Rome vs. China

by on May 16, 2017 at 12:55 am in History, Political Science, Uncategorized | Permalink

About my earlier China post, from Harrison Searles of GMU:

On the comparison of China and Rome, one of the factors that immediately came to my mind was a combination of (2) and (4): The Roman Empire faced a much more complex logistical problem of maintaining territorial integrity than did China and its territorial integrity could be destroyed from a sea campaign.

These two themes actually did greatly contribute to Rome’s unraveling during the Crisis of the 5th Century: One of the under-appreciated aspects of the Crisis of the 5th Century that led to the Fall of the Roman Empire was the loss of North Africa to the Vandals. Peter Heather provides a short description of how destructive the loss of North Africa was to the empire in The Fall of the Roman Empire (2006):

“No other single blow could have done the Empire so much harm. At a stroke. Geiseric had removed from Aetius’ control the richest provinces of the Roman west, with the result that financial crisis looked How was it allowed to happen? Presumably, after four and a half years of relative peace, and thinking that Geiseric was going to keep the treaty made in February 435, people took their eyes off the ball. There was, I suspect, simply too much instability in other parts of the empire for troops to be left in Carthage on a ‘what if?’ basis. The Visigothic war in particular, brought to an end just before Geiseric made his move, had probably demanded every available man. So with the Carthage garrison at minimum strength, the cunning Vandal had taken full advantage.” (p. 289)

Here, I see the theme of (4) in your blog post: “[China] has a large space of relatively flat plains.” Chinese generals did not face the same complex logistical problems that Roman ones did in deploying their military force across their nation.

When North Africa was lost, retaking it to reassert territorial integrity was not as easy as simply marching a couple of legions there. If it were that easy, I very much doubt the Vandals could have held onto North Africa. Instead, the Roman Empire needed to launch a sea campaign, which is theme (2) of your post: “when it comes to naval warfare — more common for Europe — small countries have a chance to punch above their weight, witness England and Portugal.”

In 468 both the Western and Eastern Empires launched a massive joint campaign to take back North Africa. However, the armada they had launched was smashed at the Battle of Cape Bon by a much smaller Vandal fleet that had the weather gauge to its advantage. Punching above their weight, the Vandal kingdom of North Africa was able to beat back a campaign manned and funded by both Ravenna and Constantinople—a feat that would have been close to impossible on land.

The failure of that armada to land on North Africa doomed half of the Roman world to extinction, for without the North African provinces, the Western Roman Empire could not reassert its hegemony over the centrifugal forces now at full force across Gaul and Hispania. The difficulties of maintaining optimal deployments of troops in an empire largely bifurcated (at least in scale of importance) by a sea and the hazards of warfare at sea conspired to make the problem of maintaining imperial territorial integrity too difficult for Roman politics to solve during the Crisis of the 5th Century, contributing to the total collapse of that integrity in the west. Had the Western Roman Empire not been encumbered by (2) and (4) the survival of said integrity is certainly imaginable—and within the capability its resources offered it.

1 Brett May 16, 2017 at 1:05 am

That sounds about right, honestly. If losing North Africa was a mortal wound to the western Empire, then the failure of the 468 CE expedition was the final blow – the western Empire was effectively dead after that, just waiting for one of the generals to decline to replace the irrelevant western Emperor.

I personally tend to think it was because of a combination of over-centralization in the Latter Roman Empire, the inability to deal with the persistent usurpation problem, as well as the sheer scale of what the western Empire had to deal with in the late 4th/early-to-mid-5th century CE. Although I found a very good blog post on the topic from Thomas Greer:

