Thread Rating:
  • 0 Vote(s) - 0 Average
  • 1
  • 2
  • 3
  • 4
  • 5
The 'Myth' of the Silk Road
#1
I've been reading Warwick Ball's Rome in the East, and he makes some interesting statements about the existence (or not) of the famous 'silk road' between China and the west, often mentioned on this board and elsewhere:


Quote:"Such is the power of the Silk Road today that few realise the whole thing is a modern fabrication... Modern scholarship has become almost obsessed with the idea, and virtually all discussion of Roman trade with the East revolves around it, with the 'Silk Road' being the glib answer to all questions of trade and communication.

But the fact remains that the existence of the 'Silk Road' is not based on a single shred of historical or material evidence. There never was any such 'road' or even a route in the organisational sense, there was no free movement of goods between China and the west until the Mongol Empire in the Middle Ages... Both ancient Rome and China had only the haziest notions of each other's existence and even less interest, and the little relationship that did exist between East and West in the broadest sense was usually one-sided, with the stimulus coming mainly from the Chinese."

Ball, Rome in the East, 2000, pp.138-9


Ball claims that all of the silk that reached the Roman world would have come via sea traffic from India (which had an established trading network with both China and the west), rather than via some overland route. 

He also cites the lack of Roman coinage in China - only sixteen coins in one small hoard, dating from Augustus to Tiberius - as evidence against direct trade routes. "The Roman Empire could provide little that China wanted," he says - so all eastward trade would have been in coin or bullion (just the same as with the opium trade of the 19th century, in fact!).

I wonder what others here, who have studied eastern trade routes and cultural communications, make of this idea?
Reply
#2
He doesn't really have to prove that there WASN'T a trade route. Those who support this myth have to provide evidence of its existence. IMO there isn't much except speculation. Some people use the term "silk road" as a shorthand for "trade between east and west regardless of how the items get transported and who handles them". The Persian Empire maintained a route known as the Royal Road that stretched from Susa to Sardis that some claim formed part of the silk road.
Author: Bronze Age Military Equipment, Pen & Sword Books
Reply
#3
I am not familiar with Ball’s book and his general statement that there was no direct trade between China and Rome is basically true, there were only a handful of trade missions sent between the two empires but to me Ball is missing the point when he said that no such route existed before the Mongols. The term "Silk Road"was not coined till 1877 by Richthofen and there was a lot more being shipped than silk, not only goods but ideas and religious beliefs like Buddhism, Manichaeism, Christianity and Islam.

 There was never one “Silk Road” but a series of routes that criss-crossed the various mountain ranges and deserts that have probably been around 5000 years. Michael Frachetti, associate professor of anthropology at Washington University wrote that nomads carved the foundations for these trans-Asian interaction networks with their seasonal migrations to summer pastures and these old grazing routes correspond significantly with the evolving geography of the various silk routes across these high mountain ranges. 

 Most of the trade pre-Han would have been cattle, sheep, horses, weapons, armour, foodstuffs, fruits, metals and textiles. Bactrian camels could carry about 1000 lbs much more than double the weight that could be carried by Arabian camels.

 Any trade with China, whether by sea or land was conducted by middlemen, Kushans, Indians, Tamils, Sarmatians and Persians as the Chinese usually offloaded their goods at Tashkurgan where Indians, Tamils and Kushans moved the merchandise south to ship their goods by sea while others continued west and met up with Syrians and Greeks who shipped on to Rome. I think the Aorsi had caravans of Bactrian camels transporting goods to Black Sea City-states.

 The discovery of the use of the Monsoon winds by Greek sailors around 118 BC (although Indian sailors were probably aware long before) meant that they could sail directly from Egypt to India and not hug the coast thereby avoiding local port duties and taxes made shipping goods more profitable. Indian sailors found a direct route to China around the middle of the 1st Century AD. From my understanding sea trade declined in the 3rd century.

 Around 100 AD a Syrian/Roman entrepreneur  who Ptolemy described as a Macedonian, Maes Titianus arranged for a group of commercial agents to travel along the Parthian caravan routes to the Kushan empire and then on to the Tarim basin. This was a brief window of opportunity as Han general Ban Chao had restored Chinese authority over the various Tarim city-states and had secured Kashgar around 84 AD opening up the traded routes and providing security for merchants and travellers. Maes wrote an itinerary (now lost) for his mercantile backers of stops, distances, travelling times etc which were copied by a Tyrian mathematician named Marinus and then used by geographer Claudius Ptolemy to construct maps for his Geography. Smile 
Regards
Michael Kerr
Michael Kerr
"You can conquer an empire from the back of a horse but you can't rule it from one"
Reply
#4
(03-12-2017, 04:41 PM)Michael Kerr Wrote: a handful of trade missions sent between the two empires

Could we call them 'trade missions' though? That would imply that a government, or individual, had sent a mission with the specific intention of establishing direct trade, which doesn't seem to have happened.

There were individual travellers, as you say - Ball mentions the agents of Maes Titianus, who he suggests reached Tashkurghan. Then there were the 'envoys of An-Tun', and somebody called Tsin-Lun - Ball suggests that these were Syrian, or perhaps Palmyrene, traders - and another group apparently from Egypt in AD284. All except Titianus's men arrived by sea anyway, via Annam.


