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The Silk Roads During the Han Dynasty & The Roman Empire

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  • 0:08 Two Empires
  • 1:30 Obstacles
  • 3:12 Opportunity
  • 4:56 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Kevin Newton

Kevin has edited encyclopedias, taught middle and high school history, and has a master's degree in Islamic law.

The Silk Roads connected some of the most diverse cultures in history, as well as providing a link between the superpowers of 2,000 years ago. Learn more about the route that connected the Han Dynasty and Imperial Rome.

Two Empires

Around 2,000 years ago, two great empires stood at either side of Eurasia. In the West, the Roman Empire was at the height of its power, surrounding the Mediterranean Sea and having complete control over the goods traded there. To the far east, the Han Dynasty had gained control of much of what would eventually form modern-day China. The two great powers were too far separated to have any sort of military conflict, but there was plenty that the two could offer. The Chinese valued Roman metalworking and glass, while Chinese silks were among the most prized possessions in many rich Roman households. To this end, the trade routes connecting the two powers were called the Silk Road.

Of course, trade between East and West had been going on for centuries, predating even Alexander the Great's attempt to conquer the whole known world. While Alexander's empire reached India, the trade routes snaked further through the mountains of the Himalayas onto China and south to Southeast Asia. However, now with large markets at either end of the route, trade had become even more profitable. That said there were still plenty of obstacles for the would-be merchant.

Obstacles

Distance alone was not the only obstacle between the two empires, although the distance between the two empire's capitals was more than 5,000 miles. Instead, it was what was contained within those 5,000 miles that made the Silk Road such a treacherous route. If you were a merchant wanting to travel the Silk Road, starting in Alexandria (one of the great ports of the Roman Empire), you'd first have to cross the Arabian Desert into Mesopotamia. From there, you'd then have to cross the lands of the Persian Empire, which traditionally hated the Roman Empire. If you were lucky enough to make it through Persia, the Central Asian grasslands, or steppe, now presented itself as a large vastness of nothing but grass. . . oh, and raiding barbarians. If somehow you made it past that, the Gobi Desert, one of the coldest regions in the world, was your reward as you stumbled into the trading posts of China.

Of course, there were multiple routes. You could instead opt for the heat of India and the perilous mountain passes of the Himalaya, or even sail around Southern Asia and arrive in one of the Chinese ports. This could be faster, depending on how you timed it, but just as you would be prone to face barbarians in the Northern steppe, many pirates operated in the waters around Indonesia, relying on the many small islands as hiding places for secret bases. All of this, of course, assumed that you did not die of a disease that you would have no immunity towards or that people back home would even want to purchase your goods once you bought them.

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