Rome and Han China
Tracy Rosselle, M.A.T.
Newsome High School, Lithia, FL
An Age of Empires: 753 BCE – 600 CE
A new kind of empire
The Roman Empire included all the lands around the
Mediterranean and stretched from continental Europe to the
Middle East.
Its contemporary (though arising somewhat later and ending
sooner), the Han Empire, spanned from the Pacific Ocean to
the oases of Central Asia.
They were the largest empires the world had yet seen, in both
land and population. They were:
centralized to a greater degree than earlier empires.
more culturally influential on the land and peoples they dominated.
remarkably stable and long-lasting.
Eurasia, 116 CE
The Roman Empire and Han China were separated by thousands
of miles, and neither influenced the other. But they were linked by
a far-flung international trading network, so they were vaguely
aware of each other’s existence.
Rome’s Mediterranean Empire
Italy’s climate (long growing seasons, wide variety of crops)
and geography (numerous navigable rivers, well forested and
rich in iron and other metals) were conducive to sustaining a
large population.
Rome lay at the midpoint of the peninsula, and the peninsula
was a crossroads in the Mediterranean.
Vast majority of early Romans were self-sufficient
independent farmers owning small plots of land … small
number of families able to acquire large tracts of land 
heads of these wealthy families were members of the Senate –
a “Council of Elders” dominating Roman politics.
The Roman Republic
According to tradition: seven kings of Rome between 753 and
507 BCE … when senatorial class – vowing never again to be
ruled by a harsh tyrant – deposed the king and instituted a res
publica, “a public possession” or republic.
republic – a form of government in which power rests with
citizens who have the right to vote for their leaders. (The United
States today is a republican form of democracy.)
The Roman Republic (507-31 BCE) – unlike the direct
democracy of the Greeks, sovereign power rested in several
assemblies: all male citizens eligible to attend, but votes of
wealthy classes counted more than votes of the poor citizens.
Real center of power  Roman Senate – technically an
advisory council, but increasingly made policy, governed; selfperpetuating body whose members served for life and
nominated their sons for public offices.
“Conflict of the Orders”
Inequalities in Roman society periodically led to
unrest and conflict between the elite (wealthy
landowners called patricians) and the majority of
the population (common farmers, artisans and
merchants called plebeians).
Plebeian gains:
Twelve Tables (c. 450 BCE) – laws carved on 12 tablets,
hung in the Forum (laws now written, published 
patrician officials now can’t interpret law to suit
themselves); became basis of later Roman law.
tribunes – new officials drawn from and elected by the
lower classes; had power to veto, or block, actions of the
Assembly or patrician officials.
The class-conscious Roman family
Statue of a Roman carrying
busts of his ancestors (c. first
century BCE).
Roman society extremely conscious of
status (determined by achievements of
ancestors, living members of family).
The Roman family, made of several
generations plus domestic slaves, was
basic unit of society.
Absolute authority in family exercised
by paterfamilias – the oldest living
male  could sell children into slavery
or have them killed … but this began
to change by second century CE.
Institutionalized inequality
In Rome, inequality was accepted and turned into a
system of mutual benefits and obligations.
patron/client relationship – Senator to middle
class, middle class to poor:
Men of wealth and influence might have dozens, hundreds
of clients (lower status men he provided guidance,
protection, money … in return for loyalty in politics and
war, work on land and even money for daughter’s dowry).
Large retinues of clients brought prestige: clients would
await their patrons in morning, accompany them to Forum
for the day’s business.
The Roman Forum
Built on the site of an old cemetery, the Roman Forum was the central area
around which ancient Rome developed. It contained many buildings, including
temples and basilicas. People would come to conduct commerce, and political
leaders carried out public affairs and administrated matters of justice.
Institutionalized inequality
Women in Roman society
Girls in some upper-class families received a primary
education but were pushed into marriage (arranged by
fathers) commonly by the time they were 14 (12 was the legal
Nearly everything we know of Roman women pertains to the
upper classes.
In early times, women never ceased to be a child in eyes of
the law  needed male guardian advocates.
Over time, gained greater personal protections and freedoms
 could own, inherit and dispose of property; unlike Greek
women, weren’t segregated from husbands but rather
appreciated at the center of the household, could attend races,
the theater, events in the amphitheater.
Institutionalized inequality
Common throughout the ancient world, but Romans relied on
slave labor more than any other people  peaked at perhaps
1/3 of population by the last two centuries of the Republic as
empire expanded through warfare (prisoners of war became
Large gangs of slaves worked huge agricultural tracts under
pitiful conditions:
branded, beaten, inadequately fed, worked in chains and housed at
night in underground prisons.
periodic slave revolts took up to 17,000 men and several years to
suppress  most famous led by Thracian gladiator Spartacus, who
managed to defeat several Roman armies with 70,000 rebellious
slaves before he was finally captured and killed (6,000 of his
followers executed by crucifixion).
