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November 24, 2009

Eurasian Exploration

Lloyd Richardson on Empires of the Silk Road: A History of Central Eurasia from the Bronze Age to the Present by Christopher Beckwith


Christopher Beckwith. Empires of the Silk Road: A History of Central Eurasia from the Bronze Age to the Present. Princeton University Press. 496 Pages. $35.00

The silk road — what images it calls to mind: long camel trains stretched across the vast wastelands of Central Asia, bringing luxury goods — silks, spices, and jewels — from the mystic East to the oligarchs of the Near East and Europe, precious objects purchased with Western gold. The stuff of romantic novels and Hollywood epics.

We all know about the Silk Road. It consisted of trade routes running east and west across Central Asia, connecting China in the east, Rome in the west, and Persia and India to the south. Its name reflected the predominance of Chinese silk in the trade. Along these routes traveled what is known as traditional (that is, pre-capitalist) world trade, which was characterized by the exchange of valuable high-quality products in relatively small quantities.

Beckwith contends, however, that this view of the Silk Road is misleading, or at least only partly true.

Although the term “Silk Road” is misleading, it can still be used to refer to the foreign trade component of this [Central Eurasian] economy, as long as it is understood that what drove the economic engine of the Silk Road was first of all the internal Central Eurasian trade, based on internal demand.

In this Central Eurasian1 trade, a symbiotic relationship existed between the nomads roaming the Asian steppes and the inhabitants of the cities established along the edge of those steppes — cities like Samarkand, Bukhara, Balkh, and Kashgar. The city-dwellers and nearby residents engaged in agriculture, producing and consuming “mainly grains and vegetable products,” whereas the nomads engaged in animal husbandry, more suitable to their lifestyle, producing and consuming “mainly meat, wool, and other animal products.”

The Central Eurasian economic system, then, was self-sustaining. If that was the case, though, why did the Central Eurasians trade with those states at the “periphery” of Eurasia — China, Rome, Persia, India, and the like — especially when those states were often less than hospitable? Beckwith suggests the answer lies in a sociopolitical structure that was unique to Central Eurasian culture, which he calls the “comitatus.” In this system, noble “heroes” accrued and maintained power through warfare waged by their loyal followers. As Beckwith explains it, the hero’s comitatus was

a war band of his friends sworn to defend [their lord] to the death. The essential features of the comitatus and its oath are known to have existed as early as the Scythians . . . The core group — usually a small number of men — committed ritual suicide (or was executed) to accompany the lord if he predeceased the group, and each man was buried “armed to the teeth” for battle in the next world. The comitatus warriors took their oath freely and, in doing so, broke their connections to their clan or nation. They became as close or closer than family to their lord, they lived in their lord’s house with him, and they were rewarded lavishly by him in return for their oath.

Why would anyone want to be part of the comitatus?

The rewards paid to a comitatus member were substantial. They included gold, silver, precious stones, silks, gilded armor and weapons, horses, and other valuable things . . .  Though some of this wealth was obtained by warfare or tribute . . . the great bulk of it was accumulated by trade, which was the most powerful driving force behind the internal economy of Central Eurasia.

So the motives of the Central Eurasians at the center of the system are explained. But why did the states at the periphery seek trade with Central Eurasia? Often, they did not. When the peripheral states were strong enough to do so, they would shut down the trade with Central Eurasia, or at the very least, try to tax it into oblivion. While this reluctance to trade may have resulted partly from fear of the military threat that the Central Eurasian states represented, a more likely answer is that the peripheral states were all agrarian and, as such, had little interest in trade. Whether the periphery states traded with the center or not, however, their fates were linked by the Silk Road.

In every recorded case when the traditional Graeco-Roman, Persian, or Chinese empires of the periphery became too powerful and conquered or brought chaos to the Central Eurasian nomadic states, the result for Central Asia, at least, was economic recession.

