State Power in Ancient China and Rome

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The rise and fall of empires

On a conservative estimate this should have brought in not less than million, but given that some of the convicted senators were very rich a much higher total of perhaps closer to a billion seems more plausible. To put these numbers in perspective, total private wealth in an empire of 60 or 70 million people probably amounted to less than billion sesterces, at least a third of which would have been held by the richest one or two percent of households.

In the final analysis, largess and retrieval were simply two sides of the same process in which rulers made and unmade elite fortunes in accordance with political calculations. When Nero supposedly handed out 2 billion sesterces in gifts equivalent to about twice the annual imperial budget , much of this would have come from absorbed or re-absorbed elite wealth. Provincial governors were now paid up to a million sesterces a year for their good services but continued to extract great wealth on the side: Publius Quinctilius Varus, who later lost Germany, entered the province of Syria as a pauper and left it dives rich two years later.

A century on, a governor of southern Spain unwisely bragged in his correspondence that he had extorted 4 million sesterces from his provincials and had even sold some of them into slavery. This practice extended beyond the imperial court. Under Claudius, an official in Spain owned nine giant silver bowls worth See also Mratschek-Halfmann 46, 49, 98, 6, Farther down the food chain, an imperial slave overseeing the imperial treasury in Gaul commanded the services of 16 under-slaves, two of whom were in charge of his apparently extensive set of silverware.

While clearly hyperbolic, this claim need not have been dramatically far from the truth in a region where large estates could be described as rivaling city territories in size. The richest provincials joined the central imperial ruling class, eager to claim rank and attendant privilege and capitalize on the opportunities for further enrichment they offered.

In the early third century CE, the senator and historian Cassius Dio, himself from northwestern Asia Minor, could suggest that the wealthiest men from all over the empire should form the senate, a model ever more closely approximated by reality. When Gordian, governor of Africa in CE, was proclaimed emperor, he was said to own more land in the provinces than anybody else in the whole empire. Political power and great personal fortunes could hardly have been more closely intertwined. A survey of Roman literature has found that epithets of wealth were almost exclusively applied to senators of consular rank, who enjoyed the most favor and the best access to additional riches.

Formal status ordering was grounded in financial capacity. The mature Roman empire consisted of some 2, largely self-governing urban or differently organized communities that were loosely overseen — and opportunistically fleeced — by itinerant governors and small cadres of elite officials and imperial freedmen and slaves who were mostly concerned with fiscal matters.

Each city was normally run by a council that represented the local wealth elite. If the rich archaeological and epigraphical evidence of generous civic spending in this period is anything to go by, these elites knew how to protect their own assets from the distant imperial center and retain much of the surplus at home, be it in their own pockets or to sustain public amenities. In addition to numerous inscriptions mentioning office holders and the owners of produce assets, much of the housing stock at the time of destruction has survived and on occasion we are even able to identify the residents of particular buildings.

The Pompeian elite consisted of an inner core of wealthy citizens with privileged access to local offices and a more extensive group whose members might move in and out of positions of power. Affluent slaves and freedmen who owed their economic standing to their ties with elite families completed the upper segment of local society. This stratification is also visible in the urban structure. The city contained around fifty grand mansions equipped with spacious atriums, colonnaded courtyards and multiple dining rooms, as well as at least a hundred lesser upscale residences down to the threshold set by the smallest known residence of a member of the city council.

This meshes well with the presence of around one hundred elite families that are known from the textual record, perhaps only part of whom belonged to the governing council at any given time. Given the inclusive nature of the Roman familia, which accommodated assorted subordinates as well as kin, and the presence of large numbers of current and former slaves in elite dwellings, it is difficult to convert these basic statistics into a percentage of households in the modern sense 34 Mratschek-Halfmann , , ; Inscriptiones Latinae Selectae The trend toward concentrating urban real estate in ever fewer hands is particularly striking.