Institutionalized inequality
Slavery (cont.)
Greek slaves were in much demand
as tutors, musicians, doctors, artists.
Many slaves of all nationalities used
as menial household workers (cooks,
valets, gardeners, etc.).
Businessmen would employ slaves as
shop assistants and artisans.
Being attended to by many slaves
became badge of prestige in Roman
A vaunted military
Unlike Greeks, the Romans granted the political, legal and
economic privileges of Roman citizenship to conquered
populations  this relative leniency helped establish longlasting empire.
Demanded soldiers from its Italian subjects  manpower
advantage a key to its military success (could tolerate high
Two consuls chosen by Assembly for one-year terms were
chief executives of the government and commanders-in-chief
of the army (each could veto the other)  structure of the
state thus encouraged war because consuls had limited time to
gain military glory.
Expansion through force
Between 264 and 146 BCE fought and won
three wars with Carthage (Punic Wars) for
mastery of western Mediterranean.
The Carthaginian
general Hannibal led a
brilliant rear-flank
invasion (using
elephants!) crossing the
Alps – but Rome
eventually prevailed in
the Second Punic War.
Expansion through force (cont.)
First territorial acquisition in Europe’s
heartland between 59 and 51 BCE 
conquest of the Celtic peoples of Gaul
(modern France) by Rome’s most brilliant
general, Julius Caesar.
As he gained popularity, Caesar’s rivals
urged him to disband his legions and return
Instead, he and his men defied the Senate,
crossed the Rubicon River (the southern limit
of his command) and headed for Rome –
where he would assume dictatorial power in a
military coup.
The failure of the Republic
Rome’s success in creating a vast empire unleashed forces
that eventually destroyed its republican system of
government. Caesar became dictator in 46 BCE and dictator
for life in 44 BCE. Here’s the bigger picture of how it
In the third and second centuries BCE, while Italian peasant farmers
were away from home serving in the military, it was easy for
investors to take possession of their farms through deception or
Growing empire’s wealth became concentrated in hands of upper
classes with broad estates (which replaced the small, self-sufficient
farms run by peasant owners now part of Roman legions [units of
6,000 soldiers]).
The failure of the Republic (cont.)
Owners of large estates found it more profitable to graze herds and
make wine instead of grow the staple crop of wheat  dependence on
grain imports thus rose.
Cheap slave labor (from increasing numbers of war prisoners) 
peasants who’d lost farms couldn’t find work in countryside … or in
growing cities like Rome, where the idle poor were increasingly
prone to riot.
Soon a shortage of men who owned the minimum amount of property
required for military service  until a leader at the end of the second
century BCE promised farms upon military retirement to poor,
propertyless men he now accepted into the Roman legions.
Over time, then, armies became more loyal to the leaders of the
armies than the state itself  series of bloody civil wars eventually
developed between military factions.
The Death of Julius Caesar by Vincenzo Camuccini
J.C.’s legacy
New “Julian”
calendar based on
solar year instead
of moon cycles
(extra day every
four years, and
July named for
Julius Caesar’s ascent to power was part of this political and military infighting,
and 44 BCE – the year marking the start of his perpetual dictatorship – is seen by
some as the end of the Roman Republic. The “dictator for life” gig didn’t last long:
He was assassinated by members of the Senate (including his friend Marcus Brutus
[“Et tu, Brute?”] on March 15 of that same year.
The end of republic … but not empire
Caesar’s grandnephew and adopted
son, Octavian (63 BCE – 14 CE),
eliminated all rivals by 31 BCE.
A military dictator in fact, Octavian
claimed to be princeps, “first among
equals” in a restored Republic 
period following Roman Republic
thus the Roman Principate.
Octavian best known to us as
Augustus, one of his honorary titles
that means “exalted one.”
The reign of Augustus began
a 207-year period of peace
and prosperity known as the
Pax Romana – “Roman
Augustus and his urban empire
Augustus – ruthless, patient, frugal, religious and familyoriented (banished his only child, Julia, from Rome for
adultery) – aligned himself with the equites (EH-kwee-tays),
the class of well-to-do Italian merchants and landowners
second only to senatorial class.
This group became backbone of the civil service system
Augustus instituted: workers paid to manage affairs of
government (grain supply, tax collection, postal system) 
key to stability and smooth functioning of expansive empire.
