Comparison between Roman and Han Empires

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Political Map of the Eastern Hemisphere in 200 AD

The Roman Empire and Han Dynasty were both powerful influential forces in their heyday. [1] This research project compares the economic, social, technological and military situations of the Romans and the Hans.

Han Dynasty

The Han Dynasty (Traditional Chinese: 漢朝) emerged as a principal power in East Asia in 221 BCE after the fall of the Qin Dynasty in 206 BCE. They pioneered a political system and social structure in China that lasted for almost 2,000 years. They rapidly advanced Chinese technology, and created the cultural and political foundations for much of East Asia. Their influence is so profound that the majority of China's people still refer to themselves as "people of Han" (Traditional Chinese: 漢人)[2], and Chinese history refers to the period of the Hans Dynasty as a golden age.

Roman Empire

The Roman Empire (Latin: Imperium Romanum) controlled the Western Mediterranean. The Roman people made unprecedented advances in science and technology, and organized an economy that was hitherto unprecedented in the Mediterranean. The Romans had different engineering accomplishments, than that of the Han. They laid down a legal code that forms the basis of most western legal codes. They left institutions, technology and infrastructure that would influence successors for centuries to come. [3]


A denarius by Maximinus.

As with other ancient economies, agriculture was the basis of Roman economy. However, the Romans organized their economy in a way that was hitherto unprecedented in the Mediterranean. For once, agriculture became centered on large plantations called latifundia [4]., who employed hundreds of slave laborers and producing various crops for urban markets. Crops were produced regionally; vineyards sprung up in Gaul, olive oil was produced in North Africa and Spain, and wheat was imported from Egypt. Although agriculture was important, so was trade: An extensive road network, along with massive amounts of coinage, were issued to facilitate trade. In order to make trade and travel easier, many maps were drawn, specifying distances before cities [5].Road networks were built to coordinate with trade at sea. and All of these innovations sparked a massive increase in the production of agricultural, mined, and manufactured goods[6]. Evidence of this prosperity was shown in an account of the Han official Gan Ying who stated about the Roman Empire:

This country produces plenty of gold, silver, and precious jewels, luminous jade, bright moon pearls, fighting cocks, rhinoceroses, coral, yellow amber, opaque glass, whitish chalcedony, 8 red cinnabar, green gemstones, drawn gold-threaded and multi-coloured embroideries, woven gold-threaded net,delicate polychrome silks painted with gold, and asbestos cloth. They also have a fie cloth which some people say is made from the down of ‘water sheep,’ but which is made, in fact, from the cocoons of wild silkworms. They blend all sorts of fragrances, and by boiling the juice, make storax. They have all the precious and rare things that come from the various foreign kingdoms. They make gold and silver coins. Ten silver coins are worth one gold coin.They trade with Anxi (Parthia) and Tianzhu (Northwestern India) by sea. The profit margin is ten to one.[7]

Roman commerce was very frequent during the Pax Romana. The Roman Empire's network of roads made it very easy for traders to travel throughout the territory of the Roman Empire. The presence of the Mediterranean made it easy for sea travel to shuttle goods throughout the Empire. However, this was a fragile network; once the Pax Romana ended, the trade networks began to collapse as merchants could no longer be sure whether their goods would arrive safely.

The end of the Pax Romana, and with it expansion, also resulted in the loss of loot from conquests, farther accelerating the collapse of the economy. Roman political instability was also a factor; in order to finance their projects, different emperors would frequently [8]< change their laws and issue new currency, wreaking havoc on the Empire. The lack of a budgetary system and restraints on issuing currency caused the devaluation of the currency, wreaking havoc on the Roman economy; By the fifth century, the Roman economy had collapsed and large areas were depopulated. [9][10].

Following the disintegration of the feudal system during the Warring states period, the Qin and Han dynasties promoted free farmers which owned and worked their land and could be individually taxed. The state invested large amounts into agricultural production in order to expand its revenues. As agriculture shifted from self-sufficient manors to free farmers producing goods that were in demand, landowners began to use contracts and money to strike bargains with laborers and with each other. In order to facilitate trade and promote unity among the people, the Qin dynasty standardized measurements for weights, coins, writing, and even the length of wheels. Coinage was issued in large amounts; however, since China lacked silver, the basic issue were bronze coins along with the rare but more valuable silver coins. These standards were all different in the individual states during the warring states period. This greatly helped trade, which was already flourishing during the warring states period. Farmers and traders using contracts replaced ties of blood as dominant in public and private affairs. A new 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[11]. This policy was reverted after the coming of the Han.[12].

