Legitimization of Power in Rome and Han Chinaby Rit Nosotro
How did the Romans and the Han Chinese legitimize their political power by claiming a "mandate from heaven"?
Rulers of both ancient Rome and China legitimized their political power by
associating with a higher power. Romans 13:1 says, “Everyone must submit
himself to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that
which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established
by God.” and verse four, “For he [the one in authority] is God's
servant to do you good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear
the sword for nothing. He is God's servant, an agent of wrath to bring punishment
on the wrongdoer.” Authority comes from God alone, so it is natural for
rulers to point that out, however, Rome and China legitimized their power in
very different ways.
Divine authority appeared in Rome because of the imperialistic nature of the government and the influence of other nations. Due to Rome’s imperialism, the oligarchy needed strong respect to control the large dominion. By calling the leader of Rome divine, he and his descendants’ throne would be better secured.1 Already this method had been used in Egypt and Hellenistic kingdoms and these conquered nations were influencing Rome.2 The Roman historian Sullust believed that the most important factor in Roman history was the degeneration of morals, and this was partly due to the corrupting Greek Influence.3 The lack of rich culture in Rome almost served as a vacuum to pick up the ideas of other nations and absorb them; thus the governmental beliefs of other nations like Egypt and Greece naturally entered into Rome as well. Conquered Asia was accustomed to “divine” rulers and first began to call the Roman emperors divine. As the power of Rome increased its rulers were also elevated to the brink of divinity.
Caesar started the trend of using the gods to legitimize power. He did this by attempting to “deify” himself; this was an imitation of the Greeks who often granted Hellenistic kings divine status while on earth, making them shrines and sculptures like they did for the gods.4 Caesar implied his deification by using symbolism and emphasizing a relationship to Venus, the god of love.5 A line of emperors followed Caesars example, but attained deification only after death.6 Not until the emperor Diocletian came into power did an emperor receive the honor of a deity and was actually worshipped. Caesar was limited to associating himself with the gods while alive, but he was later worshipped as a god after his death. Other rulers built upon this to establish their own divinity as a support for ownership of power.
The Roman emperor’s method of legitimizing power contradicts Biblical thought. According to Romans 13:4, the ruler is God’s servant, not in anyway a god. The glorification of the Roman emperors usurped the glory of God, yet in God’s eyes the great Roman emperors were mere servants to accomplish His justice.
Chinese emperors legitimized their power much differently. They claimed authority had been invested in their rulers. The Chou dynasty originally introduced this idea called the “mandate of heaven” when they replaced the Shang dynasty. The Chou people were taught that a Cosmos like power gave a Mandate of Heaven to the ruler who was called a Son of Heaven; the Duke of Chou told this to the conquered Shang saying that Chou leaders where only doing the will of Heaven when they conquered Shang.7 Instead of claiming divinity, the Chinese rulers only claimed to have been invested with the authority to rule.
The Chinese mandate of heaven ideal has similarities to the Bible. A document composed during the Chou dynasty expresses what the chief minister said to the new Shang king on the mandate of heaven during the Shang dynasty. The chief minister, Yi Yin, supposedly says, “Oh! Of old the former kings of Xia cultivated earnestly their virtue, and then there were no calamities from Heaven. The spirits of the hills and rivers alike were all in tranquility; and the birds and beasts, the fishes and tortoises, all enjoyed their existence according to nature. But their descendant did not follow their example, and great Heaven sent down calamities, employing the agency of our ruler – who was in possession of its favoring appointment. The attack on Xia may be traced to the orgies in Ming Tiao.” Yi Yin continues on to say, “The ways of Heaven are not invariable: -- on the good-doer it sends down all blessings, and on the evil-doer it sends down all miseries.”8 The Bible also warns kings to obey God’s commandments in Deuteronomy 17:18--20, “Now it shall come about when he sits on the throne of his kingdom, he shall write for himself a copy of this law on a scroll in the presence of the Leviticus priests. It shall be with him and he shall read it all the days of his life, that he may learn to fear the Lord his God, by carefully observing all the words of this law and these statues, that his heart may not be lifted above his counrtymen and that he may not turn aside from the commandment, to the right or to the left, in order that he and his sons may continue long in his kingdom in the midst of Israel.” The mandate of heaven doctrine says that a king will stay in power as long as he cultivates virtue and is a good-doer. The Bible says that in order for the sons of the king to reign, the king must not turn aside from the Lord’s commandments. Thus the mandate of heaven agrees with the Bible that there is a law to be followed for a king and his descendants to stay in power; the difference is that the Chinese virtues arise from "the law written on their hearts" (Romans 1) whereas Israel was given the very commandments of God (Exodus 20).
Thus Roman and Chinese rulers legitimized their power in different ways because of differing motives. Roman emperors were influenced by pagan cultures and desperate to uphold their great power throughout the world; so they pretended divinity ensure their power. The Chinese on the other hand developed the mandate of heaven doctrine often times through political philosophers such as Confucius. Although it may have originated as a justification for the Chou revolt, it still resembles the Biblical belief of legitimate power.
1Antonio Santosuosso, Storming the Heavens : Soldiers, Emperors, and Civilians in the Roman Empire (Boulder, Colorado. Westview Press, 2001), 85
8Chinese Cultural Studies:
The Mandate of Heaven Selections from the Shu Jing (The Classic of history)(6th
Century BCE). Brooklyn College. "Chinese
Cultural Studies"< http://acc6.its.brooklyn.cuny.edu/~phalsall/texts/shu-jing.html>
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