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Tuesday, September 1, 1987

A Reviewers Notebook: The Silk Road


If there is one big lesson to be derived from Irene M. Franck’s and David M. Brownstone’s The Silk Road: A History (New York: Facts on File Publications, 294 pp., $24.95), it is that people will trade with each other despite all the man-made and nature-made difficulties in the world.

For centuries our ancestors on the western reaches of the Eurasian continent had little contact with the East. They knew the Mediterranean, and they had managed to sail to Iceland and to “Vinland the Good” but their contact with China was blocked by desert climates in central Asia. The windblown sands of routes that skirted the fringes of the Tibetan highlands and the Gobi Desert could quickly bury trading posts, and even obliterate whole cities, which meant that travelers from East to West or West to East had continuously to rediscover ways that their forebears had pioneered over 4,000 years. In addition to the ever-encroaching sands, there were the nomads, the robbers, and the various tribes (the Huns, the Turks, the Mongols) that regarded all settled people as their natural prey.

Oddly, it was the aesthetic instinct that not only named the Silk Road, but also kept the overland routes between Europe and China open from the time when, in the second century B.C., the Chinese drove halfway across Asia to link up with western pathways that went north and south of the Caspian Sea. The Chinese had a passion for jade. The Roman world had a consuming hunger for silks. There had to be a meeting, and there was. It led to 400 years of happy accommodations.

According to Pliny, however, the Roman demands for luxury were an ultimate disaster for the empire. The Roman world in pre-Augustan times had been a fanning world that fed itself. But in conquering lands to the east, the legions opened the way for Pliny’s drain theory. The terminus for the Silk Road in Augustan times was Antioch, the capital of the Roman Orient. Here the silk was brought to be dyed and woven and embroidered to Roman tastes. The Phoenicians had discovered a Mediterranean mollusc that yielded a gorgeous purple dye, and the Romans loved it. From the Levantine ports, the dyed silks were shipped to the cities of the western empire. In return, the western Romans sent their gold and silver to the East, thus draining the empire of its monetary base. “This,” said Pliny, “is the price that our luxuries . . . cost us.”

The Pliny drainage theory is one way of accounting for the coming of the Dark Ages. But the disappearance of the precious metals couldn’t have been the whole story. Before the second century A.D., merchants and caravans in central Asia, and on precipitous routes leading down past the Pamir mountains to India, were well protected by Roman, Parthian, Kushan, and Chinese rulers. But Franck and Brownstone tell us that the whole aspect of the Silk Road changed around 200 A.D. “Powers that had once ruled in splendor,” they write, “fell into ignominious decline, each in its own way and for different reasons. The increasing dryness of Asia’s steppes and deserts contributed to the upheaval, setting in motion the great hordes of nomads who had always lived a precarious existence, and who now toppled the great civilizations on Asia’s perimeter. Activities on the great trans-Asian highway, which had long had a largely commercial-political- military cast to them, now came to have an increasingly religious tinge. In truth, there is more than a little truth to the suggestion that the insecurity and fragmentation of Asia in the following centuries caused many people to turn to the relatively new religions that were to change the face of the Silk Road.”

There was, of course, the alternative cold climate mute between East and West across the Siberian steppes. But this was always dangerous once the Siberian tribes had become horsemen. Atilla the Hun at one time, and Genghis Khan at another, made far more effective use of the northern steppes route than could be managed by anyone in the West. The Roman bastion at Constantinople held until its capture by the Turks in 1453. But Constantinople—or Byzantium—had lost the power to project itself eastward when it was sacked by the Venetians in the early thirteenth century.

Kublai Khan

History was to take a strange turn when Kublai Khan, the descendant of the fearsome Genghis, decided to become the peaceful protector of the Silk Road. It was Kublai Khan who, in the late thirteenth century, gave the Polo brothers from Venice a golden tablet on which was inscribed the command that they should be given “everything needful in all the countries through which they should pass,” including horses and armed escorts. The record left by Marco Polo indicates that the Silk Road had become relatively comfortable and safe under the later Mongols. The Polos stayed in China for 16 years, traveling in the Khan’s service from Cathay in the north to various cities in Manzi, as the southern part of the country was then called. They eventually came home to Europe by sea, taking the Spice Route around India to escort a Mongol princess to her prom ised husband in Persia.

The Crusades were only one protracted episode in the religious wars that, from the fourteenth century on, ended the Pax Mongolia. During the years of the Mongols’ peace, European traders could set out for China with full knowledge that they could get there and find the best markets. But the contentious Moslems, Turks, and Christians brought an end to the harmonious years.

In the whole course of the Silk Road’s history, so Franck and Brownstone write, “few people ever completed a round trip” on a highway that passed through many nations each jealous of taking its middleman’s profits. “Even in the greatest days of the Silk Road,” the authors say, “we know of no person who travelled the length of the Silk Road and back.”

The voyages of Columbus, Magellan, and da Gama made the safety of the Silk Road an academic matter from the sixteenth century on. Even so, the Franck-Brownstone pages devoted to the centuries-long struggle for the Iranian plateau have a most contemporary flavor. The Shiite Moslems and their ayatollahs who now pose so many difficulties for Western nations desirous of Persian Gulf oil are acting in ways that would have been well understood by their fifteenth century ancestors.

The Silk Road: A History should be pondered in Washington. What it indicates is that a war for the Persian Gulf might end with just one more Western ignominy.


  • John Chamberlain (1903-1995) was an American journalist, business and economic historian, and author of number of works including The Roots of Capitalism (1959). Chamberlain also served as a founding editor of The Freeman magazine.