Silk Road to Rome

The Han Dynasty ruled China from approximately 206 b.c.e to 220 c.e. During that same time, Rome rose to ascension, reaching it’s peak era of rule at approximately 117 c.e. Yet for all their concurrent power, the Han and the Roman empires never actually interacted directly with each other. In today’s world of high speed internet, and 24 hour shopping, this seems unthinkable. But despite the lack of direct contact, they were aware of each other through means of the ancient trade routes, later called The Silk Road.

So how did this work? The ancient trade route started initially in the eastern Han dynasty capital of Luoyang, winding it’s way north and east to the hub city of Anxi. From there the “road” split, heading south and north respectively along the Taklamakan desert. The northern routes hit major trade hubs along the southern Altai mountain range, before splitting again at Turpan. The southern route split again just west of Hotan, part of it running through the Himalayas and down in to the Gupta Empire in India, part of it continuing west.[1]  All roads eventually led to cities in the Roman empire, where it became available for trade.

And while direct trade would have undoubtedly been beneficial to the two empires, all the lands in between wanted their cut of the action too.  Silk was a relatively lightweight and eminently portable trade good.  Useful in everything from clothing, to banners, to artwork, to paper, silk was frequently used to pay taxes in ancient China, and readily accepted as currency along the Silk Road.  When the Han dynasty attempted to send an emissary directly to Rome to establish direct trade, the Parthians in Mesopotamia advised emissary Kan Yang that the trip would take two years by sea.  Kan Yang returned to China, and it would be another 70 years before Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius successfully sent a trade delegation to China.[2]

Well before trade routes were established, Rome had seen silk by way of warfare and conquest.  One source[3] has Rome encountering silk as early as Alexander the Greats defeat of Darius III in 334 b.c.e. stating that Darius III was robed in such silken splendor that he demanded silk as part of the peace negotiations.  And somewhere in there, the Roman’s and Greeks did start talking about the land of Seres (sericulture?  Syria…the country from which silk was traded?).  Regardless, silk made a definite impact on Roman soldiers at the battle of Carrhae, where they shone so brightly in the sun, thanks to silk’s ability to catch and throw light so terrified the Roman line, that the battle quickly became a slaughter, with the Parthians easily winning the day.[4]

From this point, silk became a coveted trade good in Rome, and by the first century, Pliny the Elder was decrying silk as the ruination of civilization, making men more like women, claiming that the pursuit of silk and other luxury goods costing the Roman empire in excess of one hundred million sesterces.[5]  By the time the Han dynasty fell in the east, the Emperor Heliogabalus in the west refused to wear anything but silk, and silk was so well known that when the Goths sacked Rome in 408 c.e., part of the city ransom included silk tunics.