Recap: Yiqun Zhou on Bad Emperors Obsessed with Foreign Cultures

Written by Alba Curry

The Center for Hellenic Studies would like to extend their greatest thanks and appreciation to all of those who participated in the sixth meeting of the Comparatism Seminar. We would also like to thank Yiqun Zhou for her talk “Bad Emperors Obsessed with Foreign Cultures.”

Nero (r. 54-68 CE) and Emperor Wu of the Han (r. 141-87 BCE) were known for their extravagant personalities, their exhibitionism and fascination with foreign cultures (Greek, Parthian; Central Asian), and both were widely criticised in historical sources for these traits. By comparing the criticisms the two rulers received, Zhou showed what we can learn about the relationship between the self and the cultural Other, the role of the emperor, and the role of classical ideals and ancestral ways in shaping the imperial office and guiding attitudes towards Others.

One aspect Zhou focused on was the relationship between the self and perceived “others.” In the case of Emperor Wu, the foreign cultures that exerted the biggest impact was the Xiongnu, a nomadic confederation to the north and northwest of China. In the case of Nero, the “other” was most frequently the Parthians and the Greeks, which by Nero’s time still retained the status as a foreign culture relative to the Romans, attracting both great admiration and strong suspicion.

Emperor Wu was severely criticized by his contemporaries, including the historian Sima Qian, for the sharp turn that his reign took when he launched the Xiongnu Wars (133-87 BCE), which would continue until the end of his reign. These wars incurred a huge economic cost, not just due to the actual fighting but also in providing hospitality and livelihoods to the surrendered Xiongnu: the Emperor went out of his way to impress these foreign defectors. His goal was to highlight the wealth, the hospitality, and the moral superiority of the Han. One example was his reception of King Hunye of Xiongnu (121 BCE): the Xiongnu king defected to the Han Empire and Emperor Wu tried to come up with 20,000 chariots to escort 40,000 defectors from the border to the city. Assembling so many horses was difficult after so many years of war, so Emperor Wu demanded horses from the common people. With the people unwilling to donate their horses, Emperor Wu ended up decapitating the magistrate in charge of the whole affair. There are records of some of the remonstrations by government officials who criticised the emperor for trying to please foreigners at the expense of his own people.

Zhou further explored the relationship between Emperor Wu and the more distant Western Regions beyond the Han frontier. Here Wu’s goal was to cut off the Xiongnu from the non-nomadic polities of Central Asia, supplying these communities with agricultural and craft technologies to encourage their settlement. Zhou noted that one Han Dynasty historian criticized Emperor Wu for his insatiable desire for foreign exotica (e.g., foods, games, performers). Historians accused Emperor Wu of starting wars out of a personal obsession with foreign things, thus bringing the empire under great financial burden for imprudent personal reasons. More specifically, Zhou explained, Wu was criticized for too often importing foreign culture uncritically when he should instead export Chinese “civilization” to the so-called barbarians.

Turning to Rome, Zhou began by noting that Nero was criticized for his lavish reception of Tiridates in 66 CE. This meeting occurred after the end of the Roman-Parthian War (58-63 CE), which ended on the agreement that Tiridates, as the Parthian Prince, would rule in Armenia on the condition that he would travel to Rome to receive the crown from Nero himself. The day itself was said to have received the epithet of “golden” for all of its costs, which included a banquet. In all of these spectacles, Nero intended himself to be in the absolute spotlight. He was the person to whom Tiridates had to prostrate, he was the person who would confer the crown. The sources say Tiridates spoke with great fear and respect, and the whole ceremony was conducted before the public. However, at the same time, Zhou pointed out that the sources also show Tiridates as sharing the spotlight to a considerable extent. Furthermore, Nero’s own musical performance on a chariot is said to have disgusted Tiridates, since not only in his eyes but also in the eyes of any Roman or Roman official and the Parthians it was beneath the dignity of an emperor to so perform. Pliny also criticizes Nero for this reception, not just on the grounds of the cost, but also because Nero, despite his stated desire to learn from Tiridates the Magus, actually ended up learning nothing at all. Zhou also explained that we find further representations of Nero as the earnest but awkward student in the records of his relationship with Greece. Nero had chosen Naples to make a singing debut, and he sang there for several days, and spoke in Greek to his audience. He won many awards, but he is said to have lost at being a Caesar due to his interest in performing and athletic contests.

Zhou closed by sketching three key differences between the two emperors. First, Emperor Wu’s excoticism is presented in the historical record as thing-centered, whereas Nero seems to have been more interested in the actual peoples of the foreign cultures he encountered. Second, Emperor Wu incurred criticism for his expansionist and militarist approach to foreign affairs, even in his own lifetime, because it was seen as counter to classical Chinese ideals of virtue. Nero, on the other hand, received quite direct and vitriolic opposition for his approach to the Parthians and Greeks, which was seen to have made a travesty of Roman militarist virtues. Third, sources dealing with Nero and his others actually give those others a voice and even a spotlight at times, but foreigners in the Chinese sources are silent and depicted only insofar as they illuminate Emperor Wu.

We would like to extend a special thanks to Professor Lisa Raphals from the University of California, Riverside for her work as organizer of this semester’s Comparatism Seminar Series. Comparatism has become a key issue in Classical Studies, both within the ancient Mediterranean and more broadly. This one-semester seminar investigates current research and methodologies. Topics include perspectives from anthropology, epic, gender, the study of language and metaphor, philosophical debates, and practices of cult and sacrifice. Any interested researchers should write to for more details about the series schedule.