Comparative culture

Silk Road



Beginning of the Silk Road


Beginning of the Silk Road in the time of the Roman Empire and Han China


 Map without pictures


The beginning of the Common Era was the age of empires. The Roman, Parthian, Kushan, and Han Empires maintained significant stability across Eurasia. Imperial prosperity stimulated consumption, which stimulated exchange. Gradually, a patchwork of long distance trade routes emerged.


The Silk Routes at the time of the Roman Empire (27 BCE – 476 CE) and Han Dynasty (202 BCE – 220 CE) differed in several ways from that of later times. First, the residual power of the Xiongnu blocked the northern routes that would flourish since the seventh century, when the Byzantium Empire, Islamic Caliphate, and Tang Dynasty maintained another period of cosmopolitanism. Second, most trade combined land and sea legs. Third, the initial purpose of Han activities in the western regions was to counteract the Xiongnu. Thus much of its export served political rather than commercial interests.


From Changan (today’s Xian) capital of the Former Han, the Silk Road passed through the thousand-kilometer-long Hexi Corridor between mountains and deserts. Beyond the Jade Gate that guarded the western terminus of the Corridor, in now China’s Xinjiang province, the Han established the Protectorate of Western Territory after a long struggle with the Xiongnu. There the route split to follow two strings of oasis. They converged at Shule (Kashga) at the eastern foothill of the Pamir. Crossing the Pamir along broad valleys, travelers arrived at the Ferghana Valley, home of superb horses, and Sogdiana, home to many long-distance traders. Alternatively, they could take the Khunjerab high pass and go directly to Bactra (Balkh) in Bactria, a trading hub until the Mongols destroyed it.


From Bactria, west-bound caravans headed for Parthia, where they picked up the Persian Royal Road, passed Ctesiphone, and brought trade goods to Syria for the Roman market. This is the poster image of the Silk Road. At its beginning, however, the Silk Road had a twist. The Kushans who ruled Bactria and today’s Pakistan had other ideas. They directed the goods from China to the south, across the Hindu Kush, down the Indus River, to the ports of northwestern India, where the merchant fleets from the Roman realm waited.


Egyptian traders brought the goods up the Red Sea to Alexandria, thus avoiding Parthia altogether. However, the leading long-distance traders in the Roman realm were the Arabs who founded the oasis city of Palmyra. Palmyrene traders organized caravans as well as fleets. From Indian ports, they brought the goods up the Persian Gulf, then through Parthian territory to Syria. When Palmyra revolted, Rome destroyed it in 273, dealing a grievous blow to its eastern trade.


Rome imposed a 25 percent import duty. The Han did not tax foreign trade. However, the literati-officials who dominated the Latter Han had scant interest in the outside world and were eager to close the Jade Gate and abandon the Western Territory to the Xiongnu. It was almost a personal effort to reestablish the trade routes after decades of disruption. Ban Chao persuaded the government to send 1,000 soldiers and augmented this core force by mobilizing native troops. In ten years of strenuous fighting, he re-pacified the Western Territory. Then, in 97, he dispatched a deputy, Gan Ying, in quest of Daqin, the Roman Empire as it was called by the ancient Chinese. Gan reached Mesopotamia, where he turned back for unclear reasons. That was eighteen years before the Roman Emperor Trajan marched into Mesopotamia.