Archaeological investigation has revealed that all of the grand houses and many of the second-tier structures had been created by absorbing several smaller previous dwellings. Over time, a fairly egalitarian distribution of housing and thus perhaps also wealth , arguably associated with the forcible settlement of Roman veterans in 80 BCE, gradually gave way to growing inequality, mostly at the expense of middling households who got squeezed out of the urban fabric.

As a culture of military mass mobilization and top- down redistribution was replaced by stable autocracy, polarization followed. High mortality and partible inheritance failed to disperse assets and flatten the social pyramid but merely served to recirculate wealth within elite circles.

Archaeological evidence for Roman housing more generally indicates that stratification intensified under Roman rule. As I discuss in more detail in Chapter 4, the distribution of residential house sizes in Britain and North Africa was more unequal in the Roman period than it had been before, and depending on our choice of data set the same may also have been true in Italy itself.

State Power in Ancient China and Rome

This is not surprising: while the empire brought disproportionate benefits to those at or near the levers of power it also favored the accumulation and concentration of wealth among wider elite circles. During the first years of the monarchy, disruptive wars and other conflicts were extremely rare by historical standards. Imperial peace provided a protective shell for capital investment. Except for those at the very top, the wealthy were relatively secure in the possession and transmission of their properties.

It is possible to quantify Roman imperial inequality at least in rough outlines: the margins of error are considerable but not excessively so. At the peak of its development in the mid-second century CE, an empire of some 70 million people generated an annual GDP of close to 50 million tons of wheat equivalent or close to 20 billion sesterces. According to my own reconstruction, the households of some senators, 20, or more knights, , decurions and another , unranked wealthy families added up to a total of a quarter of a million households with an aggregate income of 3 to 5 billion sesterces.

In this scenario, about 1. These numbers may well underestimate their actual share because they derive income from putative return on estimated wealth; political rents would drive up elite income even higher. By comparison, we can be reasonably sure that only about 5 to 7 percent of GDP reached state coffers. Private rent thus dwarfed state tax. While the distribution of income below elite circles is even more difficult to assess, a conservative range of assumptions points to an overall Gini coefficient of income in the low 0. This value is much higher than it might seem. Since average per capita GDP amounted to only about twice minimum subsistence net of tax and investment, the projected level of Roman income inequality was not far below the maximum that was actually feasible at that level of economic development, a feature shared by many other premodern societies.

Measured against the share of GDP that was available for extraction from primary producers, Roman inequality was therefore extremely severe. At most a tenth of 37 Mouritsen provides a succinct summary. See also Jongman , esp. The data are too scarce to establish a significant correlation between wealth and office-holding: ibid. A large share of the population of the neighboring city of Herculaneum appears to have consisted of slaves and ex- slaves: De Ligt and Garnsey House sizes: see Stephan 82, 86 Britain , , Italy, with conflicting results for two different data sets , , North Africa.

Skeletal remains still await fine-grained analysis to determine whether inequality in human body height also increased under the Romans. For the income sources of senators and knights, see Mratschek-Halfmann , , and cf. Power asymmetries may have compelled provincials to sell some of their land to pay taxes, a practice that we cannot even begin to quantify but that would help explain the emergence of transregional networks of aristocratic landownership in later centuries.

This raises the question if or when Roman inequality reached a ceiling. Elite enrichment was perturbed by violent dislocations in the part of the third century CE when wars, succession struggles, plague and other factors rattled established hierarchies and even caused the empire to splinter for a very short period of time.

Subsequent restoration under more overtly military leadership from the Danubian periphery was accompanied by the rise of a new elite. By the time relevant evidence again flows more freely in the fourth century we once again encounter very large fortunes. Due to the limitations of our sources, we cannot be sure whether they had grown to be even larger than they had been before. Much depends on how much weight we are prepared to put on a clearly hyperbolic account from the s CE. Converted into the currency of the earlier monarchy, the top income of 5, pounds of gold equals about million sesterces in the first century CE, on a par with the very largest fortunes reported at that time.