A bronze coin of the Han Dynasty—circa 1st century BC.

The network of roads built throughout China enabled trade on a large scale. Also, Chinese victories against the Xiongnu enabled trade to the west. This gave the Chinese an advantage because their goods were in high demand in the Roman cities, while Roman glassware was exported to China. Relative stability at the court(the empire remained within the rule of one family), as well as the laissez-faire policies of the early Han emperors(see rule of Wen and Jing), allowed the Chinese economy to prosper. Taxes on agriculture were reduced from 1/15 of crops during the Qin dynasty to 1/30 of crops; for a 12-year period, they were reduced to nothing at all. Forced labour by peasants for the state was reduced from one month a year to ten days every three years. Chinese innovations in agriculture were also important; the introduction of the cow-driven plow, iron farm tools, water mills, the wheelbarrow and other technologies greatly improved the agriculture of the Han. In order to further improve the crop, the state invested heavily in large irrigation projects in areas such as Shanxi. The surplus of grain made available by these advances made the empire very stable compared to other ancient states; during the rule of the Jin emperor, it was recorded that so much grain and silver was stored in the imperial treasury that:

the ropes used to hang the bags of coins were breaking apart due to the weight, and bags of grain which had been stored for several years were rotting because they had been neglected and not eaten.

Revenue was also to a large extent sustained by state monopolies of salt and iron. However, in the later stages of the Han empire, a major problem arose: the Han landowners' accumulation of land, along with the state's taxes, resulted in a large horde of landless peasants from which costly rebellions occurred. These rebellions had the same effect as Roman civil wars had, as they disrupted the Chinese trade networks and deprived the state of a major source of taxation revenue. This caused the Han economy to retrograde to a partially feudal, local economy, which would lay the seeds for the four centuries of strife that followed the collapse of the Han[13][14].

Roman GDP

Estimates of Roman per-capita and total GDP1)
Unit Goldsmith
Lo Cascio/Malanima
GDP per capita Sesterces HS 380 HS 225 HS 166 HS 380 HS 380 HS 229 HS 260 HS 380
Wheat equivalent 843 kg 491 kg 614 kg 843 kg 500 kg 680 kg 855 kg
1990 Int. Dollars $570 $633 $620 $940
(Approx. year)
(14 AD)
(14 AD)
(100 AD)
(14 AD)
(14 AD)
(150 AD)
(150 AD)

(14 AD)
Total GDP Sesterces HS 20.9bn HS 13.5bn HS 9.2bn HS 16.7bn HS 20.9bn HS 13.7bn ~HS 20bn
Wheat equivalent 46.4 Mt 29.5 Mt 33.8 Mt 37.1 Mt 30 Mt 50 Mt
1990 Int. Dollars $25.1bn $34.8bn $43.4bn

1) Decimal fractions rounded to the nearest tenth. Cursive numbers not directly given by the authors; they are obtained by multiplying the respective value of GDP per capita by estimated population size.

Italy is considered the richest region, due to tax transfers from the provinces and the concentration of elite income in the heartland; its GDP per capita is estimated at having been around 40%[22] to 66%[23] higher than in the rest of the empire.


In the following, modern estimates on the respective scope of mining and metallurgy. There have been some rough estimates of Han and the Roman industry based on the metallurgical production of later dynasties and time periods.

Annual metal output in metric tons
Iron Copper Lead Silver Gold
Han Empire 895,000[24] 15,000[25] 90,000[26] 2300[27]
Roman Empire 4,500[28] Negligible[25] Negligible[26][29] <0.5[30] <0.1–0.2 ("entire order of magnitude lower than output in any one of the most profitable Han provinces")[27]

The Han industry produced lead on the scale at the time of the Industrial Revolution, marking "the oldest large-scale hemispheric pollution ever reported".[29] The Han production of copper, the basis for bronze and brass alloys, remained unsurpassed again until the Industrial Revolution.[25] In 150 AD, the Han Empire had an estimated stock of 10,000 t silver.[31]


