EMPIRE AND CULTURAL IDENTITY:
PATTERNS OF IMPERIAL EXPANSION
Arising out of preexisting territorial kingdoms, the Roman and Han empires marked a different scale and quality of empire building. With a population of over 50 million people and up to 4 million square miles under its control, the Han Empire had vast resources on which to draw. The Roman Empire governed equally vast land and territories, yet the two empires had separate patterns of development. The Chinese envisaged imperial culture as an ideal from the past to be emulated by the civilian magistrates and bureaucrats who managed the state. The Romans, in contrast, transformed—through experimentation and innovations—from a city-state ruled collectively by citizens into one-man imperial rule. And both empires became principal models for successor states.
The Qin Dynasty
King Zheng of Qin claimed the mandate of heaven and forged a central state far more powerful than that of the Zhou dynasty. He forced the families of defeated states to move to his capital at Xianyang so he could ensure that they were not gathering armies against him. And he took the title Shi Huangdi—First August Emperor.
ADMINISTRATION AND CONTROL
Zheng divided China into thirty-six provinces (or commanderies) and each province into counties. Each commandery had a civilian and military governor, both of whom answered to an inspector general. Regional and local officials answered directly to the emperor, and they could be removed at the emperor’s discretion. Civilian governors rotated offices to prevent them from building an independent power base. All males were registered by clerks, providing lists for conscription and taxation. All able-bodied men were expected to serve in the army and provide labor for public works. The Qin took control over education and learning. Censorship of books was strongly enforced, and books in private residences confiscated and burned.
Teachers were forbidden from using outlawed books. A new standard written script was created to facilitate communication. Standard weights and measures and currency were also established. An idea of “grand unity” emerged as the Qin began to extend the boundaries of China. The Qin chief minister Li Si subscribed to the principles of Legalism and established strict laws and punishments in order to provide social stability and order. The Qin also established a road network connecting the Qin capital to all parts of the empire.
ECONOMIC AND SOCIAL CHANGES
Building on trends in landownership that began during the Warring States period, the Qin dynasty championed free farmers who could be individually taxed by the state. By supporting agricultural production, the state could expand its tax revenues. As agriculture shifted from self-sufficient royal manors to farmers producing goods for the marketplace, landowners began to use contracts and money to strike bargains with laborers and with each other. The practice of farmers and traders using contracts was coming to replace the tradition of ties of blood dominating public and private affairs. A class of merchants grew as long-distance trade expanded, aided by the new roads and canals built by the Qin dynasty. The Qin state, however, believed trade produced nothing of lasting value and encouraged the production of crops over trade.
NOMADS AND THE QIN ALONG THE NORTHERN FRONTIER
As the Qin dynasty sought to extend its borders to the north and west, it encountered the nomadic Xiongnu who traversed a large zone of the Inner Eurasian steppe. The Xiongnu sought to protect their pasturelands from the Qin and also engaged in trade and diplomacy with them. In order to secure the Xiongnu pasturelands for settlement, the Qin established a road and a massive defensive wall along the northern border and settled 30,000 colonists in the steppe lands of Inner Asia. In response, the Xiongnu formed a loose confederation among the steppe tribes and reconquered their lands when the Qin fell in 207 BCE. This pattern of trade and diplomacy punctuated by armed hostility persisted for centuries.
THE QIN DEBACLE
Qin rule collapsed quickly. Heavy tax and labor requirements resulted in mutinies from conscripted laborers, who were joined by local military leaders, influential merchants, and others. When Qin rule collapsed in 207 BCE, civil war erupted in which an unheralded commoner, Liu Bang, declared himself the prince of his home region of Han and in 202 BCE declared himself the first Han emperor. Liu Bang turned to Confucian scholars to justify his ascendancy by depicting the Qin as cruel, immoral despots. Yet the Han adopted much of the Qin bureaucratic system and penal codes while affirming the Confucian idea of the moral and cultural foundations of state power.
The Han Dynasty
The Han dynasty became China’s formative empire, extending Han rule in all directions. The Han relied on conscripted labor and state revenues from state lands, along with a land tax. The western Han dynasty (206 BCE–9 CE) was marked by economic prosperity and expansion of the empire. After a usurper seized power from 9 to 23 CE, the Han claimed authority and the eastern Han dynasty lasted from 25 to 220 CE.