The lesser fortunes convert to 66 to million, likewise very sizable by earlier standards. On the other, he adds more specific details concerning the sponsorship of metropolitan games by three members of these families that cost them 1,, 2, and 4, pounds of gold, numbers that are at least somewhat less likely to have been plucked out of thin air and if true would dwarf any private or even imperial largess in the early empire.

Two decades earlier, the female magnate Melania, who together with her husband owned estates in Rome, Italy, Sicily, North Africa, Spain and even Britain and became famous for donating it all to Christian charity, was said to have taken in 1, pounds of gold in annual rent. It thus seems that top late Roman plutocrats were as rich as their precursors had been three and four centuries earlier. Whether giant fortunes had become more numerous we cannot say.


We may be on safer ground by assuming that a wealth plateau had first been reached with the creation of the monarchy around the beginning of the Common Era and then persisted, with some fluctuations, until Roman power in the West finally unraveled in the course of the fifth century CE. The establishment of larger 38 Scheidel and Friesen , 91 GDP , income distribution and state share , Gini and extraction rate.

For economically middling Romans, see Scheidel and Mayer Olympiodorus: Wickham ; Brown ; Harper a: Melania: Harper Plateau: ibid. Yet while this cannot be ruled out, there is little to support the notion of a precipitous decline in average per capita GDP as conjectured by Milanovic 8 and , esp. For the collapse of the western Roman aristocracy, see Wickham In this regard, Roman institutions and power dynamics moved closer to the Chinese model described above. As the state sought to fund this enlarged administrative apparatus and an increasingly beleaguered military, costly or even brutal reprisals were meted out to members of the city councils who failed to meet their obligations.

This exposure, together with the expansion of opportunities both in state service and the newly ascendant Christian church, provided the locally wealthy with powerful incentives to seek rank and title in these organizations which offered protection as well as access to new income streams. Patronage and networking were crucial in attaining these positions. Local wealth elites consequently came to be polarized between a minority that benefited from membership in supra-communal bodies and a large majority that did not.

Some of the best evidence for this process comes from late Roman Egypt. Extant papyrus documents show how the established urban ruling class that had persisted into the fourth century CE was undermined as some of its members pulled away by holding state offices that brought exemptions from local fiscal obligations and enhanced opportunities for personal enrichment. Some of them became managers of imperial estates or even achieved senatorial rank, rising to governorships or positions at the central court. By the sixth century CE, this kind of upward mobility appears to have put in place a new provincial aristocracy in Egypt that controlled large parts of the arable land and key positions in regional governance.

Much of their land was concentrated in a single district of Egypt, of which they owned about one-tenth. And this need not have been an isolated phenomenon: although the scarcity of land registers from that period makes it hard to track similar developments elsewhere, one man may have controlled over 23, acres of land in a single town in Italy in CE. The tentacular holdings of the super-rich that extended across much of the empire were thus complemented by growing concentration of landownership at the communal and regional level. In different parts of the later Roman empire, we hear of farmers who sought protection by powerful landlords as well as officials who assumed responsibility for their dealings with the outside world, most notably imperial tax collectors.

This is turn not only weakened the central authorities but also shifted fiscal burdens to less powerful parties, much to the detriment of middling property owners. Once again, further polarization between rich and poor was an almost inevitable outcome, and just as in late Han China, private armies and incipient warlordism were not always far behind. What middle ground there may have been earlier in was squeezed by the concentration of income and wealth within a politically powerful elite.

After Rome and the western half of the empire were taken over by Germanic leaders, inequality may even have continued to rise in what remained of the empire in the eastern Mediterranean, up to the extraordinary levels estimated for the Byzantine empire around CE. The longer it lasted, the more 41 Egypt: Palme , with Harper Italy: Champlin , with Harper More detailed land registers from the fourth-century CE Aegean document smaller holdings of not more than 1, acres: Harper 52 table 3.

Super-rich: Wickham Imperial rule mobilized flows of resources that were capable of enriching those at the levers of power on a scale that would have been unimaginable in smaller settings. The degree of inequality was therefore at least in part a function of the sheer scale of imperial state formation.

