Bromance of Two Kingdoms: Rome, China and and the Great Silk Road

Throughout the Age of Discovery – that awkward bit of history between the first Portuguese expeditions into the Atlantic in the 1420s and the last expeditions into unmapped Africa in the 1890s – Europe made a hell of a lot of debatable claims. Christopher Columbus discovered the Americas. James Cook discovered Hawaii. Willem Janzoon discovered Australia (sorry, Janzoon, I mean New Holland). One enthusiastic French explorer even claimed to have discovered Moscow, by that time a city of some 100,000 people.  You don’t need an obscure history blog to tell you not to take those claims at face value, but they’ve still managed to distort the way we see the world before the men with beards and boats did the exploring thing. They’ve still managed to create an image of a pretty much isolated world where each region was ignorant of everyone but its closest neighbours, where continents were never ever crossed and you could go on holiday to the next village and be amazed that the dirt was a slightly different shade of brown. This isn’t true. This couldn’t really be much further from true. Not only have fantastic, globe-spanning relationships existed for thousands of years, but they’ve also been really important in shaping the cultures and traditions at either end. We just weren’t always aware of the connections at the time, and modern historians are beginning to fill the gaps. So this post is about a new trend of real-life Holistic History – undeniable evidence of trade and even tourism stretching back for over two millennia. This is the story of the Silk Road (not the drugs one) and of the ancient Romano-Chinese Bromance.

Not pictured: Hopelessly lost vikings and camels.

Not pictured: Hopelessly lost vikings and camels.

The Silk Road is one of those brilliant historical names that has nothing to do with what it describes so I’m going to start by clearing a few things up. Even calling it The Silk Road could give you the wrong impression – it was actually a lumping together of unmarked trade routes, stretching as far north as The Black Sea and as far south as Indonesia. It provided the West with more than just silk, although as we’ll see that was one of the more controversial products, and it definitely wasn’t anything like a road – more like a rough route through mountains, valleys and miles of open sea. It was, with the Mediterranean at one end and the South China Sea at the other, the definitive route from East to West for at least 2300 years. Very few people would have travelled the route entirely – or, at least, not compared to the numbers that would travel on Silk Road successors like the Trans-Siberian Railway – but with a system that would remain nearly unchanged till the days of the Pony Express, particular traders and nomads would act like a relay team: a continent-spanning conveyor belt for swapping stories, silks and gradually more exotic treasure. The distances objects could travel are extraordinary: a Kashmiri metalworker, for example, could find their work sold to Turkish nomads, taken through to Arabic Syria and then onto Roman Greece before being plundered by Volga Vikings and taken up through Russia to end up somewhere near Stockholm. Oh, wait, did I say “could”? Because that totally did happen. But the Silk Road did more than move objects around – trade always seems to. It made the Middle East rich, both culturally and economically, and when Islam expanded out into the world, it followed the lines of the Silk Road almost exactly: West into the Mediterranean, East into Persia and India, South to Indonesia and East Africa. Alexander the Great and Genghis Khan tried to do the same 1600 years apart. And as I’ve talked about before, the Silk Road spread ideas and faiths as much as people and materials – that’s why there are medieval Christian churches in China; ancient Persian influences in Catholicism; statues of an East Indian prince and supposed acquaintance of Jesus Christ dotted around the landscape of China. And, to turn to a sour note before this gets very Crash Course trade also spreads pestilence and poverty like nobody’s business. It was along the routes of the Silk Road that the East Asian Ko-Ta-Wen disease spread to Europe and the Middle East. Europe called it the Black Death.

A luxury product made by Chinese slave was really the iPhone of its day.

A luxury product made by Chinese slave workers…silk was really the iPhone of its day.

But all this has been fairly well-known throughout the history of…well, history. The interesting question – and the one that we’ve been unable to answer until recently – is how much the people at each end of the road knew about each other. The relay system was great, especially for the Arabic and Parthian middle men, but it did mean there was no need for direct contact between distant places like Ancient China and Rome. But now there’s evidence to change that idea. While we’re not talking Julius Caesar and Wu of Han meeting in Isfahan for coffee, their empires – the far East and West of the Silk Road – were definitely aware of each other. Moreover, they were both fascinated by the possibility of an equally expansive empire halfway around the world. Of course, the information they received about each other wasn’t always accurate: The Silk Road was quick to turn into a very literal game of Chinese Whispers. What each civilisation got wrong, however, is interesting in itself – sometimes funny, sometimes fascinating – and if there’s a better example of connection and communication in the ancient world, I don’t know where to find it.