The Roman Empire of the first three centuries CE was
“urban” – 80% of its 50-60 million people still lived in
countryside but empire administered through network of
towns and cities (Rome’s population was perhaps 1 million;
some other cities, like Alexandria and Carthage, had several
hundred thousand people; most had far less than that).
“All roads lead to Rome”
A surviving Roman road in Britain.
Main roads were up to 25 feet wide (for
two-way traffic), while more remote
roads were 6-10 feet wide.
A complex network of roads,
originally built by the legions
for military purposes, linked
the empire’s cities and helped
communication and trade.
Roads also helped spread
Roman culture (Latin
language, way of life 
Greco-Roman tradition the
foundation of Western
Ultimately, though, the roads
also eased the way for
barbarian invasions!
Rich and poor
The upper classes lived in
elegant villas with an
atrium, interior gardens, a
well-stocked kitchen,
floors with pebble
mosaics, and perhaps a
private bath.
The poor lived in crowded
slums: wooden tenements
that were dark, smelly and
poorly furnished, prone to
catching fire.
Bath, England
Public baths and
the communal
act of gathering
to bathe served
an important
social function
for many
Romans – from
gossip to
To read more about public Roman baths, go to:
Amusing the masses
Cities and towns that sprang up all over empire were
little replicas of the capital city in political
organization, physical layout and appearance.
Town council and two annually elected officials
drawn from prosperous members of community
maintained law and order, collected taxes.
These municipal aristocracies endowed their cities
with elements of Roman urban life: a forum (open
plaza serving as a civic center), government
buildings, temples, gardens, baths, theaters,
amphitheaters, and games and entertainments of all
Gladiator games
Thumbs up or down? Roman crowds would
often help decide the life-or-death fate of
fighters in the 50,000-seat Colosseum.
To distract and control
the poor masses,
government provided
free games, races, mock
battles and gladiator
contests (150 holidays a
year by 150 CE).
Gladiators fought one
another or with exotic
wild animals – often
until death.
Spectacles combined
bravery and cruelty,
honor and violence.
Pax Romana (31 BCE – 180 CE)
Aside from some skirmishes with tribes along its borders, this
period was a secure time when even some urban dwellers got
rich from manufacture and trade.
Glass, metalwork, delicate pottery and other fine
manufactured products were exported throughout the empire
(Roman armies stationed on the frontiers not only ensured
safety and prosperity of border provinces but were a large
market themselves) … while other merchants imported
luxury items from abroad, especially silk from China and
spices from India and Arabia.
Grain, meat, vegetables and other bulk foodstuffs limited to
mostly local trade because transportation was expensive and
perishables spoiled quickly.
Scholars can estimate the population
of an ancient city by calculating the
amount of water available to it.
Roman aqueducts channeled water
from a source, sometimes many
miles away, to an urban complex,
using only the force of gravity.
The Romans invented concrete – a mixture of sand, gravel
and water – which allowed them to create, among other
things, vast vaulted and domed interior spaces.
Engineering expertise seen in surviving remnants of roads,
fortification walls, aqueducts, buildings: Some of the best
engineers served in the army, working on construction
projects during peacetime.
The rise of Christianity
Christianity is a child of Judaism, and the two faiths’ often
troubled relationship forms the Judeo-Christian tradition,
which is cited – along with the Greco-Roman tradition – as
the bedrock of Western culture.
The founder of Christianity was Jesus of Nazareth (c. 4 BCE
– 29 CE). Born into a humble Jewish family in northern
Israel, he had a career as a carpenter before gathering an inner
circle of disciples and a growing number of followers during
a three-year ministry as a wandering teacher during a time
when the Roman Empire dominated the region.
Scholars agree that his portrait in the Bible’s New Testament
reflects the viewpoint of his followers a half-century after his
The rise of Christianity
The New Testament says …
Jesus taught that obeying rabbis and observing customs not enough to
please God  sincerity of one’s belief mattered more than giving
money, wearing proper dress, following strict dietary guidelines.
charity, compassion, forgiveness matter most.
reinforced his message with Sermon on the Mount (“Blessed are the
poor in spirit …”), which contains one of several of the New
Testament’s iterations of what came to be known as the Golden Rule
(“Do unto others as you would have them do unto you”).
spoke of himself as the “Son of God,” claimed to be the Messiah (the
“Annointed One”) foretold by the Hebrew prophecy.
attracted large crowds because of his reputation for wisdom, power to
heal the sick.
his teachings would redeem those who followed his words.
The rise of Christianity
Who was the historical Jesus?