The maximum Han population is estimated at around 58 million.[32] While the population size of the Roman empire has been traditionally given as 55-60 million, recent estimates of its demographic peak in the mid-2nd century AD range from 60-70 million ("low count") to over 100 million inhabitants ("high count").[33]

Society and law

The essence of Roman society was relationships governed by laws and courts. Many institutions were set up to settle legal disputes, and Roman law appeared in every town governed by the empire. The influence of Roman law would long outlast the empire. The basis of Roman society, as proclaimed by the laws, was the family, headed by a pater familias, who had power over his dependents. However, Roman women were quite free and had greater control over their wealth and property than preceding states in the Mediterranean. One key difference from the Han was an extensive institution of slavery, in which slave laborers were used in large numbers to produce goods[34].

Roman society was a relatively hierarchical society. Each social group had well-defined roles. Birth was an important indicator of social position. While the elite could enjoy a relatively wealthy life and could expect to become officials and hold high positions, lower classes could not expect such luxury. In trials, the Roman elite was better privileged; they received preferential treatment from imperial courts. They could not be subject to cruel punishments. For the lower classes, the fastest way to advance socially was the army or trade[35].

Han society was divided into a number of classes, all played a role within this complex society. The basis of this society were free peasants, who formed the base of the tax revenues of the state and who produced most of the agricultural crop. Governing them were the scholar-officials, educated men who were interpreters of the empire's official ideology, Confucianism. These men also helped link the central government with local society. Merchants were also a class, but they were subject to controls by the state and often forced to partner with the state, who also took monopolies in salt, steel and wine, further restricting merchants. At the bottom of society were convicts, beggars and slaves, who formed a small part of the population. For wealthy families, life was good; they displayed their wealth in lavish meals, and lived in large homes in which women lived in the inner quarters. Poorer farmers and tenant laborers worked on their fields. Women in poorer families did not have such luxury and often worked in the fields with their husbands or acted as entertainers. Silk clothes were abundant and worn by all classes. Music and entertainment were separated from rituals, with the exception of funeral rites which were taken very seriously.[36]

Han society was influenced by the effects of Confucianism and legalism. The legalist thought believed at least in theory that everyone was equal under the emperor. Therefore, punishments for the same crimes were the same in writing, though this was not always carried out. Social mobility was also relatively great, especially in the military. Some Han generals such as Wei Qin and Hui Zhu Bing began their lives as servants' sons. Confucianism also asserted that "A man, even though he may be poor, can by his acts be a gentleman. A rich nobleman, even though he may been born well, can by his acts be called shameful." Both ideologies stressed loyalty to the emperor. This thought had the effect of weakening the nobility and strengthening the emperor. The influence of the nobility was also weaker as the new merchant class asserted its presence and wealth energetically; the Han abolished hereditary positions. In theory, everyone could become an official[37]. Hereditary positions came back later, as evidenced by the fact that the founder of the Tang dynasty was the hereditary duke of Tang, and regional governors were allowed to pass titles on.


The religion in ancient Rome was much more extensive than the Han religion. While the Roman rulers organized a state religion [38] and the emperors took a big part in it, the Han emperors were more secular; they acknowledged the existence of the gods and took part in ceremonies, but were for the most part unconcerned with them[39]. [40]

The Han used Confucian thought as the primary ideology of the empire, in which the welfare of the people was the concern of the state and the basis of legitimate rule. 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 government that created a careful balance that both allowed emperors to exercise their own power and that empowered officials freedom to carry out their duties, and even to criticize government and impeach corrupt superiors.[41].

The Shan Hai Jing, a Chinese holy text was edited around the Han dynasty. The Tianshi Dao religious sect of Daoism emerged during the Han Dynasty.


A bronze horse from the Han dynasty

In both empires, learning and the arts were patronized by both the state and landowners. Wealthy men often bankrolled artists. Many works of art and construction were done during this period[42].[43].

Every significant Roman town had public entertainment facilities such as theaters and amphitheaters, 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 of Roman citizens. Public entertainment centers stresses the importance public citizens had in Roman life. [44].

Bronze galloping horse stepping on top of a flying swallow (Chinese: 馬踏飞燕)

Oratory was an important tradition in the Roman Empire; passed on from the Greeks, Orators were common in Rome. The forum of the senate generated many impressive and able speakers, whose prose is still recorded today[45].