The Roman name for Western China was Serica, the “land of Silk”, and that name makes a lot of sense: China’s most luxurious export to Rome was silk, because China fiercely protected the secret of where it came from for about 3,000 years in a copyright battle that would put even Youtube to shame. The new material fascinated the Romans – it became a craze in women’s clothing and there are still hilarious accounts of flustered old Roman men complaining that almost see-through dresses were bringing on the downfall of civilisation. During the reign of Aurelian, the price of silk reached its peak – almost the silk’s weight in gold. This fuelled a lot of interest in the semi-mythical Serica, and Roman scholars were sometimes surprisingly right when describing China. Ptolemy, 1st century author of the enormous work Geographia,  more or less correctly describes the locations of trading cities like Chang’an and Guangzhou from Parthian accounts, and guesses that Serica controls the furthest East coast of the Asian continent. Pliny the Elder, despite being one of the most prolific bullshitters in history, knew that silk was combed out of trees and that the region was all one huge kingdom and even describes a typical Serican as “mild in character” compared to the Romans, setting up 2,000 years of “hot-headed Italian” jokes in the process. More interesting, though, are the assumptions the Romans made about their Eastern trading partners. They assumed, for one, that the Indian Ocean was almost entirely surrounded by land like the Mediterranean, and that Serica controlled that southern coast, pretty much projecting the geography of the Roman Empire onto another more distant model. They also assumed the Seres were tall and blond thanks to their experiences with Caucasian barbarians like the Scythians and Germans. But they never took into account that China might be any larger or more powerful than they were. Rome’s central position in the Mediterranean, the general consensus was that the Mediterranean must be the centre of the world, with the Romans controlling all but the kingdoms to the East and the sea to the West. Serica couldn’t be as large as Rome because there simply wasn’t room on the edge of the world. In fact, China was, for as long as Rome existed, larger and more populous. But they were just as fascinated with Romans as Romans were with them.

That's an...odd looking Roman you've got there, China.

That’s an…odd looking Roman you’ve got there, China.

If Rome’s obsession with was mostly economic, China’s obsession with Rome was very different, and surprisingly spiritual. They called the empire “Da Qin” – Great China – and believed it to be a sort of Tao-style counterbalance at the other end of the world – an empire just as great, powerful and virtuous as that of the Han, if not more so. To put it another way, Rome’s China was an exotic and foreign land whereas China’s Rome was like a better version of China. As such, accounts of Da Qin should be taken with a pinch of salt, because they’re part history and part Imperial propaganda made to inspire China to improve itself, but still they get a lot of things right. Yu Huan, 3rd century author of The Peoples of the West, describes a detailed and a journey from Parthia to the city of Rome with accurate travelling times, and describes the precarious Roman custom of getting rid of crap emperors by force. He describes the “minor kings” who rule the provinces, the empire’s walled capital at the mouth of a river, even the curious western script they write in. He describes the unique Roman goods that are traded in place of silk – pure glass, which could not be made in China, as well as more exotic things like rhinoceros horn, “fire-washed cloth” (early asbestos) and the “poison-proof rat” (mongoose). There is evidence of utopian propaganda getting into the work, of course – Yu Huan describes the roads as devoid of bandits and criminals, emphasises the similarities between the Romans and Chinese above all else, and even reports that the westerners claim to be Chinese people who left to make a better society. He also lists one of Rome’s primary exports as dragons. But it’s still a piece of compelling evidence of China’s knowledge of Rome, alongside countless others like the travelogues of Gan Ying and the drawings of Da Qin-ese leaders in authentic Roman mitres. There are even stories of Roman envoys to China, but that seems to be as far as the legend spreads. For all the accounts of Roman ambassadors arriving in China, there are none of them being sent by Rome.

Holistic History’s all-time favourite historian Fernand Braudel once called Europe “an Asian peninsula”, and it’s easy to see why. For all the arguments that globalisation and international trade are modern ideas, huge swaths of the world’s largest landmass have been thoroughly connected for the most part of human civilisation (Don’t worry, Africa, I haven’t forgotten you, you were totally connected too). It’s a connection that’s affected everyone involved, whether it made your ancestors rich or cultured or inspired them to be a better person or just annoyed the hell out of their stodgy Roman sensibilities. Not only have we always been a little bit globalised, we’ve often been immediately aware of the world around us and totally fascinated by the cultures and history that surrounds us. I, for one, hope that never changes.


