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Silk Road in Classical Antiguity

China History Map - Silk RoadIt is uncertain how far back silk stuffs were first exported to India and Western Asia. The Chinese name for silk was Sz', and it is curious to observe that both this name and the product itself made their way into Corea, Japan, Mongolia, and (especially) Central Asia, and in later times into Greece and the other European countries. After a time the letter r got affixed, and the root-word was thus changed into ssir or sser. The word Sherikoth in Isaiah probably refers to the same, and the Arabs to this day call a piece of silk goods saraqat. It is probable that Herodotus, in speaking of the fineness of the Median dresses, alludes to silken stuffs.

The first undoubted mention of the manufacture is to be found in Nearchus (320 BC), who speaks of the Seric stuffs of India, of the people called Seres, and of their country, Sera. There is no evidence to show by what route these silks reached India, Persia, and Media. It is supposed that the princes of the house of Tsin, who since the eighth century before Christ occupied a small principality in the western part of Shensi, extended their dominion into Central Asia, and that by this means the Chinese carried on direct trade with the lands about the Oxus. This supposition rests on three points: the mention of a country called Sinim by Isaiah, the frequent mention of the name Matchin (which was supposed to refer to China) by Firdusi in speaking of early Persian history, and the frequent allusion in the Mahabharata to the Tchina people in the north-west of India.

The direct traffic only flourished when all Central Asia was subject to one sovereign will. It was never more prosperous than when the Mongols exercised supremacy over the lands between China and Europe, but before that time it had revived in the seventh and eighth centuries, when the Tang dynasty extended their rule to the Caspian Sea. One of the chief circumstances which helped to develop it was the building of the Great Wall, which the great Tsin-shi-wang-ti erected to protect his kingdom from the attacks of the Hiungnu, who had for centuries molested the vassal princes and chiefs on the northern borders of the empire. During the Han dynasty (205 BC) the successive waves of invading hordes from the steppes broke themselves against the wall, and gradually falling put among themselves, dispersed and retired through the Dzungarian valley or depression into the Aralo-Caspian basin.

In 140 BC Hsia-wu-ti, the greatest King of the Han dynasty, wishing to break the power of the Hiungnu, sent his General, Tchang-kien, into Central Asia to conclude a treaty of alliance with the Yuetchi. This is the first Chinese expedition to the West of which we hear, and the report, which after thirteen years adventurous wanderings, the General furnished, on his return home, has the appearance of a- description of previously unknown wonders. Although the expedition failed in its immediate object, it returned with the novel intelligence that in the far west of Turan there dwelt great and civilised nations, who owned grand cities and engaged in commerce, who esteemed very highly the Chinese silk, and wished further to do direct trade with China, of whose greatness they had often heard. The Emperor recognised the importance of acting on this wish, and endeavoured by every means in his power to further its fulfilment. The inhabitants of the oases on the south of the Tarim, freed from the presence of the Hiungnu, received the Chinese with open arms, and in the year 114 BC the first caravan started for the West.

General Pan-chow then not only regained the whole of the lost country, but also (95 AD) led a victorious Chinese army across the Pamir Steppe to the Caspian Sea, where, for a brief time, the Chinese and Roman empires were brought into close proximity without, however, any permanent result. In 120 AD the Chinese again lost their control of Turanian lands, and in 150 AD all direct communication with the west of the Tarim basin ceased.

To secure the silk trade, on which their wealth depended, the Bactrian Greeks extended their rule to the Tarim-valley and conquered to the mouth of the Indus. Traders invariably sought the shortest routes between the two countries whose goods they wished to exchange one for the other. Among these goods, silk has played an important part since the earliest ages. The duration of this silk trade is most conveniently divided into two periods—the first from remote and uncertain ages to about 114 BC, being the period of indirect traffic; and the second from 114 BC to 120 AD, being the period of direct commerce between China and the Turanian plains.

A notable feature about the Oriental commerce of Rome was the different character of merchandise brought over the land and sea routes. The sea route brought principally gems, spices, perfumes and cotton textiles. The land route brought gems of other kinds, few or no spices or perfumes, and silk. The author of the "Periplus of the Erythraean Sea," written in the first century AD, relates that silk was found by the Greek shipping in most of the ports of India, but his mention of it is always such as to indicate that it was found there only in small quantities and did not form an important branch of that trade.

