During the Classical Era, the Roman Empire and Han Dynasty emerged as two formidable forces in a world of conquest and empire-building. While Rome and Han China had similar methods of imperial consolidation concerning their patriarchal societies and upper-classes, the two differed greatly in their bureaucracies, policies regarding conquered peoples, and labor systems.
Patriarchy was a prominent aspect of the societies of both empires. The family unit in Rome was ruled by paterfamilias, the male head, and women were thought of as children needing the care of their fathers or husbands and were confined to household duties. Women had no role in the public life so the Roman governing bodies and laws were all created by men that only served to limit the rights of women even more. In China, women were subservient to their husbands and sons as according to Confucianism, the prevailing belief system at the time. In both cases, upper-class women were more restricted than their lower-class counterparts, but in China there were females in the emperor’s court who rose to power, the most famous being Empress Wu. This pattern of patriarchy was not limited to just these two empires, but was a very widespread and common system in the ancient world and the extent of a woman’s rights depended on the place and its society. Likewise, both the Roman Empire and Han dynasty also had an elite landowning upper-class. The vast majority of the land in Rome by its wealthy elites because farmers, who were all required to serve in wars, were in debt when they came back to their neglected farms and had to sell them. Peasant farmers in China also faced a similar problem when they were not able to compete with the large estates of the wealthy gentry class and were forced to become laborers or tenants under them. A possible reason for this was the monopolization of wealth by a few people in agricultural societies and that left behind the rest of the population. Both the Roman Empire and Han Dynasty had similar ways of uniting and managing their extensive empires, but they greatly differed with other aspects of imperial consolidation.
Both empires had bureaucracies that served under the emperor, but they were different in their nature and organization. Han China had the civil-service examination system which was merit-based and required applicants to utilize their knowledge of Confucianist values and ideals and apply it to government. Theoretically, this was a way people could move up in their social standing, but in practice this system favored the wealthy, who could afford an education. Rome made no efforts to hide the fact that their governing bodies were composed of patrician families who had wealth and social prestige. Members of the Senate were all from these families and the tribunes, who represented the common people, had their powers diminished by the Senate. The difference in their bureaucracies is due to the different belief systems that were prominent in each place with Confucianism influencing the Chinese. The two empires also had contrasting policies in dealing with the people they conquered. The Roman Empire absorbed the resources of their conquered people to sustain their own empire and turned them into slaves though they sometimes granted them citizenship. When Rome took down Carthage, it grazed it to the ground and sold almost of all of the Carthaginians into slavery. The Han dynasty, however, made it so that foreigners had to assimilate into Chinese society. One essentially had to become Chinese and that is what nomadic tribes did when they were absorbed into China. The reason for their differing ways of dealing with conquered people is the difference in the core beliefs of Roman and Chinese society. China was very nationalist and believed that they reigned supreme over the barbarians of elsewhere hence the limiting of one’s identity and the social status in Rome depended on one’s citizenship or lack of it. A citizen was granted basic rights and was allowed to participate in Roman government and slaves were seen as below all of that. However the labor systems of the Roman Empire and Han China almost contradicted each other. Both were agricultural societies though it was more so in China. The primary labor in China was that of the peasant farmers. They supplied the empire with food and were praised in Confucianism for their essential roles. Whereas in Rome, slave labor was the dominant labor system. About sixty-percent of the population were slaves and their efforts helped sustain the city. Their large numbers were due to the ambitious expansion of the Roman Empire while Han China did not extend outside of the region much and was nowhere near as large as the Roman Empire. Despite their differences, the two empires’ bureaucracies, policies dealing with conquered peoples, and labor systems helped to solidify their power and consolidate their empires.