But the empires at the periphery suffered as well when the Silk Road fell into disrepair. For example, Beckwith argues that the closing of the borders with Central Eurasia by both the Chinese and Roman Empires about 200 ce and the decline in Silk Road trade that followed may have contributed to the recession that brought down both the Western Roman Empire and the Eastern Han Empire.

The Silk Road was not only a driver of economic growth on the Eurasian continent, but of ideas as well. Along its routes traveled Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam, as well as the sometimes revolutionary changes driven by technology: movable type, paper money, gunpowder, rockets and guns, and siege engines, to name a few.

In sum, Beckwith maintains that the peoples of Central Eurasia, far from being the “barbarians” portrayed by historians from time immemorial, were actually responsible for stimulating much of the development that we accept as the history of Western Europe. As he puts it:

To some extent, the history of Eurasia as a whole from its beginning to the present day can be viewed as the successive movements of Central Eurasians and Central Eurasian cultures into the periphery and of periphery peoples and their cultures into Central Eurasia.

In between these cycles of movement between center and periphery were relatively stable periods during which empires flourished at the center. Beckwith identifies three such periods of political stability in Central Eurasia over the past 2,500 years. First is during Classical Antiquity, from about the third century bce to the third century ce. The Central Eurasian empires that were representative of this period were those establish by the Parthians and the Tokharians, and the empire that flowed from the Tokharians, the Kushan Empire. The second age of Central Eurasian empire came around the time of the Turkic conquests and rule, from about the mid-sixth century to the mid-eighth century ce. Here Beckwith relates the histories of the two Turk Empires — one in the eastern and one in the western steppes (though ruled by a single family) — and describes the rise of the Tibetan Empire. This era was ended by the Arab conquests in the late seventh and eighth centuries.

In the third period of empire, from about the mid-15th to the late 17th centuries, the Ottoman Turks conquered Byzantium; the Safavid Turks established a new empire in Iran and Iraq; the Mughals occupied northern India and Afghanistan; the Junghars unified the steppes for the first time since Genghis Khan; and the Manchus conquered China. This era ended with the rising powers of Manchu China and the Russians, who were eventually able to divide the continent between them, in 1689, in the Treaty of Nerchinsk. Beckwith also refers to the period since the fall of the Soviet Union as a “fourth empire,” though he is clearly using the term empire loosely here. He means simply that much of Central Asia enjoys political independence today, and indigenous culture and religion have made something of a comeback.

In terms of impact on the periphery, it may be that the periods between these eras of Central Eurasian empire were as important historically as the empires themselves, for it was during these times that Central Eurasians had their greatest impact on the periphery. The exploits of Attila the Hun (mid-fifth century) and Genghis Khan (early 13th century) are relatively well known. Other events deserve mention however: One is the initial immigration south and west into the periphery beginning in the late third millennium; another is the Great Wandering of Peoples that occurred when the Roman Empire was in decline (roughly from the fourth to the sixth centuries). The Huns’ invasion of west Europe was the most dramatic episode of the Great Wandering, but dozens of other tribes were involved in these migrations as well. From these events the reader can begin to understand why Beckwith sees the Central Eurasians as the essential catalyst for so much Western history.

The earliest known history of the Central Eurasians is succinctly laid out in the first chapter of Beckwith’s book. Their earliest ancestors were the so-called “Proto-Indo-Europeans.” The Proto-Indo-Europeans possessed a unique culture which stretched across the steppes of Eurasia, from the Black Sea in the west to modern Manchuria in the east. Some 4,000 years ago, for unexplained reasons, these people began to migrate from their homeland located in the triangle formed by the southern Ural Mountains, the North Caucasus, and the Black Sea, an area that on the modern map is divided between southern Russia and Kazakhstan. This migration took place in three waves, and the peoples who participated in each wave are known respectively as Group a, Group b, and Group c.