The problem was not that men and women in Mediterranean world stopped believing in the ideal of universal empire, nor even that elites stopped identifying with a broader imperial identity. The real problem was that those who inherited the intellectual legacy of Catholic Empire and Universal Caliphate did not also inherit the administrative tools needed to administer one. The Dark Ages was a time where men could dream of empire but could not build one. In Europe the decisive moment came piecemeal to different parts of the continent, first as the Carolingian empire collapsed, then when the Caliphate of Cordoba followed in its footsteps, and finally after the Investiture conflict and the civil war that followed left the Salians in only nominal control of their realm. Power was so forcefully decentralized in the decades that followed each collapse that some historians argue we should not describe the feudal structures that followed as “governments” at all. [5] Europeans of this era did not forget how to dream, but they had forgotten how to govern. It would take centuries of state building until Europeans had regained the ability to field armies, administer taxes, and incorporate new conquests into their kingdoms. The slate was wiped clean clean. By these new states became strong enough to extend their control over distant lands, the memory of Rome ha dimmed and identity had reverted to the centers of local power where state building had begun. [6]

This process never happened in China. The Chinese also continued to dream of unity–but more importantly, they never completely lost their capacity to transform their dreams into reality. The imperial center was destroyed, but the bureaucratic structures that held the imperial system together at the lower levels of society lived on. The structures used to govern China and wring taxes from the Chinese people did change over the course of Chinese history, but there was never anything comparable to the total administrative collapse seen in early medieval Europe or the late medieval Near East .The old regime had been decentralized, but not destroyed. This not just made it easier for the next generation of Chinese warlords to mobilize the armies needed to reconquer all of China, but it also made it far easier for them to incorporate what they conquered as fiscally productive parts of their domain.

Each period of unification deepened the connections between different regions of China, making it that much easier for warlords, rebels, and foreign conquerors to administer their new conquests then next time China fell apart. It’s a classic example of virtuous cycle at work. The more time China spent unified the easier it was to unify it in the future. This led to one of the more striking patterns of Chinese history: each major period of disunity was shorter than the last.


2 chuck martel May 16, 2017 at 6:42 am

“some historians argue we should not describe the feudal structures that followed as “governments” at all. [5] Europeans of this era did not forget how to dream, but they had forgotten how to govern. It would take centuries of state building until Europeans had regained the ability to field armies, administer taxes, and incorporate new conquests into their kingdoms. The slate was wiped clean clean. By these new states became strong enough to extend their control over distant lands, the memory of Rome ha dimmed and identity had reverted to the centers of local power where state building had begun.”

Sadly, the good times of the independent “dark ages” had to come to an end eventually.


3 cowboydroid May 16, 2017 at 10:35 am

My hope is the new order will collapse just as it did before, and we can revert back to mass decentralized organization of society, putting an end to war, taxation, and conquest.


4 msgkings May 16, 2017 at 11:49 am

Are you goofy anarchists seriously saying that there was no war, taxation (tribute), or conquest in the Dark Ages? That’s super.


5 djw May 16, 2017 at 2:09 pm

No war, no taxes, just random murder and pillaging. Totally different.

6 msgkings May 16, 2017 at 2:10 pm

Also war and taxes LOL

7 The Centrist May 16, 2017 at 2:59 pm


8 jonathan May 16, 2017 at 2:47 am

Totally agree with the analysis; and yet, maybe some amount of instability is better in the long run.

The longer periods of disunity in the West led to greater innovation — across governance, commerce, religions.

In the short term this was incredibly destructive, but in the long term so important. Despite the relative advance of Eastern cultures in the wake of Western decline, the wave of chaos/innovation (and, of course, fortunate geography) eventually catapults the West back into primacy — via the Renaissance and later the Industrial Revolution.

But as human culture continues to globalize, this advantage for the West is hitting diminishing returns. A great video on “Why the West Rules, For Now”:


9 cowboydroid May 16, 2017 at 10:41 am

The “short term destructiveness” of the collapse of the Roman state in the West is overplayed, I think. Mainly because the collapse did not happen overnight, but over generations. You have to compare where society was before and after. Before, over 90% of the population lived agarian lifestyles in abject material poverty. After, we largely find the same, the difference being they weren’t having their lives micromanaged by an overbearing state and most of their wealth confiscated to finance a bloated beaucracy. Was the collapse destructive to the state? Yes. It’s important not to conflate the destruction of the state with the destruction of society.


