Episode 23: New Ideas Along the Silk Road
The Big History of Civilizations (2016)
Dr Craig G Benjamin
In this lecture, Benjamin traces the shifting pattern of routes that comprised the “Silk Roads” that linked five empires between 100 BC and 400 AD: Roman, Parthian (modern day Iran), Kushan (Afghanistan, Pakistan, Nepal), Han (northern China) and Xiongnu (southern China). The robust trade this produced led to increased political stability in Rome (after 100 years of civil war) as agriculture flourished and coins were issued for the first time. Crossing enormous spans of desert, these trade routes arose following the domestication of the bactrian camel, with its two humps (consisting of stored fat) and tolerance for cold, drought and high altitude made the possible.
The Romans imported silk, iron, cloves, nutmeg and cardamon from Asia, while the Han and Xiongnu empires imported grapes and glassware from Rome, art objects from India and Egypt and horses from the Central Asian steppes.
According to Benjamin, the collective learning spread by the Silk Roads was just as important as economic trade. Images the sculpted Roman deities would lead to the first sculpted rendition of Buddha in the Xiongnu and Han empires and the emergence of Mahayana Buddhism. The Silk Roads also facilitated the spread of Christianity by Paul of Tarsas between 35-55 AD.
Unfortunately they also facilitated the spread of epidemics of smallpox, bubonic plague and measles. The Roman population dropped from 60 to 40 million between 150-400 AD. This drastic decrease in population contributed to the eventual collapse of both the Roman and the Han (which experienced comparable losses) empires.
Sea trade also flourished during this period between Africa and East Asia, using the summer monsoon trade winds to travel east and the winter trade winds to return.
Vanishing after the collapse of the Roman and Han empires the Silk Roads were revived around 600 AD.
This film can be viewed free on Kanopy.