The Silk Roads

More than war and conquest, more than voyages of exploration, trade is the most significant kind of encounter between two or more civilizations. Even in ancient times, trade connected and benefited diverse cultures. Egypt, for example, received artwork, tools, and other valuable items from its neighbors in Africa, western and southern Asia, and the Mediterranean basin, as is demonstrated by archaeological finds in Egypt. Likewise, Egyptian items have been found in all those places. In a similar way, trade among various native civilizations in the western hemisphere can be detected by the existence of unique its from one region beyond found in other regions, sometimes far away, and occurring many centuries ago, before the arrival of European explorers and travelers in the western world.

 The main trade routes of the eastern hemisphere are called the Silk Roads (or sometimes Silk Road). They included highways, rivers, canals, and sea lanes. Trade existed before the growth of the great empires, but the empires unintentionally facilitated trade as they built and improved roads. The Persians were among the first, tying their large empire together with roads for royal messengers and for the army; these roads were built and maintained by the government for its own purposes, but they were used as well by merchants and traders. The Mauryan Empire in India imitated the Persian development of roads, and the Han Dynasty also improved the roads of China. Phoenician and Greek travelers began commerce throughout the Mediterranean world, and the process of government-facilitated transportation was completed under the Romans. Two thousand years ago, Chinese silk could be bought in Rome and Italian glass could be bought in Chinese cities. People did not always know what they were buying: European purchasers assumed that silk was made from a plant textile, and Chinese purchasers assumed that glass was some sort of stone found in the far west.

Very few people traveled the Silk Roads from one extremity to the other. Most items were bought and sold several times on their way from one civilization to another. Merchants in the ancient world were like truck drivers who picked up a trailer in one city and drove it down the highway to another city, then acquired a new trailer in the second city and drove it back up the highway to the first city. Of course merchants made a profit every time they sold in one city what they had bought in another Various kinds of taxes—tolls, fees, and permits, among others—also increased the cost of the items that traveled on the Silk Roads. As a result, silk was an expensive luxury in the Roman Empire, and glass was an expensive luxury in China. The governments in the middle, including the Persians and the Mauryans, became wealthy because of the money they gained from the use of the Silk Roads within their borders.

Anything that could be bought and sold traveled on the Silk Roads: textiles, artwork, tools, precious metals and gemstones, ivory and precious woods, grain and vegetable foods, livestock (which was transported alive and slaughtered after delivery to keep the meat fresh), spices, work animals, and human slaves. Some slaves were condemned criminals, others were debtors, and many were prisoners captured in war; they came from all kinds of civilizations and cultures. Today, descendants of African slaves live in India and China, far from their native land, just as other displaced Africans later found themselves in the western hemisphere. Spices were preferred by merchants because of their compactness—spices had a greater value per pound or per cubic inch than any other commodity. Spices were valued, not only as flavoring and preservatives in food, but also for perfumes, medicines, and ingredients in magic potions and powders.

In addition to commodities, other ephemeral things traveled on the Silk Roads. Ideas traveled from place to place. Technology from China and Arabia was brought into the Roman Empire and its European successors. Political and economic ideas were introduced into new places. Religions traveled along the Silk Roads—especially Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam. Less ephemeral but equally significant, diseases also traveled the Silk Roads. Parasites, bacteria, and viruses all were spread by travelers carrying cargo from one city to the next. The bubonic plague, or Black Death, of the 1300s is only the most famous outbreak of disease linked to Silk Road exchanges; smallpox, measles, leprosy, anthrax, and liver flukes were also carried from place to place by travelers using the Silk Roads.

Empires rise and fall. Kingdoms wax and wane. Civilizations emerge, prosper, and decay. The economy continues through all these changes, shaping and uniting people in ways that human governments can neither imitate nor control. J.

The history of Rome, part one

Rome was not built in a day. Rome cannot be summarized in a single thousand-word post. Roman civilization became the foundation of all western civilization—from Iceland and Ireland to Russia, as well as Australia, New Zealand, and all the lands of the Americas. As a result, Roman civilization also has impacted greatly upon China, India, Africa, and the other civilizations of the world.

