Sunday, August 15, 2010

Empires of the Silk Road (1): from Scythians to Tamerlaine

Christopher I. Beckwith’s Empires of the Silk Road: A History of Central Eurasia from the Bronze Age to the Present is a history of central Eurasia that anyone interested in the wider patterns of world history should read. It is a book with the “barbarians”, the steppe nomads, at the centre. In reconfiguring Eurasian history Beckwith, almost as an afterthought, puts European imperialism in the context of Eurasian history far better than anyone else I have read—even those who were deliberately, even ostentatiously, trying to do so. He also engages in passionate critique and denunciation of modernism and postmodernism, but I have already discussed that.

Beckwith states his purpose quite clearly in his preface:
my aim has been to write a realistic, objective view of Central Eurasia ad Central Eurasians (p.xii).
The book was sparked by calculations finding that the trade in luxury goods must have constituted a major part of the economy of central Eurasia with subsequent study finding that:
the appearance, waxing and waning, and disappearance of Silk Road commerce paralleled that of the native Central Eurasian empires chronologically (p.xii)
with the book evolving significantly from its original conception due to Beckwith’s developing understanding as he assembled the materials for his book.

Beckwith laments the lack of scholarly depth (or even elementary coverage) on much of Central Eurasian history. He attacks the stereotypical view of the steppe nomads as distinct from agrarians and city-dwellers and as warlike, poor and hard-to-defeat natural warriors. A view he regards as comprehensively wrong (Ppxii-xxiii). In particular, agrarianism and urbanism were both part of the steppe empires.

Trading warriors
The central economic dynamic in the interaction between steppe peoples and the agrarian peoples was trade. Trade within the steppe empires and trade with the “river valley” empires. The most salient and lucrative being the trading of nomad horses for Chinese silk. An imported horse cost between 25 and 38 bolts of raw silk (p.22). China was unable to raise enough horses for its own needs (apparently due to a lack of Selenium in its soil). The vast majority of steppe silk came from trade and taxation, not war and extortion (p.23). Beckwith’s identification of trade as being the central dynamic in interactions between nomad pastoralists and urbanised agrarians replicates Salzman’s analysis.

Beckwith identifies the Central Eurasian Cultural Complex as a link across cultures and times:
The most crucial element of the early form of the Central Eurasian Culture Complex was the socio-political ideal of the heroic lord and his comitatus, a war band and his friends sworn to defend him to the death (p.12).
A pattern that extends at least as far back as the Scythians and from the Anglo-Saxon huscarls of Britain (an archipelago off the coast of north-west Eurasia) to the Japanese samurai (inhabitants of an archipelago off the coast of north-east Eurasia). Since a leader was expected to provide his comitatus with luxurious gifts (p.26), trade was central to the warrior and leadership culture in the Central Eurasian Cultural Complex from the Norse, right across Eurasia (Pp165ff). As later developments from this original source, samurai Japan developed a vigorous mercantile culture, just as knightly Europe did.

A colleague of mine suggested that the Germanic cultures developed feudalism when the Celtic cultures did not because a German warrior was permitted to sell his loyalty. The same point applies the samurai of Japan (who adopted the model, probably while in Korea [Pp90-1, 106]). In both cultures, oath-breaking was heinous, as one would expect. A contractual culture can only work if contracts are taken seriously and the binding of leader and warriors (or of warrior to warrior) was the central “glue” of the society—blood brotherhood as the substitute for the “automatic” brotherhood of blood relations. (And chosen connections according to evolved rules have rather different implications than the automatic associations of lineage: there is, for example, much less reason to develop binding institutions outside of lineage if lineage connections trump all.)

In a similar vein, Beckwith argues that the Germanic conquests represented the “re-Central Eurasianisation” of Europe and the “feudal revolution” of Europe was the product of that (Pp109ff).