The Seven Ages of Japan, Part 1: Feuds, Feudalism and Chinese Submission

Japan seems to be synonymous today with the ultra-high-tech, the futuristic and the progressive. Its 6,000 islands house the largest city in the world, a sprawling metropolis that put even Beijing and Delhi to shame, as well as an electronics industry to rival California’s and the nearly the best life expectancy on the planet. Even their dates look ultramodern – the western world counts from a date some 2012 years ago in a year that technically didn’t exist. In Japan, it’s the year 24, one of the only countries in the world where the majority of the population are older than the calendar. For centuries, it endured a reputation for isolation, for independence and nationalism at the very eastern edge of the world – never invaded, never conquered, never fully understood by outsiders. While that was true for a remarkable 250 years, the result of a foreign policy decision that preserved Japan as a peaceful and medieval country until the 1860s, the other 1500 or so years of recorded history paint a different picture. Japan was never conquered by war, but the infectious cultures of China, South-East Asia, and later Europe would prove to shape everything we think of as Japanese. Japan was never split between smaller nations and eventually united, but it was constantly and bitterly divided – between daimyo and shogun, shogun and emperor, emperor and parliament. It’s been the ancient empire and the feudal backwater. It’s been the symbol of enlightenment philosophy and it’s been the greatest threat to democracy the Eastern Hemisphere’s ever known. And, most important of all, it invented the freaking ninja and the coolest military tactics since some guy crossed the Alps on elephants. And, best of all, Japan screams of holism all the way.


A Yayoi settlement – the early masters of Tower Defense.

I guess the best place to start is in the 300AD, with a migration, because…well, everything about Holistic History seems to start with a migration, be it the Celts, the Polynesians or, as in this case, the awesomely named Yayoi. The Yayoi were a collection of tribes from Eastern China who, thanks to China’s so-ahead-of-its-time-it’s-just-not-fair credentials (they were a Roman Empire style superpower by then) brought with them bronze, iron, religion and foreign trade. Now, I’m not going to grossly generalise here, but if I had to name four things that turned a prehistoric tribal society into a classical civilisation, it would be bronze, iron, religion and foreign trade. That and military might, at least, and – what do you know – the first tribe to master that became Japan’s first imperial warlords, the Yamato. The Yamato, in an ironic twist for the founders of a nation that would go on to be so vastly different from them, loved the Chinese, and in a series of incidents somewhere in-between diplomacy and spying managed to steal Chinese technology, systems of government and law in one fell swoop. They even converted to Buddhism and started paying tribute to the Chinese – although one of the largest and richest armies in the world may have had something to do with the latter. In short, Japan had gone in only 300 years from a collection of stone-age tribes to a fully-fledged and powerful empire. Ironically, that empire would go on outlast its Chinese counterpart – a Yamato emperor still rules today.

This explosion of imported culture national unity brought Japan a Golden Age. Military leaders called Shogun became heroes, conquering the islands and mountains that divide Japan. Art and culture was developed, and the idea of being Japanese grew ever stronger. Europe’s dark ages never affected Japan (or, indeed, anywhere outside Europe), and it created a vastly different – and if anything more successful – society. Which makes it even stranger that it developed in such a similar way.

Onna Bugeisha

Onna Bugeisha, who apparently co-existed with photographs. But we’ll get to why later.

By the 1100s Japan was no longer a centralised, peaceful empire. It was something else entirely, something oddly European despite a complete lack of contact between the two cultures: Japan was feudal. It wasn’t exactly the same as their occidental counterparts – instead of the organised Christianity and god-given rights, Japanese feudalism was based on a secular philosophy called Confucianism which, amongst other things, installed a system of government that was somewhere in-between the Chain of Command and Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs – the Emperor was at the top, then his advisors, but then farmers because food was the most important resource, then craftsmen because they did honest work. At the bottom of the chain were the merchants, who were not deserving because they only moved and sold other people’s wares to make money. The urge to make a joke about merchant bankers in our time is almost killing me, but there’s history to do. Anyway, the system created a whole new class-system in Japan, and no-one would change Japanese history more than the newly-created warrior class – the Samurai. The Samurai were the semi-nobility of Japan, about 10% of the population, and guided more than anyone by Confucian philosophy, following Bushido – the Way of the Warrior. This combined art and killing, justifying the warfare with haiku poetry and calligraphy, the examples of honour and wisdom. They even allowed women, in a lot of cultures at the time the “weaker sex” to join their ranks – troupes of female samurai caught the attention of foreigners as a terrifying prospect. And samurai were the brute force behind the introduction of the longest lasting era in Japanese history – the Bakufu, or feudal dictatorship.

mongols japan

Good at horses, bad at boats. The Mongols should really consider getting a Targaryen girl.

