The powerful empires that arose in Europe and China during the ancient period were similar in many ways. The Roman Empire was, in some ways, the culmination of the technological and intellectual advancements that had been enjoyed by Mediterranean cultures for centuries. Through military might, administrative genius, and architectural achievement, the Roman Empire was able to assume dominance over Northern Africa, the Middle East, and most of Europe. It maintained that dominance until its decline due to a variety of factors. The Han Empire in China, while different in the manner of its rise to power, was similar to its Roman counterpart in its achievements, its strengths, and the weaknesses that eventually caused its decline.
The Han dynasty prospered due to a well-structured administration and constant military success. Unlike the Qin dynasty, “the [Han] empire was ruled primarily through commanderies, though there were also a number of small subject ‘kingdoms,’ entrusted to members of the Han dynasty” (Scarre 389). The use of prefectures to localize government and economy greatly helped with the task of running such a large empire. “State enterprises were placed in the hands of trained bureaucrats, appointed and promoted on the basis of merit” (Scarre 393). The empire’s economy was greatly improved due to the silk trade, which utilized a trade route called the Silk Road to bring silk to many different kingdoms, including the Roman Empire. The Chinese culture also saw a number of scientific discoveries during this period, including the use of blast furnaces to refine iron, which was then made into many tools and weapons. In addition, the Han Empire experienced great military success against their enemies. One reason for this was the dynasty’s decision to nationalize a number of important industries (including salt and iron production), thereby allowing the Han leaders to fund a large standing army that was unusually well-armed (Scarre 395). This combination of effective governance and military power, combined with an economy that could support a large population of 58 million people, allowed the Han dynasty to prosper at the expense of its neighbors.
The ascension of the Han Empire came at a time when much of the rest of the world was also being consolidated under the rule of powerful kingdoms. India was divided between two kingdoms that would eventually unite to form the Gupta Empire, which would bring a “golden age” similar to that experienced by China. In Mesoamerica, the Maya Empire was experiencing a similar metamorphosis that would create an urbanized and advanced culture. Most importantly, the height of the Han Empire’s power coincided with the transition of Rome from a republic to an empire.
The might of the Roman Empire originated from many of the things that made the Han Empire so strong. Although Julius Caesar is usually considered the first Emperor, it was Augustus who “consolidated and expanded the Roman Empire,” stabilizing and reinforcing the frontiers in the process (Scarre 309). By the second century AD, Rome’s borders stretched from the Near East to the Atlantic Ocean and from northern Britain to the Sahara desert. As a result of its size, the Empire incorporated many different cultures, eventually transforming them into Romans. Like the Han dynasty, the Roman Empire ruled through regional bureaucrats who oversaw trade, governance, justice, and development. “These wealthy men were encouraged to think of themselves as part of the Roman system; they responded by … endowing their cities with public utilities such as libraries and water supplies and monuments to civic pride” (Scarre 313). Many of the scientific improvements during the Roman Empire revolved around architecture and engineering, which gave their citizens aqueducts and basic plumbing. Like the Han dynasty, however, much of the Empire’s might came from its unbeatable military. The population of the Empire was sufficient to allow the existence of a trained, well-armed standing army. Rome’s skilled soldiers, infrastructure, and administrative system made the Roman Empire one of the most powerful civilizations in western history.
The similarities between the Han Empire and the Roman Empire are numerous, most notably in terms of their economies and political structure. Both empires consolidated their influence by building a large network of roads. “Roads … linked the frontiers and provinces to the heart of the imperial administration … and formed an essential part of the communications network through which the empire was governed” (Scarre 317). In addition, both empires closely regulated their commerce through the use of bureaucrats and the introduction of a sophisticated system of coinage. The use of these regional bureaucrats also improved the empires’ ability to govern their incredibly vast territories. Both the Han emperors and the Roman Caesars used military conquest to not only expand the borders of their respective empires, but also to improve public morale and gain support from troublesome petty kings and governors.
In truth, the fact that two separate empires should share so many similarities is not so surprising. Civilizations that get far enough along the path of prosperity must eventually face the same challenges, and the solutions to these challenges are often the same for everyone. Improvements to communication, infrastructure, governance, military tactics, and commerce all become necessary as a kingdom becomes an empire.