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The 'Myth' of the Silk Road
Nathan Ross wrote:
As a brief addendum to this thread, this paper by Khodadad Rhezakhani builds on Warwick Bell's scepticism about the 'silk road', and goes on to suggest that the whole idea is 'eurocentric'

He certainly does and he does seem to have a bee in his bonnet especially on the role of Iran/Persia which he assumes doesn’t get enough credit for being the major destination of the Silk Road/Route/Routes. He seems to be a fan of the Sassanids but I must take issue with a few of his arguments, some of my points were mentioned before on this thread and a few other threads dealing with silk and China. He states in his paper to prove his argument that the Silk Road was not all about Rome and China but the Central Asian and Persian regions in between.

1.     Silk was manufactured in other areas besides China. Although he is correct that silk was woven in other regions including Central Asia, India and Persia itself he does admit that sources that indicate this are from the 3rd Century onwards. Although there was a lot of wild silk was grown. One of the reasons Chinese silk was superior to other types was because Chinese sericulturists killed the silk moth before it could hatch through the cocoon where it breaks the silk threads that it has spun around itself. Therefore the thread can be unravelled as a single fine thread which does not require spinning like the broken threads of wild silk moths whose silk required spinning which in turn made them coarser.

2.     He then discards all the evidence of sea trade from the reign of Augustus onwards between Rome and India for Chinese silk with the simplistic argument that 6th Century historian Procopius wrote that it was “Impossible for the Ethiopians to buy silk from the Indians, for the Persian merchants always locate themselves at the very harbours where the Indian ships first put in, (since they inhabit the adjoining country) and are accustomed to buy the whole cargoes. There were a lot of factors involved in how conditions in sea trade between 1st Century and 6th Century had changed for the Romans from the rise of the aggressive Sassanids who established a trade presence from the Persian Gulf to Indian sub-continent to the debasement of Roman currency during the 3rd Century which made their former trading partners on the sub-continent look elsewhere. The 3rd Century was also a time of crisis for many of the countries which spanned the Silk Routes as well as Rome itself, especially India.

 220AD Han empire destroyed by civil war in China.
 224AD Parthian empire overthrown by Sassanids.
 220s Satavahana Kingdom disintegrates.
 230AD Kushan Empire collapses in Central Asia.
  The Cheran and Pandian dynasties that ruled Tamil India were destroyed by conflict around this time as well.

3.     He states that Persia was the destination for a lot of silk not Rome but even he cannot deny that a lot of that silk ended up in Roman Syria and Egypt, the cities of Tyre, Sidon and Alexandria all profited from the trade of rewoven silk and glassware as did Palmyra and later on under Diocletian the town of Nisibis so silk did travel west of Mesopotamia but with the Parthians/Sassanids and further north and probably to a smaller extent the Sarmatians/Alans/Aorsi as middlemen.

4.     He mentions that the Chinese trade in silk was with Transoxiana, Parthia/Persia, the Kushans and Central Asia and not directly with Rome and I can't argue with that because the Han Chinese were mainly interested in horses for breeding and their cavalry so much so that they fought a war with Ferghana to obtain them (another subject probably) also jade and wool and silk was a means to obtain them. The fact that silk ended up west of Parthia probably didn’t interest them but some Roman goods did go east to China. The Kushans controlled the settlement of Begram which was situated about 80 kilometres north of Kabul and French archaeologists uncovered some treasure stored in two rooms. This treasure, which was interpreted as being part of some commercial stock, was stored in two rooms and included among other artefacts, carved Indian ivories (some of which may also have been locally produced), Roman glassware from Egypt and Syria and lacquer ware from the Chinese Han dynasty period. The evidence provided by the Begram treasure is complemented by findings from Tillya Tepe where tombs contained a Chinese mirror, an Indian gold medallion, Parthian silver coins, a golden imitation of a Parthian silver drachm, and one Roman aureus of emperor Tiberius. The Begram treasure could well have been merchants’ commercial stock waiting distribution dated to 1st Century AD was probably deposited at the site because it straddled some established trade routes. Anyway the point is Roman goods did make their way east.

