Tea the third: China and Rome

Han China and Rome’s government centralized in one location. This was a weakness for both empires because it meant the upkeep of such large empires from one central location would cause more stress than a more distributed, decentralized government. However, the government centralizations were strengths in that they promoted easier administration of government. In a decentralized government, the emperor struggles with local rulers such as the American government where politicians often contest federal versus state rights.

Both governments had bodies to check the ruler. In China, the extensive bureaucracy “often controlled the whims of a single ruler” (Stearns), and, in the Roman republic, the government had the legislative body of the Senate. In addition, two consuls split the Roman executive power amongst themselves, checking each other and further checking the government. Therefore, a strength of both governments was a system of checks. A weakness, however, was that the decline of either side of the checks meant the decline of government as a whole. For example, “the central government’s control diminished and bureaucrats became more corrupt, and [the increasing burden on peasants], burdened with new taxes and [new] demands by landlords, [caused social unrest]” in China (Stearns). In Rome, “a series of weak emperors” caused “disputes over succession” and “political confusion.” Both governments, weakened by one side of the balance of checks, contributed to the decline of their respective empires, another similarity between Rome and China. However, as a Roman monarchy and the Roman Empire had more absolutist power. In those scenarios, Rome contrasted China in checks and balances.

Caesar in Julius Caesar is a fine example of checks and balances. The Senate retains the most power in government before Caesar. When Antony takes over the throne Caesar would have had, the similarity with Chinese bureaucracy disappears and leaves a contrast in government. The strength of an emperor is an efficient government with the simple rule of doing what the emperor says. The weakness is the reliance of an empire on the emperor’s competence that power often corrupts.

Rome had a broad array of rulers, unlike China. Han China spanned a much shorter time than Rome. This with the fact that history had already heavily entrenched the Chinese government produced a marked contrast between Han China dynastic kings and Roman rulers who drew from the rich set of monarchs, consuls, or emperors. Leaders from both civilizations expanded their civilization. Han China “pushed into Korea, Indochina, and central Asia” while Roman emperors “moved northward, conquering France and southern Britain and pushing into Germany” (Stearns).

Just as Machiavelli suggests in The Prince, Roman emperors ruled with authority and cunning, able to maintain rule. They set such a fine example that Machiavelli uses them as case studies in his treatise in order to prove the merits of being a Machiavellian leader.

Leaders from both civilizations brought peace to their civilizations. Han China sought to “reduce the brutal oppression” present in the previous Qin dynasty. “Wu Ti enforced peace throughout much of the continent of Asia, rather like the peace the Roman Empire would bring to the Mediterranean region” (Stearns). The peace and expansion is in part due to the success of the civilization before the current rulers began. The Roman Empire benefited from decades of maturing during the Roman monarchy and republic. Although dynastic changes marked turmoil, Han China also began with a mature civilization with a sophisticated bureaucracy. In both Han China and the Roman Empire, previous rulers had reduced problems that had plagued their generations such as nomads and abundance of food.

Both civilizations did not develop their religion significantly during their time periods. By the time of Han China, Confucianism and Daoism were alive and healthy having been initiated in the Zhou and Qin dynasties. In Rome, the people had built on the polytheistic, down-to-earth religion of the elaborate Greek gods and goddesses to produce a similar Roman religion. While the culture remains stagnant, the constancy of religion during this time period is a stabilizing factor that contributes to the civilizations’ success. However, Christianity did rise during the Roman Empire’s time, and it would become a powerful force in the two regions into which Rome would decline: The Holy Roman Empire and Byzantine. Christianity, however, did not rise in Rome but Rome’s stability and infrastructure helped propagate Christianity. Han China would also see the rise of Legalism, a minor belief system stressing pragmatism and authoritarianism. Unlike Christianity, Legalism would not become massively popular.

Both civilizations saw the furthering of a patriarchal family unit. As agriculture improved, the role of women in society diminished less and so did women’s status decrease. Both civilizations witnessed female infanticide brought upon by a girl’s burden on the family. A girl had less of a role in society whereas a boy could further the family’s lineage and bring wealth. A reflection of women’s diminished role showed in Roman family courts where law often favored males. Each generation in both civilizations internalized patriarchalism and passed it down to the next generation. However, Chinese oppression of women remained worse because Confucianism emphasized the role of obedience and control, which fell upon fathers and husbands. In both societies, a minority of women remained influential. In China, older women had power due to Confucianism’s stressed importance on the elderly. In Rome, upper-class women remained influential due to the greater social stratification and the nobility’s influence on others.

Both Han China and Rome declined as a result of internal and external decay.

The most noticeable difference is the length. Han China quickly declined between AD 100 and AD 300, AD 300 being when nomadic Hun invasions surged. However, Rome’s decline begins in AD 180 but lasts until AD 478 when Germanic invaders and internal decay caused Rome to divide into the two kingdoms of Ostrogoths and Visigoths and the Byzantine Empire.

In China, internal decay consisted of a Daoist revolutionary effort under the Yellow Turbans that a diminishing government and corrupt bureaucracy caused. As a result of a weakening central power, local landlords begin to gain power, taxing peasants, and creating discontent among the working class. This eventually causes efforts like from people like the Yellow Turbans the further undermine the government. In Rome, a series of bad emperors weaken the government. Disease sweeps through. The economy dwindles. The weak government cannot collect revenue or enforce peace and must hire German mercenaries; the mercenaries further drain government resources, causing a downward spiral. Farmers cluster around large landlords, further weakening emperor power. Roman internal decay, like Chinese internal decay, caused the civilization to collapse.

The leaders during the two civilizations’ decline from the two civilizations also differ. Han China’s decline produced no emperors of great notice whereas Roman Empire produced Constantine and Diocletian, both notable leaders in Roman history. Constantine makes his mark on history by being the catalyst for Byzantine.

Another notable difference is that a later dynasty would revive China as a civilization while Rome permanently declined. Although Byzantine, the Holy Roman Empire, and even Russia would attempt to emulate Rome, only China’s later dynastic history would manage to rise above the Zhou, Qin, and Han legacy. This is in part because China is a monoculture with a unified race and a unified history whereas Rome included Hellenistic fragments of the Middle East as well as the classical Greek civilization and Western European nomads. The lack of cultural unity was a factor in Rome’s decline and history’s inability to revive Rome as a whole.

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Up and away we go.

Hao was here.

Quickly, run away!