Building on mechanisms of capital investment and exploitation that had first been developed thousands of years earlier, these empires raised the stakes ever higher. Greater profits were to be had from state office; lowered transaction costs for trade and investment over long distances benefited those with income to spare. In the end, imperial income inequality and wealth polarization could only be terminated and reversed by dismemberment through conquest, state failure or wholesale systems collapse, all of them intrinsically violent upheavals.

The premodern historical record is silent on peaceful ways of combating entrenched imperial inequalities, and it is hard to see how any such strategies could have arisen within these specific political ecologies. Yet even imperial collapse was more often than not merely a reset, paving the way for another wave of scaling-up and polarization. Bibliography Alster, Bendt Bethesda: CDL Press. Andermahr, Anna Maria Bonn: Habelt. Bang, Peter F. State power in ancient China and Rome. New York: Oxford University Press: Barfield, Thomas J. Cambridge MA: Blackwell. Bodde, Derk Brown, Peter Through the eye of a needle: wealth, the fall of Rome, and the making of Christianity in the West, AD.

Princeton: Princeton University Press. Brown, T.

Gentlemen and officers: imperial administration and aristocratic power in Byzantine Italy A. Rome: British School at Rome. Burgers, Peter Han social structure. Seattle: University of Washington Press. Champlin, Edward De Ligt, Luuk and Garnsey, Peter Deng, Gang The premodern Chinese economy: structural equilibrium and capitalist sterility. London: Routledge. Byzantine inequality: Milanovic The economy of the Roman empire: quantitative studies.

Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Ebrey, Patricia Elvin, Mark The pattern of the Chinese past. Stanford: Stanford University Press. Harper, Kyle Oxford: Oxford University Press: Harris, William V. War and imperialism in Republican Rome BC. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Hopkins, Keith In Scheidel, Walter, and von Reden, Sitta, eds.

Edinburgh University Press: Edinburgh: Hsu, Cho-yun Han agriculture: the formation of early Chinese agrarian economy B. Jacobs, Harrison Jongman, Willem The economy and society of Pompeii. Amsterdam: Gieben. Kay, Philip Lewis, Mark Edward The early Chinese empires: Qin and Han.

Han Dynasty - Ancient History Encyclopedia

China between empires: the Northern and Southern dynasties. Li, Feng Early China: a social and cultural history. Cambridge University Press: Cambridge. Loewe, Michael a. Loewe, Michael b. Loewe, Michael Leiden: Brill. Mansvelt Beck, B. Mayer, Emanuel Milanovic, Branko Global inequality: a new approach for the age of globalization. Milanovic, Branko, Lindert, Peter H. Millar, Fergus The assessment, through an oral examination and, for attending students, in form of a written essay , will test:.

See the website of Alessandro Cristofori. Search Search Close. People Structures Close. My e-mail for students My e-mail for staff Close. Facebook Twitter Linkedin Send to friend. Search Course unit catalogue. Course contents The course will be devoted to the theme Rome and China: empires in contact, empires in comparison , this year too. Lectures will then cover the following issues: Themes and methods of the course about 11 hours Presentation of the course about 1 hour The subject of the course and its chronological, geographical and thematic limits about 2 hours. The problems of World History, of Global History and of comparative history about 2 hours.

The classical sources on the relations between the Roman world and the Chinese world about 2 hours. Chinese textual sources about 2 hours. Chinese archaeological sources about 2 hours. Empires in contact about 10 hours : The story of the lost legion about 2 hours Diplomatic explorations and contacts in the Roman perspective about 2 hours.

China seen from Rome about 2 hours. Diplomatic explorations and contacts in the Chinese perspective about 2 hours. Rome seen from China about 2 hours. Empires in comparison 9 hours A general framework of the administration of the two Empires about 3 hours. The phenomenon of urbanization and the role of cities in the administration of the two Empires about 3 hours. The war, the army and the formation of the two Empires about 3 hours. The preparation of the paper will be the subject of a special seminar about 8 hours , which will cover the following topics: The main features of a paper in the history of the roman empire about 1 hour.