(03-12-2017, 04:41 PM)Michael Kerr Wrote: Most of the trade pre-Han would have been cattle, sheep, horses, weapons, armour, foodstuffs, fruits, metals and textiles.

But wouldn't that sort of economy preclude a trade in luxury goods, especially if there was a pre-existing trade for such things via India? And luxury goods (like silk or glassware) would be the only items valuable enough to be carried all the way from east to west or vice versa via an overland route. Otherwise all you have is neighbouring peoples trading with each other at a low economic level - certainly an amount of slow percolation of cultures and ideas, but nothing you could call a 'trade route' really.


(03-12-2017, 04:41 PM)Michael Kerr Wrote: Chinese usually offloaded their goods at Tashkurgan where Indians, Tamils and Kushans moved the merchandise south to ship their goods by sea while others continued west and met up with Syrians and Greeks who shipped on to Rome.

Ball devotes several pages to the Indian sea trade route, and evidence from the south of India in particular; this, he thinks, was the sole 'silk route' of antiquity, and the only practical means of transmission of people and ideas (although Christianity reached Merv by cAD200, it had apparently established a foothold in southern India a hundred years before that).

But is there any reason to think that 'others continued west' from Tashkurghan? Why, when the sea route could take their goods where they were wanted, and was run by people with the capital to trade in luxury items?

Rome and the East was published in 2000, although there was a revised edition last year I think. I don't know whether Ball has revised his opinions on this subject at all though - have there been any new finds or research in the last 17 years that might give support to the idea of an overland trade route?
Reply
#5
It should be noted that nobody used land transport if a water route was available.
Author: Bronze Age Military Equipment, Pen & Sword Books
Reply
#6
Getting Lost in the year 2000... and Again on March 12th, 2017

Woah! What am I reading here?
What an informative "Alternative" thread, because I never realized there was no formalized trade route to anywhere at any time, until we reached the Mongolian era. Merchants just kept to themselves, trading with their neighbors. BUT-- there are a great number of Coincidences.

Totally Lost in Central Asia
   
Let's look at a grave in the Rostovka cemetery, c. 1500 BC, as part of the Sima-Turbino Phenomenon. Within Grave 2 (upper left-hand corner), we find beads fashioned from nephrite and lapis lazuli. Nephrite jade is found only in Transbaikalia or the Tarim Basin. Both locations are a long hike from Rostovka. If there was no Trade Route, we have 2 explanations for the nephrite. 1) Some guy from Lake Baikal got lost, stumbled over the Sayan Mountains, wandered through Siberia, and brought a pouch of nephrite to Rostovka. Or, 2) some other guy from the Takla Makan wandered across a sweltering desert, turned north, and followed the River Irtish into Rostovka. That explains the nephrite. The lapis lazuli is easier: another lost character, probably a Bactrian, wandered from the BMAC northward for 1,500 miles to deliver a sack of lapis stones to his wife's cousin's brother-in-law at Rostovka. No Trade Route, No problem.

Finding a Hair-Pin for Shu Qi
   
Actual scenario. The beautifully-famous (and talented) Shu Qi lands a feature role in a Chinese kung-fu movie.  The film is set in ancient times, so the director wants to find a suitable, and cool, hair pin for his actress. After a search, he discovers the perfect item-- a hair pin shaped like a Karasuk knife. It even has an animal-headed pommel just like the Karasuk originals. It doesn't matter that the Karasuk culture lived at the Minusinsk Basin in Siberia, because he knows that literally thousands of these Bronze age Karasuk knives have been found in Shanxi, Shaanxi, and Hebei Provinces. Even Fu Hao, another kung-fu woman, owned one. How did all these Siberian knives reach downtown Anyang? Simple. A whole bunch of lost guys stumbled South around the year 1,200BC.

Getting Lost with Aristeas
   
Let's zip ahead to 550 BC. Aristeas of Proconnesus decides to wander into the unknown. He ventures beyond the Greek trading stations (which are waiting for someone to build a Trade Route) and heads northeast (for no particular reason). Somehow, with the help of "guides who speak seven languages," he arrives in the land of the Issedones by crossing the Urals, felling trees along the way, to get to the edge of the Altai Mountains. Aristeas tells quite a tale, and an historian-kinda-guy-- Herodotus-- believes him. Then Herodotus charts an entire map and fills it with unknown tribes all the way to edge of China. Wow! How cool can Non-Trade Speculation get?