Scholars, however, find it difficult to assess the
motives and teachings of the historical Jesus.
Varying views:
He was a teacher as described in the Gospels, offended by
and intent on reforming contemporary Jewish practices.
He was connected to the apocalyptic fervor found in
certain circles of Judaism  a fiery prophet warning
people to prepare for the end of the world.
He was a political revolutionary, advocate of the poor and
downtrodden, committed to driving out the Roman
occupiers (the Jewish homeland, Judea, had been put
under direct Roman rule in 6 CE) and their elite Jewish
The rise of Christianity
Seen as a threat to the Romans
The charismatic Jesus eventually attracted the
attention of Jewish authorities in Jerusalem,
who regarded popular reformers as potential
They turned him over to the Roman governor,
Pontius Pilate, who accused Jesus of
blasphemy and treason.
His followers, the Apostles, carried on after
his death and sought to spread among their
fellow Jews his teachings and their belief that
he was the Messiah and had been resurrected
(returned from death to life).
Jesus was imprisoned,
condemned and
executed by crucifixion,
a punishment usually
reserved for common
criminals. The
instrument of his death
– the cross – is the most
important symbol in the
Christian faith.
The rise of Christianity
Spreading the word
Key Disciples: Peter (considered
the first pope) and the authors of
the Four Gospels (Matthew,
Mark, Luke and John).
Paul – an early persecutor turned
convert, he was most responsible
for the early spread of Christianity
 widened appeal by decreeing
that Christians needn’t observe
Jewish diet and circumcision laws
… which made it easier to convert
Greeks and other non-Jewish
The rise of Christianity
Overcoming early persecution
Monotheistic Christians held meetings in secret, refused to
worship Roman gods and abstained from public festivals
honoring them, and wouldn’t recognize the emperor as a deity
 all of which seen as threat to public order by Romans
otherwise tolerant of different religions.
Some Roman rulers used Christians as scapegoats for
political and economic troubles, occasionally launching
campaigns of suppression that led to spontaneous mob
Despite this, or maybe in part because of it, the young
Christian movement gained converts so that by 300 CE
Christians – many of them educated and prosperous, with
jobs in the local and imperial governments – could be found
as a significant minority throughout the Roman Empire.
The rise of Christianity
Appealing to the powerless
The widespread appeal of Christianity – the “good news” of
which was spread by missionaries on Roman roads – was due
to a variety of reasons. Christianity:
embraced all people – men and women*, enslaved persons, the poor
and nobles.
gave hope to the powerless.
appealed to those repelled by the extravagances of imperial Rome.
offered a personal relationship with a loving God.
promised eternal life after death.
* Although it later became male dominated (“original sin” blame placed
on Eve, and Paul wrote that women must obey men and must not
occupy church’s highest positions of leadership), the early church
gave women a sense of belonging and, within limits, influential roles
within missionary communities.
Christianity’s Growth
From 1 to more than 2,000,000,000
A number of “mystery” cults
claiming to provide secret
information about life and
death, and promising
adherents a blessed afterlife,
spread throughout the
eastern Mediterranean and
Greco-Roman lands during
the Hellenistic and Roman
periods – presumably in
response to a growing
spiritual and intellectual
hunger not satisfied by
traditional pagan practices.
Historical circumstances
helped Christianity win out
over these rival cults.
The third-century crisis
Following the Pax Romana, the Roman state began to
falter: a “third-century crisis” hit from 235 to 284
CE  empire nearly destroyed by political, military
and economic problems.
Twenty-plus men claimed office of emperor, most reigning
for only a few months or years before being toppled by
rivals or killed by their own troops.
Germanic invaders took advantage of the civil wars and
generally destabilized conditions to raid deep into the
empire, while pirates disrupted trade on the Mediterranean
Troubles lead to money woes
Political and military difficulties stressed the economy 
troops’ loyalty needed to be purchased (government sought
out mercenaries) and protective walls built, but taxes fell
because of fighting-induced reductions in commerce.
Short of cash, emperors devalued the currency (put less
precious metal in Roman coins)  inflation ensued, so many
people resorted to barter, which further curtailed commerce.
Because of the political and economic upheaval, average
citizens lost their sense of patriotism, became indifferent to
the empire’s fate.
It somehow managed to survive, however, for another 200
A split, east and west
Diocletian – took power in 284, bringing empire
back from brink of destruction:
set fixed prices for goods and froze many people into their
jobs to ensure adequate supply of labor in key areas
(which worked short-term but contributed long-term to
common view that government was oppressive, no longer
deserving of loyalty).
divided the sprawling, difficult-to-manage empire into
Greek-speaking East (Greece, Anatolia, Syria and Egypt)
and Latin-speaking West (Italy, Gaul, Britain and Spain),
taking the far wealthier East for himself and appointing a
co-ruler for the West.
