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    Roman Empire And The Silk Road by Raoul McLoughlin

       (1 review)

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    Book Review by Marc Ollard

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    Twenty years ago I stood on an island on the other side of the world from where I live. The journey of something like thirteen thousand miles had taken a dull and tiring twenty five hours. Yet in many respects it was easy. I had simply paid for my air ticket, packed my bags, turned up at the airport, completed the prescribed procedures, and off I went. We take this modern transport system for granted, but two thousand years ago there was no such thing. There is only one recorded instance of a Roman ship reaching China, and no indication they ever made it back.

    Nonetheless trade between east and west existed. Goods reached either end of an arduous eight thousand mile journey and those that travelled spread news and told stories. Both the mighty Roman Empire and the sophisticated Han Empire of China knew the other was out there, somewhere beyond the horizon. There were even rare attempts by either nation state to establish relations with the other. If only they could find that great empire the merchants told them about.

    The Roman Empire And The Silk Road by Raoul McLoughlin seeks to describe a situation that existed for a few hundred years in the past. Trade routes across Asia and the societies that interacted along it. He writes in an engaging style without sensationalist questioning. Everything is derived from ancient sources in a factual manner. In most cases, the study of Roman history remains focused on that empire's interior and periphery, but McLoughlin places SPQR in context, in relation to the world around it, and demonstrates convincingly how important how important these contacts were to keeping the Roman Empire economically viable. The emphasis is on one product - silk. It might seem a little myopic but the point is that silk was a hugely valuable and desirable commodity. The Chinese paid their troops in bales of it. Once the Romans discovered this wonder material from a far off land they craved it as a fashion necessity, as a practical material, and as a status symbol.

    There has long been debate on contact between Rome and China. Stories of Roman mercenaries or captives sold as slaves by the Parthians are persistent. There is also the DNA research on slave skeletons in Rome that detected at least one with a far eastern origin. McLoughlin's approach remains level headed. There is no place in his work for constructing a fantasy, and whilst there are some strange anomalies in the past, he resolves these questions with evidence and clear sighted rationalism.

    There are fascinating glimpses of the capabilities of ancient travel. In an age when fragile wooden ships are thought to have rarely left sight of land, we find sailors of the Persian Gulf advising a Chinese envoy that if he wanted to reach Rome by sea, he must go around Africa, and that could take at least two months or at worst up to two years depending on winds. How did they know that if the journey wasn't practised regularly? In a world without charts or geographical knowledge? The author does not speculate himself - he records the information for our own conclusions. Whatever they may be, it is clear that ancient sailors were well aware of the distances they might have to travel. On the other hand, the author does not dwell on this aspect, and the reader is left a little in the dark on average travel times for various means. It doesn't take a genius to figure out that the Silk Road wasn't an overnight service. A quick calculation suggests that by walking eight hours a day I might expect to reach China in just over a year.

    Our world is of course a different enviroment from that the ancients knew two thousand years ago. The River Oxus, once a a vital waterway through Asia, once mooted as a future frontier of the Roman Empire, is now almost gone. So much of Alexander's Hellenistic Empire depended on that waterway. The cities along it are now little known ruins, and in the light of modern events, somewhat difficult to research. In a substantial manner we are missing pieces of the puzzle, yet these pieces have been painstakingly reconstructed by McLoughlin academically. A picture emerges that shows a semi-global market, empires that do not stand alone but interact with the world beyond their borders, a moment in time when human activity evolves and progresses, only for it to crumble and wither away in later years. We ae well aware of our global status thanks to modern media, but the interesting reality is that the ancients managed to create their own without the communication we take for granted.

    The appendices are worth their weight in gold. You will find comparisons for the Romans, Parthians, the Hellenistic East, Sarmatians, the Steppe nations, the Kushan Empire of India, and of course the Chinese on revenue, costs, and commerce. Military forces are weighed against each other, all providing an impressive and consistent record.

    In all this is a fascinating book that outlines the characteristics of several cultures spanning a third of the globe. Military, political, and especially economic information underline the relationships and events of the time. Anyone reading this book is going to understand a very special period of our past a whole lot better, and on that I cannot fault this book. This is a work that delves into a subject that has rarely been given any serious literature, a labour of love by the author, and even if half the book is correct, what I just finished reading is astonishing. An entire complex global community in a world that's gone forever. But not forgotten.

    Raoul McLoughlin is an independent Irish scholar not attached to, or supported by, a university department. During his research he created a framework for understanding the Imperial Roman economy based on significant international trade. The completed model is supported by ancient source evidence and recent archaeological discoveries. His original doctoral thesis on this topic was submitted in 2006, then published as a monograph by Bloomsbury in 2010. At present he is continuing with his unfunded independent research into the contacts and contrasts between the Roman Empire and the Han Chinese. He is also using ancient source evidence to investigate commerce beyond Rome's western frontier, in particular with ancient Hibernia, Caledonia and the Western Isles.

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