FOUNDATIONS OF HAN POWER
The Han Empire was distinguished by a tight-knit alliance between the imperial family and the new elite—the scholar-gentry class—who united in their effort to impose order on Chinese society. Economic and social supports, as well as a strong military and bureaucratic administration, contributed to the strength, expanse, and longevity of the Han Empire.
Power and Administration In order to secure support, Liu Bang provided land grants to his military supporters and relatives who had helped to overthrow the Qin. Power emanated from the ruling family, whose kin were made nobles and given land over which they had direct power. Governors who administered the commanderies remained under central control, and a grand counselor headed the civil bureaucracy drawn from the educated men representing powerful local communities. At the outset of the Han dynasty, the central government refrained from interfering with regional communities.
Thus, the emperor and his family and court represented a strong, centralized monarchy, but practical considerations always restrained the ruler’s power. The Han-centralized bureaucracy became an enduring source of state power. The Han court soon tightened its control over regional administration and removed powerful princes or regional lords. Regional officials came to govern these aristocratic enclaves as commanderies of the empire. A civilian official and military commandant administered each commandery, each with immense responsibilities. They were accountable for political stability and the collection of taxes. The state established schools to promote the scholar-official ideal, and eventually established a university with over 30,000 members who studied not only the Confucian classics but numerous aspects of the natural world.
Officials selected students on the basis of recommendations, and at graduation these young men began careers in the bureaucracy. Increasingly, local elites encouraged their sons to become masters of Confucianism as a means to enter and advance in the ruling class. The Confucian classics soon became the heart of the autocratic state. Over time, a bureaucratic political culture emerged that balanced the interests of the authoritarian emperor with the officials he needed to rule—a partnership between China’s rulers and its educated and economic elites.
Confucian Ideology and Legitimate Rule The Han used Confucian thought as the primary ideological buttress of the empire, in which the welfare of the people was the foundation of legitimate rule. Not only were local elites expected to be supported, but the people were also expected to be civilized. By 100 BCE, the Confucian ideals of honor, tradition, respecting the lessons of history, and emphasizing the emperor’s responsibility to heaven became the official doctrine of the empire. By embracing Confucian political ideas, the Han established a polity that created a careful balance between the emperor and his officials and empowered officials to criticize bad government and even to impeach corrupt leaders.
THE NEW SOCIAL ORDER AND THE ECONOMY
The genius of the Han was their ability to win support of diverse social groups by forming alliances with key leaders. A massive agrarian base provided the Han with tax revenues, as did a variety of special revenue sources, such as tribute from outlying domains. The state also promoted growth in silk and iron production and established state monopolies in salt, iron, and wine to fund military campaigns. Government monopolies undercut the independence of merchants, forcing them to become partners with the rulers.
Daily Life Wealthy families lived in lavish homes with women cloistered in inner quarters. Women from less wealthy backgrounds worked the fields or joined troops of entertainers. Silk was abundant and worn by members of all classes, and the rich exposed their wealth by the fashion of their meals. Music and entertainment became divorced from ritual occasions, although funerary rites were taken very seriously.
Social Hierarchy At the base of Han society was a free peasantry who owned and worked their own land. Peasants were honored for their productivity while merchants were subjected to a range of controls. Poor tenant farmers and hired laborers eked out an existence, and at the bottom of society resided convicts and slaves, who represented a small percentage of the population. Confucians and Daoists supported this hierarchy. The empire’s most loyal social group was the scholar-officials, who linked the imperial center with local society. By 99 BCE, local uprisings forced the Han to relax its efforts to control local lords, and landlords and local magnates became the dominant powers in the provinces. Disenfranchised agrarian groups turned to religious organizations to provide the organizational framework for dissent and revolt.
Religion and Omens Under the Han emperor Wu, Confucianism slowly took on religious overtones with Confucius possessing aspects of divinity. Religion linked scholars and officials to the peasantry. A cluster of calamities or celestial omens was taken as a sign that the emperor had lost the mandate of heaven.
