Ancient history presents not only the history of conquests and wars but also the history of culture. Modern culture as we know it is the result of the long path of development that takes its roots in the times of high antiquity. Rome and China were great empires that developed the advanced cultures, and their remote descendants had later incorporated their achievements. The two empires represent two opposing worldviews, one being a bright representative of the Western civilization, and the second providing foundations for the Eastern civilization. The enduring controversy between the East and the West makes the comparison of Rome and China even more interesting and intriguing, as it can help understand the basic differences between the two mindsets as well as find the commonalities. At first glance, the cultures of ancient Rome and China are completely different and have nothing in common; however, many similarities can be found upon a thorough examination and many parallels drawn, which leads to the conclusion that there are no such controversies in the world that can not be overcome with unity and that both Roman and Chinese empires were two different stages of development of one united mankind.
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Studying the culture of Rome, time period of 750 B.C. – A.D. 500 will be taken into consideration. During this time, Roman state had been taking different forms – first it was a kingdom, then – a republic, and, finally, the Roman Empire was formed in the first century B.C. As for China, the period between 350 B.C. and 600 A.D. will be examined. Chinese civilization, unlike Rome, did not change the form of government; it had always been a monarchy. However, different dynasties substituted one another on the throne. The chronological frames of the present paper will take us from the late Zhou dynasty and lead through Qin dynasty, Han dynasty, and the period if Six dynasties to Sui dynasty (“Chinese Dynasty Guide. History & Maps”). Different periods of the development of both civilizations were characterized by changes not only in politics but also in culture and the way of life. However, from the distance of centuries Roman and Chinese civilizations may be viewed in their entirety, as the basic values remained essentially untouched. Therefore, it seems rational to start with the examination of basic values that provided foundation for Roman and Chinese civilizations.
While conquering other lands, Romans did not simply strive for enrichment, they believed in their mission. As Hooker argues, their goal was to spread the good, that they attended to the law, over the planet. Therefore, the life of every citizen was subdued to the higher goal of expansion of the Roman law. Consequently, the basic values were duty and respect for authorities (Hooker). Without these values, Romans would not succeed in their martial aspirations. Armies cannot exist without discipline, and the sense of duty as well as respect for authority is the core of the discipline. In China, the system of beliefs and the code of ethics were formed under the influence of three religions: Confucianism, Taoism and Buddhism (Faure), and the same values of duty and respect for authorities are attributes of these philosophical systems, especially of Confucianism. Therefore, there are similar basic values in both cultures. However, this is only a part of the picture, and the differences are abundant. Thus, discipline had a different implication in China – it was more a matter of shame, or face saving, than a matter of duty (Faure). One could choose to behave in an appropriate way not because he recognizes his duty but because of the fear to lose his face in case he violates the tradition. Besides, in China “social harmony is achieved through moral conduct, controlling emotions, avoiding conflict, even competition” (Faure), whereas Romans valued straightforwardness instead of this escape from emotions. In addition, individualism of Western societies (including Rome) is opposed by collectivism in the East. It is possible that the difference in perception stipulate the differences in the worldviews. As Faure argues, Western mind takes an analytic approach to reality, or break it to segments and deal with each of them, whereas Chinese prefer a holistic approach, or a global perception (¶ 11). Therefore, despite the presence of similar features, the core values of Chinese and Roman cultures are essentially different, which stipulated the differences in politics, the social structure, and the way of living of both civilizations.
Religions prevalent in both cultures had a significant impact on the formation of these cultures and on the perception of the world. They implied their own values. As in every ancient society, religion played a great role in life of both Romans and Chinese. Roman religion is polytheistic and has much in common with Greek religious beliefs – many gods and goddesses are basically the same only having different names, and mythology is quite similar. Chinese religion is practically inseparable from philosophy. It deals more with the rules of conduct than with mythology. Though Chinese religious beliefs were not monotheistic, ancient Chinese worshiped abstract Heavens and not a pantheon of Gods. Both China and Rome had experienced the influence of new religions but with different consequences. Buddhism that came to China in the early centuries B.C. had peacefully got along with Confucianism and Chinese traditional beliefs. At the same time, Roman polytheism lost the battle with Christianity (Bulliet et al. 172). Therefore, the difference in basic values of Romans and Chinese can be explained by the differences in religious views.
