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An Age of Empires: Rome and Han China, 753 b.c.e.–330 c.e.


After studying this chapter students should be able to:

10. Analyze the causes of the rise, the stability, and the decline of the Roman and Han empires in terms of their respective geographical locations, natural resources, economic base, administrative structures, and ideological systems.

20. Understand the political evolution of the Roman state from the Republic to the principate, paying particular attention to how change was related to the growth of empire and questions of land ownership.

30. Describe the development of Christianity and explain how it became the dominant religion of the Roman Empire.

40. Understand the institution of emperorship and the respective roles of the gentry, the small landholders, peasants, and nomads in the history of Han China.


I0. Rome’s Creation of a Mediterranean Empire, 753 b.c.e.–330 c.e.

A0. Geography and Resources

10. Italy and Sicily are at a crossroads of the Mediterranean and serve as a link between Africa and Europe. Rome is at a crossroads of the Italian peninsula.

20. Italy’s natural resources included navigable rivers, forests, iron, a mild climate, and enough arable land to support a large population of farmers whose surplus product and labor could be exploited by the Roman state.

B0. A Republic of Farmers, 753–31 b.c.e.

10. Rome was inhabited at least as early as 1000 b.c.e. According to legend, it was ruled by seven kings between 753 b.c.e. and 507 b.c.e. Kingship was eliminated in 507 b.c.e. when representatives of the senatorial class of large landholders overthrew the last king and established a republic.

20. The centers of political power were the two consuls and the Senate. In practice, the Senate made laws and governed.

30. The Roman family consisted of several generations living under the absolute authority of the oldest living male, the paterfamilias.

40. Society was hierarchical. Families and individuals were tied together by patron/client relationships that institutionalized inequality and gave both sides of the relationship reason to cooperate and to support the status quo.

50. Roman women had relatively more freedom than Greek women, but their legal status was still that of a child, subordinate to the paterfamilias of their own or their husband’s family. Eventually procedures evolved that made it possible for some women to become independent after the death of their fathers.

60. Romans worshiped a large number of supernatural spirits as well as major gods such as Jupiter and Mars. Proper performance of ritual ensured that the gods continued to favor the Roman state.

C0. Expansion in Italy and the Mediterranean

10. Rome began to expand, at first slowly and then very rapidly, in the third and second centuries b.c.e. until it became a huge Mediterranean empire. Possible explanations for this expansion include greed, aggressiveness, the need for consuls to prove themselves as military commanders during their single year in office, and a constant fear of being attacked.

20. During the first stage of expansion, Rome conquered the rest of Italy (by 290 b.c.e.). Rome won the support of the people of Italy by granting them Roman citizenship. As citizens, these people then had to provide soldiers for the military.

30. In the next stages of expansion, Rome first defeated Carthage to gain control over the western Mediterranean and Sicily, Sardinia, and Spain (264–202 b.c.e.). Next, between 200 and 30 b.c.e., Rome defeated the Hellenistic kingdoms to take over the lands of the eastern Mediterranean. Between 59 and 51 b.c.e., Gaius Julius Caesar conquered the Celts of Gaul.

40. The Romans used local elite groups to administer and tax the various provinces of their rapidly expanding and far-flung empire. A Roman governor, who served a single one-year term in office, supervised the local administrators. This system was inadequate and prone to corruption.

D0. The Failure of the Republic

10. As Rome expanded, the social and economic bases of the Roman republic in Italy were undermined. While men from independent farming families were forced to devote their time to military service, large landowners bought up their land to create great estates called latifundia. This meant both a decline in Rome’s source of soldiers and a decline in food production because latifundia owners preferred to grow cash crops like grapes rather than staple crops such as wheat.

20. Because slave labor was cheap in an expanding empire, Italian peasants, driven off the land and not employed by the latifundia, drifted into the cities where they formed a fractious unemployed underclass.

30. As the independent farming family that had been the traditional source of soldiers disappeared, Roman commanders built their armies from men from the underclass who tended to give their loyalty, not to the Roman state, but to their commander. This led to generals taking control of politics, to civil wars, and finally to the end of the republican system of government.

E0. The Roman Principate, 31 b.c.e.–330 c.e.

10. Julius Caesar’s grandnephew Octavian (also known as Augustus) took power in 31 b.c.e., reorganized the Roman government, and ruled as a military dictator.