EXPANSION OF THE EMPIRE AND THE SILK ROAD
The Han created a powerful army that expanded the borders of the empire and created stable conditions for the transit of goods over the Silk Road. Emperor Wu made military service compulsory. Conscripts served in their local areas. The standing army totaled more than one million men. Roman field armies, in contrast, rarely exceeded 30,000 men.
Expanding Borders The army expanded borders in all directions, including into northern Vietnam and Korea but struggled more in the south and southwest due to mountainous terrain and malaria.
The Xiongnu, the Yuezhi, and the Han Dynasty The most serious military threat to the Han came from the nomadic peoples to the north, especially the Xiongnu. Emperor Wu launched offensive campaigns against the Xiongnu, eventually splitting the Xiongnu tribes in half. The southern tribes surrendered to the Han, while the northern tribes moved westward.
The Chinese Peace: Trade, Oases, and the Silk Road After the defeat of the Xiongnu, a Pax Sinica ensued that allowed a period of extended peace and prosperity. Long-distance trade flourished, and the Han enjoyed tribute from peoples far outside the Han territory. The Xiongnu even began to serve as middlemen in the Silk Road trade. Wu extended the northern defensive wall and established a series of garrison cities. Military and farming settlements began to develop this area with support from the government. A similar system of oases was developed on the rim of the Taklamakan Desert. Traders could now find food and fodder along this route, which soon became part of the Silk Road.
SOCIAL CONVULSIONS AND THE USURPER
The vast Han army stretched over long distances requiring huge expenditures. Emperor Wu raised taxes, which strained the small landholders and peasants, but by the beginning of the first century CE the Chinese empire was financially drained. Economic decline ensued as natural disasters led to crop failures. Many free peasants fell into debt and were forced to sell their land to large landholders. The social fabric of Han society tore apart as fast-growing populations confronted land shortages. Rebel movements soon formed. Wang Mang, a Han minister, seized the throne, believing the Han had lost the mandate of heaven. Wang Mang enacted reforms to help the poor and sought to redistribute land equitably. He increased taxes on artisans, hunters, and silk weavers to pay for a storehouse system to alleviate grain shortages, but his reforms failed.
NATURAL DISASTER AND REBELLION
Wang Mang’s reign was quickly undermined by a violent upheaval that united peasants and large landholders against central authority. In 11 CE, the Yellow River broke its dikes and switched course to the south. The entire region was plunged into famine and banditry, affecting nearly half of China’s population. Wang Mang’s regime was unable to cope with the disaster. Daoist clerics led a march on Wang’s capital, and by 23 CE, they had overthrown Wang Mang. The Han returned to the throne and repudiated Wang Mang’s reformist policies as well as adopting a conservative ethos favoring hereditary privilege.
THE LATER HAN DYNASTY
The Later Han dynasty restored Han rule by accepting social, political, and economic inequalities. These problems slowly diluted the central power of the emperor and the court into the hands of great aristocratic families who obtained even more private property and turned free peasants into tenants. Social turmoil emerged as inequality grew, and full-scale rebellion erupted in 184 CE. Popular religious groups championed new ideas among commoners and elites, and Daoist ideas gained popularity. At this propitious moment, Buddhist clerics arrived in northern China preaching a new religion of personal enlightenment for the elite and millennial salvation for the masses, and their ideas were warmly welcomed.
Yet Daoism offered the greatest challenge to the Han dynasty as Daoist masters challenged Confucian ritual conformity. Religious groups such as the Yellow Turbans emerged across the empire and championed Daoist millenarian movements. As agricultural conditions further deteriorated, people refused to pay their taxes or provide forced labor, and internal wars engulfed the Han dynasty. After the 180s CE, three competing states replaced the Han.
The Roman Empire
Whereas the Han dominated an enormous continental landmass, the Romans dominated the lands along the world’s largest inland sea, the Mediterranean. Through almost unrelenting wars, the Romans forged an unparalleled number of ethnic groups and minor states into a single large political state.