"Alternative" Camel-Facts from Pliny and Strabo
   
This has been quite the year for "Alternative" facts, but it's an alternative tradition. For instance, Pliny really came up with a whopper, claiming, "The best iron arrives on camels." Or how about Strabo, who claimed this about the Aorsi, "They held more dominion over more land, and... ruled over most of the Caspian coast; and consequently they could import on camels the Indian and Babylonian merchandise..." Now that's a lot of lost camels. And somehow they also brought enough silk into the Roman sphere that Augustus got totally upset (not just partially so), as did Seneca the Younger. Note the painting above: we see Alternative Silk wafting in Pompeii. But-- and this is important-- there was no established trade route to India or China (or anywhere else) during the Late Republican period. And most important-- the best Myths are the Alternative Ones.
Wink
Alan J. Campbell

member of Legio III Cyrenaica and the Uncouth Barbarians

Author of:
The Demon's Door Bolt (2011)
Forging the Blade (2012)

"It's good to be king. Even when you're dead!"
             Old Yuezhi/Pazyrk proverb
Reply
#7
(03-13-2017, 05:00 AM)Alanus Wrote: Wow! How cool can Non-Trade Speculation get?

I don't think Ball (or anybody else) is claiming that there was no long-distance trade in central Asia in antiquity. Clearly there was, as examples like the ones you've cited demonstrate.

The claim he's disputing is that there was an established overland trade route between China and the west, rivalling the known sea route via India. While we have evidence for either end of this proposed land route, I still don't think there's evidence for the routes meeting in the middle, or for goods and ideas passing back and forth along it during this period.


(03-13-2017, 05:00 AM)Alanus Wrote: Strabo, who claimed this about the Aorsi... "...consequently they could import on camels the Indian and Babylonian merchandise..."

...But-- and this is important-- there was no established trade route to India or China (or anywhere else) during the Late Republican period. 

Sarcasm noted! There obviously was a sea route to India in at least Augustan times, which brought Chinese products west, and nobody's disputing that.

But the Strabo quote is interesting. The merchandise is 'Indian' and 'Babylonian' though, which suggests that this was an overland caravan trail from northern India through the Parthian territories. This still doesn't really suggest a route passing north of the Himalayas, direct from China across central Asia.

Gary Young, in Rome's Eastern Trade (2001 - I don't have this book but from the snippets online it looks intriguing) mentions that the city of Nisibis in Mesopotamia was an entrepot for silk imports into the west. This could have been coming via a sea route up the Persian gulf, or overland through Adiabene and southwest Asia.
Reply
#8
 Although in fragments Isidore of Charax wrote Parthian Stations an itinerary of an overland route from Antioch to India with a list of caravan stations maintained by the Parthians. Supposedly written a bit after 26BC the route probably marks an ancient trade route of the Medes and Assyrians located north of the Persian Royal Road. It was basically the same route followed by Maes' agents.

 I think one of the reasons merchants and cities were looking for alternative routes was competition and jealousy among Roman eastern cities. Alexandria, Tyre, Sidon and Palmyra all competing for trade which is mentioned in Young's book as well as MP Charlesworth in his book which I must admit is pretty old (1924) Trade Routes and Commerce of the Roman Empire. I agree that sea travel comprised a large share of trade of goods between China, India and the Mediterranean but overland trade still played its part. The Tarim city-states did not accept Chinese coins as currency for food, horses or jade until China slowly bought them under heel after expelling the Hsiung-nu but accepted silk which was bartered for goods the people of the Tarim needed like minerals and metals from Dzungaria, foodstuffs for some of them, leather and textiles like cotton from India. Here is a map I copied from the book "The Spice Trade of the Roman Empire" which although a modern representation show how many alternate routes, both sea and land or a combination of both there were available.

   


 Sea travel had its own perils for merchants and mariners. These were the days before the invention of the caravel which could "beat to the wind". Ships had to rely on the Etesian winds blowing them down the Red Sea on journeys that took about 30 days and then they had the perils of treacherous reefs near the straits then pull into ports for goods to trade and also fill up with fresh water for a 40 day ride on the Summer Monsoon winds to the coast of India which were rough and wet and then repair boats and rigging, sail up the Indian coast, stock up with goods and fresh water and wait for the return journey in winter which unlike the Mediterranean had gentler winds. It was best not to sail at all in the hottest months June, July and August.

 It is possible that the Antun delegation, 166AD and the one in 284AD missions may have been made by sea because Rome was at war with Parthia and the Sassanids and the overland route could have been blocked and the 226 mission by Lun or Leon came at a time of great instability for everyone (see below). Han general Ban Chao sent an envoy Gan Ying to make contact with the Romans in 97AD but he was supposedly scared off by the Parthians. It does seem co-incidental that Maes sent agents to China 4 years later so he may have had information from Parthian contacts about Han attempts at contact.

 I think all forms of trade, maritime and overland, between east and west took a big hit in the 3rd century when many established empires and kingdoms collapsed.

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.
Southern India was in turmoil and the Cheran and Pandian dynasties that ruled Tamil India were destroyed by conflict around this time.
235-284AD Roman empire entered "Crisis of the Third Century" with 25 claimants over 50 year period.
Regards
Michael Kerr
Michael Kerr
"You can conquer an empire from the back of a horse but you can't rule it from one"
Reply
#9
(03-13-2017, 03:16 PM)Michael Kerr Wrote: Isidore of Charax wrote Parthian Stations an itinerary of an overland route from Antioch to India... It was basically the same route followed by Maes' agents.