Rome began as a small settlement on the Italian peninsula. Although Rome was not a colony of the Greeks or Phoenicians, its inhabitants garnered much from both cultures, as well as that of the Etruscans, their neighbors to the north. Much of Roman civilization was borrowed, especially from the Greeks. Romans adopted Greek philosophy, Greek mathematics and science, Greek art and literature and music, and the Greek approach to history. Curious about many religions, some Romans experimented with Egyptian and Persian mystery religions before the civilization finally adopted Christianity, which developed out of the Jewish religion. Roman engineering surpassed all that had come before; the Romans discovered concrete, learned to build arches and domes, and made roads and aqueducts that remained useful for twenty centuries. Roman politics also set the standard by which civilizations have evaluated themselves and one another up to the present time.

At first, Rome was ruled by kings. Traditionally, Rome had a series of seven kings, some of them with Etruscan names. This form of government ended when the citizens of Rome rose up, overthrew their seventh king, and declared a republic. No longer, they declared, would Rome be ruled by kings. (When describing this vital decision to students, I would write “Rex”—the Roman word for king—on the board in black, then circle it in red and draw a slash line through it—no rex, no king.) Rome’s laws were made by a Senate. The people elected various officers, most for temporary positions that were term-limited; they could not remain in office indefinitely. Roman government was dominated by an elite of wealthy and powerful men, the upper class or patricians. Later, they permitted the middle class, or plebians, to participate in government as well, but the poor, slaves, women, and foreigners were always barred from voting and from participating in government offices.

Early in its history, Rome was threatened and almost destroyed by Celtic warriors who came from the north of Italy as invaders. Having survived that attack, Rome began to consolidate its position by overpowering and incorporating its neighbors, including the Latins (whose name became the name of the Roman language). Roman citizenship was granted to the leaders of Rome’s defeated neighbors. Army leaders retired to their farms—and, the more the army grew, the more farmland Rome needed to acquire to satisfy its retired veterans. This led to more acts of conquest and greater wars, including the three Punic wars against Carthage, wars I will describe in the next post.

At the same time that Rome fought to enlarge its Republic, the civilization also benefited from trade. The Roman Republic was included in a trade network that stretched all the way to China—a network called the Silk Roads, which I will also describe in a separate post. Because of the Silk Roads, Chinese silk was sold in Rome and Italian glass was sold in China. Through trade, Romans learned a little bit about civilizations far away from Italy—not only China, but also Italy, Persia, Arabia, Egypt, and other parts of Africa. To encourage such trade, Rome built and maintained roads, as was being done in China and Persia and India as well. Along these roads traveled merchandise of every kind. Also, ideas traveled on these roads: political ideas, economic ideas, scientific ideas, technological ideas, philosophic ideas, and religious ideas. This exchange of ideas made the time of the Romans one of the most interesting and important times in all of history. J.

The Axial Age and Persia

The Persian Empire emerged suddenly during the Axial Age. It was unlike the older civilizations that had developed in Egypt, Mesopotamia, India, and China. Indo-Europeans migrated into the highlands of what today is called Iran over the centuries, establishing small kingdoms of Medes, Persians, Elamites, and others. Cyrus, a prince of Persia, was able to establish power over his neighbors around the beginning of the Axial Age. After conquering the wealthy kingdom of Lydia (in what today is called Turkey), he led his forces into Mesopotamia and lay siege to the mighty city Babylon. According to ancient historians, Cyrus had his army divert the water of the Euphrates River into mad-made lakes so they could capture the city of Babylon by marching down the dry riverbed under the walls of the city. The book of Daniel in the Bible confirms that the city fell suddenly to the Persians. They lay claim to the entire Babylonian Empire, although they had to fight numerous battles to consolidate their control over what Babylon had previously claimed.

Cyrus died on the battlefield. His son Cambyses was fighting to retain Egypt when, according to ancient historians, he heard that his younger brother had seized the throne back home. Saying, “That’s impossible—I had my brother killed before I came to Egypt,” Cambyses rushed to return home. In his hurry, he accidently cut his leg with his own sword and eventually died of gangrene. A distant relative named Darius denounced the false younger son of Cyrus and had him killed. (The Persian historians of his time appear reluctant to consider the possibility that the son was genuine and that Darius was lying. Thus, historians have an unsolvable puzzle regarding this event in Persian history.) Taking hold of the kingdom, Darius established its borders and its administrative policies. He attempted to add European Greece to his holdings in 490 BCE; his son Xerxes led a similar invasion ten years later. Greek victories over Persian invaders are vital episodes in Greek history, though the setbacks mattered less to the Persians.

