© 2005-2013 Walter Scheidel













2,000 years ago, up to one-half of the human species was contained within two political systems, the Roman empire in western Eurasia (centered on the Mediterranean Sea) and the Han empire in eastern Eurasia (centered on the Central Plain of northern China). At no time since has such a large proportion of humankind been ruled by two governments. Both empires were broadly comparable in terms of size (c. 4 million square kilometers each) and population (c. 60+ million each), and even largely coextensive in chronological terms (221 BC to 220 CE for the Qin/Han empire, c. 200 BC to 395 CE for the unified Roman empire). Both empires were the result of the gradual coalescing of a large number of smaller polities into a handful of large imperial states that were eventually unified by one of them.


In the Mediterranean, unification had initially been facilitated by Hellenization via colonization (8th to 5th c. BCE) and by the creation of the Persian empire (6th c. BCE), and was subsequently accelerated by the conquests of Alexander the Great (334-330 BCE), followed by the creation of Hellenistic successor states to the Persian empire (3rd to 1st c. BCE) which were eventually taken over by Rome. By the 3rd and 2nd c. BCE, the Mediterranean had come to consist of five principal warring states (Rome, Carthage, Macedon, the Seleucid empire, and Egypt) surrounded by a few smaller polities (such as Syracuse and Pergamon) and an otherwise largely tribal periphery. In a fairly short amount of time, one of these states, Rome, achieved de facto unification, first by establishing hegemony (202 to 189 BCE) and then by gradual direct conquest (148 to 30 BCE), with concurrent as well as subsequent expansion into the tribal periphery (225 BCE to 180 CE).


During the same period, in eastern Eurasia, the Warring States period (481-221 BCE) was characterized by intense competition among seven imperial states (Yan, Qi, Wei, Zhao, Han, Qin, and Chu), which were themselves the result of previous state consolidation in the Spring and Autumn period (770-481 BCE, with c.15 major states). Rapid unification was brought about by the Qin state (221-210 BCE) which soon turned into the Han empire (206 BCE to 220 CE), and then continued expansion into its tribal periphery (in the 2nd and 1st c. BCE).


In the Mediterranean, the Roman empire eventually broke into two halves. While its western half was taken over by ‘barbarian’ successor states (from about 400 CE onwards), a quintessentially Roman state survived in the East for another millennium (though much diminished from the 630s CE onwards). In China, a similar division occurred soon after the end of the Han dynasty (following the short interlude of the Three Kingdoms from 220 to 265 CE and temporary reunification under the Western Jin from 280 to 304 CE) from 317 CE onwards. In the south, a traditionalist system continued under the last five of the Six Dynasties (317-589 CE), while northern China was fragmented among ‘barbarian’ successor states (the so-called Sixteen Kingdoms). However, while the former Han empire was eventually reconstituted in the Sui/Tang period (589-907 CE), the Roman empire was never restored. It was only at this juncture that with regard to empire-building, historical developments in these two regions began to diverge permanently, a development that Walter Scheidel proposes to call the ‘First Great Divergence’.




A comparative perspective


While these Mediterranean and Chinese empires developed independently, they shared a large number of structural similarities that were moderated by cultural specifics. Even the most basic enumeration of all these features would take up a fair amount of space. They include a shift from city-states to territorial states and from military mass mobilization for inter-state warfare to professional armies for border control; the growth of a proto-bureaucratic civil service accompanied by functional differentiation of power; formal dichotomies in provincial organization undermined by intensified central control; the settlement and military use of foreign settlers in frontier zones; massive expansion of the money supply through standardized state-controlled minting; monetization of taxation; increasing state control of manufacturing and trade; great increases in iron production; census registration and formal status ranking of the general population; codification of law; the growth of markets in land and the gradual concentration of wealth among elites; the transformation of smallholders into tenants, coupled with the growing strength of private patronage ties superseding state authority; unsuccessful attempts at land reform; eventual rural unrest; ideological unification through monumental construction, religious rituals, and elite education; the creation of a homogeneous elite culture and corpora of classics; the emergence of court-centered historiography; ideologies of normative empire sustained by transcendent powers; religious change in late periods, leading to the formation of autonomous church systems; and a philosophical and religious shift in emphasis from community values to ethical conduct and individual salvation.


At the same time, cultural specifics mediated the formal expression of many of these developments: significant differences range from the Republican background of Greco-Roman civilization as opposed to the feudal-monarchical tradition in China to the relationship between political and ideological power and the degree of autonomy of military power.




