A Comparison of the Decline of Han China and the Roman Empire The decline of China and Rome both shared similar economic strife in that they were both subject to barbarian and nomadic invasions, therefore having to spend large amounts of money on frontier defense; however, they differed in that the Han Empire collapsed in part due to the high taxes imposed on the peasant class resulting in a large peasant rebellion, such as the Yellow Turbans, while in Rome tax collections was in danger of abandonment as residents of the empire were few in number and in financial difficulty.
In addition, the two empires were similar socially because of large epidemics, diseases, and plagues that caused a population decrease. Also, both experienced a cultural decay in intellectual creativity and innovations. Differences appear in that China shared common culture, such as the Chinese script, while Rome was more fragmented causing a less severe fall in China than Rome. Politically, the falls of both empires were similar in that their central governments no longer prospered, and split; Rome into first two, then four parts, and China into three parts.
Contrasts appear when comparing political leaders in both civilizations. Rome experienced a period of political confusion when weak emperors ruled and succession turned into civil war, while in China it was the bureaucrats who became more corrupt and in turn local landlords gained more power. During the time of Classical China and Rome, nomadic tribes of barbarians inhabited areas around the civilizations. The Xiongnu and Xianbei were active tribes near China’s borders, while various Germanic tribes attempted to invade Rome. Both civilizations used a great deal of capital to protect the barriers of their civilizations.
China began construction of the Great Wall, and Rome put up a series of garrisons and forts to protect their border. The effect of this was crippling on both civilizations, and eroded the empire’s economy. Though tax collection proved difficult in both empires, the gathering of taxes proved to be very different. The Han Empire chose to overtax the overwhelmingly large peasant class which instigated an enormous peasant rebellion led by the Yellow Turbans, a Daoist religious sect who opposed the over taxation of peasantry and attempted to form a “Golden Age”.
In the Roman Empire, taxation slowly became a thing of the past, as the Romans decreasing population failed to pay taxes at all during hard times. As the Roman population decreased due to famine, disease, and the upper classes producing less offspring due to their quest for a pleasure-seeking life, soldiers were becoming scarcer, and the overall economy declined. Factors such as taxing and nomadic invasions weakened both societies economically, though both civilizations dealt with taxing differently, causing different effects. In both civilizations, epidemics broke out within the population.
Public baths, sewage systems, and human-animal contact caused diseases such as malaria, smallpox, measles, and the bubonic plague to wipe out entire populations. In addition, both suffered a cultural decay intellectually. Roman scholars wrote textbooks summarizing already discovered information instead of developing new ideas. During that time, Romans became increasingly focused on pleasure seeking, turning away from political and economic ideas that once shaped their civilization. Confucian scholars in Han China became less creative and centered also, causing social and political decline in Confucian philosophies.
However; when looking at unity in culture, the Chinese was much more unified than Rome, sharing a common Chinese script and language. Rome became much more fragmented, eventually dividing the Mediterranean world into three zones. Rome and China both had central, united governments that ended up dividing into several pieces. The governments, no longer able to continue and prosper due to revolt and economic set backs spilt Rome into two and eventually 4 parts while splitting Han China into three parts. In addition, great landed families in both empires grew in power and weakened the central state, reducing its resources.
When comparing the two, political differences are also made evident. The government in Rome failed mostly as an effect of the problem of succession. Rome had many weak emperors, and the decision of who would next reign often resulted in civil wars that further fragmented the empire. Within Han China, the bureaucrats took over, corrupting the government, while the emperor transferred power to landlords, who gained more power. Han China and Classical Rome share many parallels in social, economic, and political aspects.
Socially, epidemics and cultural decline shared a part in decline of both empires while China’s common culture resulted in less of a complete decline in the Han Empire. Looking into economics, both civilizations suffered from having to pay for defense on borders due to nomadic invasion, but the way the government dealt with taxes and how they were effected by them differed. Finally, politically both empires were fractured into various parts, but in Rome there were a multitude of weak emperors while the bureaucrats and landowners contributed more to the fall of the Han.
Though both civilizations were “regrouped”, as Stern cautions use of the word decline, Han China’s tradition, politics, and distinct values led to the eventual revival of the society while Rome’s cultural diversity due to changing demographics by Germanic invasions resulted in a complete culture shock and a broken society. The Roman Empire could not be revived as Han China was; as the Chinese civilization used their strongly structured bureaucracy and Confucian values to emerge from a great fall.