Posted in book review

‘The Roman Empire and the Silk Routes’, by Raoul McLaughlin – review

The Roman Empire and the Silk Routes: The Ancient World Economy & the Empires of Parthia, Central Asia & Han China by Raoul McLaughlin

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


We are easily apt to presume that what we can do was an impossibility for those of different eras and places. Yet, what is happening now has happened before, although in various modes of Operandi. Global trade was also part of the ancient world’s economy that affected civilization’s fortune just as it is today in our time. This book shows the reader how ancient commerce happened thousands of years ago across a great distance of continents from the Far East to the West to propagate the prospects and prosperity of Europe and Asia’s far-flung regimes via silk routes through Central Asia.

The book is a fine organization of roads, resources, and governments involved in the ancient business world that surprise the modern reader that without airplanes, cars, and computers even, our forefathers of humankind found ways to travel a great distance for profits with flares for adventure. First, the term “Silk Roads” became famous by the 19th Century German geographer/explorer Baron Ferdinand von Richthofen, who surveyed the land routes crossing Central Asia from Afghanistan to China as used in the ancient Chinese and Roman texts. His ambitious plan was to construct a railway line across Central Asia that would have linked the German economy to Chinese markets. In ancient times, the Romans imported Chinese silk that came to Roman Syria from Iranian caravan routes crossing the Parthian Empire from Uzbekistan to Mesopotamia. The Romans’ Eastern business also included Indian valuables via the Persian Gulf that reached Parthian markets in Babylonia. An ancient text reveals that one Indian sailor from the wreckage of a trade ship from India around the Red Sea rescued by a Greek patrol ship from the Ptolemaic kingdom of Egypt around the Arabian Peninsula told the Greeks how to sail from India via season Monsoon winds.

The Romans had already known about India but not the Far East until 1 B.C., when silk began to reach the Mediterranean Sea through the Parthian Empire ruling in ancient Iran via caravan routes, aka the silk roads. It appears that commerce contacts and cultural interactions indeed existed. Modern archeologists discovered the graves of slave workers of textile production during the first century A.D. at Vagnari in southern Italy; one of them had a DNA of Far Eastern ancestry inherited from his mother. From Julius Caesar to Caligula, silk both ornamental and devotional in the panoply of magnificent Roman authority. The Romans made ceremonial silk curtains dyed in royal Tyrian purple as awnings in public ceremonies to protect spectators’ eyes from the fiery Mediterranean Sun’s glare. Silk also made beautiful garments and garlands presented to classical gods’ images and offered to the protective household deities. The reader would be pretty surprised to learn that the end of Cleopatra VIII and her paramour Mark Anthony was a purple augury of lucrative Roman trade from the eastern world. The accumulated Roman economy from Ptolemaic Egypt’s annexation and control over the eastern legions made the distribution of the Roman citizens’ funds possible. The empire gained direct sovereignty over the Red Sea shipping lanes into the Indian Ocean.

Reading this book confirmed my conviction that people would find the way to do what they needed. However, the younger generations of our time often make the anachronistic mistake of judging the previous generations as culturally retrogressed and hemmed in insular thoughts. It is only a different way of doing business, however slow or primitive it may seem. The ancient commerce contacts show that a country cannot stand alone and survive alone in the world if it refuses to measure the truth with the desire based on ethnocentrism growing into xenophobia. Human cultural progress is a collective enterprise. We live not in isolated islands but a global village.



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Posted in Miscellany

Playing goddess fortuna

Aristotle averred that man is a political animal by nature. Anyone uninterested in politics is either a divine being or a beast considering his contemporary volatile political situations in city-states due to the Peloponnesian War. He must have noticed that an unstable government naturally spawned the populace’s grunts, usually in matters of economic hardship and arbitrary measures of civil conduct. That was millenniums ago; you might say, at least not in the United States, some might say. Then why are the scenes of the disaffected ancient Athenians overlapping with those of the disappointed Americans now at the end of this Pandemic Year like an army of living ghosts in my mind’s eye?

It all began with Covid-19 that showed politicians’ true colors, which are neither bright nor dark but only gray, grayer, and grayest. To add clarity to the grayness, the current tug-of-war in Capitol Hill regarding the Economic Impact Payment (“stimulus check”). The sudden news of the second stimulus check was a dim light of high hope for low heaven for most people whose livelihood depended on paychecks from work, social services, or other possible aid agencies. Then another beam of hope shone from the Congress that they would push for a higher amount of the stimulus check to be passed in the Senate. Woe betides anyone who believed in human kindness! The big wigs in the Senate thought that the increased amount of the check would be spent inordinately by people who would not need the monetary aid, such as the employed and others unqualified for whatever deemed unfit in the eyes of the moralists confusing coldness with principles.

As the Pythagorean theorem does not formulate life, no one can expect the exact sum of need, subject to individual circumstances. As in other countries, our political leaders do not have the right to measure their political rhetorics with personal egos in the guise of moral rectitude. They should not dictate what people do with the government-issued pittance because that the first and foremost a sign of totalitarianism over individual freedom. Once the money is given, then it’s up to the donee how it is spent, come what may. Besides, the amount of stimulus check is not as generous as the senate majority thinks. It barely covers a month worth of food, transportation, and some utility bills in most households. But then, beggars can’t be choosers. People want it, and they want it now to get by. Does the Senate know about it? I doubt it.

Those who regard folks in need of financial aid as the annoying mendicants mooching off others’ packets should know that the swift is not to victory, the strong not to wealth, but time and chance befall to all. The government should not play the role of the goddess of fortune blindfolded spinning the wheel of fortune, missing the wheel’s lucky compass to those in need of it.