Finding modern bibliography about 2 hours. Finding ancient evidence about 2 hours. The challenge will be, as it has always been, to nurture the development of such studies while resisting the always-present urge to instrumentalize those studies as a part of internal debates or international relations. Bachner, Andrea. New York: Columbia University Press. Find this resource:. Beecroft, Alexander. Behr, Wolfgang. Chan, Albert. Ching-hsien, Wang. Defoort, Carine. Arguments of an Implicit Debate. Denecke, Wiebke. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Derrida, Jacques.

De la grammatologie [ On Grammatology ]. Translated by Gayatri Spivak. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press. Feng, Youlan. Translated by Derk Bodde. New York: Mackmillan. Fingarette, Herbert. Confucius: The Secular as Sacred. New York: Harper and Row. Ge, Zhaoguang.

Did Rome and China Know Each Other?

Intellectual History of China. Translated by Michael S.

Hun Origin

Duke and Josephine Chiu-Duke. Leiden; Boston: Brill. Hall, David L. Thinking Through Confucius. Hunter, Michael Justin. Idema, Wilt. Paris: Grasset. Translated by Sophie Hawkes. Kim, Hyun Jin. Ethnicity and Foreigners in Ancient Greece and China. London: Duckworth. Li, Sher-shiueh. Liu Xiaofeng. Caelum non animum mutant, — Beijing: Huaxia chubanshe. Lloyd, G. Mair, Victor. Contact and Exchange in the Ancient World. Meynard, Thierry. Mul ed. Miner, Earl. Mutschler, Fritz-Heiner, and Achim Mittag, eds.

Conceiving the Empire: China and Rome Compared. Needham, Joseph. Crombie, — London: Heinemann. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, p. Owen, Stephen. Readings in Chinese Literary Thought. Distributed by Harvard University Press. Pomeranz, Kenneth. Raphals, Lisa. Reding, Jean-Paul. Bern; New York: Peter Lang. Saussy, Haun. The Problem of a Chinese Aesthetic. Comparative Literature in an Age of Globalization. Scheidel, Walter, ed.

State Power in Ancient China and Rome. Shankman, Steven, and Stephen Durrant. London; New York: Cassell. Shankman, Steven, and Stephen Durrant, eds. Smethurst, Mae. Spence, Jonathan D. The Memory Palace of Matteo Ricci. New York: Viking Penguin. Wang, Ching-hsien. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Weng, Leihua. Wylie, Alexander. Shanghai: American Presbyterian Mission Press. Xing, Lu. Zhang, Longxi. Zhou, Yiqun. See Chan All Rights Reserved. Under the terms of the licence agreement, an individual user may print out a PDF of a single chapter of a title in Oxford Handbooks Online for personal use for details see Privacy Policy and Legal Notice.

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Forgot password? Don't have an account? Sign in via your Institution. Sign in with your library card. Search within Periods and Texts Both Greek and Chinese were used as literary languages for several millennia, and their literary use reflected changes in everyday spoken language only gradually and partially until the twentieth century. Reception History The conditions of possibility for Greek-Chinese comparative study began to open in the seventeenth century, with Jesuit missionaries as the medium. China Receives the Western Classics, Slowly Meanwhile, the Chinese reception of the European classics proceeded more slowly, and on a path that remains to this day somewhat obscure, as there was relatively little interest among leading Chinese intellectuals in European ideas before the mid-nineteenth century.

Nineteenth-Century European Reception of the Chinese Classics In Europe the nineteenth century had seen rapid strides in the understanding and translation of key Chinese texts.

State Power in Ancient China and Rome State Power in Ancient China and Rome
State Power in Ancient China and Rome State Power in Ancient China and Rome
State Power in Ancient China and Rome State Power in Ancient China and Rome
State Power in Ancient China and Rome State Power in Ancient China and Rome
State Power in Ancient China and Rome State Power in Ancient China and Rome
State Power in Ancient China and Rome State Power in Ancient China and Rome

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