10 Thiago Ribeiro May 16, 2017 at 11:18 am

“After, we largely find the same, the difference being they weren’t having their lives micromanaged by an overbearing state and most of their wealth confiscated to finance a bloated beaucracy.”
So they got richer? How much richer in, say, the first two centuries? And how micromanaged the average Roman could have been (let’s just say Christianity would never have been survived if the Emperors really could micromanage their subjects)? It is stupid to downplay the tragedy the fall of the Empire meant.


11 Hopaulius May 16, 2017 at 10:48 am

I noticed through years of taking history courses that historians tend to love empires and lament their collapse. I suspect this has much to do with the abundance of documentation that empires produce. But there is also something in the tyrant that many historians admire.


12 prior_test2 May 16, 2017 at 3:28 am

Interesting – but then, considering how many empires failed in China, along with successful invasions by Mongolians and Manchus.

Possibly someone is confused about the difference between cultural and imperial hegemony? The Han aren’t.


13 prior_test2 May 16, 2017 at 3:29 am

So much for formatting – ‘and Manchus, possibly someone is’


14 Cyrus May 16, 2017 at 6:15 am

The Arab world provides an interesting counter example: despite a cultural hegemony that has been adopted (in part) by its successful invaders, the caliphate has been a slippery thing to reconstitute.


15 prior_test2 May 16, 2017 at 7:29 am

I think the entire Arab/Persian/Turkish thing in relation to a caliphate makes this discussion a bit more complicated, but the point is certainly worth considering.


16 rayward May 16, 2017 at 5:43 am

The distinction (made by priors) between cultural and imperial hegemony seems the more likely explanation. Maintaining an empire is difficult, especially when leadership in the empire is wanting. If not for Christianity holding disparate people together would the Roman Empire had collapsed earlier? The European colonialists many years later employed Christian missionaries to help tame the colonized, to bridge the cultural divide. Before Rome Alexander understood the importance of bridging the cultural divide, Hellenization a lighter touch for achieving unity. Rome employed brutality to tame the colonized. It’s amazing that it worked as long as it did. Brutality didn’t work very long for the Germans, or for the Japanese. For the most part the American Empire has not been built and maintained with brutality (the Philippines possibly an exception). Instead, American culture has been the glue; an updated version of Hellenization. It’s no coincidence that the American Empire hasn’t been accepted in the middle east, the American culture anathema to much of the middle eastern culture.


17 rayward May 16, 2017 at 5:58 am

For those more inclined to the great man explanation for Rome’s collapse (i.e., the void at the top), one has to wonder how long the American Empire can endure, with a man-child at the top.


18 Aretino May 16, 2017 at 11:38 am

The Roman empire endured for centuries after man-children like Caligula and Nero.


19 rayward May 16, 2017 at 6:06 am

And let’s not forget that Rome was the beneficiary of Hellenization.


20 rayward May 16, 2017 at 6:21 am

For those who like to consider alternative history, what if America hadn’t “lost China”? What if America had “won” the Vietnam War?


21 chuck martel May 16, 2017 at 6:46 am

“. For the most part the American Empire has not been built and maintained with brutality.”

Tell it to the native Americans.


22 rayward May 16, 2017 at 7:07 am

And the American culture doesn’t much appeal to native Americans either. Your point is valid and I should have included it as an exception but I was more focused on cultural differences and how to bridge them in order to maintain an empire over distant geographic areas. Every time I see that portrait of Jackson hanging over Trump’s head I cringe. Man-child, indeed. Will the American Empire survive?


23 Thiago Ribeiro May 16, 2017 at 9:06 am

No, it won’t, its collapse has already started and is unavoidable. American Nobel laurate Paul Krugman said that America may already be a failed state. American intellectual leader David Kupelian has said America is lawless and bizarre. A drug epidemics is taking hundreds of thousands of American lives every year and lowering dramatically the life expectancy. America’s former allies despise it, its enemies do not fear it anymore. America’s regime is colonialism writ large and could not only succeed while America had overwhelming power.


24 Thiago Ribeiro May 16, 2017 at 11:55 am

Do not be fooled, the terrorist American regime will soon collapse as its frightened populace rises to reclaim their freedom from the crushing burden. This is inevitable, as it has been prophecied by the Prophet Bandarra.

