The Roman Empire and the Silk Routes: The Ancient World Economy & the Empires of Parthia, Central Asia & Han China
Raoul McLaughlin
Pen & Sword
262pp, 24 black & white illustrations, 4 maps
Hardback, £25

The term seidenstrassen or 'Silk Routes' was coined in 1877 by the 19th-century German geographer Baron Ferdinand von Richtofen, uncle of the fighter pilot known as the Red Baron. Richtofen drew on Classical geographers, such as Ptolemy and Marimus, and an ancient Chinese manual called the Weilüe which, like a modern package tour, obliged travellers to follow a selection of fixed itineraries. Richtofen was designing a railway, to link the German sphere of influence in Shandong and the coalfields at Xi'an with Germany. His idea of the ancient Silk Routes was a single 'Silk Road', resembling a railway line.

As Raoul McLaughlin relates in The Roman Empire and the Silk Routes, Richtofen was not the first to reach for a simplifying metaphor. In the 6th century, the Byzantine scholar Cosmas Indicopleustes asked readers of his Christian Topography to imagine a single cord 'stretched from China (Tzinitza) that passes through Persia until it reaches Roman territory'. More recent scholarship, notably Valerie Hansen's Silk Road (2015), has argued for a web of paths between China and the Mediterranean shores of Asia Minor. As a metaphor, the web reflects our digital self-image as clearly as the line on Richtofen's map reflected the Steam Age.

McLaughlin organises his groundbreaking study around two concepts that we share with Indicopleustes and Richtofen. One is political, the world as a multipolar system of empires or great powers. The other is the economic exchanges that occur within the geopolitical system. The result is a detailed and significant development of our understanding of the ancient world.

The Qin dynasty unified China in 220 BC, two centuries before Rome fully conquered the Mediterranean basin and Augustus became emperor. For the next four centuries, China's Han Empire ruled as many people as the Roman Empire at its height. While Roman rule was confined to Western Europe, the Mediterranean basin and parts of Asia Minor, China expanded far east into Central Asia. 'The world,' McLaughlin argues, 'changed when China secured the Tarim territories and established contacts with India through Bactria.'

In 118 BC, an Indian ship sailed around the Arabian peninsula and entered the Red Sea. The ship was wrecked, with a single survivor. A patrol boat from Ptolemaic Egypt rescued him, and took him to the court of Ptolemy VIII Physcon at Alexandria. The Indian mariner learned Greek, and 'revealed how sailings could be made to northern India using monsoon winds'. Physcon funded the first Greek voyage to the Indus kingdoms: the irst commercial links between the Mediterranean and the Indian Ocean. Not long after that, in 100 BC, the Parthian Empire of Persia sent envoys to the Han. Soon, with the Parthians importing Chinese silk into the Mediterranean, the Romans became aware of the Far East.

In 31 BC, the burgeoning east-west trade took a further leap forward. Octavian's defeat of Cleopatra VII and Mark Antony ended the Roman civil war and incorporated Egypt into the empire. Rome now controlled the Red Sea shipping lanes. Within five years, there were more than 100 Roman ships sailing to India, and Mediterranean markets were 'inundated' with eastern products. By the 1st century AD, a 25 percent tax on Red Sea imports was giving more than 250 million sesterces to the Roman treasury. Further taxes came from overland routes into Roman Syria.

McLaughlin calculates that eastern revenues covered a third of the billion sesterces that Augustus needed to run the empire. Eastern revenues were equivalent to Rome's biggest expense, the world's first professional army. Yet eastern exchanges required the export of Rome's finite reserves of gold and silver, and bullion shortages led to fiscal problems. The Roman Empire and the Silk Routes integrates Rome into the ancient world, and economics into Roman history.
Dominic Green

 

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