An edict … and a major move
Constantine (r. 306-337) – won the struggle for
power after Diocletian resigned in 305:
continued many of his predecessor’s coercive policies.
issued Edict of Milan, which in 313 made Christianity an
approved religion of the emperor (Theodosius would
make it the empire’s official religion in 380).
reunited entire empire under own rule by 324.
moved capital from Rome to Byzantium (renamed
Constantinople and now Istanbul), an easily defendable
city strategically located on the Bosporus strait linking the
Mediterranean and Black seas.
The Fall of the Roman Empire
West falls, east lives on
The eastern realm of the Roman Empire lived on for
a thousand years as the Byzantine Empire, but the
West fell in the fifth century CE:
Short-term cause – In the late fourth century, Mongol
nomads from central Asia, the Huns (led by Attila), began
terrorizing the region  the various Germanic peoples
forced to flee, pushing into and invading the Roman
Empire (German group called the Franks attacked Gaul
and northeastern part of Spain  gave their name to
France; Scandinavian tribe called the Saxons sailed into
English channel, raiding coastal villages and becoming
part of English history). Visigoths sacked Rome itself in
410, and the last Roman emperor was deposed in 476.
The Fall of the Roman Empire
Click on the icon below to see an
interactive illustration of the
short-term Germanic invasions:
Long-term causes
Scholars believe there may be
numerous causes that in the long run
contributed to the fall of the Western
Roman Empire:
– Office seen as burden,
not reward.
– Military interference
in politics.
– Civil war and unrest.
– Division of empire.
– Moving of capital to
– Decline in interest in
public affairs.
– Low confidence in
– Disloyalty, lack of
patriotism, corruption.
– Large inequality
between rich and poor.
– Decline in population
due to disease and food
– Poor harvests.
– Trade disruption.
– No more war
– Gold and silver
– Inflation.
– Crushing taxes.
– Gap between rich
and poor and
increasingly poor
– Threat from northern
European tribes.
– Low funds for
– Problems recruiting
Roman citizens;
recruiting of nonRoman mercenaries.
– Decline in patriotism
and loyalty among
The legacy of the Romans
With the economy of the region and its urban centers in
shambles, the Western Roman Empire had fragmented into a
handful of kingdoms run by Germanic rulers by 530.
Rome’s population fell precipitously, its political importance
But, significantly, it retained its prominence as the home of
the West’s most important churchman. Local nobility
competed for control of this position, the name of which
came to be Pope, who held supreme power in the Latinspeaking church.
Language – Among uneducated masses formerly under
Roman rule, Latin quickly evolved into Romance dialects
(Portuguese, Spanish, French, Italian and Romanian) and
Latin further influenced other languages (more than half the
words in English have a basis in Latin).
The legacy of the Romans
Law … and a reconstituted tradition
In addition to language, engineering and architecture, the
preservation and building upon of the Greek legacy (hence
the term Greco-Roman) in government, philosophy, art and
literature … Rome’s most lasting and widespread
contribution was law. Some of the most important principles
it established:
All persons had the right to equal treatment under the law.
A person was considered innocent until proven guilty.
The burden of proof rested with the accuser.
A person should be punished only for actions, not thoughts.
Any law that seemed unreasonable or grossly unfair could be set
Not so dark, not so middle
The period following the fall of the Western Roman Empire
in Europe was once commonly referred to as the “Dark Ages”
(c. 500-1000 CE) and the “Middle Ages” (c. 500-1500 CE) –
terms that have fallen from favor in light of more recent
scholarship revealing more vitality to what was going on in
Europe between this middle period between the fall of the
Roman Empire and the Renaissance, the so-called “rebirth”
of art and learning.
From the Roman point of view, the rise of the Germanic
kingdoms was a triumph of barbarianism at a time when the
continuing imperial heritage of the Romans was still being
preserved in the Byzantine Empire to the east … but in the
long run, the West would prove to be much more dynamic
and creative.
The origins of imperial China
As we’ve seen earlier this year, the Shang (1750-1027 BCE) and
Zhou (1027-221 BCE) dynasties ruled over a relatively small region
in northeastern China … and the last 250 years or so of nominal
Zhou rule – the Warring States Period – was characterized by clashes
of small states with somewhat different languages and cultures.
In the second half of the third century BCE, the Qin (pronounced
“chin,” from which we get China) state of the Wei (way) Valley
emerged victorious from the wars and created China’s first empire.