FOUNDATIONS OF THE ROMAN EMPIRE
The Romans had no great imperial ancestors from which they drew imperial models. Up until 350 BCE, Rome was one of several city-states on the Italian peninsula, but then it entered a period of military and territorial expansion. Within a century it controlled most of the Italian peninsula, due largely to the migration of foreign peoples and to Roman military and political innovations.
Population Movements The invasion of Gallic peoples into the Italian peninsula in the late fifth and early fourth centuries BCE undermined the dominance of the Etruscans in that region. While the Gauls were repulsed, the Etruscans never reestablished their dominance over the other peoples in Italy, including the Romans.
Military Institutions and the War Ethos The Romans created unassailable military power by organizing the communities they conquered in Italy into a system that provided huge reservoirs of manpower for the army. Beginning in 340 BCE, Rome defeated its fellow Latin city-states and then continued on to defeat other communities in Italy. Rome demanded that defeated communities provide men for the Roman army every year. Thus, the Roman army grew as its victories accumulated. By 265 BCE, Rome controlled the entire Italian peninsula and launched a series of three wars against Carthage. Through these Punic Wars, Rome established a dominant position in the western Mediterranean.
Most dramatically, the Roman defeat of Hannibal during the Second Punic War demonstrated that the resources in terms of manpower and material that the Roman army could draw upon were of a qualitatively different character than those of a city-state such as Carthage. Such resources provided the Romans a decisive advantage. The Romans also created a war ethos in which honor precluded Roman soldiers from ever accepting defeat, pushing themselves into battle again and again. Roman soldiers also faced fierce discipline in which minor infractions were punishable by death.
The Romans drafted and trained a large number of men—at its peak about 10 percent of the adult male population was drafted into military service. By 146 BCE the Romans had a monopoly of power over the entire Mediterranean basin. Military victory for generals brought not only glory and territory for the state but enormous personal rewards. Men of great talent and ambition were drawn into military service—and vast numbers died in Roman wars.
Political Institutions and Internal Conflict Once the rush of military success slowed in the second century BCE, social and political problems in the Italian peninsula began to surface. The political institutions of the Roman city-state were now inadequate to manage a vast empire. Rome’s elite seized the wealth flowing into Rome from its empire and acquired huge tracts of land and imported slaves to work them. Poorer, free- citizen farmers were driven off their lands and into the cities, which resulted in a severe agrarian crisis. The Gracchus brothers, who served as tribunes to protect the interests of the common people, sought to institute land reforms but were assassinated. Poor Roman citizens increasingly looked toward army commanders to provide them with land and a decent income. Thus, generals became increasingly powerful political figures who ignored the state institutions and traditional rules of politics. In 90 BCE, a long series of civil wars began.
EMPERORS, AUTHORITARIAN RULE, AND ADMINISTRATION
After a half century of brutal civil war, Roman leaders sought to establish political stability, but such stability came at a price: one-man authoritarian rule. Peace depended on the power of one man who possessed sufficient authority to enforce orderly competition among the Roman aristocracy. Julius Caesar’s adopted son Octavian reunited the fractured empire and emerged as its undisputed master by 30 BCE. He assumed the name Augustus (the Revered One) and concentrated authority in his hands. The emperors were frequently cultivated as semidivine, yet they were careful to present themselves as civil rulers whose power depended on the consent of Roman citizens and the power of the army.
Some emperors, such as Caligula, acted in the arbitrary ways that Romans associated with tyrannical kings. The position of emperor was fraught with difficulty, as fifteen of the twenty-two emperors between Augustus and the beginning of the third century died by murder or suicide. Emperors ruled with the help of several institutions, most importantly the army. Augustus transformed the army into a professional force. One joined for life and swore allegiance to the emperor and his family. The empire was divided into forty provinces, each headed by a governor appointed by the emperor. Governors depended on lower-ranking officials to aid them. Compared to the Chinese bureaucracy, the Roman Empire was relatively underadministered. Governors were expected to maintain peace and collect taxes.
TOWN AND CITY LIFE
The emperor had to count on the local elites of the empire to see him as a presence that guaranteed stability and their personal well-being.
Municipalities The towns in the empire provided the backbone of local administration. Roman town centers were dominated by an open-air forum around which were arranged the town’s main public buildings. In smaller towns, sanitation and health appear to have been reasonably good.