Despite the differences in religious beliefs and basic values defining the codes of conduct, Chinese and Roman societies had something in common that allowed Walter Scheidel call them “comparable worlds” (120). This is their styles of consumption. The expansion of the Roman state brought a serious material benefit to the Romans, and, consequently, “material wealth became synonymous with personal importance and success” (“Exploring Ancient World Cultures: Rome”). In China, The Tao Te Ching condemned rush for wealth and described “the allure and artificiality of wealth” at the same time reaffirming “the value of a modest, balanced life” (“Exploring Ancient World Cultures: China”). However, the actual behavior of the elite differed from the pattern of a “modest life”. Comparing the styles of consumption in Rome and China, Sheidel notes:
As the rulers of “all the world”, the emperors (…) promoted an urban style of consumption that sought to emphasize the ability of its practitioners to command, in imperial fashion, large concentrations of wealth and a great variety of rare products from far away. (117)
Both Chinese and Roman moralists complained about the craze for luxuries but the values of consumption and material wealth persisted. Therefore, representing two different cultural traditions, Rome and China shared the love for luxuries.
The values described above provided a basis for the formation of a certain social structure in China and Rome. In both societies the division between the aristocracy and the lower classes existed. In Rome, it was the distinction between patricians and plebeians, and in China it was a hierarchic system of the four occupations. Slavery existed in both societies. Since agriculture was the major economic activity in Rome and China, conflicts over the ownership of land formed the political landscape of both states, and in both cases autocratic rulers manages to break the power of old aristocratic families and to establish their own autocratic rule (Bulliet et al. 171). Therefore, social structures of ancient Rome and China have much in common – both societies exploited slave labor and both ended up forming absolute monarchy.
Describing social structures of Rome and China, it is impossible to leave aside the problem of the status of women in the ancient societies. The Roman state provided much more freedom to women. As Scheidel notes, in China, every ruler kept a large number of concubines in addition to his empress, for example, during the Zhou dynasty, the number of the emperor’s concubines reached 120 and this figure increased steadily in the following centuries (92). From this evidence, we see that a woman was not given an autonomous importance in China, and was mainly perceived as an addendum to a man. At the same time, Rome had given unusual rights to women as early as by the end of the Republic: “a woman was able to live independently from a father or a husband and settle her own affairs” (Scheidel 93). However, women could not take an office and if they wanted to influence political life, they had to do that by influencing a man who had the power. Still, the position of Roman women was incomparably better than that of their Chinese counterparts.
Both civilizations can take credit for their high cultural achievements and the development of arts. They are too numerous to be listed here in full. It would be sufficient only to mention such masterpieces as Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Virgil’s Aeneid, or such monuments of the ancient times as the Pantheon and Coliseum. At he same time, China developed its traditional art of making porcelain pottery, and created a number of literary monuments, landmarks, etc.
The Han dynasty (206 B.C. – A.D. 220) is famous for the cultural achievements as well as military expansion and political centralization. It is during the rule of the Han dynasty that the famous Silk Road was established, and it extended as far as to the Roman Empire. This trade rout connected different regions of Asia with Europe and North Africa. Thus, the two great empires got a possibility of communication. However, Silk Road did not become the network for intercultural communication – at least, for China and Rome. Relations of the empires were limited to trade. As Adda Bruemmer Bozeman rightfully notes, “the end effect of all these interferences seems to have been that no Chinese ever reached Rome by any of the overland routes and no Roman reached China” (170).
Therefore, though the Roman and Chinese empires did not communicate with each other directly, they had much in common. Both cultures shared the common values of duty and respect for authority as well as the love for luxuries and styles of consumption. Both societies were mainly agricultural which stipulated the inevitability of the conflicts over the ownership of land, and both were divided on aristocracy and the lower classes and exploited slave labor. Both Rome and China created a number of monuments and masterpieces and could rightfully take proud in their cultural achievements and the flowering of art. However, the images of both cultures are not shaped by these similarities; instead, it is differences that are usually emphasized. Indeed, the distinctive features of any culture constitute its core essence. Thus, the profound difference in the perceptions provided a foundation for further divergence of views. This underlying difference can be defined as the preference that Chinese culture gives to collectivism and holistic approach over individualism and analytic approach characteristic of the Rome. Probably, the philosophic character of the Chinese religious thought is also a consequence of the application of the holistic approach, and due to this trend of accepting reality as a whole the foundation of the state was not shaken by the advent of a new religion in China, whereas Rome was completely blown away by the triumphant march of Christianity. Thus, the underlying principles of both cultures were different but it still did not mean the total otherness, as similarities were also present. This means that whatever the differences and contradictions are, the common ground for consensus can always be found, and the different patterns of life adapted by Rome and China are in essence the different stages of the historical process, each equally important.