Beckwith argues that the comitatus was imported into Islam as the mamluk or ghulam system, which he denies was a slave soldier system (p.25). The suggestion of importation of the concept makes sense, particularly given the historical connections Beckwith points to. While the original cases may well have been free warriors, that they did not become slave soldier systems seems more dubious. The Janissaries clearly were, for example. Given how extensive Islamic slaving and slave-trading was, slaves provided an obvious recruitment method: particularly after initial connections to recruitment sources faded and given the lineage-based loyalty systems in the wider society.
Beckwith argues firmly that the chariot was a Central Eurasian development, from about 2000BC, given the domesticated horse preceded the chariot there, while it appears with the chariot in the river valley civilisations from Shang China to Mesopotamia and Egypt, its ritual and prestige use flowing from its hunting and military use(Pp50ff). The C17thBC saw a wave of war-chariot peoples seizing control of Central Anatolia (the Hittites), Upper Mesopotamia (Mitanni) and Greek Aegean (the Mycenaeans). The war chariot was a light and manoeuvrable vehicle, unlike the earlier four-wheeled ox-wagons. The development of running javelin throwers to disable horses, chariots and charioteers brought the military effectiveness of chariots to an end during the Bronze Age collapse , though their prestige (and racing) uses lasted much longer (Pp56-7).

Intellectual zing
Beckwith notes that there is an outbreak of intellectual ferment in the fifth and fourth century BC in the Hellenic, Indic and Sinic worlds centred around archetypal figures such as Socrates (469-399BC), Plato (427-347BC), Aristotle (384-322BC), Guatama Buddha (c.500BC), Panini (c.C4thBC), Kautilya (c.321-296BC), Confucius (c550-480BC), Lao-tzu (c.late C5thBC), Chuang Tzu (C4thBC). While tracing many specific borrowings has been difficult, Beckwith points out that:
… there are some, and it must furthermore be considered odd if such distant areas as East Asia and the Aegean … should have started arguing not only about their actual governments but about government in general, asking questions about their existence, and talking about logic and looking into the way the human mind works. … The asking of question about the questions themselves was new, and it is difficult to find the precedents or motivation for the development in each case (Pp73-4).
Beckwith notes some common features—each culture was divided by large number of states, none dominant (what economists call competitive jurisdictions), they shared in the increase in world trade due to the rise of the nomadic empires (with the consequent growth of a commercial class and spread of ideas). Any connection was by land and went through Central Eurasia.

Beckwith notes that, in the C6th and early C5th, the entire northern steppe zone and much of the Central Asian zone was Iranian speaking. Anacharsis the Scythian visited Greece in the 47th Olympiad (591-588BC). Demosthenes was the grandson of a Scythian woman. Zoroaster likely came from pastoral Iranian society. There are references to Confucius suggesting Central Eurasians had answers. Whatever the reason why such widely separated cultures showed such a striking surge in intellectual creativity in the same period, it is surely likely to involve the cultural realm that linked them—Central Eurasia (Pp73ff).

Steppe nomads generally led longer, more prosperous and easier lives, than the inhabitants of agrarian cultures (p.76). This would certainly provide the basis for their own intellectual surge. Moreover, by being link cultures—that is, being in contact with a range of different civilisations—that may well have encouraged asking more basic questions, given the range of cultural outlooks they were confronted with. That, after all, was the experience of early Islam, as it surged across the Middle East and North Africa, and of post-medieval Western Europe, as it surged across the globe.

The trade imperative
Beckwith argues forcefully that the notion of barbarian nomads raiding and pillaging victimised agrarian cultures is a result of accepting uncritically the self-justifying propaganda of the great imperial agrarian empires. On the contrary, he argues, the steppe peoples were far more often subject to aggression and disruption by the imperial states. This could be ultimately self-defeating, as encouraging instability and division among steppe peoples undermined the flow of trade:
The aggressive foreign policy successes of the Chinese and Roman empires had disastrous consequences. The partial closing of the frontier to trade by other empires, and their destabilisation of Central Eurasia by their incessant attacks, resulted in internecine warfare in the region. The serious decline in Silk Road commerce that followed—observable in the shrinkage of areal extent of Central Asian cities—may have been one of the long-lasting recession that eventually brought down both the Western Roman Empire and the Eastern Han Empire… and with them the end of the end of Classical civilization (p.92).
The cooling weather and spread of disease may also have been factors, of course.