Group a consisted of several smaller groups. One ended up to the west, on the Anatolian Plateau (modern Turkey), where they became known appropriately as the Anatolians. Another group ended up in the eastern Tarim Basin (today eastern Sinkiang Province in China), where they became the founders of a civilization later known as the Tokharians. Yet another group appears to have migrated south along the edge of the Caspian Sea.

As Beckwith describes the process, these migrants did not set out to conquer the local peoples they encountered in their travels, but assimilated with them, perhaps having been hired as mercenaries. Once in place, their languages blended with the local languages to form “creole,” or daughter languages. The most significant of these new languages is called “Proto-Indo-Iranian.” The genesis of this particular family appears to have been centered in an area the Romans called Bactria, located in the northwest part of modern Afghanistan and the southern part of Turkmenistan, east of the southern Caspian Sea. This Proto-Indo-Iranian group split in turn into Proto-Iranian and Proto-Indic groups. These two groups apparently did not get along, and the Proto-Indic people were chased out of the area at some point by the Proto-Iranians, in the course of which the Proto-Indic group apparently split yet again, one subgroup ending up in what is now northwest India and the other in the Near East. Over time, their languages evolved and became mutually incomprehensible.

Other daughter languages that developed during the Group A migration included Greek, Italic, Germanic, and Armenian, so even in this first wave of migration, Proto-Indo-European language and culture had a substantial impact on the surrounding peoples.

The impact of the second wave of Proto-Indo-European migration (c. 1600 bce) out of the western steppes had an even more dramatic impact because the Group b migrants brought with them their most important contribution to ancient warfare, the war chariot. The chariot was in effect the ballistic missile of its day and revolutionized warfare for centuries to come. The Central Eurasians, combining their unique skills with horses and the bow, used the chariot to dominate in battle wherever they went in Asia and the Middle East.2 As Beckwith says, “The second-wave period ended with Iranians dominating all of the Central Eurasian steppe zone.”

The Iranians were also a catalyst for the third wave of migration from the western steppes of Eurasia by Group c. Now, the Celts, Albanians, Slavs, and Baltics migrated north and west, driven by their desire to escape the all-conquering Iranians, who were apparently annoying their neighbors. At the same time, the Iranians expanded to fill the voids left by the migrations of these tribes.

The Great Wandering is another key example of how Central Eurasians impacted Western history. Beckwith credits this massive migration to the south by people from northern Eurasia with creating what we now refer to as the Middle Ages, as Central Eurasian ideas about social, political, and economic organization intermingled with remnants of Roman culture. The Great Wandering appears to have affected all of Eurasia. Notable results of this migration include the relocation of the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes to Britain; the Franks to Gaul; the Vandals to North Africa by way of Gaul and Spain; the Visigoths to Spain; and the Ostrogoths to Italy. Under the circumstances, Beckwith’s characterization of these changes as a “cultural revolution” in Western Europe does not seem exaggerated.

The Great Wandering raises another point worth noting about the history of Central Eurasia. Beckwith’s world is filled with a dizzying array of peoples. There are Sakas, Cimerrians, Sogdians, Thracians, Medes, Assyrians, Sarmations, Hsiung-nu, and more, and that’s all before Classical Antiquity begins in the West. It is no exaggeration to say that Beckwith covers the history of dozens of distinct ethnic groups in this book. The nonspecialist is certain to find all these references daunting, but perhaps that is only a reflection of how low our baseline knowledge is in this important area of world history.

Beckwith well recognizes that his is a revisionist, if not revolutionary, view of the roles assigned by historians through the millennia to the “civilized” world and the “barbarians”: “What I have done is to reexamine the more or less unitary received view of Central Eurasians and Central Eurasian history and attempt to revise it,” he writes. He explains further:

Modern scholars have done much to correct some of the earlier misconceptions about Central Eurasia and Central Eurasians . . . . Unfortunately, the corrections . . . have not been adopted by most historians [whose opinions continue to be influenced by] a significant number of unrecognized cultural misperceptions and biases. Some of them are recent, but others are inherited from the Renaissance, and still others — especially the idea of the barbarian — go back to Antiquity.