25 Thiago Ribeiro May 16, 2017 at 12:01 pm

You must stop impersonatinh me!

26 JonFraz May 16, 2017 at 12:52 pm

Every empire is brutal. But the Romans were better than many others (of their era). They brought justice and prosperity with them, built good infrastructure, and some provinces (Bithynia and Cyrenaica) even joined the empire voluntarily. The Romans also had a fairly open citizenship (for the time) and eventually all free men became Roman citizens.


27 dearieme May 16, 2017 at 9:19 am

One theory about the west European Dark Age (or at least the British Dark Age) was that plague had devastated the population. Perhaps population densities sank so far that any sort of non-local government was hard to organise.


28 JonFraz May 16, 2017 at 12:48 pm

This is largely correct (though there were other factors). Population levels collapsed all over Western Eurasia and north Africa. Cities shrank to towns, long distance trade all but ceased, coinage disappears in the archaeological record outside a few surviving cities, infrastructure decayed due to lack of maintenance and even easily defended borders like the Danube line in the Balkans could not be manned.


29 Tim Fitzgerald May 16, 2017 at 11:14 am

The Han consolidated their new areas of influence with lots of ethnic Han, who brought with them their cultural and economic habits. The Romans continued to dominate conquered areas militarily, and they controlled local administration of the state (esp. tax collection), but they did not colonize their empire as intensively as did the Han. An analog to these styles would be the English in North America and the Spanish in South America.

When the imperial center declined in Rome the former provinces had fewer cultural and ethnic inclinations to reorganize than did provinces in China.


30 JonFraz May 16, 2017 at 3:24 pm

I’m not so sure this is true. the Romans generally settled their veteran legionnaires on land in the provinces, as a reward for service, throughout Europe (except for Greece) and Northern Africa. In the East, where the land was already owned by local elites this did not happen; and few legionnaires wanted to settle in Britain, where the climate was unpleasant and wine and olive oil had to be imported. To be sure many of these veterans had local wives/concubines and local gene lines certainly survived the Roman conquest– but local languages generally did not, excepting Greek, the ancestor of Albanian, Basque and in Britain Celtic. After several generations most people residing in Roman Europe thought of themselves as Roman, culturally at least. How is this different from Southern China, where local genes lives did survive the Han conquest, but local languages yielded to Chinese while the inhabitants came to think of themselves as Chinese?


31 Joël May 16, 2017 at 11:40 am

I do not really agree with the analysis. In fact the geographical importance of the sea in the Roman empire was a very important advantage to it, and helped it repeal many invasions. Remember that the Vandals came to North Africa almost entirely by land, through model-day France, Germany, and crossing easily the sea at the very tiny straight of Gibraltar. They overwhelmed the Roman garrison there with their land forces. True, they won a naval battle preventing a landing of ground Roman forces in 468, but saying that this single battle “doomed half of the Roman empire” is unjustified: if the (western) Roman empire was not dying at his time, it could have organized another landing a few years later, like the allies organized a successful landing in France in 1944 after a failure in 1942. And indeed, Justinian one century later easily took back North African to the Vandals.

It is also important to keep in mind what happened to the eastern Roman empire who survived 1000 years after that period. The main difference with the western part is that its food-producing richest part, Egypt, was out of reach for a land invasion force coming from the North, blocked by the Mediterranean sea and the Black sea. The only passage was through Constantinople, which was more than adequately fortified, hence closed to invaders, or very very far to the East, through the Caucasus, but then the invader would have to get through Parthians first. Thus, while (current-day) Greece, Albania, Bulgaria, Romania, were devastated by Northern invaders (e.g. Slavs) and in large parts lost, the remainder of the Eastern Roman empire, protected by the sea and its mastering of naval warfare, stayed safe at least until Arab invasions: modern-day Turkey, Syria, Jordan and Israel, and most importantly Egypt.


32 JonFraz May 16, 2017 at 12:01 pm

Re: I very much doubt the Vandals could have held onto North Africa.

They didn’t. The Byzantines under Justinian took Africa back in the 6th century. The larger Byzantine project of reconquista however foundered on the demographic collapse that resulted from famine and plague and left the Empire unable to secure its borders even close to home.