The Qin Empire lasted just 15 years (221-206 BCE) but was
important for several reasons, and it set the stage for a new
dynasty, the Han (hahn), which ruled China from 206 BCE to 220
CE … beginning an imperial tradition of remarkably unified
political and cultural heritage that lasted into the early 20th
Qin up! It’s the law!
Qin Empire founded by Qin Shi
Huangdi, who adopted Legalism
(highly authoritarian, centralized
rule) as his official ideology:
opponents of regime punished,
sometimes executed.
books burned.
central bureaucracy established and
divided into three primary ministries:
civil authority, military authority, and
censorate (whose inspectors
surveyed the efficiency of officials
throughout the system  later
standard administrative practice for
subsequent Chinese dynasties).
Qin Shi Huangdi
The First Emperor of China
Qin Empire
Ruthless and expansive
Shi Huangdi:
 unified system of weights and measures, standardized
monetary system and the written forms of Chinese characters,
and ordered construction of road network throughout the
 eliminated potential rivals and raised tax revenues by dividing
the estates of landed aristocrats among the peasants, who
were now taxed directly by the state.
 required members of aristocratic clans to live in the capital
city at Xianyang so his court could keep an eye on their
 viewed merchants as parasites  severely restricted and
heavily taxed private commerce, and monopolized vital
industries like mining, wine making and distribution of salt.
Qin Empire
Concerns to the north and south
Shi Huangdi:
 was aggressive with foreign policy  armies (modernized
with iron weapons) continued the gradual advance southward
begun during the Zhou era, extending China’s border to Red
River in present-day Vietnam.
 ordered a canal dug to support his armies in the south 
direct inland navigation from Yangtze River in central China.
 built 44 walled district cities and ramparts spanning more
than 3,000 miles to defend against nomadic incursions from
the north  the origins of the Great Wall of China, the
massive granite blocks of which were put in place 1,500 years
later by the Ming dynasty.
Qin Empire
Centralizing power alienates
Rivalry between the “inner” imperial court and the “outer”
court of bureaucratic officials led to tensions in China for
millennia, and Shi Huangdi was aware of the dangers of this
factionalism  established a class of eunuchs (which later
became standard feature of Chinese imperial system) as
personal attendants for himself and female members of the
royal family, probably to restrict influence of male courtiers.
Totalitarian zeal meant to ensure a rule to be enjoyed for
10,000 generations of Shi Huangdi’s heirs  but it alienated
practically everyone: Just four years after his death in 210
BCE, which triggered infighting among the factions formerly
under his rule, the Qin Empire was overthrown.
Shi Huangdi’s terracotta army,
excavated in the 1970s.
More than 15,000 terracotta
sculptures – including
magnificently detailed soldiers,
horses and weapons – have
been unearthed in recent
decades from the area around
Shi Huangdi’s tomb. They were
placed there to protect the
emperor after his death.
Advance under the Han (206 BCE – 220 CE)
Liu Bang, founder of
the Han Empire
Although later rulers denounced the
overly authoritarian Legalism practiced
by the Qin and instead enthroned
Confucianism as the new state orthodoxy,
they still kept key tenets of Legalism to
administer the empire and control
behavior among subjects.
In 202 BCE, Liu Bang (LEE-oo bahng)
outlasted his rivals in civil war and
declared himself the first emperor of the
Han Dynasty, which – except for a brief
interruption between 9 and 23 CE –
endured for more than 400 years.
The Chinese:
“People of Han”
A contemporary of
the Roman Empire
during the Pax
Romana, the Han
dynasty is so
closely associated
with the
advancement of
Chinese civilization
that even today the
Chinese sometimes
refer to themselves
as “the people of
Han” and their
language as “the
language of Han.”
Yellow River
Yangzi River
Resources and population
Intensive agriculture (needed to feed increasingly large
populations in China’s capital cities) spread into the Yangzi
River Valley  canals were built to connect the Yangzi with
the Yellow River to the north so southern crops could reach
northern capital cities.
Main tax to fund government was percentage of a peasant
family’s annual harvest; surplus grains also stored by
government to be sold at reasonable prices during harvest
Chinese census figures: 2 CE  12 million households, 60
million people (estimated to be a trebling of the population since
the beginning of the Han dynasty); but 140 CE  10 million
households, 49 million people … vast majority living in east,
beginning to shift demographically from the Yellow River
Valley and North China Plain to the Yangzi River Valley in the
Resources and population (cont.)
Every able-bodied man donated one month of labor annually
for public works projects – building palaces, temples, roads,
fortifications, canals … working on imperial estates or in
The state also demanded two years of service to the military.