Beckwith is a linguist by training (or perhaps linguistic anthropologist is a better description) and when someone with such a specialized academic background makes such radical statements, one is justified in wondering just what ideological biases he may be trying to promote. But Beckwith takes care to establish his scientific bona fides in the preface, where he declares of the “postmodernist approach to history,” “I do not think this is ‘good.’ I think it is ‘bad.’ I reject Modernism and its hyper-Modern mutation, postmodernism. They are anti-intellectual movements, that have wreaked great damage in practically all fields of human endeavor.” It seems fair to conclude that Beckwith has faithfully followed the facts wherever they take him.

Search for “Central Asia” at your favorite online bookseller. You’ll get plenty of hits, but most of the titles are about current political issues, mixed in with the occasional travel guide. You won’t find much in the way of general histories of the region. Students of “Asian” history have been frustrated for years by the lack of information available to them about Central Asia. Beckwith suggests there is an “immense body of source material” on the history of the subject. But how much of it is accessible to the lay reader? Even 20 years ago, much of that material — especially archaeological — was unavailable to anyone in the West, locked as it was behind the Iron or Bamboo Curtains. With respect to secondary sources, for those in the field there has no doubt always been access to scholarly monographs, but again, these do not give a general audience much to work with. In terms of general histories, the six-volume compendium that unesco first published in 1992 is a good example of the lay reader’s quandary. It purports to be a history of Central Asia from its origins to the present day, but it actually consists of a series of discrete, unrelated papers tied together only by the periods they cover. There is no attempt at synthesis. Where Central Eurasia is concerned, you will even search in vain for that handy one-volume Cambridge History.

By contrast, Beckwith set out to write a comprehensive history that could be used by both an “educated general audience” and the scholarly world, and his book would be important even if it was merely a credible attempt to fill the need for such works. In fact, Beckwith does more than fill a gap in Asian history. His work also connects the histories of Asia with histories of the Middle East and Europe and even Islam.

Not only does Beckwith cover the requisite 4,000 years as advertised; he also places events in an original theoretical framework, as discussed above. The lay reader may not be equipped to assess the validity of that framework; nonetheless, Beckwith lays out a case that any reader will find intriguing.

And even if Beckwith were completely off-base with his theory about the centrality of the Central Eurasian role in world history, this book would still be worth reading. If the reader comes away from this book with nothing else, it is a sense of how modern Iranians must see themselves and their own role in world history. To say that Iranians are an ancient people is a gross understatement. Even the Chinese may have to surrender bragging rights as the world’s oldest civilization, if Beckwith is right in his speculation that their most ancient ancestors — the Shang and later Chou Dynasties, from which their “5,000 years of history” flows — were in fact heavily influenced by peoples of Central Eurasian origin. If these Central Eurasians followed their usual pattern of intermarrying with the local people, this would suggest that ethnically the Chinese are not even purely Mongolic in origin! And with all these world-changing events brought about by the Iranian-speaking peoples of Central Eurasia, is it any wonder that modern Iranians are convinced of the primacy of their role in history?


Lloyd Richardson, a Washington lawyer, is a former U.S. Foreign Service Officer and Asia specialist.


1. Beckwith uses Central Eurasia to denote the area from the lower Danube in the west to the Yalu River in the east, north of the Himalayas, and picking up much of southwest Asia. Central Asia as I use it generally designates the “Stans” plus Sinkiang Province in China.

2. It was not until about 1200 bce that their monopoly on this military technology was broken, when the Assyrians and the Sea People came up with the idea of using infantry with extra-long spears to break the charge of the chariots. It was specifically the Hittites, another Iranian group that had also settled in part of modern Turkey, who were on the losing end of this development.