The decline and fall of two ancient empires – contrast and compare

Sometimes I would love to read a book about a particular subject which, so far as I can see, doesn’t exist (the book, that is, not the topic). Here’s one that’s on my mind at the moment (and in fact, often has been): a comparison of the period after the fall of the Roman empire in Europe with the period after the fall of the Han dynasty in China.

The Roman empire and the Han empire were more or less contemporary empires which dominated their respective regions of the world. And both collapsed, to be followed by centuries of “barbarism”.

There are many similarities between the two historical processes of decline and collapse. The late periods of both empires witnessed increasing levels in official corruption, a rise in landlordism, a decline in the situation of the peasantry, barbarian troops in the army, rebellious generals and violent factionalism at court; and then, barbarian invasion, the emergence of a semi-feudal society, and the rise of a new religion (Christianity in Europe, Buddhism in China). 

But why did the collapse of the Roman empire lead to a dramatic fall in material civilization, from which Europe took more than a thousand years to recover, and the fall of the Han empire led only to three and a half centuries before unity was restored to China, and at no time did civilization here fall back to prehistoric levels (as it did in the West, according to a recent book)? Reading the accounts of the fall (admittedly, in China’s case, in abbreviated secondary sources in English) it is hard to say that barbarian invasions were more destructive in one region than the other; so what factors were present in the one and not in the other to help it not to fall so disastrously and to recover much sooner? I would love to know, I really would. If a good, accessible but scholarly work was written on the subject I believe it would illuminate both empires, and be a great contribution to the study of world history.

By Peter Britton