On the Relative Longevity of Chinese and Roman Civilization

Ask yourself this question: which survived longer, China, or Rome? The conventional answer is China, of course. By why is that the conventional answer? Is that not just a story we tell ourselves?

Why do we say that China is 2000 years old, but that the Roman Empire fell 1500 years ago? China was conquered and divided numerous times in its history, its dominant languages have changed drastically (though maintaining the same writing system so physical evidence of those changes is fleeting), and the dominant religions, customs, and institutions have oscillated and varied immensely.

For comparison (note, this is in very broad strokes):

  • All European languages with the exception of Greek use the Roman alphabet – or Cyrillic, which was created by an Eastern Roman emperor.
  • The leaders of the Roman churches (in Rome and Constantinople) were the unquestioned religious leaders of Europe until the 1400s in the East, until the 1500s in Northern Europe, and still today in most of Southern Europe.
  • All European legal systems with the exception of the British ones derive in large part from the Roman/Justinian code.
  • The claimed successor to the Roman Empire in the West, the Holy Roman Empire, existed from 800 until the 1800s; if you count Byzantium, there was never a gap in the continuity of claimed successor empires until only 200 years ago. China, in comparison, had the Warring States Period, the Sixteen Kingdoms, the Ten Kingdoms, etc.
  • The above empire was conquered by a French Emperor presiding on a government substantially modeled on the Roman Republic including Consuls and eagle-adorned legion banners.
  • The German empire was later reformed by a Kaiser, the word being derived from Caesar.
  • Latin was the dominant academic, diplomatic, and scientific language of Europe until the 18th Century.

This list could go on, but I’ll leave it here for now.

I’m not attempting to make an argument for the survival of Rome per se, but merely in comparison to what is the generally accepted continuity of China, for example. If we accept the legitimacy of Chinese successor kingdoms after periods of imperial collapse and chaos, then I fail to see why the Holy Roman Empire doesn’t count as a legitimate successor kingdom to the Roman Empire by the same criteria. The HRE arguably has even more legitimacy, given that it had the sanction of an actual continuing institution of the Roman Empire, i.e. the Catholic Church, and all the while a very real Eastern Roman Empire saw themselves as every bit as Roman as the Western empire. They referred to themselves as Romaioi, for example.

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