a legal expression in
Roman law too. It’s vital to commercial life in the world today. This enhanced the
distinction between public and private lives of the citizenry, a vital component of
civil law. That legal recognition of public and private ‘personality’ in the law today
is alive and well.
Much of this tradition fell dormant during the Middle Ages. It was revived towards
the end of the fourteenth century in the period we otherwise call the Renaissance.
Even the term ‘renaissance’ has some salience here. It means re-birth. What’s
being re-born? The greatness of antiquity; or at least that’s how it was
understood at the time. We can see it in High Art and the way that celebrates Empire. What about modern-day comparisons? This is the subject of a lecture later in the teaching period. I want to foreshadow it now with just a few comments in this context.
Some compare the United States with its current unchallenged military supremacy in the world. This includes its opponents and supporters. How could the US and Rome be compared? Here are some general pointers (Slide seven). To supporters, ‘Empire’ represents a singular ‘civilization’. It’s a barrier holding
back the barbarians. ‘Empire’ represents universal values to its supporters, not specific ethnic identity or even necessarily religious belief. It becomes synonymous with humanity and everything that is humane.
To opponents, the comparison with Rome has some salience also, except it’s in
the negative. It represents unbridled ambition for unlimited expansion, or at least unprecedented expansion. More on this another day. However, the fact that in the twenty-first century Rome and the US are compared says something about the power of Rome in the popular imagination.
Now for a look at China. Some comparative comments can start this section off. Like Rome, China’s empire at its greatest reach was huge, with rule over territories far from its heartlands. These were the outstanding states of Antiquity. Like Rome, its impact on the everyday life of the inhabitants of the societies it governed over was deep. Moreover, this impact was felt in many different areas. This is quite different from many empires. It’s worth knowing at the outset that
Rome and China were aware of each other. Only the Chinese made the effort to make contact with the other side, however.
The first thing I want to establish is the longevity of this empire. How old is it? Rather, from what date and what event can we measure its continuous existence? (Slide eight)
There are some who measure its imperial history back 3000 years to the Shang dynasty. This represented more fragmented statehood however. What is beyond dispute is that there is a long history of dynasties of rulers. But it is one thing to
point that out and another to calculate that this adds up to imperial continuity. The Shang and its successor the Chou are amongst the most significant of China’s imperial dynasties (overhead).
There is no doubt however that there is a feeling of imperial Antiquity in Chinese
culture and that it is broadly shared by the Chinese today. Indeed, it is widely accepted. Chinese nationalism today is more alive than ever and lives off its heritage of imperial continuity. So, while a scholarly and historical analysis can easily show the breaks and rupture in China’s past, there is a strong feeling of historical continuity that is very powerful.
We can make the following observation about the Chinese empire compared to the Roman. China is recent, Rome Ancient. China feels old and continuous, whereas we know that Rome ended, though it left a legacy.
Not in the list I showed you is the Mongol empire (Slide nine). Begun in the twelfth century, this rapidly became a huge, indeed the largest, land empire to that point. Its center wasn’t really European, however, but Central Asian (overhead of map of the Khans’ empire). Culturally and ethnically, the Mongols were not accepted as Chinese, but their rule was robust enough to sustain this audacious ‘dynasty’ for two centuries. They are often considered a nomadic empire or an empire of plundering horsemen. This is true but overlooks some vital features of this type of empire building. They did promote intercultural exchange across the territories that they governed. For a time, they also mobilized the trading potential of China in a unique way. Governing over Eurasia as they did they were able to really promote the caravan trade across land. In the thirteenth century, they developed a simultaneous maritime trade, which China has rarely had in its history. They built a huge and formidable fleet that secured maritime trade routes. China prospered from the heightened pace of import and export. This was short-lived and lasted only a century. Their impact was substantial, but it did represent a very unusual period in China’s past.
If universalism was the creed of the Roman Empire, Confucianism was the philosophical cornerstone of the Chinese (Slide ten). By the time of the modern Qing dynasty, Confucianism was the overarching political philosophy of state. And adherence to it was pursued relentlessly. By this time, it was quite rationalistic. It did not tolerate ancient religious attitudes well and was skeptical. Articulated by the Mandarin elite, an intelligentsia that furnished the state with its administrative corps. Entry into this class was barred by the high educational
qualifications required. They held tremendous cultural acumen and in turn promoted an educational culture that is the enduring heart of Chinese civilization. The Mandarins were the unity of China often enough. When rivalries at Court tore at the political center of the Empire, it was the Mandarins who held things together, or at least ensured that the gains of an imperial period could be preserved. They represented the continuity, if anything did.
