The name “the Silk Road” evokes images of camel caravans carrying precious cargo, silk, and spices, of a voyage across dangerous and exotic lands, desert oases, and wealthy cities. It is the world of mighty empires and fierce nomadic tribes who fought to control this famed road. While this is partly true, as the Silk Road was indeed one of the most important trade routes in history, linking the “great civilizations” of Eurasia for more than two thousand years, the reality is more complex.
To start with, the magical term “the Silk Road” is a modern invention. It is a 19th-century construct coined by the German geographer and historian Ferdinand von Richthofen at a time when Europe was captivated by the exotic Orient. The “Silk Road” was, in fact multiple “Silk Roads”. Not one road, but many — a complex network of land and sea routes that facilitated the exchange of goods, cultures, and ideas. Thus, the Silk Road was a vehicle of globalization — playing a vital role in shaping and reshaping the ancient world and leaving an indelible mark on the societies linked by it — from Persia and India to China and Rome.
Beginnings of the Silk Road in Antiquity: The Royal Road of Persia
The fertile plains of Mesopotamia, crisscrossed by the great Tigris and Euphrates rivers, provided the basis for the first towns and cities and the first organized states. In the millennia that followed, the area between the Mediterranean Sea and the Persian Gulf produced dozens of kingdoms and empires, of whom the greatest was the Persian or Achaemenid Empire. After its foundation in the sixth century BCE, the Persian Empire expanded quickly, conquering its neighbors, taking Asia Minor and Egypt, and even reaching the Himalayas in the east. Part of its tremendous success was the willingness of the Achaemenid kings to adopt the ideas and practices of their conquered people, incorporating them quickly into their realm.
Thus, it should not be a surprise that the Persians created the predecessor to the Silk Road. Known as the Royal Road, the Persian road network linked the Mediterranean coast with Babylon, Susa, and Persepolis, allowing the travelers to cover more than 2500 kilometers in a week. Besides increased effectiveness of the administration of the vast empire, the Royal Road facilitated the trade, providing huge revenues, which in turn allowed Achaemenid monarchs to fund military expeditions, engage in large construction projects, and enjoy a luxurious life in one of many palaces.
Linking Europe and Asia: The Hellenistic World
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The Royal Road played an essential role in making the Persian Empire a beacon of stability and multiculturalism in the ancient world. Yet even the mighty Persian army could not defeat the threat on its northern border — the fierce, horse-riding nomads of the steppe world. One of the most famous Achaemenid kings, Cyrus the Great, was killed during his campaign against the nomadic Scythians. In the West, the Persians also confronted problematic Greeks, who fought back against the royal army, and eventually toppled the once mighty Empire.
Ironically, the Royal Road played an important role in Alexander the Great’s conquest, facilitating the swift progress of the Macedon-Greek army eastwards. The efficient communication network also sped up the emergence of Hellenistic kingdoms, led by Alexander’s successors — the diadochi. The Royal Road now linked the ancient Persian capital with Greek towns around the Mediterranean and the new cities established by Alexander and his successors.
A few decades after the death of Alexander, the vast area that extended from Egypt and Southern Italy all the way to the Indus Valley, was united by one language, one culture, and one coinage. While Greek culture retained dominance, Hellenistic rulers continued to promote the multicultural policy of their Achaemenid predecessors. The result was a unique blend of ideas and traditions — the Hellenistic World. During this time, Europe and Asia established strong ties that would leave an indelible mark on world history — creating the Silk Road.
The Roads to India
The vibrancy of cultural exchange via the Silk Road was astonishing, leading to innovation, borrowing, and assimilation. Statues of Greek gods, such as Apollo, and miniature ivory statues depicting Alexander, found in modern-day India and Tajikistan, reveal the extent of the influences from the West. In turn, the Gandara Buddha statues, found in present-day Afghanistan, in the area occupied by the easternmost Hellenistic kingdom of Bactria, show the influx of eastern ideas into the Hellenistic World. More importantly, those statues are the first visual representations of the Buddha — a direct reaction of the Buddhists to the challenge posed by images of Apollo.
Similarly, the Silk Road facilitated the transmission of knowledge between the continents. The Greeks were renowned in India for their scientific skills, like astronomy and mathematics. The Greek language was studied in the Indus valley, and it is possible that the Mahabharata — the Sanskrit epic — was influenced by the Iliad and the Odyssey. Virgil’s Aeneid on the other hand — a Roman masterpiece — may have been influenced by Indian texts. For centuries, travelers, pilgrims, and merchants traveled across the southern branch of the Silk Road, bringing with them new ideas, images, and concepts. During the Hellenistic Period, and especially from the first century CE onwards, Europe and Asia were connected by a lucrative maritime trade route, linking Egypt to India that profoundly transformed the societies involved.
The Banners of Silk: China’s “First Contact” with Rome
While India played a role in this exchange, another ancient power would turn the Silk Road into one of the world’s most famous trade routes. Unlike the Persian and Hellenistic rulers, who failed to neutralize the steppe nomads, the Han emperors of China managed to expand their frontiers further west, reaching the area of present-day Xinjiang. The secret to their success was their powerful cavalry, who utilized the prized “heavenly” horses bred in the Ferghana region (modern-day Uzbekistan). Around 110 BCE, the imperial army defeated the nomadic Xiongnu tribes and secured access to the vital Gansu corridor. This opened the way to the Pamir mountains, and beyond them, the trans-continental route leading West — the Silk Road.