In Han china, poetry, stories and books were very common; the elite was expected to be versed in prose and poetry. Men were expected to be able to create a poem on the spot; a popular drinking game was to do a "rock-paper-scissors"(with ancient equivalents)(Chinese:行酒令), after which the loser would either cite a poem on the spot or be forced to drink a cup of wine. To express their thoughts, Han scholars preferred the written medium; many books were written in that era. Many Han officials were appointed based on their ability to write essays explaining Confucian thought and how it applied to the administration of the Empire. [46]

Roman emperors ruled over the Empire with similar authority[47]. However, the position was dangerous; out of 22 emperors between Augustus and the third century, 15 died by murder or suicide. Roman emperors were frequently assassinated and ruled for short periods compared to the Han. The emperors were careful to present themselves as just rulers who governed from the consent of the citizenry, though tyrants such as Caracalla and Nero inflicted misery throughout the empire. Compared to the Han bureaucracy, the Roman empire was relatively under-administered.[48].


Roman Alcántara Bridge, Spain, build of concrete with stone facing

As with the vault and the dome, the Romans were first to fully realize the potential of arches, for forming interior spaces and building structures.[49]

The Romans were the world's first major bridge builders.[50] A list of Roman bridges compiled by the engineer Colin O'Connor features 330 Roman stone bridges for traffic, 34 timber bridges and 54 aqueduct bridges, a substantial part still standing and even used to carry vehicles.[51] Another list by the Italian scholar Galliazzo gives even 931 Roman bridges, the majority of which were arch bridges.[52]

These bridges were part of the Roman road system. This spanned more than 250,000 miles (400,000 km) of roads, including more than 50,000 miles (80,500 km) of paved roads.[53][54] When Rome reached the height of her supremacy, no fewer than 29 great military highways radiated from the city.[55] Hills were cut through and deep ravines filled in.[55] At one point, the Roman Empire was divided into 113 provinces traversed by 372 great road links.[55]

By comparison, in Han China, there were two known arch bridges, referred to in Han literature,[56] while a single Han relief sculpture in Sichuan depicts another arch bridge.[57] The Han road system, mostly unpaved, was 22,000 miles.[58]

The Han built fortified roadways and extensive walls & fortifications that served as both deterrent to the Confederacy of nomadic kingdoms to the north, and to protect traders and merchants along the silk road. As written by Han authors, roads built during the Han were tamped down with metal rammers, yet there is uncertainty over the materials used; Joseph Needham speculates that they were rubble and gravel.[59] The widths of roads ranged from narrow footpaths where only a single horse or oxen could pass at once to large highways that could accommodate the simultaneous passage of nine horse-drawn chariots abreast.[60] Fortified Han roadways were built as far west as Shanshan (Loulan) near the Lop Desert, while Han forces utilized routes that traversed north of the Taklamakan Desert towards Kashgar.[61] A vast network of roads, fortified passes, and wooden bridges built over rushing torrents in steep gorges of the Qinling Mountains was consolidated during the Han, known as the gallery roads.[62] During the reign of Emperor Wu, roads were built to connect newly-conquered territories in what is now Yunnan in the far southwest as well as the Korean Peninsula in the far northeast.[63]

The Han capitalized on another form of water engineering - canals. The Han maintained and expanded the massive engineering works of their predecessor Qin. These include repairs and renovation work on the Dujiangyan Irrigation System of Sichuan and Zhengguo Canal of Shaanxi, both of which were built by the previous State of Qin.[64] Accepting the proposal of Er Kuan (兒寬), in 111 BCE Emperor Wu commissioned Er to lead the project of creating extensions to the Zhengguo Canal that could irrigate nearby terrain elevated above the main canal.[65] Since a large amount of silt had built up over time at the bottom of the Zhengguo Canal (causing flooding), in 95 BCE another project was initiated to tap irrigation waters from further up the Jing River, requiring the dredging of a new 100 km (62 mi) long canal following a contour line above the Zhengguo.[65] The Grand_Canal_(China) was also maintained and expanded.