Ball says quite a bit about Isidore and his itinerary - however, he's less than impressed by it as 'silk road' evidence:

Quote:For the Parthian Stations is little more than the title implies: a record of just one of several official routes within Iran, relating to Parthian administration rather than trade, and even less to Rome. It makes no reference to any supposed connections beyond, neither to the Mediterranean nor to China. As evidence for Roman overland trade, therefore, it is practically valueless.

Rome in the East, p.134

This seems rather harsh, I must say! Isidore's itinerary surely provides evidence for an existing network of routes, that could also be used by traders, to the furthest limits of the Parthian domain; but these routes would take the traveller south-eastwards across modern Iran and Afghanistan towards northern India. This route was already known, of course - Alexander the Great had passed that way, and there were trading cities all along the way.

Titianus's agents seem to have ended up some considerable distance east and north though! Unless they branched off north from Afghanistan, they may have gone a different way altogether. I suppose we might imagine that they were searching for a trade route that avoided Parthian territory - but if they were, they don't seem to have done anything with the information beyond reporting back...

I should add, by the way, that Ball's book has a clear and obvious agenda, set out at the start - he's claiming that the dominant cultural, social and religious forms of the eastern Roman world were always far more eastern than western: that the cities of Roman Syria and Mesopotamia, for all their cultural hybridity, were at least as (if not more) influenced by native Syrian and Palmyrene, Arab and Iranian and Indian forms than they were by Hellenism or the west. Quite possibly his damning of the 'silk road' concept is an example of diligence in finding or rejecting evidence!


(03-13-2017, 03:16 PM)Michael Kerr Wrote: The Tarim city-states did not accept Chinese coins as currency for food, horses or jade until China slowly bought them under heel after expelling the Hsiung-nu but accepted silk which was bartered for goods the people of the Tarim needed like minerals and metals from Dzungaria, foodstuffs for some of them, leather and textiles like cotton from India.

That's interesting - thanks! At what point did the Chinese expel the Hsiung-nu?


(03-13-2017, 03:16 PM)Michael Kerr Wrote: Here is a map I copied from the book "The Spice Trade of the Roman Empire"

Good map, and it shows the land and sea routes from the middle east to India in detail. I'm not so sure about the northern plains routes though, or the connections north of the Himalayas - is there any real evidence for them during this period? We don't know of anybody or anything passing right the way along the route in either direction until the Middle Ages, as far as I know...


(03-13-2017, 03:16 PM)Michael Kerr Wrote: Sea travel had its own perils for merchants and mariners.

True, and that's a good point. However, for all its hazards the Indian ocean and Red Sea trade existed for over a thousand years. Ships could travel faster and carry more than camels, and clearly the risk was worth it.

We might also ask whether the risk of a sea journey on a well-established monsoon route China-India/India-Egypt would be lesser or greater than an overland journey to China of thousands of miles through virtually uncharted territory inhabited by largely unknown peoples!...

For a similar reason, merchants on the east coast of the USA were still sending goods to California by ship, around Cape Horn, well into the later 19th century.


(03-13-2017, 03:16 PM)Michael Kerr Wrote: the Antun delegation, 166AD and the one in 284AD missions may have been made by sea because Rome was at war with Parthia and the Sassanids... Han general Ban Chao sent an envoy Gan Ying to make contact with the Romans in 97AD but he was supposedly scared off by the Parthians.

That's an ingenious theory! Although, as I said above, if these 'missions' were intended to actually reach their destinations for some reason, rather than just exploring an alternative route of getting there, then the established sea transport system might be a better way of doing it...

Ball mentions Gan Ying - who he calls Kan Ying, presumably the same guy - but puts his mission to Iran at the end of the 1st century BC. This could be a typo (BC for AD), but is there some doubt about the date?
Reply
#10
Hello, Nathan and Michael,

First, my last post was a tongue-in-cheek rebuttal to Ball's premise and I hope it didn't offend anyone. My personal feeling is this-- what we might call "international trade" (in the Old World sense) began shortly after the invention the wheel, along with the castration of the bull, and the taming of the horse and camel. In other words, a working trade system existed between Europe, Africa, and Asia, by the early Bronze age. Forgive me for a rapid succession of illustrations (below) but we can follow one item-- the ancient lap harp-- on its journey across the continents.

   
Here we have a Sudanese lap harp, age unknown. It shows up in Egypt during the New Kingdom, c. 2,000BC.

   
The lap harp then reaches the Hittites and Achaemenid Persians, about maybe 500BC, maybe earlier.

   
Then in 400Bc, the lap harp is buried in Pazyryk Kurgan 5 in the high Altai... along with other items from India (a mirror) and China (silk fabric).

It's what I call "hard evidence" of trade. No suppositions here; these are lap harps reaching corners of the earth by a chain of intermediaries. The so-called "Silk Road" was no different, not controlled by a single culture but many, who passed merchandise to the next trader, ad infinitum. I think Ball either missed the point, didn't look hard enough, or had an obtuse agenda.