Rome Rome, however, had over one million inhabitants. While aqueducts provided fresh water and basic food supplies were guaranteed, living conditions were appalling. Housing was dangerous and cramped, and crime and violence was rampant. The lack of sanitation led to a disease-ridden environment that killed off many inhabitants as new immigrants arrived.
Mass Entertainment Every significant Roman town had a theater and an amphitheater, the most famous of which was the Colosseum in Rome. The Colosseum was a state-of-the-art entertainment facility, used most infamously for gladiatorial games in which well-trained men fought, sometimes to the death, for the enjoyment of huge crowds. The creation of public entertainments stresses the importance public citizens had in Roman life. Han Chinese elites, in contrast, created large palace complexes to impress and amuse themselves, not the general public.
SOCIAL AND GENDER RELATIONS
Men and women of wealth in the Roman Empire acted as patrons to clients of the lower classes. The wealthy made generous distributions of food and entertainment. These relationships were formalized in legal definitions of responsibilities of patrons to clients. The essence of Roman society, however, was the presence of formal relationships governed by Roman laws and courts. The legal code featured not only a rich body of written laws but also institutions for settling legal disputes and educated men who specialized in interpreting the law.
The apparatus of Roman law appeared in every town and city of the empire, and its influence long outlived the empire itself. The civil laws placed the family at the foundation of the Roman social order. The paterfamilias headed the family and had near total power over his dependents, yet compared to the women in the Greek city-states, Roman women had much greater freedom and control over their own wealth and property. They frequently entered into contracts and conducted business and personal transactions.
ECONOMY AND NEW SCALES OF PRODUCTION
Rome achieved a staggering transformation of scale in the production of agricultural, manufactured, and mined goods in the Mediterranean basin. The Romans also built an unprecedented number of roads and drew up complex land maps on which all major roads and the distances between towns were specified. They also coordinated the road network with sea routes to support the flow of commerce. Coinage was produced in massive quantities to facilitate the exchange of commodities and services. Large-scale commercial plantation agriculture emerged on estates called latifundia. Specializing in cash crops for urban markets, these estates required large numbers of slave laborers. These economic developments were supported by a firm belief in private property, which was codified into Roman law.
RELIGIOUS CULTS AND THE RISE OF CHRISTIANITY
The political unification of the Mediterranean under one empire suggested that the beliefs of the people might also be unified. The municipal charters of towns required town councilors to institute and maintain the support of a wide variety of official and semiofficial religious cults. Christianity emerged from a direct confrontation and dialogue with Roman imperial authority. Jesus was tried by a Roman governor and executed by the standard Roman penalty of crucifixion. Disciples of Jesus attempted to write about his life and record his sayings in four books that came to be called the Gospels, explaining that Jesus had been divine. Jesus’ preachings were deeply Jewish, with Jesus as the shepherd of his people.
Through the textual portrait of Jesus drawn in the Gospels and the preaching of a Jewish Roman citizen named Paul, the image of Jesus as divine began to spread through the Mediterranean. Followers formed a church in which death was the hallmark of faith: the death and resurrection of Jesus and their own deaths as witnesses and martyrs to God. The persecution of Christians remained sporadic and local. Not until the middle of the third century CE was a formal, empire-wide attack on Christianity directed by the state. By the late third century, Christian communities reflecting different strands of the movement were present throughout the empire.
THE LIMITS OF EMPIRE
The Romans extended their empire to its ecological limits to the west (the Atlantic Ocean) and the south (the Sahara Desert). To the east, the Romans were prevented from expanding beyond the Mediterranean periphery by the empire of the Parthians and their successors the Sasanians. The nomadic Parthians and Sasanians had a decisive advantage on the arid plains of Iran and Iraq against the cumbersome Roman infantry. In the lands to the north, the illiterate kin-based agricultural societies were led by warrior elites. Their relationships with the Romans were characterized by war and violence. The only commodity that these societies produced that was in demand in the Roman world was slaves, and the slave trade out of this region was immense. The Romans became enmeshed with these northern tribal societies, and the tribal societies were drawn into internal conflicts among the Roman elite.