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Rome and China: Comparative Perspectives on Ancient World Empires by Walter Scheidel

Book Review by Ursus

When I first read about Rome and China, I misunderstood its purpose and scope. You remember those essay questions in college undergraduate exams that forced you to compare and contrast two different yet related items? Well, I thought this work was basically going to follow that approach: an expanded essay style comparative look at two great empires, for the general historical audience.

I was sadly mistaken. This work was not meant for the general history buff. Instead it bills itself as a new leap forward in an emerging academic field of comparative studies. There are seven topics penned by different authors, five of which grew directly out of formal contributions made to an international conference held at Stanford University.

Thus, I had completely miscalculated the nature of the book I was to review. And I hope the good people at Oxford University Press who sent me a courtesy copy to review didn't miscalculate on their part; if they expected a qualified academic to launch a formal review of this work, they're sadly not getting one. I am neither a bona fide academic nor interested in a point-by-point review. What I will do is offer some general impressions for the wider audience of UNRV. Readers can decide for themselves if it suits their interests.

The seven essays look broadly at the role and effects of politico-military, economic and cultural agents in both civilizations. While the work is academic, that doesn't mean the lay man cannot appreciate it, provided they have had some prior exposure to the history of both cultures under discussion. The only essay I found I could not read word for word was the ultimate chapter focusing on coinage, and that was more from total disinterest in the subject than from an inability to comprehend the material at hand.

Rome and China had appreciable differences, but broadly speaking they followed an eerily similar historical outline. Taking advantage of widespread urbanization laid by previous cultures, they grew rapidly from humble beginnings to great empires with a centralized court. The respective empires then halted their expansion, were fragmented by warlordism and foreign invasion, and were swept by non-native transcendent religions. But divergence came in the sixth century when China, unlike Rome, managed to endure as a continuous civilization owing to certain geographic, cultural and external factors.

What the reader thinks of this work will probably vary depending on individual sympathies with the specific topics under discussion Most people will probably be able to appreciate the broad political and military outlines afforded by the first two chapters. The next two chapters are cultural, looking at the role of law and eunuchs, respectively. (I caution all males that the description of how eunuchs undergo their namesake ordeal is quite uncomfortable. Despite that, this was an extremely interesting essay). The last three chapters are economic in nature, looking at trade, charity and monetary systems.

The book comes with a historical chronology of both empires, two maps, an appendix and an index. The section on coinage contains graphs of data. Every essay is thoroughly documented with footnotes.

I commend editor Walter Scheidel and his various contributors for helping to forge this area of academic inquiry. Hopefully this sort of thing inspires further academics to take up the banner, expanding our horizons on this field. However, whether or not I can recommend the work to the general Romanophile audience largely hinges on how much interest potential readers have in China, and whether or not they are in the mood for serious reading. If not, then they might consider this work too specialized to be relevant, and too dry to be enjoyable.

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Rome and China: Comparative Perspectives on Ancient World Empires - Related Topic: Roman Timeline 5th Century AD


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