   
Let's turn to Strabo's mention of the Aorsi. This is particularly important because the Aorsi route bypassed the anti-Roman sticky wicket-- Parthia. The above map (not a great map but it will suffice) shows a web of trade routes, including the far northern one used by Aristeas, but delineates the Aorsi one (in blue). It starts at Samarkand, runs down the Oxus (the Amu Darya on the map), then crosses the Caspian, runs overland, and enters Strabo-Land. What it doesn't show is the massive amount of territory (southeast of Parthia) controlled by the Aorsi. And why did this route work to the extent it was still used into the 7th century AD?

   
Who were the Aorsi, anyway? Around 120BC, they were called the Yancai... a split-off tribal union originally within the Yuezhi confederation. The Yancai then became the Alanliu, incorporating tribes from the Middle Sarmatian culture. Then, by the first century BC, they were recorded by Strabo as the North and South Aorsi (a lot like "Yorsi" as a single syllable). They controlled what was once the territories of the Massagetae all the way up to Filippovka (Orenberg Oblast), north and south of the western shore of the Aral Sea and the entire eastern shore of the Caspian. They were affiliated with the Yuezhi, aka the Kushans, and had trade access to both China and India. It would appear they established their route expressly to circumvent the east-west restrictions on trade between Asia and Europe (read "Rome" here) caused by a particular war that killed Crassus.

I see no reason the Aorsi venture did not include Chinese merchandise. Unless we have this scenario:

A Chinese Trader Walks into a Bactrian Bar

Bartender: "Hey! How's it going, Chung-Fang?"
Chung-Fang: "Finest kind. I just brought up two wagon-loads of silk from Louyang, both headed down to Kushana."
Bartender: "You ought to consider shipping silk to Rome. The Aorsi just opened up a new route to Europe."
Chung-Fang: "Naw. I can't be bothered."

Fact is, this trade route continued up the Ister. We have wonderful artwork containing Indian and Bactrian semi-precious stones-- agate, carnelian, turquoise, even rubies-- fashioned in northern Europe until the end of the Migration Period. Carnelian also reached Ptolemaic Egypt. Seems hard to believe that some sort of anti-silk bias existed.
Big Grin
Alan J. Campbell

member of Legio III Cyrenaica and the Uncouth Barbarians

Author of:
The Demon's Door Bolt (2011)
Forging the Blade (2012)

"It's good to be king. Even when you're dead!"
             Old Yuezhi/Pazyrk proverb
Reply
#11
(03-13-2017, 09:00 PM)Alanus Wrote: these are lap harps reaching corners of the earth by a chain of intermediaries.

Yes, but not the same lap harps! By your account, they took 1600 years or so to get from one end of the chain to another... That's not a 'trade route', it's just the slow spread of ideas and technologies between neighbours, over the course of centuries. Certainly that happened (and the neighbours clearly traded between each other) - but to imagine that some kind of 'road' or established network existed we'd need evidence of much faster and more deliberate transit of goods than that - much the sort of evidence that exists for the India route, in fact...



(03-13-2017, 09:00 PM)Alanus Wrote: I see no reason the Aorsi venture did not include Chinese merchandise.

But the merchandise would have to cover a fair distance before arriving at the Aorsi... I think if I were a steppe nomad of the first century and I got my hands on a bolt of Chinese silk, my first thought wouldn't be 'Hey, you know who'd just love this? The Romans!' [Image: wink.png]

Although I might consider that the nomads somewhere to the west might trade my silk for a few hundred gallons of qumys, and they might in turn trade it with the Aorsi for some horses, who might in turn... etc. But that's going to be some very shabby silk by the time it turns up in Nisibis!



(03-13-2017, 09:00 PM)Alanus Wrote: Bartender: "You ought to consider shipping silk to Rome..."

Chung-Fang: "What, ship it - in a ship? By sea? Like everyone else? Great idea! Then I could stay at home in Louyang, sell my stuff to those civilised Indian merchants, and not have to hang around here in Bactrian hicksville talking to the likes of you!"
Reply
#12
Nathan Ross wrote:
That's an ingenious theory! Although, as I said above, if these 'missions' were intended to actually reach their destinations for some reason, rather than just exploring an alternative route of getting there, then the established sea transport system might be a better way of doing it...

 I like to think of these missions as ancient "mercantile feasability studies" in an attempt to cut out some middlemen, both overland and maritime. Maes wrote his itinerary of stopovers (towns and oases), distances, travelling times etc and you can just imagine his merchant mind ticking over and crunching the numbers. Maybe when the information was processed his backers decided that the costs outweighed the benefits.

 Just on Maes and how quickly after Gan Ying he organised for his agents to travel through Parthia, Raoul McLaughlin in his book The Roman Empire and the Silk Routes had a theory that Maes Titianus due to the confusion about his origin (Macedonian/Syrian could have been a descendant of a servant who served Marcus Titius who was the Syrian governor in 13BC who helped Augustus facilitate an important peace settlement with the Parthian ruler Phraates IV who sent several of his sons and grandsons to Rome as wards of the Roman emperor. Marcus received the 4 children, 4 grandchildren and 2 daughters-in-law and took responsibility for them until their transfer to Rome. He would have sent some of his most trusted servants or freedmen to Ctesiphon to convey messages and arrange for the safe conduct of the Royal family, maybe some were granted Roman citizenship  for their services and they could have taken the name of their benefactor and used their new contacts in Parthia to create successful businesses for themselves and their descendants. His theory not mine but interesting nonetheless.

