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.

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.