Economic decline and political instability had impoverished the Empire, which was now dependent on barbarian mercenaries and in a state of constant revolt. The Roman peasantry and slaves, taxed heavily by the aristocrats, also grew disgruntled. Combined [66] with new religious movements such as Christianity, led to many Roman citizens becoming apathetic [67] to the state of the empire. Many Christians refused to serve in the military (although this would change when Constantine legalized the religion during the Edict of Milan). The deteriorating Roman economy forced the emperors to issue less valuable coins, creating massive inflation; by the end of the Roman empire, the silver coin had only 1/100th the silver content of the silver coin issued under Augustus, leading to economic chaos[68].

Late during the Han dynasty, aristocrats' accumulation of land in massive quantities forced large numbers of peasants off their lands. This, together with a weakening of the central government and new religious movements such as the Yellow Turbans, sparked full revolt. In the wars that followed, the Han empire was divided into three contending states It was not until the 4th century that China was reunified under the Jin dynasty (Chinese:晉朝). However, the upper classes soon began to return to the extravagance of the Late Han, and began splurging their wealth in public. Jin officials attempted to outdo each other in luxury. One Jin author described one of these incidents.

Once, the Emperor Wu visited the home of an official. The official served him some pork. The Emperor Wu was astonished at the quality of the pork, and he asked the official how the pork was made so good. He replied "Of course the pork is excellent! It grew on the milk of of humans." The Emperor Wu did not punish him; instead he congratulated the official for his ingenuity.

The Jin also attempted to farm unsettled land by moving large numbers of "Wu Hu" (Chinese:五胡) or conquered barbarian peoples into China itself. These policies, together with the social unrest caused by the extravagance of the Jin officials and the infighting of the Jin royal family, soon lead to the collapse of the Jin.[69]


Huns invading Italy; Painting from the 19th century

Huns were first defeated by Han dynasty and drove out of Asia into Europe. While in Europe, Huns launched attacks on the German tribes living north of the empire, forcing them to invade the Roman empire. Afterward, the Huns attacked the Romans themselves. The weakened Roman army could not cope with this threat; by 476, the Western Roman Empire had collapsed. Although a few rump states continue to exist and the Eastern empire tried several times to reconquer the west, Western Europe was securely in the hands of the barbarians. The modern European countries are derived from the states formed by these peoples. The barbarian invasions had devastated the Empire; the population of Italy and other areas of Europe plummeted. Under Trajan, the Roman Empire was estimated to have a population of about 80 million. Even allowing for a 300 year recovery, by Charlemagne's time, Europe's population was only 30 million (including the influx of Germans). Considering the Byzantine Empire was also included in this analysis (with a population of about 10 million), this indicates how badly Rome was devastated. The Roman civilization would never recover. Although the Germans adopted many of their institutions, they could no longer be in any sense called "Roman". [70][71].

After the reunification of China by the Jin, they resettled millions of barbarians in Northern China in order to replenish depopulated areas. When the Jin collapsed into civil war, the barbarians rose up in revolt. It was not until the reign of Ran Min in 350 AD that the Chinese regained control of North China, after which they proceeded to slaughter the barbarians. Although North China again fell in 352 AD, the memory of Ran Min kept the barbarians from reverting to their previous slaughter. As China's system was much more advanced than theirs, they gradually adopted to the Chinese system, abandoning their previous practices. During this period, China was divided into a Northern area ruled by non-Han Chinese rulers that were gradually sinocizing, and a southern area ruled by Chinese rulers who were regarded by historians as legitimate. Eventually, the barbarian invaders were assimilated. Shaowin emperor of Northern Wei, ruler of North China who himself was a non-Chinese, prohibited speaking of languages other than Chinese in his realm. In 581 AD, a Chinese general overthrew the last barbarian dynasty in the north and conquered the south eight years later, reunifying China (see Sui Dynasty). After roughly 400 years of warfare, China's population was about 30 million, far below the height of 56 million recorded during the Han.[72][73].


The ruler of Shu Han, Liu Bei, claimed to be the successor of the Han dynasty and his state continued to exist until 265CE.[74] The direct Roman line continued to rule the Eastern Roman Empire until 1453.[75] Successor state to the Western Roman Empire was the medieval Holy Roman Empire, to the Eastern Roman Empire the czardom of Russia. Chinese civilization survives to the present time, while Roman civilization merged into the larger medieval European culture which adopted, amongst others, Christian faith, the Latin language and alphabet and Roman Law. The Renaissance a thousand years later marked the conscious return to the classical heritage.


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