 The Antun delegation was probably thinking along the same lines although Rome was involved in a war with Parthia at the time they left Egypt  (how do I cut out the Indian merchants who had a hunger for Roman silver, let's get to the source of silk). According to the Hou Hanshu the Antun mission disappointed their Han hosts though with the poor quality of their gifts and were sent back on their way with the promise of further talks but we never hear of them again.

 As for Tsin-Lun he was probably a Greek called Leon and was recorded by the Liang-shu to have arrived in China in 226AD although the Chinese political situation had changed immensely to the one in 166AD where  the Han were overthrown and China was split into 3 rival kingdoms. He arrived at the kingdom of Wu and identified himself as a merchant specializing in long-distance trade. The Wu king selected a Chinese officer to accompany Leon back to Roman lands along with 20 extremely dark-skinned captives who the Wu king gave as a gift to the Roman emperor Severus Alexander. There is no record of the ship making it back to Roman territory.

 Don't know too much about the 284AD mission (only Wiki) but Rome was involved with a war with the Sassanids at the time and Carus would have been emperor at the time of their departure from Egypt.

Nathan Ross wrote:
I'm not so sure about the northern plains routes though, or the connections north of the Himalayas - is there any real evidence for them during this period?

The northern plains routes were probably used by the various Saka/Wusun/Sarmatian groups, can't recall the book but I read that there was an ancient fur route used which probably pre-dated the silk routes and roughly ran along the route of the trans-Siberian railway. As for the route north of the Himalayas that region was controlled by the Kushans even though it has a high altitude, again maybe more of a trail than a road for moving of livestock, even today seasonal nomadism is still pretty prevalent, another link to the Tarim basin. Just on different routes, Zhang Qian was surprised when he was visiting the bazaars of Bactria that they had bamboo products which he recognised as products of Yunnan and was told they were imported from India and he was quite shocked that Han subjects used a trade route for their wares that the Han officials were not aware of, this route used overland  to the coast and by sea to the coast of Burma and again by land to Han China so I wonder if at least in the 2nd to 1st century BC that the Han knew little about India and vice versa which indicates to me that the Indians got their silk from Central Asia.

Nathan Ross wrote:
At what point did the Chinese expel the Hsiung-nu?

 It was a long process, and my dates may be a bit rough but when Zhang Qian returned to the Han court 15 years after being sent by Han emperor Wudi to seek out allies against the Hsiung-nu they first expelled them from the Gansu Corridor in 123 BC, then it took them 23 years to control the Tarim Basin through diplomacy and force and the Hsiung-nu split by civil war and most became subjects of the Han around 51BC. In 36BC Chinese led troops defeat last Hsiung-nu warlord ZhiZhi at a now unknown city near Lake Balkhash. This is the battle where Homer Dubs thought, although the theory is discredited now, that Roman survivors from Carrhae fought for ZhiZhi as mercenaries. The Northern Hsiung-nu still posed a problem for the Han until decisively defeated by Ban Chao in about 89AD. The information about the Tarim cities bartering for silk came from a Nicola Di Cosmo paper "Ancient City-States of the Tarim Basin". The Chinese had plenty of silk and needed food for its armies in their wars to secure the "Western Regions" so it was mutually agreeable to both sides to barter this way.

Nathan Ross wrote:
Ball mentions Gan Ying - who he calls Kan Ying, presumably the same guy - but puts his mission to Iran at the end of the 1st century BC. This could be a typo (BC for AD), but is there some doubt about the date?

No,  Ball's date must be a typo. Between74-97AD Han Protector-General Ban Chao re-established Han control over the Tarim after it ceded due to dynastic troubles back in China 50 years earlier. He then defeated the Northern Hsiung-nu and then he defeated his former allies the Kushans due to a disagreement over Chinese brides. He made peace with them and subdued a few other regions and only in 97AD was he in a position where he send his envoy Gan Ying west.

Nathan Ross wrote:
We might also ask whether the risk of a sea journey on a well-established monsoon route China-India/India-Egypt would be lesser or greater than an overland journey to China of thousands of miles through virtually uncharted territory inhabited by largely unknown peoples!...

 This is true and I don't disagree with your statement that sea travel was probably the cheapest and most secure option for eastern Roman merchants. I just disagree with Ball writing that there was not a recognised land route to India and China. I will agree with one of his points and that is that under the Mongols travellers could travel safely from one end of their realm to the other (for a price I suppose) but that is not what the overland trade routes were about. Trade goods were not loaded onto camels to travel from China to Syria, they made their way westward piecemeal with lots of "horsetrading" to boot. There would have been lots of loading and unloading and passing of goods from one trader to another at the various towns and oases on the way.