The Persian Empire was divided into satrapies. The ruling satraps were Persian, but the rest of government was locally managed. So far as people paid their taxes and did not violate major Persian laws, the Persian authorities gave them local autonomy. Local languages, religions, customs, and practices were allowed and even encouraged. Earlier empires, including the Assyrians and Babylonians, maintained control of conquered lands by displacing populations (much as the United States did to American tribes and China still does to its citizens today). Persians even allowed people like the Jews to return home, rebuild their cities and temples, and honor their gods. To allow rapid communication through the empire (and rapid movement of the Persian army when needed), the Persian government built highways throughout the lands they controlled. These highways were used by travelers and merchants, beginning a network of trade that would soon link major civilizations of three continents. Government messengers would travel these highways, exchanging horses at each station along the way; this practice, revived in the United States, was known as the Pony Express. Advisors to the government were called Magi. Like the Cabinet of the United States presidency, magi were experts in a variety of areas, including science, history, social studies, religious texts, and law. Their influence as a class of advisors to kings and government officials would remain long after the Persian Empire had fallen to pieces.

The official religion of the Persian Empire was Zoroastrianism. Founded by a man known both as Zoroaster and Zarathustra, this religion has always taught that only one god exists and that all competing gods are liars and demons, not truly gods. Zoroastrianism acknowledges the existence of a secondary evil being who opposes the true god; people in the world must choose between supporting the good or the evil. Support for the good includes piety, unselfishness, care for neighbors, and care of the environment. Support for the evil includes ignorance about god, selfishness, abuse of other people, and destruction of the environment. Those who have supported the good find, at death, that they travel a broad avenue to Paradise; those who have supported the evil find that avenue narrow—in some cases, as narrow as the blade of a knife—and they risk falling off the avenue into unending fire. Because the world currently is balanced between good and evil, each human choice influences the outcome of the world. However, most Zoroastrians are convinced that, in the end, good will overcome evil.

Respect for the environment includes maintaining the purity of the elements—earth, water, air, and fire. Various fire ceremonies are part of Zoroastrian practice. A person who dies cannot be buried (polluting the earth), burned (polluting air and fire), or thrown into the sea (polluting the water). Instead, their bodies are left on platforms to be consumed by birds of the air, nourishing nature and recycling the physical part of human existence while increasing the likelihood of a safe journey to Paradise.

Some historians identify Zarathustra as an Axial Age teacher; others say he lived centuries before the Axial Age. Darius appears to be the first Persian Emperor to endorse Zoroastrianism formally. If Zarathustra was not born until around the time of Cyrus, he may well have been influenced in his beliefs by Israelites relocated into his vicinity by the Assyrian Empire. If he lived much earlier, his ideas may have helped shape Hebrew belief, thus contributing to Jewish, Christian, and Muslim teachings.

“Paradise” is a loan-word from the Hebrew language. So is “Satan”—Satan is the prosecuting attorney in a Persian court of law. (For Christians, Jesus is a defense attorney, an Advocate before the Father.)  The images of Paradise for the good and unending fire for the evil have been adopted from Zoroastrianism into Christian and Muslim thought. One branch of Christianity, called Manichaeism, deliberately blended Zoroastrian and Christian beliefs. Manichaeism was rejected by early Christians (including Augustine of Hippo, who in his earlier years had been a Manichee). It was seen as placing too much responsibility for human salvation and for the world’s future condition on human behavior and decisions, rather than trusting the promises of an Almighty God and the victory won by Christ on the cross. Modern Christian preachers who stress the beauty of heaven and the horrors of hell and who call upon their listeners to choose between them reflect Manichaean theology rather than that of the Bible. J.

Socialism, capitalism, and racism: part one–the trans-Atlantic slave trade

Slavery has existed in the world since the earliest historical records were written. Some slaves were prisoners of war; others became slaves as punishments for crime or as a result of debts they could not repay. In most ancient civilizations, slaves had rights that were protected by law. Some slaves did agricultural work or household chores, but others held highly respectable positions—private tutors for children of the rich, managers of property, and financial advisors. Joseph, son of Jacob, was a slave in Egypt who managed his master’s property. The Roman philosopher Epictetus was also a slave.

