- Rome and China: Comparative Perspectives on Ancient World Empires
This book, edited by Walter Scheidel, is largely the result of a conference held at Stanford in 2005, “Institutions of Empire.” As the title indicates, the editor’s goal is to provide a collection of essays that demonstrate the value of comparative analysis. The collection of papers achieves mixed results that highlight the strengths and weaknesses of comparative analysis of the ancient world. Students and teachers interested in world history perspectives will find much of value to mine and emulate but will also gather a better sense of the strengths and weaknesses inherent in the approach.
In the introduction, Scheidel does a good job of arguing for the value of comparative analysis. As part of his discussion he provides the reader a sense of the historiography, such as it is, underlying the field. He makes the case that comparative analysis has much to offer historians and that, given the amount of material available, there is no good reason for historians to continue to ignore comparative history. In this assertion Scheidel is correct, but it is important for nonspecialists to keep several limitations in mind as one reads his passionate discussion. Sources for ancient history of all regions are still limited, so it is important to make sure the comparative analysis one is doing or reading is based on the evidence and not exclusively based on various secondary analyses or interpretations or on flashy methodology. The methodologies he discusses as available for the field are based on sociological theory, which can be quite good, but which often was not designed to explain contexts in which the evidence is so inconsistently available as is the case in ancient world history. This aspect does not mean that the methodologies employed in these essays are necessarily flawed, but the reader must keep the limitations in mind while reading. The second limitation the reader must bear in mind is that comparative history cannot by itself explain why a particular pattern or incident emerged. It can explain how it did, but not why, since the variables are too great to generalize effectively. Scheidel is forthright in acknowledging both [End Page 362] these limitations as he says his work “is not about ‘laws’ but about the search for what has been called ‘robust processes’ . . .” (pp. 5– 6), but for the inexperienced reader it is easy to forget this admonition as one proceeds.
A brief summary of the chapters will be sufficient to provide the topics and a sense of the strengths and weaknesses. The first chapter, also by Scheidel, is a look at the process of state formation in Rome and China from an extremely broad perspective. This chapter is particularly useful for pointing out the broad outline of the states that are discussed throughout the work and in delineating some of the macro processes involved in state formation and how the two states diverged in their development. The second chapter provides readers with a lengthy examination and discussion of the relationship between military institutions and state formation in the two empires. Although this broad topic could become turgid in the hands of a less capable specialist, Nathan Rosenstein does a splendid job presenting the topic clearly and in a manner accessible and agreeable to nonspecialists and specialists alike. The chapter on law and punishment is less satisfying except in that it usefully highlights a weakness of comparative history. The author, Karen Turner, seems more familiar with Chinese law than Roman law, so the sections devoted to the latter are based much more on discussion of secondary sources rather than analysis of evidence. Maria Dettenhofer’s engaging chapter on eunuchs is clear and well organized, and she shows how a narrower topic can be interlaced among the broad topics and still illuminate the strengths of comparative history. Returning to a broader topic, Peter F. Bang tackles tribute and trade in the two regions in chapter 5. He demonstrates a keen appreciation of economic theory as well as the economic...