20. During the reign of Augustus, Egypt, parts of the Middle East, and Central Europe were added to the empire. He created a paid civil service from a class of wealthy merchants and landowners to manage the growing empire.

30. After Augustus died, several members of his family succeeded him. However, the position of emperor was not necessarily hereditary; in the end, armies chose emperors.

40. Rather than laws developing through a senate and assemblies, as it had during the Republic, the emperor became a major source of laws during the Principate. The development of Roman law culminated in the sixth century c.e. and became the foundation of European law.

F0. An Urban Empire

10. About 80 percent of the 50 to 60 million people of the Roman Empire were rural farmers, but the empire was administered through and for a network of cities and towns. In this sense, it was an urban empire. Rome had about a million residents, other large cities (Alexandria, Antioch, and Carthage) had several hundred thousand each, while many Roman towns had populations of several thousand.

20. In Rome, the upper classes lived in elegant, well-built, well-appointed houses; many aristocrats also owned country villas. The poor lived in dark, dank, fire-prone wooden tenements in squalid slums built in the low-lying parts of the city.

30. Provincial towns imitated Rome both in urban planning and in urban administration. The local elite, who served the interests of Rome, dominated town councils. The local elite also served their communities by using their wealth to construct amenities such as aqueducts, baths, theatres, gardens, temples, and other public works and entertainment projects.

40. Rural life in the Roman Empire involved lots of hard work and very little entertainment. Rural people had little contact with representatives of the government. By the early centuries c.e., absentee landlords who lived in the cities owned most rural land, while the land was worked by tenant farmers supervised by hired foremen.

50. Manufacture and trade flourished under the pax romana. Grain had to be imported to feed the huge city of Rome. Rome and the Italian towns (and later, provincial centers) exported glass, metalwork, pottery, and other manufactures to the provinces. Romans also imported Chinese silk and Indian and Arabian spices.

60. One of the effects of the Roman Empire was Romanization. In the western part of the Empire, the Latin language, Roman clothing, and the Roman lifestyle were adopted by local people; and indigenous cultures had an effect on Rome through cultural interaction. As time passed, Roman emperors gradually extended Roman citizenship to all free male adult inhabitants of the empire.

G0. The Rise of Christianity

10. Jesus lived in a society marked by resentment against Roman rule, which had inspired the belief that a Messiah would arise to liberate the Jews. When Jesus sought to reform Jewish religious practices, the Jewish authorities in Jerusalem turned him over to the Roman governor for execution.

20. After the execution, Jesus’ disciples continued to spread his teachings; they also spread their belief that Jesus had been resurrected. At this point, the target of their proselytizing was their fellow Jews.

30. The target of proselytizing changed from Jews to non-Jews in the 40s–70s c.e. First, Paul of Tarsus, an Anatolian Jew, discovered that non-Jews (gentiles) were much more receptive to the teachings of Jesus than Jews were. Second, a Jewish revolt in Judaea (66 c.e.) and the subsequent Roman reconquest destroyed the original Jewish Christian community in Jerusalem.

40. Christianity grew slowly for two centuries, developing a hierarchy of priests and bishops, hammering out a commonly accepted theological doctrine, and resisting the persecution of Roman officials. By the late third century, Christians were a sizeable minority in the Roman Empire.

50. The expansion of Christianity in the Roman Empire came at a time when Romans were increasingly dissatisfied with their traditional religion. This dissatisfaction inspired Romans to become interested in a variety of mystery cults and universal creeds that had their origins in the eastern Mediterranean.

H0. Technology and Transformation

10. The Romans were expert military and civil engineers. Among their accomplishments were bridge-building, ballistic weapons, elevated and underground aqueducts, the use of arches and domes, and the invention of concrete.

20. Following Augustus’ death, the army was organized primarily for defense. The Rhine-Danube frontier was protected by a string of forts; long walls protected the frontiers of North Africa and Britain. On the eastern frontier, the Romans fought for centuries against the Parthians. Neither side made any significant gains.

30. The state system constructed by Augustus worked well until what historians call Rome’s third-century crisis. The symptoms of this crisis were frequent change of rulers, raids by German tribesmen from across the Rhine-Danube frontier, and the rise of regional power when Rome seemed unable to guarantee security.

