Friday, March 3, 2017

[Dissertation] Images, Objects and Imperial Power in the Roman and Qin-Han Empires

Jack Carlson

University of Oxford


Jessica Rawson & Roland Smith


How and why was imperial power made visually and physically manifest in two similar, contemporaneous megastates – the Roman Principate and Qin-Han China? Framing the Chinese and Roman material within such a question breaks it free from the web of expectations and assumptions in which conventional scholarship almost always situates it. It also builds upon the limited but promising work recently undertaken to study these two empires together in a comparative context. The purpose of this thesis is not to discover similarities and differences for their own sake; but, by discovering similarities and differences, to learn about the nature of imperial authority and prestige in each state. The comparative method compels us to appreciate the contingent – and sometimes frankly curious – nature of visual and artefactual phenomena that have traditionally been taken for granted; and both challenges and empowers us to access higher tier explanations and narratives.

Roman expressions of power in visual terms are more public, more historical- biographical, and more political, while Qin-Han images and objects related to imperial authority are generally more private, generic and ritual in their nature. The Roman material emphasizes the notional complicity of large groups of people – the imperial subjects who viewed, crafted and often commissioned these works – in maintaining and defining the emperor’s power. If the Han emperor's power was the product of complicity, it was the complicity of a small group of family members and courtiers – and of Heaven. These contrasting sets of power relationships connect to a concerted thematic focus, in the case of Rome, on the individual of the princeps; that is, the individual personage and particular achievements – especially military achievements – of the emperor. This focus is almost always taken for granted in Roman studies, but contrasts profoundly with the thematic disposition of Han artefacts of power: these reflect a concentrated disinterest in imperial personality altogether, emphasizing instead the imperial position; that is, both the office of emperor and a cosmic centrality.

While this thesis reveals some arresting contrasts, it also harnesses the dichotomous orientations of Roman and Chinese archaeology to reveal that the conventional understanding of much of this material can be misleading or problematic. Many of the differences in the ways such images are usually interpreted have as much to do with the idiosyncrasies and path dependency of two fields – in short as much to do with the modern viewer – as they do with the images themselves and the traditions that produced them.

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