The Silk Roads: Ch 1 Summary (2nd Half) - Day 54

Chapter 1: “The Creation of The Silk Road”

(Total pages in chapter: 26, Summary Count: Pages 11- 26)

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Silk Gains International Appeal
Trade between China and the rest of the world slowly developed with traders passing through treacherous roots such as the Taklakaman desert, the passes of the Tian Shan mountains, and the Pamir mountains. High value and rare goods were mainly transported over long distances, chief among them was silk. Silk performed a number of roles apart from its value to nomadic tribes. Under the Han dynasty, it was used to pay troops as it was a reliable form of currency compared to grain that would rot and coins not being useful in China's un-monetized regions. Therefore silk gained status as not only a luxury product value but also as an international currency.

China started to regulate the entry and exit of traders into the country, keeping a record of the goods they brought in for customs purposes as well as recording their origin title and direction that they were headed. Globalization was a fact of life 2000 years ago too.

Rome Starts Expanding East
In Persia, the descendants of Seleucus were deposed around 247 BC and replaced by Arsaces, leading to the Arsacids rule over Persia, ushering in a time where Greek and Persian ideas merged into a new and consolidated identity. In the meanwhile, Rome started to dominate the western Mediterranean, taking one coastal city-state after another, and it had its attention fixed on the east. The backbone of Roman power was its army, with fearlessness and love of glory at the core. Rome's transition into an empire had little to do with Europe, in fact, what propelled it into a new era started with the seizure of Egypt in the east. Ruled for 300 years by Ptolemy's descendants (one of Alexander the great's bodyguards), Egypt had fabulous wealth based on the river Nile and one of the greatest cities of antiquity: Alexandria.

Rome seized its chance to take over Egypt when Queen Cleopatra became invested in a messy struggle for political mystery after Julius Caesar's assassination. The general of the Roman army, Octavius came bearing down on Alexandria, after the battle of Actium, and Cleopatra allegedly committed suicide, letting Egypt fall. The capture of Egypt transformed Rome's fortunes. Octavius was given the new title of the supreme ruler, Augustus. Rome exploited Egypt's revenues, maximizing the flow of money back to Rome, by imposing a new poll tax on all men aged 16 to 60 all across Egypt. Rome's eyes were opened by the east, known for its lazy luxury and fine living. It was there that Rome's stern soldiers started to indulge in the pleasures of the east. Augustus made an effort in mapping out what lay beyond the new frontiers in the east, recording distances between key points in 1 BC, in a text known as Stathmoi Parthikoi (Parthian Stations).

Rome Gains Riches in the East
Within a few years of the occupation of Egypt, 120 Roman boats set sail to India each year, and trade with India exploded. Romans were interested in valuable minerals such as copper, lead, topaz, ivory, precious gemstones, and spices. Tamil literature from the time even recorded the arrival of the Roman traders with excitement, writing poems about 'cool and fragrant wine' being brought in 'good ships' by the Romans. India was also a common ground for goods from all over Southeast and eastern Asia, so the Romans could access materials from all over Asia at India's ports. Roman citizens were now able to indulge in exotic and extravagant tastes. Poets have written about the decadence that the Romans indulged in with disdain, and Seneca the historian noted that the popular Chinese silk was disgraceful as it hid neither the curves nor the decency of the ladies of Rome, and claimed that it left little to the imagination of men, destroying marital relations.

The demand for silk amongst Roman women was so high that its imports accounted for more than 10% of the Roman annual budget. Astonishing sums of silk products being traded in started large-volume businesses by the second century A.D. The outflow of capital on this scale led to the strengthening of local economies along trade routes, turning villages into towns and towns into cities, extending communication and commercial networks. Rome's spending power was so great that it even determined the design of coinage deep in eastern Asia. Trade flourished as fairs were held to draw traders in from miles away at convenient crossroad points.

Persia at the Heart of Trade
China did not deal directly with the Roman Empire but had regular dealings with Persia. Diplomatic envoys with large caravans would return home to China with sought-after products like Red Sea pearls, Jade, lapis lazuli, and consumables like onions, coriander, cucumbers, pomegranates, pistachios, and apricots. The highly desirable frankincense and myrrh which came from Yemen and Ethiopia were known as Persian goods (Po-ssu) to the Chinese and the 'Golden Peaches' of Samarkand were considered very valuable.

Rome had its eyes set on conquering Persia, the 'heart of the world' as it was in the process of establishing control over Egypt. In 113, the emperor Trajan led an enormous expedition east, conquering Nisibi and Batnae, advancing rapidly through the Caucuses and down the course of Euphrates. The Emperor pressed on, capturing the great cities of the Persian Empire in quick succession with Babylon, Adensytrae, Seleucia, and Ctesiphon falling. Trajan wanted to expand the frontiers to the Indus Valley and to the gateway to China but died before he could try. It was the growth and ambition of Rome that in fact galvanized Persia, which benefited from the long-distance east to west traffic across the Empire. Major infrastructure projects were embarked on in Persia, and a thriving trade of glazed pottery from Persia to India and Sri Lanka was built up. Most significantly, Rome's military attention led to a political revolution in Persia, where the authority of provincial rulers was removed and centralized instead, leading to higher accountability, regulated markets and taxes, improvement in the water supply systems, and urban development throughout Central Asia, the Iranian plateau, Mesopotamia and the Near East.

Agricultural production was boosted due to the large-scale irrigation programs. However, By 300 AD, the full length of the empire's eastern border that ran from the north sea to the black, from the Caucuses to the southern tip of Yemen, was under pressure. Defending the frontiers was quite a financial burden for Rome. The strain of trying to reestablish the empire for Emperor Diocletian wore out and he retired to the coast of Croatia to grow cabbages.

Rome's New Capital
Romans needed new leadership to return to their initial vision of expansion as, over the course of 300 years, their ambitions had significantly dwindled. It was Emperor Constantine who took action. He had a radical plan, to build a new city on the string linking the Mediterranean with the east. The location he chose, fittingly, was the point where Asia and Europe meet. The Roman Empire's seat of imperial power moved to this new city to better govern Rome's interests. The city was called 'New Rome', which quickly began to be known as Constantinople. Huge palaces, an enormous column, and a hippodrome for chariot racing were built in the city. Constantinople was to become the largest and most important city in the Mediterranean, with the Emperor could monitor maritime traffic in and out of the Black Sea, and be aware of the developments to the east and also to the north - the Balkans. Soon webs of communication started to weave into each other to create a complex and connected world.

An Interconnected Ancient World
Two millennia ago, silks made by hand in China were being born by the wealthy in Carthage. Pottery made in southern France could be found in England and in the Persian Gulf. Spices made in India were being used in the kitchens of Xinjiang and those in Rome. Buildings in Northern Afghanistan carried Greek inscriptions, and wild horses from Central Asia were being ridden thousands of miles to the east. The ancient world was in fact far more interlinked than we realize today. Seeing Rome as the progenitor of Western Europe neglects the fact that it consistently looked to and was shaped in many ways by influences from the east. The world of antiquity was a precursor for the world today: vibrant, competitive, efficient, and energetic. The west began to look east, and the east began to look west. The new faith for Emperor Constantine and Rome was also to come from the east - Christianity.

In case you missed it, read part 1 of the summary here:

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