Chinese silk was imported in quite sizeable quantities by the Romans, going from being incredibly rare when it first appeared before becoming remarkably widespread in the later Empire. However China and Rome were at least 3,000 miles apart, and any route between the two was even longer. Despite that vast gulf, the silk moved slowly west, passing through a wide range of societies on its way.
This is an utterly fascinating book, looking at some of the less familiar corners of the ancient world, and how they interacted with the two superpowers of the period – Han China and the Roman Empire. The book is much more wide ranging that the title might suggest – we begin with a look at the different levels of metal working in Rome and China. Large sections of the book do indeed deal with the silk trade and the long trade routes across Asia, but other sections are perhaps more of a travel guide, looking at the cultures and societies along the trade route.
A sizeable section looks at Rome's relationship with Parthia, a key step on the silk road, but without making that connection explicit. Instead we get a history of Rome's wars against the Parthians. Another chapter looks at Arrian's account of the Black Sea, one of the areas where silk probably entered the Empire, but again the focus is perhaps more on the area than the silk connections.
There are also scattered examinations of a series of possible direct contacts between the two distant powers. It is clear that both knew that the other existed, but had almost no accurate information about them. Chinese records suggest that one Chinese envoy got tantalisingly close to the eastern borders of the Roman Empire, while one Roman embassy might have arrived by sea (but failed to return home). One Roman source refers to a merchant who reached China, or at least sent his agents all the way to China. Sadly the conclusion here is that no proper contact was ever made between the two powers. The trade itself didn't involve merchants who made the entire trip, but instead was made in comparatively short stretches, with the silk changing hands several times along the route.
This is a fascinating look at a fairly obscure area of Ancient history. It should help remind us that the Roman Empire stretched a lot further east than we tend to acknowledge in more western focused histories, and must have known something about the states across its borders, while Han China had footholds a long way to the west of China itself. The two states might never have been in direct contact, but the gap clearly wasn't as large as we often imagine.
1 - Steel and Silk
2 - Silk in Roman Society
3 - The Chinese Empire and the Xiongnu
4 - The Discovery of the West
5 - Securing the Silk Routes
6 - The Kushan Empire
7 - The Sogdian Intermediaries
8 - Caspian Routes and the Crimea
9 - Black Sea Voyages
10 - The Sarmatians
11 - The Parthian Empire
12 - Parthia and Rome
13 - Roman Invasion Plans for Parthia
14 - Roman Routes to China
Conclusion: The Silk Routes and the Economies of China and Rome
Author: Raoul McLaughlin
Publisher: Pen & Sword: History