Han Chinese gradually expanded, bringing into new regions
their social organization, values, language and other cultural
practices at the expense of the ethnic groups they displaced or
absorbed  imperial expansion through war to northern
Vietnam and Korea under Han Wudi (the “Martial
Emperor,” who ruled from 141 to 87 BCE).
The basic unit of society was the family  absolute power
rested with father, who presided over rituals of ancestor
Confucianism becomes very influential
Each person had a place and responsibilities within
family hierarchy, based on gender, age, relationship
with other family members.
Family taught basic values of Chinese society:
loyalty, obedience to authority, respect for elders,
concern for honor and right conduct.
Hierarchy of the state mirrored hierarchy of the
family, so family attitudes carried over into the
relationship of individuals and the state.
Civil service examination
The Han continued the Qin system of selecting government
officials on the basis of merit rather than birth  idea is to
ensure competence among bureaucrat administrators.
In 165 BCE, the first known civil service examination was
given to candidates for positions in the bureaucracy – and
according to tradition, an academy for training future civil
servants in the tenets of Confucianism was soon set up and
serving as many as 30,000 students.
In theory, young men from any class could rise in the state
hierarchy through merit … but in practice, sons of the gentry
had an advantage in that they were most likely to afford and
receive necessary educational prerequisites (hence,
emergence of scholar-gentry).
Gentry: like the equites
Han emperors allied themselves with the gentry – the class
next in wealth below the aristocrats – so as to limit the
political influence of the rural aristocracy, which was a threat
to their centralized rule.
These moderately prosperous and often educated landowners
were like the Roman equites Augustus favored  made
government more efficient.
Still, the alliance with the gentry did not prevent the
recurrence of economic inequities that characterized the last
years of the Zhou: As the population exploded, average size
of an individual farm plot shrank to 1 acre, barely enough for
survival  many peasants eventually forced to sell their
land, become tenant farmers … and the land increasingly
came to be concentrated in powerful landed clans.
Trade and technology
These clans often owned thousands of acres worked by
tenants and mustered their own military forces to bully free
farmers into becoming tenants.
Although these economic difficulties would eventually be a
primary reason for the fall of the Han dynasty, in general the
era was productive and prosperous.
Despite viewing private commerce with outright disdain and
merchants generally as parasites, trade began to flourish
along what came to be called the Silk Roads – the overland
caravan routes leading westward into Central Asia and
ultimately linking China with India and the Mediterranean
(much more on that very important subject to come soon!).
Trade and technology
More advanced than elsewhere
New technology – often centuries or even a
millennium ahead of what eventually came to
Europe – contributed to the economic prosperity of
the Han era:
at a time when Roman blacksmiths produced wroughtiron tools and weapons by hammering heated iron, the
Chinese hammered ores with a higher carbon content to
produce steel and were using heat-resistant clay in the
walls of their blast furnaces to raise temperatures above
1500 degrees Celsius  artisans could then cast liquefied
iron into molds (cast iron).
Trade and technology
Paper, a horse collar and more …
Paper was invented under the Han perhaps by the second century
BCE: soaked plant fibers and bark were pounded with a mallet, and
the resulting mixture was then poured through a porous mat …
leaving a residue on the mat surface that, when dried out, was
relatively smooth, lightweight medium for writing.
The “trace harness,” a strap running
across the horse’s chest so that its
breathing wasn’t constricted, was a
Chinese invention that allowed
Chinese horses to pull much heavier
loads than European horses.
Trade and technology
Smooth as silk
Other inventions included:
the crossbow.
the watermill (to turn a grindstone).
the wheelbarrow.
a more efficient plow with two blades.
the sternpost rudder.
fore-and-aft rigging (permitting ships to sail into the wind for the first
time, meaning Chinese ships could sail throughout the islands of
Southeast Asia and into the Indian Ocean).
China’s most valuable export commodity was silk, the
making of which – sericulture – was a closely guarded state
secret for millennia dating back as far as the Neolithic era.
Gathered cocoons, left, and a modern silk
production line, bottom.
A silk moth lays 500 or more eggs in
four to six days before dying. From an
ounce of eggs come about 30,000 worms,
which eat a ton of mulberry leaves and
produce 12 pounds of raw silk. The
worms are carefully kept on stacked
trays until they’ve stored up enough
energy to enter the cocoon stage: their
silk glands produce a jelly-like substance
that hardens when it contacts air, and
they spend several days spinning a
cocoon around themselves.
