Although early Chinese historians mention the Xia Dynasty (c. 2100 – c. 1600 BC), we actually know very little about this period of Chinese history. The first major dynasty about which we have reliable information confirmed by multiple archaeological sources is the Bronze Age Shang dynasty (c. 1600–1046 BC), which seems to have possessed the ability to craft bronze tools and well-formed pottery and had literacy evidenced by finds of oracle bones. The Zhou dynasty (1046–256 BC) developed in the region of the Yellow River. One of the key concepts it introduced was that kings had a Mandate of Heaven and thus that religion and dynastic power were connected. Although at times China was split into warring kingdoms headed by warlords, its form of government was always some form of monarchy or quasi-feudal system with power vested in a king and/or hereditary nobles or aristocrats, and supported by a large and complex bureaucracy. Chinese civilization was also distinguished by evolving on its own in place, rather than as a product of the clash and synthesis of many diverse traditions. The Silk Road, China's most important east-west land trade route was linked to the Persian Royal Road and strongly supported by the Han emperors.
The Roman civilization, on the other hand, grew up in the shadow of two great civilizations, the Greek and the Etruscan, and also in the shadow of the general cultural ferment of the Mediterranean. Although Rome started out as a small kingdom, it became a Republic in 509 BC and remained one in name at least until 27 BC. Culturally, Rome was strongly influenced by Greece. It accumulated an empire not by natural expansion, but as almost an accidental side effect of the Punic Wars. Unlike China, the areas into which Roman expanded often retained their own distinctive local cultures and traditions. Rome traded extensively within the Mediterranean, importing much of its grain from Egypt, and had a stronger maritime focus than China. Much of its eastward land trade was a result of the assimilation of the successor states to Alexander, which had retained the earlier Persian style of bureaucracy and road network.