 The viability of the land routes would have been seriously expensive and compromised many times due to the constant wars between Rome and the Parthians/Sassanids with a lot of the battles taking place near these overland trade routes. I don't think the Parthians were accomplished sailors relying more on Greek and Arab sailors although I think that changed during the later Tang periods where Persian, Arab and Indian sailors dominated the Indian Ocean trade routes.
Regards
Michael Kerr
Michael Kerr
"You can conquer an empire from the back of a horse but you can't rule it from one"
Reply
#13
(03-14-2017, 03:59 AM)Michael Kerr Wrote: I like to think of these missions as ancient "mercantile feasability studies"... you can just imagine his merchant mind ticking over and crunching the numbers.

Ah, but isn't that part of the problem? It's very easy to imagine these things, or to think that they probably happened, even must have happened... but we still don't have any evidence that they did happen, and in the shortage of such evidence we should be wary about assumptions. All 'factoids' aren't false all of the time, of course, but the way that many historians at the moment write about the 'silk road in antiquity' you'd think there would be more substance to it.

Its a fine subject for historical novelists maybe - we could imagine rival Roman and Parthian agents clashing in the wilds of central Asia, like a sort of 'great game' of the ancient world! - but historians should be a bit more rigorous.


(03-14-2017, 03:59 AM)Michael Kerr Wrote: The Northern Hsiung-nu still posed a problem for the Han until decisively defeated by Ban Chao in about 89AD. The information about the Tarim cities bartering for silk came from a Nicola Di Cosmo paper "Ancient City-States of the Tarim Basin".

Thanks!


(03-14-2017, 03:59 AM)Michael Kerr Wrote: I just disagree with Ball writing that there was not a recognised land route to India and China.

I think even Ball would admit there was an overland route to India - he does get a bit two-fisted in his scepticism, and a bit over-credulous in other things. But the idea of a land route to China during our period still seems unlikely.

We only know of a handful of men, over a period of hundreds of years, who even attempted to make the journey - and even they didn't seem to have a very clear idea of where they were going. Some Romano-Greco-Syrian 'agents' covered half the distance east, and a Chinese mission got two-thirds of the way west. Then we have the semi-mythological Aristaeus, supposedly wandering somewhere north and east of the Caspian meeting griffins and one-eyed folk...

This isn't to say that steppe cultures had no influence on the west - they certainly did, especially in later centuries with the Alanic and Hunnic arrivals - but the idea of these peoples as a regular conduit for goods or ideas from far to the east into the Roman world before that time seems pretty untenable.
Reply
#14
Sorry Nathan, have been busy and haven’t had the time to continue discussion on Ball’s theories of silk trade.


Nathan Ross wrote:

But the idea of a land route to China during our period still seems unlikely

 What you say is true if you are thinking of a continuous road or trail from Louyang to Roman Syria but the geography of Central Asia makes that impossible, three quarters of Central Asia is desert surrounded by difficult if not high mountain ranges. Those mountain ranges and deserts were possibly the reason that Greek or Persian armies never progressed further east although two Han armies managed to cross the Pamir and Alai ranges to wage war in Ferghana over the ‘Heavenly Horses’. There must have been limited contact, including possible low-level trade between the Graeco-Bactrians and the occupants of the Tarim going by the discovery of the Sampul Tapestry, which had many Hellenistic elements to it, near Khotan.

 In regards to Maes, although we can't be sure he probably organised his itinerary for the merchants of Tyre as Marinus, who lived at Tyre got hold of his itinerary. There was a lot of competition between Eastern Roman cities and regions especially Tyre and Alexandria. Tyre prided itself on its Phoenician heritage even though it still considered itself as part of the Graeco-Roman world. It produced quality glass and fabrics but was mostly famous for its shellfish and its Tyrian purple dyes. Being locked out of the Indian Ocean Red Sea trade by its rival Alexandria which had certain advantages as it was the leading city of Egypt whose revenues went towards  the fiscus (personal treasury of the emperor) which received rich revenues and dues from the country and from trade, the emperors owned monopolies on the production and sale of innumerable articles and commodities, such as linen, oil, papyrus, bricks, alum, beer and other products.  it made sense that the cities of Tyre & Sidon would look to alternative overland trade routes to access quality silk and textiles for their garment workshops and new markets for their wares. The workshops unpicked Chinese silks and rewove them to make quality garments at a great profit which was probably more of a reason why dignitaries in Rome were screaming about the ridiculous prices being charged for silken goods.

 Han China never set out to find markets for silk in the west. It was used as a diplomatic means of exchange to keep both its allies and its enemies at bay. I think a lot of the silk the Hsiung-nu received as ‘tribute’ from the Han found its way to India and Parthia through various middlemen in Transoxiana and the Tarim. Chinese envoy Zhang Qian’s mission was to locate the Yuezhi for an alliance in which he failed but he was impressed with the horses of the Wusun, Ferghana and other horse breeding peoples and the Han, who needed better and bigger horses for their cavalry to combat the Hsiung-nu were keen to exchange silk and Chinese brides for these superior horses.

 I have always thought that the Silk Road was a series of routes utilizing land, ocean and river transport with nothing constant. There would not have been an ocean only means of transporting silk from China as a route around the Malay Peninsula was only discovered by Indian sailors around 150-160 AD so transporting silk to Indian ports would have had to be done overland by various eastern routes. Pliny mentions the Chera (Tamil) traders who traded goods like cotton and gold for silk with the blue-eyed Seres where goods were laid out on the bank of the river for perusal and exchanged.

