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.