Even before the trans-Atlantic slave trade began, Africans were bought by Muslim traders and were sold in Arabia, India, and China. Even today descendants of African slaves live in China. But the tragedy of the trans-Atlantic slave trade was caused by sugar addiction. Crusaders first encountered cane sugar in western Asia. (Sugar cane is native to the Indonesian islands, but it had been sold and consumed in India, Persia, and Arabia for centuries.) Europeans had some natural sweeteners—honey and fruits—but the pure sweetness of cane sugar captivated European tastes. More than cinnamon, nutmeg, or cloves, the spice called “sugar” was in great demand as Europeans sought Asian spices from the silk roads. Italian investors tried to cultivate sugar cane on Mediterranean islands, but the climate was wrong and the crops failed.

In the 1400s, Portuguese explorers and traders began to look for short cuts in the silk roads, ways to obtain valued items such as gold and spices while bypassing some of the middle steps. (Taxes from governments and profits from merchants heighted the costs of Asian goods in Europe, so naturally western Europeans wanted to create and pursue any shortcuts they could find.) Traveling down the coast of Africa, the Portuguese found African civilizations eager to trade, and among the commodities offered by these Africans were slaves—prisoners captured from nearby tribes during disputes over land and wealth. At the same time, the Portuguese discovered islands off the coast of Africa that were uninhabited and were ideal for cultivating sugar cane. The Portuguese traded for African slaves and used them to grow and harvest sugar cane. When other explorers happened upon the Caribbean islands, they again found land ideal for sugar cane, and slaves purchased in Africa were transported across the ocean to labor in fields from Spanish Florida south to Portuguese Brazil. Slaves were soon introduced into British colonies north of Florida as well.

The plantations and haciendas established by Spain and Portugal in the New World were not capitalist ventures. They belonged to an economic philosophy now called mercantilism. In mercantilism, thinkers assume that the wealth in the world is limited and stagnant—one individual or nation can become richer only as another becomes poorer. Wealth from the New World—precious metals, crops (including sugar, cotton, coffee, rubber, and tobacco), animal furs, and fish—was transported to the Old World to enrich governments in Europe. Capitalists from Great Britain and the Netherlands did engage in the slave trade. Their ships traveled in a triangle: they traded with the Africans, selling European commodities and buying slaves; they sold slaves in the western hemisphere and bought New World wealth; they sold materials from the New World in European ports and gained European commodities. With each sale, they made a profit, much of which was distributed among investors.

But emerging capitalism in Great Britain and the Netherlands was accompanied by an abolition movement, an insistence that all people—even Africans and native Americans—possess human rights and should not be treated as property. The Industrial Revolution, created and funded by capitalism, replaced human labor with machinery, reducing the need to enslave human workers. Britain abolished the slave trade in 1807, followed by the United States the next year. All slavery was abolished in the British Empire in 1833. Compromises in the American government allowed slavery to persist in some states until the Civil War. Worldwide, slavery was not declared illegal in all countries until the 1960s.

Between 1500 and 1800, more Africans were introduced into the western hemisphere than Europeans. Sixteen million Africans (most of them sold by other Africans) were purchased in Africa and put in ships to be taken to the western hemisphere. Twelve million survived the trip and were sold as slaves. The death of four million Africans on those trading ships is one of the shameful facts about the slave trade—human beings were treated as an expendable commodity like any other crop. Treatment of slaves in the New World was a mixed package: some were treated with kindness and respect, but many were abused, tortured, and worked to death. Twenty-first century historians and moralists find it easy to condemn slavery and the trans-Atlantic slave trade. Dealing with the aftermath of those three hundred years is a different kettle of fish. J.

Stepping back to see the big picture (socialism, continued)

The idea of socialism arose as a response to the Industrial Revolution and to some of the problems within that Revolution. In turn, the Industrial Revolution was a consequence of several large historical movements that came together in a particular time and place to shape human history.

When historians seek to understand and explain an event or a movement, they must take a step back and look at the broader picture. Often this requires further steps back, sometimes to view the entire panorama of history. Analyzing the causes of the Industrial Revolution includes such steps and such a view.