Half a century after the Chinese triumph, on the other side of the world, another rapidly expanding power had encountered these famous horses. The clash between Rome and Parthia at Carrhae in 53 BCE ended in a disaster for the Romans, leading to the ignoble death of Marcus Licinius Crassus. The legions had no response to the lethal arrow showers launched at them by Parthian horsemen. This humiliating disaster was also the first time the Romans encountered a commodity that gave the Silk Road its name. When the Parthian cavalry advanced, they “unfurled gleaming-colored banners of a strange, gauze-like fabric that billowed in the breeze” (Florus, Epitome) — Chinese silk. In the decades that followed, the Romans went crazy for sericum to the extent that the Senate tried, and failed, to ban silk. Still, the Parthian Empire would remain a firm obstacle to establishing direct contact with China, causing Rome to find another way, expanding the Silk Road via the sea.
The Silk Ties: Rome and China
Several decades after the catastrophe at Carrhae, Rome annexed the last Hellenistic kingdoms, gaining control over the rich regions of Egypt and the Eastern Mediterranean. Rome had become the Empire, the ancient world’s superpower. Unsurprisingly, a long period of stability and prosperity — the Pax Romana — filled imperial coffers, stimulating demand for luxury goods, including silk. To bypass the Parthian middlemen, Emperor Augustus encouraged the establishment of the lucrative maritime trade route to India, which in the following centuries became the leading exporter of luxury goods, including Chinese silk. Indian Ocean trade would remain the primary communication avenue between Rome, India, and China until the loss of Roman Egypt in the mid-seventh century CE.
Except for a short-lived expansion under Emperor Trajan, the Silk Road, and thus direct contact with China (Seres, “the land of silk” to the Romans) remained beyond the Empire’s reach. Yet, the trade over land continued during the entire existence of the Roman Empire. The caravans laden with goods would leave the great Han (and later Tang) capitals of Chang’an (modern Xi’an) and Luoyang, and travel to the westernmost edge of the Empire, the famed Jade Gates. What followed was a long journey from one oasis to the next, with caravans navigating the treacherous Taklamakan desert or, if taking the southern route, the passes of the Tian Shan mountains or the Pamirs. Besides the difficult terrain, the merchants had to negotiate extreme temperatures, ranging from hot deserts to subzero temperatures in the mountains. The Bactrian camel, adapted to such a harsh environment, made transporting goods over land on the Silk Road viable.
The situation improved once caravans entered Parthian (and later Sassanid) territory. Here, the Silk Road used sections of the old Royal Road, linking the ancient cities of Ecbatana and Merv situated east of the Zagros Mountains with the western capitals of Seleucia and Ctesiphon, located on the Tigris river. Persia was more than a mere middleman. It, too, traded with China, exchanging goods made from gold and silver for spices, silk, and jade (the latter never reached Rome!). From Persia, often led by local merchants, the caravans continued westwards. The next stop was Palmyra, the wealthy Roman client state and one of the major centers on the Silk Road until its conquest by Emperor Aurelian in the late third century CE. Most caravans would stop here. Some, however, would enter imperial territory and reach their final destination — Antioch — a Roman metropolis on the Eastern Mediterranean coast.
However, these were not Chinese people but people from central Asia — most notably the Sogdians — who trafficked exotic goods between the empires. In addition, the Parthian and Sassanid Empires remained an unsurmountable obstacle for Rome, who were unable to establish direct contact with China. The two powers exchanged ambassadors on a few occasions, but they remained only vaguely aware of each other due to the vast distances and the hostile state right in the middle of the Silk Road.
The Silk Road and the End of Antiquity
The Silk Road was an effective conduit for transferring goods, ideas, and culture across the vast expanses of Eurasia. Yet, it also offered access to more dangerous “travelers”. The ancient pandemics that ravaged the ancient world, including the infamous Plague of Justinian, spread rapidly using the Silk Road network. The Silk Road also acted as an effective conduit to move large armies at a fast speed. For centuries, unsuccessfully, the Roman emperors tried to remove the Persian obstacle and open the route East. Infamously, Emperor Julian lost his very life in one such attempt.
Around the same time that the Justinianic plague crippled the Empire, the Romans scored a massive coup by smuggling the silkworm eggs to Constantinople, establishing a silk monopoly in Europe. Then, in the mid-seventh century, the Roman Empire finally managed to beat Persia, only to lose its precious eastern territories, including Mesopotamia and Egypt, to a new rival, the armies of Islam. Persia was no more, but the Romans, forced to fight for their very survival, could not dislodge the powerful Caliphate nor access the Silk Road. China, too, suffered a crisis, although the Tang dynasty eventually restored control. The ancient world was passing away, giving way to the Middle Ages. Under the Caliphate, the Islamic world would unite the enormous area extending from Atlantic shores to the border of China and further to the Pacific Ocean. A new Golden Age was about to begin, in which the Silk Road played a central role.