As the emperor relied more and more on the feudal lords for power under the new system, those lords became more and more influential. The top post was that prestigious military job – the Shogun, supreme commander of the kill-you-then-write-you-a-poem samurai. And it doesn’t take a genius to figure out that when you have so much power over the military in a feudal system, you get so much more power in the government. The Emperor was reduced to a kind of figurehead status – the real rulers of Japan became the Shogun and his advisors, the Bakufu. With their strong military focus, the Bakufu saw off Chinese aggression, Korean attempts at invasion, even the onslaught of the Mongols with the help of a typhoon that was promptly subbed the “Divine Wind”. But the system was unstable to its very core. The lords fought constantly to try and install their own family members to the Bakufu, even Shogunate, and the constant conflict combined with a series of earthquakes and even an ice age (There was a mini ice age in the 1400s. Seriously.) plunged Japan into a Civil war that would last almost two centuries. It would isolate Japan from the world once again as it engulfed the country in bloodshed, but from it would emerge its most famous exports – ninjas, poetry, and the government that would truly define what it was to be Japanese.

In the midst of the war, the best was yet to come.

The Monster Raving Loony Emperor: Norton I of the United States

Read any history textbook and you’ll be flooded by greatness. The subject is filled to the brim with stories of people who were inspirational, people who were extraordinary, people who were generous or kind or ruthless or really, really pretty. (And yes, the only group with a significant number of women in it is the last, but I’m happy that at least my namesake Phillip “the Handsome” of Spain is an exception). One group of people who tend to be forgotten by history, however – and it’s a terrible shame because they’re my absolute favourites – are the mad. The quirky. The eccentric. And unless they’re in charge of one of the largest countries in the world at the time, or the pet of someone who is, they’re likely to be swept up by asylums or banished into the wilderness forgotten. That’s what makes the case of Joshua Norton so special, what makes his story amazing and why I’m willing to forgo holistic overviews for a personal story today. Ladies and Gentlemen, by the Grace of God, I present Emperor Norton I, lord of the United States of America and Protector or Mexico, Regent of San Francisco and all-round eccentric.

Norton I in all his imperial frivolity.

Joseph Abraham Norton was born to a rather un-royal background, a British citizen born in England and raised in British South Africa in the early 1800s. His early life is largely unknown, but historians are pretty sure he moved to San Francisco in 1849 to move into finances and lost most of his money by investing unwisely.  That’s not an unusual story – thanks to the Gold Rush in California in 1848, San Francisco was the place to be for budding investment bankers and finance gurus at the time, and naturally a lot of them went bust. Norton, for his own reasons, stayed, and it’s about then that he started…you know…the mad stuff.

See, on the 17th of September, 1859, Norton did something that puts other eccentrics to shame. He declared himself Emperor of the United States of America (by some unknown authority only he knew about, of course) and ordered the entire US government to meet him in the San Francisco Theatre to hold a meeting on the state of his newly inherited country. He was ignored by the government, but the press loved him, jokingly printing his declarations in the local newspapers. This is where the story gets really heart-warming. The local people grew to love him, humouring him as he went about his “official duties” – checking the trams, posing for photographs, writing to the US government to try and dissolve Congress to give his absolute power, the usual stuff for an Emperor of his rank to do. As time went on, he grew more and more popular – the army gave him a uniform with gold-plated shoulders, restaurants would put up plaques if they got the “Imperial Seal of Approval”, plays were written with Norton as the protagonist at his favourite theatres – and he became a cult hero to the residents of what was quickly becoming the US’s most tolerant city.  He even became a force for good in the community – he campaigned for a bridge to be built across the San Francisco Bay 60 years before the Golden Gate was built, and was one of the first to suggest that America form a League of Nations (read: He invented the UN 50 years early) for international peace. His finest hour was in the middle of an anti-immigrant riot, where he protected local Chinese labourer by STARING AT THE RIOTERS UNTIL THEY WENT AWAY. Suffice to say he was a local legend by the time of his death in 1880, as 30,000 people paraded through the city’s streets in his honour.

The Norton Government, in debt by 50 cents – and therefore in a far better position than the US at the time.

The story of Norton, First Emperor of the USA, is a good one because it’s about a whole town’s kindness to one rather odd man – it’s about tolerance in a city so multicultural, so full of the weird and wonderful that racial and social tension should be constantly high. But, more importantly, it’s the story of an extraordinary man, a visionary and a lunatic all at once, and the legacy that means that, even today, the bridge he suggested across the San Francisco Bay still hold a plaque in memory of San Fransisco’s first – and so far only – Emperor.