In the C3rd, a great wandering of peoples roiled around Central Asia, Northern China and Western Europe, spreading the Central Eurasian Cultural Complex from Spain to Japan (p.94). The most dramatic manifestation being the rise and vanishing of the Hun empire, though the destruction of the army of the Eastern Roman Empire by the Goths at Adrianople was the most cataclysmic single event. Beckwith points out the persistent pattern of Roman duplicity in dealing with the Central Eurasian peoples (Pp94ff). When things (eventually) settled down, Germanic warrior cultures manifesting the Central Eurasian Culture Complex dominated remnants of Mediterranean Classical Culture (with a Judaic religious overlay):
The resulting blending of the Central Eurasian Germanic peoples and their Romanized subjects laid the foundation of what eventually became a distinctive new European civilization (p.101).
Beckwith examines the incentives and imperatives driving the Central Eurasian peoples. Beckwith notes that:
All empire builders, whether ruled by nomadic or agrarian dynasties, attempted to expand as far as possible in all directions.
But the steppes are lands without natural borders and herds do not have the same attachment to specific territory that farming does, so
… from a Central Eurasian point of view borders were meaningless. As a consequence, when a winning clan was extraordinarily successful, the new nation would rapidly expand across the entire expanse of the Central Eurasian steppe zone right up to the walls and fortresses of the peripheral empires (p.108).
The archetypal examples being Scythians (or Northern Iranians), the Turks and the Mongols.

Imperial instability
The decline of Rome and Han China encouraged migration. The economic difficulties of the border lands of the Empires encouraged nomad rulers—wanting trade goods to bind their comitatus—to move closer to the wealthy centres of the Empires, setting in place destructive spirals that consumed the Western Roman Empire, though the (somewhat reduced) Eastern Roman Empire and Persian Empires managed to survive (Pp108ff). The consequence for the rest of Europe was the creation of warrior rule leading to the “feudal” (peasants work for knight, knight protects peasants) system and the creation of medieval Europe (Pp110-1).

Beckwith sees the reforms of Heraclius and his grandson Constans II (the last Roman consul)—creating the system of themes—and the loss of Syria and Egypt to the Arab Conquest as marking the end of the Eastern Roman Empire and the beginning of the Byzantine Empire (p.122). If one is going to make such a division, that is a good place to make it, even though its inhabitants continued to consider themselves Romans and they were named such by the cultures around them.

The pattern of brief and bloody unification under the Qin followed by long reign of the Han was repeated with a brief and bloody unification under the Sui followed by the long reign of the T’ang, a dynasty with strong Central Eurasian antecedents and connections (p.124). Turks had been invited by various contestants for power during the turmoil that saw the T’ang replace the Sui, and this “aggression” was used as an excuse to expand into Turkic territories as part of the T’ang desire to emulate and outdo the Han and establish the greatest empire yet (p.125). The T’ang allied with the Arabs to break a Turkic-Tibetan alliance that raised the perennial Chinese fear of “being cut off” from the trade to the West (p.134) (i.e. having to deal with a single jurisdiction in its landward trade).

Beckwith notes the attention given by surrounding civilisations to Central Eurasian affairs in this period, due to concern for trade and because of a common ideology of a single legitimate ruler (their own: whether Roman Emperor, Caliph, Son of Heaven or whatever). Contact via Central Eurasia helped force awareness of other empires and led to some almost amusing diplomatic circumlocutions. Yet, despite the constant warfare this ideology of single legitimate ruler encouraged, trade continued to expand across the Silk Road until the middle of C8th (p.139).

Religious branding
Religions played their own role in this mix: the Frankish Empire with Catholicism, the “Byzantine” Empire with Orthodoxy, the Islam of the Arab Empire, the conversion of the Khazars to Judaism, of the Uighurs to Manicheanism and the Tibetan Kingdom to Buddhism (Pp148ff). The T’ang empire adopted Taoism (to the disapproval of the Confucian mandarinate) and became increasingly severe towards other religions while the “Byzantine” Empire had a series of Iconoclast rulers, who supported this unusual diversion from mainstream Orthodoxy with torture and murder (p.150). (Though, of course, there had been plenty of torture and murder in the establishment and maintenance of said Orthodoxy in the first place.)

With these religions went literacy—sacred texts generally being central to them—and the result was a great flowering in literary and graphic art from Japan to Europe (p.156).