33 Art Deco May 16, 2017 at 6:18 pm

The Byzantine project of reconquering Italy was a wretched hash that left the place in ruins. It’s a reasonable counter-factual that the Mediterranean west was in passable condition organized into a trio of Germanic kingdoms. It was Britain and much of Gaul which were suffering a Dark Age.


34 JonFraz May 17, 2017 at 2:52 pm

Initially the Frankish kingdom in Gaul and Gothic kingdom in Italy looked to be getting their act together and might have created strong states on Roman foundations with no collapse in economic well-being for their people. The record in Visogothic Spain and Vandalic North Africa is less certain. But as someone else pointed out above what doomed civilization in the West was demographic collapse– resulting from a volcanic winter and famine in 535-36AD and a horrific plague pandemic in 541-42. The Byzantines campaigns in Italy have to be seen in that context: they were fighting at a time of mass mortality with everything coming unglued around them. The world of the early Middle Ages was in some ways a post-holocaustal world.


35 mulp May 16, 2017 at 12:43 pm

Just listened to the TED talk with Elon Musk posted a week or so ago. He noted that progress is not assured, pointing to Egypt forgetting how to build pyramids, Rome forgetting how to build viaducts, just as the US forgot how to do manned space flight. And clearly China forget how to do many things, but kept some things alive by selling them for entertainment, like explosives and rockets and high grade steel.


36 Student May 16, 2017 at 1:14 pm

Egyptian pyramids, roman aqueducts, the roman road network manmed space flight… all wasteful government spending which would have been allocated more successfully in the absence of a societal coordinating organization.

Is it a coincidence that these great public missions disappear when the government disintegrates? Is it a coincidence that that th Chinese didn’t lose as much knowledge?

Obviously innovation is primarily a private phenomena but thinking about these issues certainly highlights that government and publically financed social missions are advantageous for societies. Which wonder of the ancient world wasn’t a public mission?


37 Ashby May 17, 2017 at 11:53 am

The Roman roads, aqueducts, and sewers were certainly critical projects to support a city the size of ancient Rome, not so sure about the pyramids in that context.

“Water connects and land divides.” Sometimes these discussions seem to miss the critical importance of water transport and supply lines. Major cities and towns are built on rivers, seas or oceans. Regarding China v. Rome, effective control of the Mediterranean was probably significantly more difficult than controlling the river complex at the heart of the China, hence the Roman Empire was inherently less stable.


38 Ashby May 17, 2017 at 12:05 pm

That is in response to this: “Here, I see the theme of (4) in your blog post: “[China] has a large space of relatively flat plains.” Chinese generals did not face the same complex logistical problems that Roman ones did in deploying their military force across their nation.”

Might be useful to think in terms of water/major rivers rather than land. More degrees of freedom in water transport on Mediterranean than the Chinese rivers.


39 Art Deco May 16, 2017 at 6:20 pm

We never forgot how to do manned space flight. It’s largely a pointless exercise, therefore not done.


40 CMOT May 16, 2017 at 7:26 pm

Seeing a post titled “Rome vs. China” I was expecting something a lot more fighty …


41 AlanW May 16, 2017 at 7:55 pm

I read that Peter Heather book last year. Really enjoyed it, even though I disagree with his central premise (that there was no real diminution of Romance military capacity in the late Empire). He paints an interesting picture of how Roman bureaucracy and society gradually (and not so gradually) failed in the post-Roman successor states.


42 Ashby May 17, 2017 at 11:08 am

My wife and kid are deeply into studying the Mongols at the moment, and we’ve been having some spirited debates about the Mongolian Empire. Might be fun if you expanded this exercise to cover Rome, China and the Mongolians.


43 Ashby May 17, 2017 at 11:23 am

As an added bonus, that would add some of the fighty CMOT was expecting, but personally I’d be more interested in analysis of how the common markets functioned in these disparate empires. Compare and contrast ease of movements of goods, standards of living (provided you survived the initial slaughter), how administration and taxes were handled, comparative levels of centralization, etc..


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