40. Rome’s economy was undermined by the high cost of defense, debasement of the currency and consequent inflation, a disruption of trade, reversion to a barter economy, disappearance of the municipal aristocracy of the provincial cities, and a movement of population out of the cities and back into the rural areas.

50. The emperor Diocletian (r. 284–305 c.e.) saved the Roman state by instituting a series of reforms that included price controls and regulations that required certain people to stay in their professions and to train a son to succeed them. Some side effects of these reforms include a flourishing black market and a growing feeling of resentment against the government.

60. Constantine (r. 306–37 c.e.) formally ended the persecution of Christians and patronized the Christian church, thus contributing to the rise of Christianity as the official religion of the empire. Constantine also transferred the capital of the empire from Rome to the eastern city of Byzantium, which he renamed Constantinople.

II0. The Origins of Imperial China, 221 b.c.e.–220 c.e.

A0. The Qin Unification of China, 221–207 b.c.e.

10. By 221 b.c.e., the state of Qin had unified all of northern and central China into the first Chinese “empire.” Success for the Qin came from long experience in defending against “barbarian” neighbors, the adoption of severe Legalist methods, and the ambition of the ruthless young king Shi Huangdi and his advisors.

20. Upon uniting China, the Qin established a strong centralized state by eliminating rival centers of authority, establishing primogeniture, and creating a strong bureaucracy. It standardized law, measurements, coinage, and writing. Following the advice of his prime minister, Li Si, Shi Huangdi followed the Legalist view and suppressed Confucianism.

30. To secure the empire’s borders from northern raiders, the Qin sent a large military force to drive the nomads north. To ensure they would not lose the newly gained territory, they constructed connections and extensions to walls built earlier to defend the kingdoms, the ancestor of the Great Wall of China. Shi Huangdi’s attack on the nomads inadvertently united the fragmented nomads under the Xiongnu Confederacy, a source of threat to China for centuries to come.

40. To fill their military and labor needs, the Qin government instituted an oppressive program of compulsory military and labor services.

50. Shi Huangdi died in 210 b.c.e. and was buried in a monumental tomb guarded by a terracotta clay army of seven thousand soldiers. His son secured the throne but proved to be a weak leader who could not withstand the uprisings that broke out from the resentment of different groups. Qin rule was over by 206 b.c.e.

B0. The Long Reign of the Han, 202 b.c.e.–220 c.e.

10. Gaozu (the throne name of Liu Bang) was a peasant who defeated all other contestants for control of China, establishing the Han dynasty. The Han established a political system that drew on both Confucian philosophy and Legalist techniques.

20. Han rulers faced challenges at first from residual resentments of the ruthless rule of the Qin. To ease their transition and help the economy, the Qin reduced taxes and government spending, and collected and stored surplus grain for times of shortage. For those who had aided him, Gaozu restored the system of feudal grants abolished by the Qin.

30. Confrontation with the Xiongnu confederacy nomads of the north revealed the inadequacy of Han troops, leading Gaozu to develop a policy of appeasement, buying them off with annual gifts.

40. The Han went through a period of territorial expansion under Emperor Wu (r. 141–87 b.c.e.) who increased the power of the emperor. During his rule, he expanded the empire into areas as far as northern Vietnam, Manchuria, and North Korea. Instead of appeasing the Xiongnu, he built his military to fight the northern nomads.

50. Wu’s reign saw the expansion of Chinese territory into the northwest and the foundations of the Silk Road, which would later affect the economic health of Asia. To pay for the military buildup, government monopolies on high-profit commodities added to the treasury, though not without controversy. The state also adopted Confucianism, using Confucian scholars as officials of the government, who in turn expected exemplary ethical behavior from their rulers.

C0. Chinese Society

10. The family was the basic unit of society. The family was conceived as an unbroken chain of generations, including ancestors as well as current generations. Ancestors were thought to take an active interest in the affairs of the current generation, and they were routinely consulted, appeased, and venerated.

20. Chinese society believed that a hierarchy in the family, dominated by the elder male, reflected a hierarchy in society, dominated by rulers, with interdependent relationships more important than the individual. The status and authority of women depended upon their social status. Women of the royal family could have some political influence. A young wife was expected to be obedient and recognize her mother-in-law’s authority over her. All women were expected to be obedient, but their quality of life depended upon economic circumstances.