The Persian Empire, Mauryan Empire, Han Empire, and Roman Empire each constructed roads to facilitate government communication across their stretches of land and to accommodate the travel of armies. As a result of those roads (and associated waterways), merchants and merchandise began to flow through and beyond these empires. Imperial governments favored the exchange of merchandise, since it could be taxed every time it changed hands. Two thousand years ago, Italian glass could be bought in China, and Chinese silk could be bought in Italy. Anything that could be moved, bought, and sold traveled along these roads and waterways: fabrics, spices, precious metals and gems, artwork, food, livestock, and slaves. Over the centuries, travel and trade ebbed and flowed because of other political and economic conditions. Along the same routes traveled ideas—religious ideas, political and economic ideas, and technology—and disease also spread from culture to culture along the same roads.

Genghis Khan’s Mongolian Empire sparked additional travel and trade along these routes. Asian produce and technology traveled into Europe. Bubonic plague (the Black Death) began somewhere in inland China but spread to the cities of China and to Mediterranean cities, and from there to all the populated areas of Europe. This disease had a devastating consequence upon commerce and economic activity, both because of the high death rate of the disease and because of the fear of disease that spread throughout the population.

Disruption of trade, caused by disease and by political developments in the eastern Mediterranean, caused western European governments to seek a shortcut to African and Asian goods, eliminating some of the middlemen. Using Asian technology, including the Chinese compass and the Arabian astrolabe, Portuguese mariners set sail down the coast of Africa and into the western ocean. Spain, England, and the Netherlands eventually followed. Early results of the Portuguese expeditions included expansion of the sugar industry and development of the African slave trade. But Columbus’ abortive attempts to cross the ocean between Spain and east Asia revealed an expanse of islands and continents in the western hemisphere. Soon commerce between the Old World and the New World brought new foods to Europe; those new foods helped to support a growing population, recovering from the plague.

As the population grew, though, landowners found that they could enclose their land for more specific use, such as the grazing of sheep to produce wool. This removed peasants from the land and from their agricultural activities, sending them into the towns and cities. The growing urban population disrupted the guilds and other work that the tradespeople had developed over centuries. More new technology met this change in population dispersion to ignite the Industrial Revolution in England.

A Chinese inventor had learned how to harness the power of a flowing river with a wheel, channeling that energy to other uses. Europeans improved the water wheel by installing it vertically instead of horizontally, effectively letting the power of gravity increase the power generated by the moving water of the river. Later, the same idea was converted to generation of power from steam, which no longer needed the immediate presence of a river.

Around the same time, a Chinese chemist found a new recipe for steel. Iron technology had begun in Anatolia (the location of modern Turkey) about three thousand years ago. Pure iron is a powder, but iron combined with carbon makes cast iron, which produced tools stronger and more durable than the stone and bronze tools used previously. (Ironworking was discovered independently in central Africa around the same time.) About a thousand years ago, a new recipe for iron and carbon produced steel, a great improvement over cast iron. The new recipe used coal instead of burnt wood as a carbon source. Coal and iron deposits both exist in China, but not near each other. In England, iron and coal and running water are found in close proximity. Deforestation of England also provided greater interest in coal, both as fuel and as an ingredient for making steel. The Industrial Revolution was ready to emerge.

As the urban population grew, new businesses began to exploit the work force to get around the guild economy of Europe. Shepherds and shearers would sell the raw wool from their sheep to moneyed peasants. These peasants would then hire some families to card the wool in their homes. The carded wool was then returned to the business owners, who hired other people to spin the wool into thread. The spinners returned the thread, which the business owners then sent to weavers, who used looms to change the thread into cloth. The cloth was chemically treated by fullers, and the improved cloth was sent to tailors, who cut the cloth into pieces and sewed it into garments. Shepherds, Shearers, Carders, Spinners, Weavers, Fullers, and Tailors were each paid for their labor, and afterward they all bought clothing from the businesses that had paid them for their work. Today many family names reflect the role of their ancestors in this industry.

Steel tools and steam power made factories possible. No longer did the work have to be sent into homes and brought back to the businesses: the businesses could own the buildings and machines where the work was done. These machines could produce far more clothing from far fewer laborers. The Industrial Revolution began in England, spread into other European countries and then to North America, and eventually filled the world. The impact of this revolution changed the lives of many people, from wealthy business owners to impoverished workers. J.