The late C8th saw a decline in international trade for reasons which are unclear, though Beckwith points out the systematic Chinese massacre of Sogdians (men, women and children) “and anyone who looked even remotely non-Chinese” after the suppression of the disastrous An Lu-shan Rebellion could hardly have helped trade relations (p.157). The T’ang Empire suffered continuing economic decline, with barter increasingly replacing money, and apparently pulled the international trading system down with it (p.156). The T’ang massacred the Uighurs, exterminated Manicheanism and went on to attempt the same with Buddhism, ending the T’ang cultural revival and going into a spiralling decline that led to the collapse of the dynasty within 50 years (p.160). The Frankish, Tibetan and Abbasid empires broke up leaving the “Byzantine” Empire as the remaining large state in or around Central Eurasia (Pp161ff).

The decline of powerful secular states left religious authority to fill the vacuum. Tibet became dominated by Buddhist monasticism, which also spread across China, Korea and Japan. Christian monasticism flourished in Europe. The Sufi brotherhoods provided an Islamic equivalent. Monasticism spread literacy, but also spread religious orthodoxy. A climactic downturn encouraged southward migrations from the northern steppes, a major disturbing factor in Central Eurasia. The Rus Norse-Slavic culture, and nomadic dynasties in northern China, both straddled the geographic boundary between nomadic and agrarian cultures, spreading agrarian urbanisation into the Western and the Eastern Steppes (Pp163ff).

At first, the relatively small size of individual states “limited the evil that governments and politicians could do to individuals” (Pp176-7) as artists, philosophers, scholars and thinkers could move to more amenable polities: the competitive jurisdictions effect once more. But the consequent intellectual flowering in Islam failed under the assault of religious conservatism led by al-Ghazali, who used the techniques of the philosophers against them in the service of dogma. Averroes (ibn Rushd) rebutted his arguments, but he was on the periphery of the Islamic world in Spain while al-Ghazali operated near its centre. Averroes was very influential in Latin Christendom, had almost no influence in Islam and “saw the destruction of Islamic intellectual life by rabid religious conservatives in his own lifetime” (Pp178-9).

Just as Islam was turning it back on reason, Latin Christendom was in an intellectual ferment from the interaction with Islam in Spain and Outremer (Pp180ff). One reinforced by the (albeit temporary) Latin conquest of Constantinople in 1204.

Eventually, the Mongols—who had remained animist during their great imperial expansion—adopted Buddhism (P.194). The pax Mongolica promoted trade and movements of people. Which also promoted movement of disease. The Black Death started as a pandemic in northern China, killing possibly 90% of the population, spreading across the trade routes to Europe, where it killed perhaps a third of the population. It had a disastrous effect on the Mongol successor states. “The Calamitous Fourteenth Century” was so throughout Central Eurasia (Pp195ff).

The spread of the plague also had a disastrous long-term effect on the mamluk regime in Egypt: medieval Europe, on the other hand, was given a major impetus (back) on the path of economic development through capital-substitution which the great expansion in European population up to the Great Famine of the early C14th had threatened to derail.

Beckwith places Tamerlaine very much as a Central Eurasian figure: a dynastic founder with armies of cavalry and infantry, expert at conquering cities operating off a base that was substantially urban and agrarian (p.200). Beckwith notes the positive effect Mongol rule had for trade and transmission of ideas and techniques, including art and literature, but downplays the notion that it was some transformative event in world history: the ethnic patterns that outlived it already existed (Pp202-3) while the promotion of trade had been a perennial aim of Central Eurasian nomadic peoples.

But, with the passing of Tamerlaine and the failure of his dynasty to produce anything other than squabbling (and shrinking) local principalities, the old patterns were about to be transformed by a revolution in world affairs, covered in the next part of this book review, which concludes in a third post.


  1. Very interesting. I must admit, my knowledge of that part of the world only gets going when we get to Haluga Khan.

  2. Ah, beware perfidious archipelagians in sleek craft. I see we share a weakness for history on a grand scale. US$19.25 for the Kindle edition I see. The chances of resisting it are nonexistent but I will force myself to wait for the second part of your review.