Between China and the Pamirs the silk route was first clearly described by Marinus of Tyre, some two generations later than the "Periplus." His account is preserved by Ptolemy, and is said to be based on the notes of a Macedonian silk merchant named Maes, whose Roman name was Titianus; who did not perform the whole journey, but repeats what he learned of Turkestan from his "agents" or trading associates whom he met at the Pamirs. The route, he says, began at the Bay of Issus in Cilicia, crossed Mesopotamia, Assyria and Media, to Ecbatana and the Caspian Pass; through Parthia and Hyrcania, to Antiochia Margiana (Merv); thence through Asia into Bactria. Thence the route passed through the mountainous country of the Comedi, and through the territory of the Sacae to the "Stone Tower," the station of those merchants who trade with the Seres.

The Chinese Annals, on the other hand, provide a comprehensive account of the entire caravan route all the way from Western China to the head of the Persian Gulf, whence the silk was carried across the Arabian desert, or more frequently by sailing vessels circumnavigating the Arabian coast through the Nabataean kingdom and so to the cities of Roman Syria, more particularly the capital, Antioch. Toward the end of the first century AD, Chinese power was greatly strengthened by the Central Asian military campaigns of the Chinese General, Panchao, as a result of which the Chinese and Parthian empires were made coterminous and direct communication opened up.

The enormous size and wealth of Seleucia in Parthian times is some evidence that this city must have attracted a disproportionate amount of trade with the East, so far as it did not go by sea; and the value of the overland trade is also shewn by the wealth that the Aorsi derived from this source," and by the fact that, at a later time, when the Parthians closed the land routes, the Roman merchants attempted to reach the silk countries by sea. The Parthians, a small aristocracy of great slave owners, did not usually bear a mercantile character; though no doubt glad to enrich themselves by tolls.

It was the silk trade that brought the Chinese armies to the Pamirs, and it was the same trade that brought the Roman armies to the Euphrates. Between the two, astride every avenue of trade, lay the Parthian Empire, imposing its tariffs on the caravans and enriching itself without adding anything of value to the trade that passed through its boundaries. Commercial monopolies over extended trade routes are not easily maintained where by-paths exist. Just as the Romans succeeded in opening the sea-trade to India by taking advantage of the tribal and racial conflicts in South Arabia, so the Chinese availed themselves of the rebellious and independent tendencies of the Nabataean communities on the Persian Gulf to open up a silk trade route which was in considerable measure free from Parthian control.

Pliny indicates that the the profit of the eastern trade, based on Roman prices, at one hundred times the first cost. The Roman hoards of gold were enormous. The treasury of every state in the Mediterranean basin was stripped and its contents transported to the Roman treasury, finding its way into the Imperial coinage, but it is a notable fact that the Roman gold coins went principally by the sea-route in the Roman shipping to India. Very little of the Roman gold coin went, however, by the overland route across Central Asia to China. In its place went gold bullion or gold dust, largely the product of Arabia, supplied through the activities of the Nabataeans and coined neither by Rome, nor Petra, nor the Parthian Empire. Beyond a very limited number of commercial products it is clear that the Chinese had small interest in the Roman trade, and that a large balance always existed which had to be made up in gold or gold coin.

In later centuries the silk route was menaced at many points. By destroying the Nabataean kingdom and sacking the Greek cities on the Euphrates, the Romans ruined the merchants that had handled the trade in that quarter. The Persians gained from it sufficient strength to overthrow their Parthian over-lords and to battle direct with Rome for the control of the trade. A fresh incursion of Central Asians, who eventually reached Europe as the Huns, overthrew the Kushan state in Central Asia and confined its power to India proper. And China itself, losing the profits of its western trade, fell asunder. It remained for a later age for the Mediterranean lands finally to secure eggs of the silkworm and establish their own silk industry, and for the Arabs, unsuccessful as against Rome and Parthia, to rise under the inspiration of Mohammed, and again for centuries to establish order along the Central Arian trade route and to make of Persia itself a veritable "garden of roses," prospering until destroyed by the terrible Mongols of the middle ages.

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Page last modified: 02-07-2012 18:29:11 ZULU