WHP Lesson 20: The Han Dynasty and the Roman Empire

Now that you have a grip on the different—and similar—ways the world’s empires have risen to prominence, we’ll make a more detailed comparison of two representative examples. One is often referenced in film and literature in the United States: the Roman Empire. The other is a big deal in China: the Han dynasty. They were connected to each other despite thousands of miles between them, but they remained pretty different in many ways.

Driving Question: Why do we make a big deal about the Han dynasty and Rome when studying empires?

  • The history of the world is a lot. A LOT. So, we have to make choices about what to study in the time we have. On the subject of empires, we are focusing on the Han dynasty and the Roman Empire, because they demonstrate many of the key characteristics we use to define the concept. 
  • They are easy to compare because they both faced challenges common to empires, including outside invasion, ruling over a diverse population, and ruling over big distances. They were both at their height in a period between about 200 BCE and 200 CE. In fact, they were actually connected to each other through trade.

Word of the Day: Dynasty

  • Definition: In the context of China, a dynasty is a family of related emperors who rule a vast part of China over a period of time.
  • We often talk about dynasties in Chinese history, because that’s something that Chinese historians have taught us to do! In general, dynasties have a life cycle. Usually, there’s a period of chaos or internal warfare in China—sometimes short or long. Then some leader manages to bring order. They rule well, and pass on the throne to their descendants. At some point, rulers in the dynasty begin to create (or fail to respond to) problems, and the cycle begins again.


  • Read: “Han Dynasty China” on Khan Academy
  • As you read, try to identify the techniques the emperor used to rule, and compare it to the Roman Empire.

Historian’s Journal Prompt

  • Which stories or topics do you focus on in relation to COVID-19?
  • You might be thinking about where COVID-19 is spreading the fastest. Or, you might focus on a particular place in the world. For example, why do some people focus on Italy instead of South Africa? Or Korea? Or Brazil? Remember, choosing which stories to focus on is the job of historians—so which stories do you focus on?