At this stage they look like puffy white balls. They’re
stored warm and dry for 8-9 days and then steamed or
baked to kill the worms, or pupa. Then they’re dipped
in hot water to loosen the tightly woven filaments,
which are then unwound onto a spool. The super-fine
filament around each cocoon can approach 3,000 feet
in length, and 5-8 strands are twisted together to make
a single silk thread.
Trade and technology
A monopoly on much
For a time the Han government ran huge silk mills,
competing with private weavers in making a luxurious cloth
that was increasingly a high-demand product as far away as
The government established monopolies on the mining and
distribution of salt, the forging of iron, the minting of coins
and the brewing of alcohol.
Because there were so many mouths to feed, agriculture was
considered the most honored occupation … but despite the
official bad mouthing of merchants, commerce remained very
important to the Han.
Han women
Confucian ethics stressed the impropriety of
women participating in public life:
“A woman’s duties are to cook the five grains, heat the
wine, look after her parents-in-law, make clothes, and
that is all! … (She) has no ambition to manage affairs
outside the house … She must follow the “three
submissions.” When she is young, she must submit to
her parents. After her marriage, she must submit to her
husband. When she is widowed, she must submit to her
– an account of the life of the mother of Confucian
philosopher Mencius, from Chinese Civilization and
Society: A Sourcebook (quoted in Bulliet et al.)
Han women
Pressure to conform
The experiences of women in ancient China – especially those
from the lower classes – are hard to determine because
contemporary written records don’t reveal much. Furthermore,
they were written by men from the upper classes, so they were
perpetuating an ideal most likely felt more acutely by upperclass females. Ironically, lower-class women – more removed
from Confucian ways of thinking – may have had somewhat
more freedom than the more “privileged” Chinese women.
After a pre-arranged marriage by parents, a young bride would
have to go off and prove herself (an ability to produce sons was
key) to her new family  competing with mother-in-law and
sisters-in-law for influence with the males of the household and
greater share of family’s economic resources often produced
Divinity in nature
Like early Romans, the ancient Chinese believed that divinity
resided in nature. They therefore worshipped and tried to
appease its forces.
The state built shrines to the lords of rain, the winds, rivers
and mountains.
People gathered at mounds or alters where the local spirit of
the soil was thought to reside. There they sacrificed sheep and
pigs, and beat drums to promote the fertility of the soil.
The much-admired horse
The Chinese had domesticated the
smaller Mongolian pony as early as
2000 BCE, but they didn’t acquire
horses until the end of the first
millennium BCE as a result of Han
military expeditions into Central
Asia. Admired for their power and
grace, horses made of terracotta or
bronze were often placed in Qin and
Han tombs – a fact that suggests the
Chinese viewed horses as possessing
divine power.
Han artwork: a terracotta horse head.
The decline of the Han Empire
The Han Empire generally controlled lands occupied by
farming peoples but was bedeviled by “barbarian” nomads –
including a group known as the Xiongnu (shee-UNG-noo) –
living off their herds to the northwest (see Bentley map, p.
These nomads had lethal archery skills from horseback and
were often militarily more than a match for the Chinese:
when peaceful trade broke down, they would raid settled
villages and take what they wanted.
Early Han rulers tired to buy them off with gifts of silk, rice,
alcohol and money – to no avail.
In the end, continuous military vigilance along the frontier
burdened Han finances and worsened the economy.
The decline of the Han Empire
Multiple long-term causes
Several factors led to the fall of the Han Empire in
220 CE:
the cost of defending the frontier.
factional intrigues within the ruling clan.
official corruption and inefficiency.
the ambitions and influence of rural warlords, independent
of imperial control, who emerged from the large landed
estate owners.
the breakdown of military conscription, which forced the
government to turn to foreign soldiers and officers lacking
loyalty to the Han state.
uprisings of hungry and desperate peasants (e.g., Yellow
Turban Rebellion).
Four centuries of disunity
With a productive economy stimulated by many
technological advancements, the Han had completed the
project begun by the Qin of unifying China … at least while
they held the “Mandate of Heaven.”
Han rulers projected a set of distinctive traditions that
politically and culturally shaped China and its neighbors
(including Vietnam, Korea and Central Asia) over the long
When the Han central government finally collapsed, ushered
in was a period of more than three centuries of divided China,
in which regional kingdoms vied for power.
The Earth and Its Peoples: A Global History (Bulliet
et al.)
Traditions & Encounters: A Global Perspective on
the Past (Bentley & Ziegler)
World History (Duiker & Spielvogel)
Patterns of Interaction (McDougal Littell, publisher)
AP World History review guides: The Princeton
Review, Kaplan and Barron’s