The Importance of the Early Silk Road(s)

Silk Road Maps 2018 - Useful map of the ancient Silk Road ...

Episode 23: New Ideas Along the Silk Road

The Big History of Civilizations (2016)

Dr Craig G Benjamin

Film Review

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 theĀ  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.

https://pukeariki.kanopy.com/video/new-ideas-along-silk-road

The Dark Ages: When Barbarians and Peasant Farmers Took Back Power

The Dark Ages Are Upon Us : Imperator

Episode 22: Chaos and Consolidation

The Big History of Civilizations (2016)

Dr Craig G Benjamin

Film Review

In this fascinating lecture, Benjamin traces the reconfiguration of Eurasia following the collapse of the Rome and the Han empire in China. The period 400 – 1000 AD is commonly referred to as the Dark Ages, owing to the break-up of Western Europe into smaller kingdoms and city-states. This seems to be based on the traditional view that large totalitarian empires run by ruthless dictators are preferable to smaller city-states, largely because the latter are at greater risk of being overthrown by the peasant farmers who generate state wealth.

  • China – Between the 3rd and 7th century AD (following the collapse of the Han Dynasty in 200 AD), 37 separate dynasties attempted to rule different areas of China. During the 6th century AD, the Sui dynasty unified northern and southern China via construction of the Grand Canal linking the Yellow and Yangtze Rivers. This paved the way for the Tang dynasty. The the wealthiest, most powerful and most urbanized* empire to that point in history, it would conquer Vietnam and much of Tibet and Central Asia.
  • Japan – adopted Buddhism and Chinese administrative systems in the 3rd Century BC, but independent regions controlled by powerful Samurai would not be unified under a single emperor until 1000 AD.
  • India – the Kushan empire controlling Afghanistan, Pakistan, Nepal and northern India collapsed in the 3rd century AD to be replaced by the Gupta network of regional rulers. During this period, Aryabhata (476-550) discovered the rotation of the Earth and first calculated the length of the solar year, and Varahamira invented the concept of zero.
  • Iran – the Parthian and Kushan empire was replaced by the Sassanian empire (251-651 AD), which promoted a resurgence of Zororastrianism and traded with the Byzantine Empire and the Chinese.
  • Western Europe – (following the collapse of Rome) broke up into six independent kingdoms governed by the Franks and Burgundians (in northern France), the Alemanni (in Germany), the Ostrogoths (in the Balkans) and the Odoaccerdom (Italy) and Visigoth kingdoms (Spain and southwest France). Many former Roman cities were taken over by peasant farmers and converted to pasture and market gardens.** There was a brief effort to unify Western Europe (as the Holy Roman consecrated by the Pope) effort under Charlemagne in 800 AD, but following Charlemagne’s death, reverted to warring kingdoms governed by local kings.
  • Western Asia – the eastern Roman empire (consisting of modern day Turkey, Bulgaria, Romania, Serbia, Greece, Montenegro and Macedonia) continued under centralizedĀ  Byzantine rule from Constantinople.

The political dynamics of this era were complicated by a number of significant invasions:

  • Muslim: the rise of Islam in the 6th century AD, leading to the Muslim conquest of much of central Asia, North Africa and the Iberian peninsula.
  • Barbarians: the invasion of formerly Roman Britain by Picts, Scots and Anglo-Saxons.
  • Vikings: the invasion of Britain, northern Europe***and Russia**** by Vikings.

*By the 10th century AD, 2 million people lived in Chang’an and 1 million in Hangzhou.

**In the 7th century AD Rome had a population of 25,000, down from a population of one million in 150 AD.

***Normandy in France was settled by Vikings.

****Vikings controlled most of Ukraine and Russia via the trading networks they established. Kievan Russ, the first Russian state, was created by Viking elites who controlled these networks.

This film can be viewed free on Kanopy with a library card.

https://pukeariki.kanopy.com/video/chaos-and-consolidation-eurasia