In political terms (and this is what matters with empires), it promoted the concept of the Mandate of Heaven. This was the basis of imperial legitimacy. The ruler had to rule with virtue and could not govern capriciously or arbitrarily. This acted as a way of balancing the responsibility of rulership and was meant to ensure that the Emperor was a good ruler. Otherwise, there were ample portents of poor government: rebellions, floods and other natural calamities, resistance to taxes etc. All these were signs of an impending fall of the ruler who had lost the Mandate through poor leadership. There was a saying similar to the Romans’ vox
populi, vox Dei: ‘Heaven sees with the eyes of the people’.
So, rulers could assume nothing, just like with Rome or many other empires. Often, of course, the breakdown of one dynasty led to a war of factions for control. Different centers of power would appear and contend for supremacy.
The most interesting period of Chinese imperial rule apart from the Mongul era is the rule of the Qing dynasty. I won’t dwell on this much, except to note Howe’s view that China was unified only at this time in its history. This seems to represent the pinnacle of its history, at least on the face of it. Its final century was troubled, however. It was troubled by the World Empires of the West and by the threat that the ‘barbarian’ cultures posed to its borders and to its civilizational
sense of supremacy.
So, we’ll start with the nineteenth century (Slide eleven). China was never colonized. However, it was subordinated by the other imperial powers, especially those of the West. They lost the Opium Wars to Britain, which was unimaginably humiliating. This is when they lost Hong Kong. The treaties settled with the British and other Western powers were tremendously one-sided and required the Chinese to grant considerable concessions to other powers. The concessions granted trade, legal and diplomatic privileges to Westerners in China. China’s
own growing merchant class generated pressures from within for reform. Other political and religious movements sprung up and pressed for reform of the administration of the imperial state and its laws. Eventually, a nationalist and republican movement emerged at the end of the twentieth century. The Empire fell in 1912.
After the Communist Party-led revolution of 1949, Chinese political philosophy gives off the appearance that all the ‘old ways’ of China were to go (Slide twelve). Confucianism was despised in the new quasi-revolutionary zeal for destruction of all things old and feudal. However, this appearance is deceptive. In some ways, the old imperial traditions were mobilized to support the new regime. Firstly, the new state re-established the boundaries of the old empire in a process of reunification. Secondly, the Han Chinese assumed the dominant position in government, economy and society. Thirdly, it would be a mistake to pass over the annexation of Tibet and the colonization of that land by Chinese immigrants.
Fourthly, imperial traditions were pressed into the service of arguments amongst government leaders. The revolutionary regime of Mao Tse Tung was full of conflict between factions and leaders. Much of the chaos of the years leading up to 1978 in Maoist China can be explained by this conflict, even though it appeared to the outside world that there was an iron-grip on power held by a cohesive Communist Party. Mao Tse Tung himself referred to early emperors as great revolutionaries in the course of some of his propaganda against opponents. Indeed, his political vision included restoring China to its former glory and to a pre-eminent global position. Subsequent leaders have followed this goal, albeit by very different means. Much of the architecture and iconography of the Chinese regime echoes imperial-style ambition, as it did in the past. Moreover,
the style of authoritarian rule also echoes the past practices of empire (style of persecution, execution and public denouncement of opponents have imperial precedents).
So, on the whole, the imperial past did provide a model of state building for the Communist Party, which its leaders drew selectively from. The appearance of revolutionary originality in the Maoist form of communist thought can be deceptive in this regard, drawing attention away from the inspiration that the imperial past provided. The rise of China that is much touted and celebrated even under the CP can be interpreted as a new phase of empire building. The fact that it is led by people who call themselves communists should not distract you from what is going on here. Of course, there are no colonies in this empire. Empire rather can be seen as a metaphor for the growth of Chinese economic
power, cultural influences and international middle power status. In sum, you might call this a particular project of globalization or globalizing of the Chinese model.
The empires of Rome and China are archetypes of state building in today’s world.
While China’s imprint on the modern world is more recent, Rome’s has some cultural weight, especially for Western societies. Perhaps, the endurance of these two archetypes explains why they figure so much in the popular imagination today.
Finally, a list of works that have influenced today’s lecture (Slide thirteen).