30. During the Western Han period (202 b.c.e.–8 c.e.) the capital was at Chang’an. During the Eastern Han (23–220 c.e.) the capital was at Luoyang. Chang’an was an easily defended walled city with easy access to good arable land. The population in 2 c.e. was 246,000. Other cities and towns imitated the urban planning of Chang’an.

40. The elite of Chang’an lived in elegant multistoried houses arranged on broad, well-planned boulevards. They dressed in fine silks, were connoisseurs of art and literature, and indulged in numerous entertainments. The common people lived in closely packed houses in largely unplanned, winding alleys.

50. Local officials were supplied by a class of moderately wealthy, educated local landowners whom historians refer to as the gentry. The gentry adopted Confucianism as their ideology and pursued careers in the civil service, most often paying to have their sons trained in the same profession. Merchant families also tended to be based in cities. Chinese men were required to give two years of military service and often spent their time stationed on distant frontier posts.

D0. New Forms of Thought and Belief

10. The Han period was rich in intellectual developments. Scholar-officials read and wrote in a range of genres in their free time. Sima Qian, the chief astrologer of Emperor Wu (ca. 109–90 b.c.e.), could also be called the father of history in China. He wrote an exhaustive history of China, beginning with the Yellow Emperor of the third millennium b.c.e.

20. Relative to technological innovations, the Han era saw the development of the watermill, a usable horse collar, paper, horse breeding to supply cavalry forces, and a reliable crossbow trigger. The Qin and Han also built thousands of miles of roads to facilitate army movement and a network of canals connecting northern and southern river systems.

30. The Chinese believed in a number of nature spirits whom they worshipped and tried to appease. Daoism, which emphasized the search for the dao, or “path,” emphasized harmony with nature. Because Daoism tended to question tradition and reject hierarchy, charismatic Daoist teachers led a number of popular uprisings during the last decades of the dynasty. Buddhism was introduced to China in the first century c.e., probably spread by merchants on the Silk Road. Because Buddhism called for monks to withdraw from families and abstain from sex, it came into conflict with Confucian beliefs in family and procreation of children to maintain the cult of ancestors, leading to its gradual reshaping for acceptance in Chinese culture.

E0. Decline of the Han

10. An ambitious high official seized power from 9 to 23 c.e. but was killed in his palace, and a member of the Han royal family was again installed as emperor. At this time the capital was moved east to Luoyang.

20. The Han Empire was undermined by a number of factors. First, the imperial court was plagued by weak leadership and court intrigue. Second, nobles and merchants built up large landholdings at the expense of the small farmers, and peasants sought tax relief, reducing revenues for the empire. Third, the system of military conscription broke down and the central government had to rely on mercenaries whose loyalty was questionable.

30. These factors, compounded by factionalism at court, official corruption, peasant uprisings, and nomadic attacks, led to the fall of the dynasty in 220 c.e. China entered a period of political fragmentation that lasted until the late sixth century.

III0. Comparative Perspectives

A0. Similarities

10. The Han and Roman Empires were similar relative to agriculture being their fundamental economic activity. Both empires received revenue from a percentage of the annual harvests. And both empires strengthened their central rule by breaking the power of old aristocratic families, reducing their land holdings. Both empires saw their authority eroding at the end of their reigns by the reversal of this process.

20. Both empires spread out from an ethnically homogeneous core to encompass widespread territories of diverse cultures. Many in the conquered lands adopted the cultural elements of the core, and the core also adopted some of the cultural traditions of their far-flung regions. The extent of their empires forced both empires to create a well-trained bureaucracy and to make use of local officials to administer their interests.

30. Both empires built roads to facilitate military movement that later became routes to spread commerce and culture. While the majority of populations in both empires lived in the countryside, those living in urban centers enjoyed the more cosmopolitan advantages of empire.

40. Both empires faced common problems in terms of defense and found their domestic economies undermined by their military expenditures.

50. Both empires were overrun by new peoples who had been so deeply influenced by the imperial cultures of Rome and of China that they maintained some of that culture during their own reigns.

B0. Differences

10. In China, the imperial model was revived and the territory of the Han Empire re-unified. The former Roman Empire was never again reconstituted.