I do take his point though that modern publications do tend to romanticize the Silk Road but I have to disagree with him when he writes that goods did not make their way to Roman Syria at least. Smile
Michael Kerr
Michael Kerr
"You can conquer an empire from the back of a horse but you can't rule it from one"
(06-28-2017, 05:39 PM)Michael Kerr Wrote: Iran/Persia which he assumes doesn’t get enough credit for being the major destination of the Silk Road/Route/Routes.

Thanks for the detailed reading Michael!

Yes, the author does seem very Persophile (?), but his overall point is, I think, quite a good one - we are inclined to view the 'silk road(s)' as a conduit of trade between west and east, with everyone in between either acting as 'middlemen' or vanishing into a sort of geographical vacuum, into which caravans set forth and then emerge at the other end... Whereas actually we have both China and Rome dealing with various Central Asian and Indian peoples at the extremities of their trade routes, who in turn passed goods and ideas onwards, at several removes.

I do quite like his suggestion that 'Daquin' was actually Ctesiphon though (or some sort of very distant notion of the Persian capital)!
Nathan Ross
Nathan Ross wrote:

I do quite like his suggestion that 'Daquin' was actually Ctesiphon though (or some sort of very distant notion of the Persian capital)!

 Yes some of the descriptions of Rome or Daqin are pretty far-fetched but the Chinese are relying on information supplied to them by other parties. I think Gan Ying received some fanciful information about their political system and goods they produced from Parthian or Greek sailors on his failed mission in 97AD to reach Roman territory (either Syria or Egypt but probably not Rome itself).

 The Weilu written around the third century AD during the “Three Kingdoms” period following the destruction of the Han dynasty seemed remarkably well informed about the Romans or their eastern provinces and Arabia and even the workings of the Nile, although the author (Rhezakhani that is) argues that the region discussed could be the Parthian empire (Persia and Mesopotamia)  west of Anxi while Anxi could refer to the satrapy of Parthia itself (a throwback to the old Achaemenid and Seleucid Empires) but by the time the Weilu was written the Parthian empire was destroyed by the Sassanids so to me that argument or theory doesn’t hold much water.

For his theory that the capital of Da quin being described is Ctesiphon, I don’t know myself but it should be noted that this description of the capital was written in the middle of the sixth century AD in the Weishu during the Northern Qi dynasty when the Western Roman Empire was long gone. It could well describe Ctesiphon but the Weishu has been criticized as sometimes unreliable so maybe information about the west was mixed up.

 I do agree with you that the author probably has a point about the fact that the Persians and the various Central Asian kingdoms have been downgraded somewhat but I just had to question his twisting of some of the sources to justify his arguments. Wink
Michael Kerr 
Michael Kerr
"You can conquer an empire from the back of a horse but you can't rule it from one"
What is sometimes forgotten is the true nature of international trade of high value items. This trade is based on a "pull-factor" by the buyer. So trade does not need to run both ways, something a trade-route would imply. The absence of Roman goods in China can be easily explained by the peoples of the Roman empire not offering much the Chinese thought were worth having in terms of high value items (no pull). It is highly likely the Silk Route was indeed no more then an interlocking trade-web through which high value pull items diffused over great distances and lower value items were traded only within the local trade-web. Traders active within these webs would, by the nature of the product, be drawn to deal in it by upstream demand.
Then there is the size issue. Look at the value in denarii quoted for a pound of silk. One bolt represented a small fortune on arrival in Rome, the value increasing as it travelled further from it's source. A ship full of silk is just not on, a chest full of silk would be a more likely medium. The accumulated wealth would be spread down the supply chain. An overland route for this kind of goods is highly feasible.
When you look at the maps, there are also some large rivers running east-west, possibly allowing for easier transport of trade-goods downstream.
Salvete et Valete

Nil volentibus arduum

Robert P. Wimmers Big Grin

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