World views and military policies in the Early Roman and Western Han empires

World views and military policies in the Early Roman and Western Han empires

By Zhongxiao Wang

PhD Dissertation, University of Leiden, 2015

Laurent Fries world map, 1522
Laurent Fries world map, 1522

Introduction: Some chronicler, speaking of Asia, asserted that one man ruled as much land as the sun passed, and his statement was not true because he placed all Africa and Europe outside the limits where the sun rises in the East and sets in the West. It has now however turned out to be true. Your possession is equal to what the sun can pass, and the sun passes over your land. Neither the Chelidonean nor the Cyanean promontories limit your empire, nor does the distance from which a horseman can reach the sea in one day, nor do you reign within fixed boundaries, nor does another dictate to what point your control reaches; but the sea is drawn as a belt without distinction through the middle of the inhabited world and your empire. ~ Aristides, Or.10

In AD 144 Aelius Aristides (117-181) delivered a panegyric in the city of Rome. In his speech he extolled the grandeur which Rome had achieved under imperial rule. He claimed that the Mediterranean Sea occupied the center of the inhabited and civilized world, and that the Roman emperor ruled an empire without limits. Many centuries later Edward Gibbon referred to the first and second centuries AD as a period of peace, prosperity and order, when Rome achieved universal domination. The optimistic message broadcasted by Aristides echoes the Virgilian notion of the imperium sine fine, which stresses the universal character the imperium Romanum.

On the other end of the Eurasian landmass, Ban Gu (AD 21-92), a senior official who lived during the early decades of Eastern Han dynasty, formulated a worldview which looks similar to that of Virgil and Aristides. In a fictional dispute between a spokesman from the western capital Chang’an and a speaker originating from the eastern capital Luoyang, the latter supports his claim that Luoyang is the better city by offering the following arguments:

Moreover, to dwell in a remote area bordering the Western Rong,
Block by steep barriers in all directions,
And maintain “defense and resistance,”
How can this compare with dwelling in the center of the country,
Which is level and flat, open and accessible,
Where a myriad places converge like the spokes of a wheel?

You know only the Qin Epang Palace that reaches to the heavens,
And are unaware that the Capital Luo conforms to set regulations.
You recognize that Han valley may serve as a protective pass,
But you do not realize that the true King sets no external boundaries.

Can Ban Gu’s representation of the world ruled by the Han emperors really be compared to that of Aristides, or are the similarities between the two passages superficial? In other words, did most, or some intellectuals of the Han empire subscribe to a truly universalistic worldview or was the Roman ideology of unbounded empire based on cultural assumptions which have no counterparts in Chinese political ideology?

Click here to read this thesis from the University of Leiden

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