Previous scholarship


Comparisons between the ancient Mediterranean and China in the works of Max Weber or Karl Wittfogel have had little impact on the research agenda of specialist historians in either field. As a consequence, systematic comparisons between the Greco-Roman world and ancient China have been extremely rare (relative to the total amount of scholarship in either field) and moreover almost exclusively confined to the sphere of intellectual and philosophical history. In recent years, a number of studies have focused on the nature of moral, historical, and scientific thought in Greece and China (Tanner 2009). The most active proponent of this line of enquiry has been Geoffrey Lloyd, with six books to date (Lloyd 1996, Lloyd & Sivin 2002, Lloyd 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006). Further efforts in the same area were undertaken by Steven Shankman and Stephen Durrant (Shankman & Durrant 2000, (eds.) 2002), and by David Hall and Roger Ames (Hall & Ames 1995, 1998), as well as Lu 1998, Kuriyama 1999, Schaberg 1999, Mutschler 1997, 2003, 2006, 2007a,b, 2008, Jullien 2000, Cai 2002, Anderson 2003, Reding 2004, Sim 2007, Yu 2007, Martin 2009, 2010, and the contributions to Dong and Zhao 2013. Their work was preceded by Konrad 1967 and Raphals 1992. Poo 2005 explores attitudes toward foreigners in the ancient Near East and China, and Kim 2007 = 2009 compares concepts of ethnicity in Greece and China. Zhou 2010 covers aspects of social history. (The Warring States Project at the University of Massachusetts (http://www.umass.edu/wsp), though interested in comparative perspectives, primarily focuses on the Chinese literary tradition and is exclusively concerned with pre-imperial China.)


There are no comparable studies of Roman and Chinese ‘high culture’, and, more importantly, virtually no similarly detailed comparative work on the political, social, economic or legal history of Hellenistic, Roman, and ancient Chinese empires. (Hsing I-Tien 1980, an unpublished thesis, seems to be the main exception in a western language; cf. also Lorenz 1990 and Motomura 1991, and see now Adshead 2000: 4-21 and 2004: 20-29 as well as Gizewski 1994, Dettenhofer 2006, and Burbank and Cooper 2010: ch.2 for brief comparisons of the Roman and Han empires. Custers 2008, Brennan and Hsing I-tien 2010 and Scheidel 2011 discuss more specific topics. A recent conference focused on literary and ideological constructions of the Qin-Han and Roman empires: Mutschler & Mittag (org.) 2005 = (eds.) 2008; but see now also Mutschler 2008 (org.)) Recent historico-sociological studies of imperialism and social power that deal with Greece and Rome comparatively and within a broader context do not normally include China (Doyle 1986; but see very briefly Mann 1986); the older global study by Eisenstadt 1963 is the only notable exception (cf. also Eisenstadt 1986). Kautsky 1982 excludes post-Zhou China. A new collection on early empires also failed to alter the picture (Alcock et al. (eds.) 2001. The same is now true of Morris & Scheidel (eds.) 2009). Hui 2005 expands comparison beyond antiquity. Some work has been appeared on relations between Rome and China (e.g., Ferguson 1978; Raschke 1978; Leslie & Gardiner 1996), especially in the general context of ‘Silk Road Studies’, but this perspective is of no relevance here (cf. also Teggart 1939). The closest approximation of a comparative study of the imperial systems of Rome and an early Asian empire, Quaritch Wales 1965 (on Rome and Khmer), is a rather amateurish attempt.


There is no intellectual justification for this persistent neglect. Recent macro-historical work has highlighted independent parallel movements of socio-cultural evolution in different parts of the globe (Diamond 1998). More specifically, historians of the more recent past are showing great interest in comparative assessments of Europe and China that further our understanding of the emergence of modernity and the Industrial Revolution (e.g., Pomeranz 2000). By contrast, the comparative history of the largest agrarian empires of antiquity has attracted no attention at all. This deficit is only explicable with reference to academic specialization and language barriers.






Systematic comparisons between different imperial systems need to be grounded in appropriate methodological premises. Recent surveys of comparative historical studies allow us to distinguish between different ideal types of comparative approaches. Bonnell 1980 identifies two basic modes of enquiry: analytical comparisons between equivalent units involving the identification of independent variables that serve to explain common or contrasting patterns or occurrences; and illustrative comparisons, between equivalent units and a theory or concept, which evaluate evidence in relation to predictive theory rather than particular units in relation to one another. The latter may aim for the confirmation of general sociological principles or more narrowly for the identification of rules for a group of cases (mid-level theory).


Conversely, Skocpol & Somers 1980 introduce three principal categories. Parallel demonstration of theory (equivalent to ‘illustrative comparison’) seeks to establish the validity of theoretical arguments (e.g., Eisenstadt 1963). The second method, contrast of contexts, applies comparisons to bring out the unique features of particular cases to show how these features affect the unfolding of putatively general social processes (e.g., Bendix 1977, 1978). Themes and questions serve as a framework for pointing out differences between cases, and emphasis is put on the historical integrity of each case and on the importance of specific historical configurations relative to the predictions of ideal types and theoretical models. This approach helps define features of one system more sharply by comparison with conceptually or functionally equivalent features in another system. Their third variant, macro-causal analysis, employs comparisons for the purpose of making causal infererences about macro-historical processes and structures. Ideally, comparisons are used to generate new historical generalizations and thus theory (e.g., Moore 1966; Brenner 1976; Skocpol 1979). New theories are constructed from the convergence or absence of features and consequences. Unlike parallel demonstration, which tends towards repetition, and contrast history, which tends to be more descriptive than explanatory, macro-causal analysis obviates the need to provide coherent narratives and makes it possible to focus on what is needed to address specific explanatory problems.


