[A random piece of pontification that's been going through my head for a bit. Peter Brown may well have written basically this exact thing at some point. If not:]
I don’t know whether it’s a question common to historians, or common to Chinese historians, or unique to Valerie* Hansen: the question, I mean, of why China kept getting recreated, and so endures to the present day, while Rome fell and never really rose again.
The question is, on the face of it, a pertinent one. Both were empires on an unprecedented scale**; both laid the foundation of all later cultures** in their area. They originated around
the same time: the Qin unified China in 230-221 BC; the Romans unified the Mediterranean world starting around the same time, though it took them a good deal longer. They lasted around
the same time: 438 years from the Qin conquests through their replacement by the Han dynasty to the breakup of the Han empire; 422 years from the establishment of the Principate to the definitive breakup of the Roman Empire. But after the breakup of the Han Empire, China would be (repeatedly) reunified; after Rome fell, subsequent attempts to revive the Empire (e.g. by Charlemagne) were neither particularly successful nor long-lasting. And it is this difference, arguably, which shaped the divergent subsequent destinies of Europe and the Far East. So why
did this divergence come about?
Well. There are a number of possible answers to that question, and some of them are good ones. But I would say that it’s fundamentally misguided. Misguided first because it infers a degree of tautology, of monocausal explanations for events, which rarely occurs in human affairs now, and cannot (despite what many schools would wish to believe) be expected of the past. But that’s another argument.
The other reason it’s misguided is that it’s a very western
view of events: Rome and its history viewed from France or Britain. By that calculus, yes, most of subsequent culture got created by or transmitted through Rome, and Rome was a spectacular 400-year one-off, which the Carolingians tried and failed to recreate. But what does the view look like from the rest of the Roman world? What does it look like from, say, Damascus, that true Eternal City?
The differences are obvious. In Damascus, the Roman Empire rules for rather longer (63 BC-AD 611, roughly). But more importantly, they weren’t
the first large empire in the region: they were just the latest one. After all, in Syria
- the Romans took over from the Seleucids
(though by 63 Syria was about all they had);
- Seleucus, of course, got started by taking over a chunk of Alexander the Great
- Alex took most of his
empire from the Persians
(and indeed, the Seleucids occupied nearly exactly the same territory as the Achaemenids),
- the Persians took over from the Babylonians
- the Babylonians built their empire by first revolting against, and then taking over from, the Assyrians
The Assyrians took Damascus in 732 BC. So give or take the chaos of the early first century BCE, the Eastern Mediterranean had been ruled almost continuously by one major empire or another for nearly 700 years before
the Romans showed up.
From Damascus, then, Rome looks less like the Qin or the Han, and more like some power from outside the traditional Chinese world had incorporated a later China (or part of it) into some larger empire. Oh wait, that actually happened
But there’s more. After the chaos surrounding Khusrau II’s invasion at the start of the seventh century, there’s only a brief pause before Syria gets annexed by another Middle Eastern empire: the Caliphate. The Caliphs rule over (and for a long time, in) Damascus through several civil wars and the replacement of the Rashidun by the Umayyad dynasty and their replacement by the Abbasids, until the tenth century. After that you have a period of regional dynasties,*** but then the Eastern Mediterranean gets forcibly reunited by the Ottomans at the start of the sixteenth century. They would control Damascus until 1918.
The Roman Empire had no real successor in Europe. In the Levant, though, the Assyrians had 2500 years’ worth.* I mistyped this the first time, coming up with something that looked more like Valkyrie. Which would be almost appropriate, and would do her for a nickname. (I will not repeat her actual nickname.)
** Or at least that’s the common perception: see below.
*** And yes, Valerie, notable cultural vitality and so on.