What Is the Silk Road? - Goods & Ideas Crossing China

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  • 0:01 Roads and Silk
  • 1:10 Opening the Silk Roads
  • 2:35 Importance of the Silk Roads
  • 4:50 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

In this lesson, you will explore the history of the famous Silk Roads that connected civilizations as far apart as Persia, Greece, and China. Then, test your understanding with a brief quiz.

Roads and Silk

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.

Opening the Silk Roads

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.

Importance of the Silk Roads

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.

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