Back To CourseHistory 112: World History I
30 chapters | 246 lessons
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Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.
I could make some pun about how a silk road doesn't sound very sturdy, but I'm guessing most of you have already heard of the Silk Road at some point. Famous trade route that Marco Polo used to get to China? If this is what you're thinking, then well, you're at least partially right.
The Silk Roads as they were seen by Marco Polo were not the original or even second version of these routes. The original series of trading roads stretching across Asia, the original Silk Roads, were thousands of years older. People had been trading across Asia for millennia. In fact, Chinese silk has been found in Egypt that dates to about 1000 BCE. The first true Silk Roads, however, were developed by China's Han Dynasty around 200 BCE when they began building real roads that were protected by troops and forts.
The original Silk Roads were crucial in the development of nearly every Asian and Middle-Eastern culture because these trade routes helped spread ideas, technology, and wealth. Major players in the silk trades included China, India, Persia, Armenia, and Syria. Even the ancient Greek and Roman empires both heavily participated in the Silk Roads and traded their knowledge and products for ivory, spices, technologies, and minerals.
The first iterations of the Silk Roads began with the Persian Empire, a powerful military state based in modern-day Iran. The Persian Empire built a massive road called the Persian Royal Road that ran over 1,700 miles across the Middle East and connected to trade routes in Asia.
Later, the empire of Alexander the Great managed to stretch all the way from Greece into central Asia, establishing forts as far as Tajikistan by 329 BCE. Many of these forts and the roads the Greeks maintained with soldiers connected trade routes in Asia to those in Europe.
The true era of the Silk Roads, however, began with China's Han Dynasty around 200 BCE. The Han emperors were tired of fighting smaller kingdoms to the west and began a campaign of Central Asia, completed around 130 BCE. At this point, China controlled about half of Asia and formally opened the Silk Roads as one continuous route through their empire.
The primary figure responsible for this was Emperor Wu, who reasoned that international trade could strengthen his empire economically as well as create strong alliances with powerful kingdoms across the continent. The Han army policed the roads to keep them safe, built forts, and engaged in several military expeditions to rid the nearby territories of nomadic bandits. The Silk Road was under the protection of the Han Dynasty and they wanted everyone to know it.
The Silk Roads were crucial in the development of practically every civilization they touched. Before these routes existed, trade was dangerous and limited by poor roads, roving bandits, and a series of small kingdoms who heavily taxed imports. With the roads being mostly controlled by the Han and partly controlled by the Persian and Greek empires, trade items and people moved about much more freely.
Trade goods, from minerals to crops and well, obviously, silk traveled across the continent, creating a powerful merchant class to handle the business of import and export. The economies of China and Persia flourished, allowing for eras of prosperity when the arts, architecture, and philosophy thrived. In fact, much of what is considered traditional Chinese culture dates back to the Han Dynasty and the period of prosperity supported by the Silk Road.
However, items weren't the only things traveling the Silk Roads. People, from merchants to mercenaries to monks, used the Silk Roads to explore new spiritual, intellectual, and economic opportunities. Ideas, theories, plans, technologies, arts, and philosophies were as precious commodities as silk and by sharing these ideas, each civilization grew.
Perhaps one of the most important impacts of this era, however, was precedent. After the fall of the Han Dynasty and the decline of the Roman Empire from the 2nd to 4th centuries CE, there were fewer states that had the resources and power to maintain the roads. The Silk Roads closed, reincorporated into dozen independent kingdoms that each held a piece, but the idea of the routes was never forgotten.
In 639, China's Tang Dynasty captured major forts and reopened the Silk Roads, reinvigorating the Chinese economy and culture. Later, in 1206, the great Mongol leader Genghis Khan started a conquest that eventually united all of Asia under the Mongol Empire, the largest land-based empire in history. One of the primary concerns was reopening the Silk Roads, which is when the young Marco Polo made his famous trip across these routes to China.
The Silk Roads have held a crucial spot in society since the third century BCE and were never forgotten. They remained a symbol of international cooperation, peace, and prosperity.
The Silk Roads were a series of trade routes that stretched across the Asian continent. These routes connected literally thousands of people together through the exchange of products, people, ideas, philosophies, arts, and technologies.
Trade had always existed in Asia, but it wasn't until the Han Dynasty of China consolidated Central Asia under its control that the routes in China were fully connected to roads in the Persian Empire and ancient Greek territories.
From around 200 BCE until the fourth century CE, the Silk Roads were vital components of development for every civilization they touched. Money flowed into each civilization, creating eras of wealth and prosperity when art, engineering, and philosophy could thrive. For China, a lot of what they consider to be their traditional culture was developed during this time.
The Silk Roads eventually fell into disrepair, but were never forgotten and were reopened several more times to reinvigorate the world through international exchange.
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Back To CourseHistory 112: World History I
30 chapters | 246 lessons