20. Differences between China and the Roman world can be located in the concept of the individual, the greater degree of economic mobility for the middle classes in Rome than in Han China, the make-up and hierarchy of their armies, and the different political ideologies and religions of the two empires.


10. In what ways were the economic foundations of the Roman and the Han empires similar? How do you account for the similarity? How were they different? What were the consequences of the differences?

20. Why did Christianity develop when and as it did? Who would you say is the founder of the Christian religion? Why did it ultimately survive and succeed?

30. How might environmental or geographical factors help to explain the different long-term effects of the Roman and Han empires? Were they more important than religious and ideological factors?

40. How has the material in this chapter contributed to your understanding of the relationship between technology and the development of governments?

50. Why should the Han have been more successful than the Qin in establishing long-lasting dynastic rule?

60. How did the institutions of imperial government in Han China differ from those established in Rome after Augustus? What might explain the difference?


10. Julius Caesar and Augustus


a0. Meier, Christian. Caesar. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1997.

b0. Raaflaub, Kurt, and Mark Toher, eds. Between Republic and Empire: Interpretations of Augustus and His Principate. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993.

c0. Shotter, D. C. A. Augustus Caesar. London: Routledge, 1992.

20. China in the Time of Emperor Wu


a0. Loewe, Michael. Everyday Life in Early Imperial China During the Han Period 202 bcad 220. London: Carousel, 1973.

b0. Ch’ien, Ssu-ma. Records of the Grand Historian: Han Dynasty. Translated by Burton Watson. rev. ed. Hong Kong: Research Centre for Translation, The Chinese University of Hong Kong, 1993.

c0. Twitchett, Denis, and Michael Lowe, eds. Cambridge History of China. Vol. I, The Ch’in and Han Empires, 221 b.c.–a.d. 220. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986.

30. Science and Technology in Rome and China


a0. Cullen, Christopher. Astronomy and Mathematics in Ancient China: The Zhou Bi Suan Jing. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996.

b0. Temple, Robert. The Genius of China: 3,000 Years of Science, Discovery, and Invention. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1986.

c0. White, K. D. Greek and Roman Technology. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1984.

40. The Development of Christianity


a0. Ayers, Robert H. Judaism and Christianity: Origins, Developments, and Recent Trends. Lanham, Maryland: University Press of America, 1983.

b0. Markus, R. A. Christianity in the Roman World. New York: Charles Scribners’ Sons, 1974.

c0. Smith, Morton. Jesus the Magician. New York: Harper and Row, 1978.

d0. Wells, G. A. Who Was Jesus? A Critique of the New Testament Record. LaSalle: Open Court, 1989.

50. Why Do Empires Fall? The Case of the Han Dynasty


a0. de Crespigny, Rafe. Northern Frontier: The Policies and Strategy of the Later Han Empire. Canberra: Australian National University, 1984.

b0. Ferrill, Arther. Fall of the Roman Empire. New York: W.W. Norton and Co., 1988.

c0. Twitchett, Denis, and Michael Lowe, eds. Cambridge History of China. Vol. I, The Ch’in and Han Empires, 221 b.c.–a.d. 220. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986.


10. Compare the legal and social status of women in Roman and Chinese civilizations.

20. Write a paper explaining and justifying your position on the following statement: “The Romans did not seek an empire, they backed into it.”

30. Research the question of water supply and sewage disposal in Roman cities.

40. Compare the legal system of Rome with the legal system of Qin and/or Han China.

50. Compare the relationships of the frontiers to the centers of Rome and Han China.


The following Internet sites contain written and visual material appropriate for use with this chapter. A more extensive and continually updated list of Internet resources can be found on The Earth and Its Peoples web site. Refer to The Earth and Its Peoples web site section located at the beginning of this manual for information on how to locate the text homepage.

Maecenas—images of the Roman world (L. Curran)


Lacus Curtius: Into the Roman World (B. Thayer)


Vroma: A virtual community for teaching and learning classics


Historical maps of the Roman Empire


The Forum of Trajan in Rome (University of Chicago)


Maps of Ancient China


National Palace Museum (Taipei, Taiwan)


Shi Huangdi (Minnesota State University, Mankato)


Han culture (Ohio State University)


Copyright © Houghton Mifflin Company. All rights reserved.

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