 Ball seems to only use literary sources that are in line with his theories. He wrote that Pliny was bemoaning about the drain of 50 million sesterces a year in trade with India but failed to mention that this 50 million was part the 100 million that went into trade with India, Arabia and the Seres together so if Pliny is believed then not all silk trade was done through India. 

The Seres also provided furs and high quality iron (probably from th Altai region). Silk was not the major item in Indian sea trade as shown by a papyrus contract from 2nd century Egypt that concerns a loan connected to a voyage to Muziris to purchase goods which listed several cargoes of precious goods but no silk but valued at 1,151 talents and 5,852 drachmai of silver. In all 6,911,852 drachmai after taxes so these figures seem to back up Pliny. (Papyrus SB 18/13167). The sailor’s handbook the Periplus Maris Erythraei mentions goods that were in high demand in the east: oil, olives, grain, wine, glass, textiles and ceramics as well as the goods in demand in the west like spices, peppers, tortoiseshells, teak, muslin materials and it adds some silk. See list below from book (Schoff's older translation not Casson's more recent one), there are a couple of pages about the products and their origins but I have only copied the section on trade with Thina (assuming China) from the book. Interesting that in Roman times muslin cotton seems to have been a popular cargo in ocean trade & then forgotten in the west until the Crusades.

   


 The tonnages would have varied over time of course, from my understanding under the Julio-Claudians sea trade with the east increased as there were idle troops and lots of money to be spent improving ports, roads and canals to Alexandria which were neglected under the Ptolemies but they declined under the Flavians, improved under Trajan and Hadrian and went downhill after that. The majority of Parthian trade was probably done by sea as well although the Persian sailors would have hugged the coast more than the Graeco-Roman sailors but trade by sea was an expensive and risky business and the land routes were still essential even if they only covered a portion of the route.

 Ball mentions that Ptolemy wrote that the geographer Marinus did not trust Maes itinerary and so his itinerary should not count for much but Ptolemy and Marinus being geographers did not trust merchants distance measurements as they always exaggerated distances for profit and I think Ptolemy allowed for that in his geographies. Interesting that Ball in a more recent book “The Gates of Asia” put forward the theory that Maes was a ‘Scythian’ name and coming from Macedonia he could have Scythian or Sarmatian ancestry. There are a few interesting theories on Maes who except for Ptolemy is not known in any other sources. If he was organising trade routes through Parthia via Greek contacts in Seleucia in around 100AD then Trajan’s invasion of Parthia a few years later would have destroyed any ambitions that he himself or his backers had at least for a few years.

 China did not keep their monopoly on silk for ever as in the east Japan and in the west the various Sogdian cities developed sericulture industries of their own like they did with Persian rugs while the Persians and the Kushans eventually developed their own glassmaking industries which would have decimated the glass industries of Sidon, Tyre and Alexandria. The Arabs and the Byzantines developed silk industries all over the Mediterranean and I think by the Middle Ages even Italy was considered a major silk producer, so China's silk  trade dropped off after the Tang dynasty  but Chinese silk was still considered finer and superior to all the other countries.

 If you are interested there is an excellent Oxbow book by Berit Hilderbrandt called Silk which is a series of papers covering the history of Silk to the later fifth century in both Europe and Asia. It covers the land routes and sea routes quite extensively and it seems trade and exchange of silk was a two-way street with a lot of loom technology from the Mediterranean moving eastwards through Persia and the Kushan empire and eventually reaching Chinese weavers.
Regards
Michael Kerr
Michael Kerr
"You can conquer an empire from the back of a horse but you can't rule it from one"
Reply
#15
(03-28-2017, 04:07 AM)Michael Kerr Wrote: the emperors owned monopolies on the production and sale of innumerable articles and commodities, such as linen, oil, papyrus, bricks, alum, beer and other products... The workshops unpicked Chinese silks and rewove them to make quality garments at a great profit... a route around the Malay Peninsula was only discovered by Indian sailors around 150-160 AD so transporting silk to Indian ports would have had to be done overland by various eastern routes... Ball seems to only use literary sources that are in line with his theories... the Periplus Maris Erythraei mentions goods that were in high demand in the east: oil, olives, grain, wine, glass, textiles and ceramics as well as the goods in demand in the west like spices, peppers, tortoiseshells, teak, muslin materials and it adds some silk...

Thanks Michael - what a wealth of fascinating information and detail! I'll certainly try and find a copy of the Hildebrandt book you mentioned.

My interest is mainly in the overland silk (etc) trade through the entrepots of Nisibis and Callinicum (the only ones permitted, it seems, after AD298), so I'm sure there should be some useful material in there.

Could a helpful moderator plase give Michael a 'positive' rating for the post above?
Reply


Possibly Related Threads...
Thread Author Replies Views Last Post
  A Silk Road Before the \"Silk Road\" Alanus 8 2,118 02-19-2017, 05:21 PM
Last Post: Alanus

Forum Jump: