Recent Post

July 31, 2013

Essay on Comparing Different Empires

The Comparison between Chinese and Western-European development has been a popular subject for many a study in the past few decades. These studies tend to focus primarily on comparing early modern Europe to early modern China, a complicated comparison because of the great differences in state-formation between the two regions. In the early modern era Europe was made up of various competing regions, whereas China was an empire, and had been an empire for the most part of the last fifteen hundred years. The interstate competition in Western Europe provided a very different context than that found in China. The different paths of development they took after this period were very divergent and thus attracted lots of attention, but it made comparison very difficult. There is, however, a comparison to be made between these two regions which is not obstructed by this problem. By taking a few steps further back in history we stumble upon a period in which these two regions were remarkably similar and when both regions were ruled by one emperor. Between approximately two hundred years before and two hundred years after the start of the common era the separate ends of Eurasia were dominated by two empires; the great Roman Empire under the Principate, from 27 BCE and to the crisis of the third century, and the Chinese Empire under the Western Han Dynasty, which ruled between 206 BCE and 9 CE.
Where the more common early modern comparison is obstructed by great differences, this comparison takes account of two regions with great similarities. The mature Empires both controlled territories of approximately four million square kilometres and boasted populations of around sixty million[1]. What is more, in both periods under discussion the main aim of these Empires was not to expand their territory further, but to consolidate their borders and create homogeneity within them. Managing an empire of this size requires a lot of political resourcefulness to keep the empire united and the different peoples within these Empires under control. At their apex both states were made up of an enormous range of administrative districts, encompassing tribal centres, kingdoms and vassal states, large urbanized centres in the Roman Empire and centrally controlled commanderies in the Han Empire

, making governance over such large territories possible in an age of limited communication and transport possibilities.[2] So how exactly did these two Empires manage to achieve this? Were the Roman Empire during the Principate and the Chinese Empire during the Han Dynasty politically and culturally united Empires and how did they lay the foundations for a degree of unification in their respective regions.
The search for causal explanations of historical events lies at the heart of comparative history. In the two regions at separate ends of the Eurasian landmass two very different political situations have been prevalent in the past two millennia. At the beginning of the last two thousand years both Western Europe and the Middle East and China were dominated by Empires. After the era of Empires both regions took a different route. Political and cultural unity  persisted in China whereas the European and Middle Eastern unity crumbled in both the political and cultural sphere. I want to find out whether the degree of political and cultural unity reached was equal or not and what caused possible divergence. Before we can look at what caused possible differences, however, we need to know exactly what these differences are.
This thesis will be divided into two main parts. One part describes the outcomes, the different degrees of unity, and how these can be measured. There are a number of measures which can help give an indication of cultural and political unity. Cultural unity will be defined as the existence of a dominant language, script, measures, building styles and ideology in the entire Empire. Political unification will focus on the centralization of government within the Empire and the demarcation of borders, insiders and outsiders.  I will describe both the unity achieved during the period under discussion and, maybe more importantly, the way this unity was persistent over time. Only after clearly establishing the different outcomes for both cases are we able to look at what caused the differences in these outcomes, and thus what causes political and cultural unity and what does not. It is essential to keep in mind that indicators of outcome are not the same as the causes of that outcome. The first allows us to describe what is being explained, the second helps us to actually explain. The measures of outcome will be discussed under the heading Outcomes. The possible causes will be discussed under the heading Causal indicators. Finally I will conclude with a chapter discussing which causal indicators are most important in explaining the described outcome.

Questions of political and cultural unification are never restricted to a certain time or space. Even though circumstances have changed in both China and Europe, human behaviour tends to keep following a relatively constant code of conduct. Political units today are still not self-evident or natural. People don’t naturally live together in states, let alone in newly formed political units like the European Union. In large areas of land and large masses of people differences often seem to be more prevalent than commonalities. Binding people was and still is a prominent aspect of political life. Therefore studies of unification in Ancient times may just give us clues as to what might help in establishing unity today, if that is what we want. Besides, explicit comparison helps us to identify the features that both Empires shared and the differences between them. It helps us to relate specific variables to certain outcomes.

Defining Empire

To be able to tackle the broad question as to what degree the Roman Empire during the Principate and Qin and Han China were culturally and politically unified and what caused the respective degrees of unification within these Empires, it is important to first be clear about what an Empire is and why the two political units go under the name Empire. In The sources of social power Michael Mann defines the state as “a differentiated set of institutions and personnel, embodying centrality, in the sense that political relations radiate outwards from a centre to cover a territorially demarcated area over which it claims a monopoly of binding and permanent rule-making, backed up by physical violence”. Mann furthermore points to four sources of power; political, military, ideological and economic power, which were, during most of history, not state property. The state seeks to centralize and monopolize all four power sources, thereby giving political elites “an independence from civil society which, though not absolute, is no less absolute in principle than the power of any other major group”. An Empire, however, does not entirely conform to Mann’s definition of state. Mann argues that imperial states are characterized by high levels of despotic power exterted and maintained through their own government bodies. However, they frequently possess only a limited capacity to penetrate the peripheries and so remain weak. Because of this weakness many definitions of Empire emphasize internal cultural diversity and political differentiation. An Empire is seen as a force that brings different autonomous polities under its control. In his definition of Empires Walter Scheidel quotes Stephen Howe to illustrate this point: “an Empire is a large composite, multi-ethnic or multinational political unit, usually created by conquest, and divided between a dominant centre and subordinate, sometimes far distant, peripheries”[5]. The division between the core and the periphery and the extent of internal diversity is what often defines Empires. However, in long-lived empires, such as the Roman and Chinese Empires, a long period of consolidation decreases internal division and diversity. In both the Roman Empire during the Principate and the Han Empire the privileges of the core in comparison to the periphery declined. These empires retained some of their internal diversity but lost a distinctive core. [6]
Paradoxically the term Empire thus seems to be an ill fit for both the Roman Empire under the Principate and the Chinese Empire during the Han Dynasty. Empire should not be seen in this context as a type of stable and definitive political entity. It is much more a step towards another form of state formation, either ending up unified, or divided into pieces. Crucial in the consideration of Empires is their size and diversity. Empires are not natural entities but are consciously created, unlike a tribe or a state based in a clearly demarcated geographical area. Any political unity of a certain size needs to develop ways of binding all territories within their realm to a central authority.


In ‘The archaeology of Empires’ Carla M. Sinopoli[7] further elaborates the concept of empire. Variations in the degree of control exercised by different imperial centres can, according to Sinopoli, be attributed to three different factors. The first factor is the distance of an area to the imperial centre and the logistical concerns caused by this distance. A second set of factors are the pre-existing political conditions present in the incorporated areas and the nature and extent of resistance to imperial incorporation associated with it. It depends whether the areas under control were previously kingdoms, states, tribes or city-states and whether they are incorporated or destroyed. Not only can this influence the degree of resistance, the previously existing political structure can also make it easier to incorporate an area into the Empire. A third set of factors listed by Sinopoli are the ecological circumstances and the possibilities to distribute important resources; for the Roman Empire the Mediterranean might have been a decisive aspect in maintaining the empire. These factors all influence the success of expanding and, more importantly, consolidating the Empire.
While the degree of control that can be exercised by an empire is largely defined through a combination of circumstances, the consolidation of empire requires an imperial system of structural connections and dependencies among diverse regions and cultural traditions.[8] According to E.M. Brumfiel[9] this process involves a range of constructive and destructive strategies. These include the creation of new institutions, administrative structures and ideological systems, and the disruption of previously autonomous local institutions. Through these measures the imperial elite is enabled to strengthen political and ideological allegiances to the centre and to collect the all-important taxes needed to support these measures. 
Sinopoli uses the four sources of power defined by Mann to account for the great differences between empires and their ability to create an imperial system of structural connectedness. Under the heading politics and administration she emphasizes the variation and the extent to which elites in conquered areas are incorporated into the imperial framework or displaced by imperial officials. This, in its turn, depends on pre-existing political structures, the territory’s strategic value and the amount of resistance in the respective area. The incorporation of local elites into the empire can be achieved in a number of different ways, one of them being the discouragement of ties among local elites themselves, thus increasing dependency on the Empire and limiting the potential for resistance. Not only the elite needs to be controlled however. The empire, or state, itself needs at least some amount of administrative institutions to keep the different people and regions holding power in check. Not only does the size of these imperial bureaucracies differ greatly between different Empires, not least between the Roman Empire and the Han Empire, there was also great variation in their incorporation into the imperial household and their internal differentiation.
Under the heading economy the most important aspect discussed is the collecting of taxes and tribute. Not only is this one of the main reasons for the existence of empires, it is also the main factor in keeping an empire together. Secondly the control of labour differs between empires. The practices of recruiting labour for major building projects and the forced resettlement of labourers play a large part in creating structural unity within an empire. The ability of an Empire to be involved with production and labour in large parts of their territory reflects a degree of control held by this structure. 
The third source of power Sinopoli discusses is the military.  Imperial success, both in expanding and consolidating empire, is largely dependent on the ability to field large and effective military forces. The size of an army and its organization need to be sufficient to keep state enemies, both internal and external, under control. Moreover, the army is one of the institutions in which individuals, both peasants and nobility, could be incorporated into the empire. Lastly it is essential for an empire to keep its armed forces under control, since losing the allegiance of military leaders could mean losing the allegiance of an army, with all the possible consequences.
The last source of power which, according to Sinopoli, accounts for the great differences between empires and their ability to create an imperial system of structural connectedness is ideology. Imperial leaders try to either incorporate local religious beliefs or to create a new system of belief that builds on different traditional elements. Religious practices are often converted to fit within the political reality. The existence of a religious legitimization of imperial power or the creation of such a legitimization can be a powerful instrument for both rulers and elite to place themselves within a sacred framework. Moreover, empires hope to to incorporate what they think is the entire world. There is a strong tendency towards universal rule. The Empire is not seen as one country among many but as the entire civilized world. The Roman claimed their Orbis terrarum and the Chinese Empire claimed to be Tianxia, all land under heaven.


Post a Comment