Review of “The Silk Roads: A New History of the World” by Peter Frankopan

The principle thesis of Peter Frankopan’s thought-provoking history The Silk Roads is that westerners (Europeans and Americans) have greatly underestimated the influence on their own history of events occurring in Central Asia (along the “Silk Roads”). While the West tends to see itself at the apex of civilized peoples, in fact, it is the countries of the East that have been at the very center of history from the beginning: “It was here that Civilisation was born.” And it was at the intersections between east and west that great cities arose famed for their innovations that advanced and enhanced “the world’s central nervous system.”

Frankopan employs this thesis to organize and analyze significant time spans. He begins with Alexander the Great, but not by focusing on Alexander’s impact in Greece. Rather, he examines his influence on Asia Minor, Persia, and farther east where the successors to his conquests continued to rule for many years. One of Alexander’s captains, Seleucus, founded a dynasty of his own, the Seleucids, that ruled from the Tigris to the Himalayas for three centuries. During the reign of the Seleucids, long-distance trade of high value goods, from pottery to spices to horses, burgeoned.

Trade items going back and forth across both land and sea that had a great effect on the countries involved included furs, slaves, precious metals, and grains. But it was silk, primarily from China, Frankopan avers, that performed the most important role in the ancient world. Silk served as a reliable international currency as well as a luxury product, increasingly in demand by the rich and powerful as cities in the West prospered. Its importance guaranteed that the West would continue to seek interaction with the East.

For all that we in the West look to the Roman Empire as a seminal innovator, Frankopan points out that “Rome’s eyes were opened by the world it encountered in the east.” In Asia, the ancient poet Sallust observed, Roman soldiers learned “how to make love, to be drunk, to enjoy statues, pictures and art.”

Soldiers and traders not only had their own horizons expanded by the East. They in turn brought with them ideas and goods from the West that exerted a reciprocal influence. Moreover, regulation of markets by countries affected by trade, and the taxing of imports and exports, led to political changes in all the countries involved. And political leaders, covetous of the goods they saw from other places, began to think about the feasibility of conquest beyond their usual realms of interest.

Trade wasn’t the only impetus of increased contacts between east and west. Much of the history of the world from the fourth to the twelfth centuries C.E. was dominated by the spread, interplay, and conflicts among the religions of Judaism, Christianity, Zoroastrianism, Buddhism, and Islam. Christianity dominated the Mediterranean basin until the rise of Islam in the seventh century, but Judaism, Zoroastrianism, and Buddhism were contending for the loyalty of many more people farther east. The search for religious converts has always played a large role in the movement of peoples around the world, and religions in both east and west went through metamorphoses to capture the allegiances of rivals. Doctrinal conflicts served as tools to establish and/or solidify power (as well as in defining enemies, which is always helpful in fixing loyalties).

Spread of Christianity in the Middle Ages

Frankopan argues that Christianity would have been more successful in the East had it not been for Emperor Constantine I, who, by identifying his own empire with Christianity, anathematized that religion for his rival emperors of Persia and central Asia. By way of contrast, Frankopan attributes Islam’s early tolerance of other faiths as a key factor in its expansion.

Spread of Islam in the Middle Ages

Frankopan’s thesis of the importance of influence by Central Asia becomes less workable in the late 15th century when European powers made technological breakthroughs in ocean-going ship design and in weaponry. However, once petroleum became the world’s principal energy source in the early 20th century, countries in the Middle East once again began to influence if not dominate world history. As Frankopan concludes, “The silk roads are rising again.”

There is another way in fact that the “silk roads” are experiencing a renaissance, although it is beyond the historical purview of this book but relevant to its message. China is reviving the concept of “The Silk Road” to foster a new connectivity, as Huffington Post reports:

What Chinese President Xi Jinping means to convey is a renewed connectivity both within Asia and between Asia and Europe, both by land and by the sea, and both by means of strengthening traditional infrastructure and through building highways of trade, finance and cultural exchange to strengthen connectivity.”

China is already the number one trading partner of most Asian countries. With the U.S.’s withdrawal from international agreements, Asia is eager to increase it’s hegemony in world leadership. The so-called “Belt and Road” initiative is expected to funnel investments worth up to $502 billion into 62 host countries over the next five years.

Evaluation: This is a deftly-written book with intriguing insights that gives European and American readers a new coign of vantage from which to observe world history. Today, Frankopan observes, because of religious fundamentalism and sectarian violence in the East, we tend to forget that the countries that are now reviled as backward once served as bywords for “good taste in everything….” Frankopan shares fascinating stories from history to bring that important legacy back into focus.

Rating: 4.5/5

Published in the U.S. by Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Penguin Random House, 2015


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