More recently, Goldstone (1991: 50-62) provided a succinct ‘manifesto’ for comparative history. The search for causal explanations of historical events lies at the heart of comparative studies. Given background variation, the main questions are which factors were crucial to observed developments, and how different contexts could produce similar outcomes (or vice versa). Comparative history is not about ‘laws’ but about ‘robust processes’, defined as combinations of characteristic initial conditions that produce a particular outcome. While these processes cannot generate precise predictions, the cross-cultural consistency of human behavior (currently a major issue in the debate between culturally and biologically oriented models of human nature) means that they may usefully imply probabilities of outcome. Thus, comparative history uses case-based comparisons to investigate historical variation, to offer causal explanations of particular outcomes by identifying critical differences between similar situations and/or by identifying robust processes that occur in different settings.


In the specific context of this project, Goldstone’s warning against approaching comparative history as a mere quarry of data (1991: 54) is well taken. Expert knowledge is required for all elements of the comparison, not just for the cases the researcher is familiar with. With regard to comparisons between the ancient Mediterranean and ancient China, this calls for close cooperation between experts in different fields who are brought together through the application of shared methodological premises in the study of different systems.


In practice, historical comparisons inevitably rely on a mixture of different approaches. Our project centers on a number of interrelated questions (see below). In addressing these questions, we will rely in the first instance on analytical comparisons (Bonnell’s ‘first type’) and contrast of contexts (Skocpol & Somers’ ‘second type’) in order to identify variables that are critical to particular outcomes. In so doing, we aim to test existing predictive theories and notions of ‘robust processes’ against empirical data from environments that developed independently but were sufficiently similar to warrant systematic comparison. Drawing on these tests, we hope to suggest modifications to existing generalized predictions or define previously unrecognized ‘robust processes’ that are of heuristic value to the study of pre-modern empires. Our initial analytical comparisons will necessarily be grounded in some degree of parallel exposition for the purpose of establishing a sound evidentiary basis for comparative investigation. We will not seek to provide comprehensive coverage of all noteworthy or conventionally emphasized features of each system under review. Rather, we will adopt the ground rules of ‘macro-causal analysis’ in focusing on data that can be shown to be relevant to the specific questions and problems set out below. The resulting series of interlocking case studies will permit us to establish a more systematic profile of differences and similarities which can be used to assess the relative significance of particular variables in the development of these imperial states.






(1) To establish a conceptual framework for the comparative analysis of ancient Mediterranean and Chinese empires, and to design a set of central questions.


(2) To set up an international project team consisting of experts in the history of the ancient Mediterranean and ancient China who are based in the United States, Europe, the People’s Republic of China, and Taiwan, and are willing to participate in the project and conduct their research within the parameters of a shared conceptual framework.


(3) To convene a series of conferences on particular clusters of interrelated issues and problems (Scheidel, Lewis and Manning (org.) 2005 = Scheidel (ed.) 2009; Scheidel (org.) 2008 = Scheidel (ed.) forthcoming; Morris and Scheidel (org.) 2008). We have aimed for close cooperation between academics specializing in ancient China and the ancient Mediterranean. Comparative historians and social scientists from various disciplines have served as respondents and commentators.


These meetings focus on the following objectives:


(1) To contribute to our understanding of state formation in the ancient Mediterranean, most notably in the Roman empire, and in China, most notably in the Warring States and Qin-Han periods. Explicit comparison helps us to identify shared and unique features and to relate specific variables to observed outcomes. A comparative approach is essential for the study of historical causation. Two conferences have been devoted to this goal (Scheidel, Lewis and Manning 2005 = Scheidel (ed.) 2009; Scheidel, org. 2008 = Scheidel (ed.) forthcoming).


(2) To study the causes of the long-term divergence between periodic imperial re-unification (the ‘dynastic cycle’) in China and the absence of core-wide empire from western Eurasia following the fall of the Roman and Han empires. This divergence put eastern and western Eurasia on different trajectories of state formation that continue to the present day and may – or may not – have had a significant impact on much later developments, such as colonization, imperialism, and modern economic growth. This workshop focused on the period in which this divergence occurred (Morris and Scheidel (org.) 2008). Once again, a comparative perspective is necessary for studying this process.


(3) To work out if early patterns of state formation and associated developments in eastern and western Eurasia are causally related to what has been called the ‘Great Divergence’ of the last 200 years (Pomeranz 2000), i.e. the emergence of modern technological progress and increases in consumption and well-being in the ‘West’. This will be dealt with in future work (cf. also Morris 2010).


These meetings were complemented by a Mellon-Sawyer Seminar on the ‘First Great Divergence’ between China and Europe since the sixth century CE offered at Stanford in 2007/8.






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