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The Silk Road

An overview of how the early Silk Road(s) facilitated trade and the spread of ideas, technology, disease and religion across Eurasia in the beginning of the Common Era.

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Video transcript

- [Instructor] In our study of world history we have looked at many different empires and several of them are depicted on this map right over here. We spent a lot of time on the Roman Empire and in the highlighted yellow you see the Roman Empire at roughly its maximum extent. And on this timeline you see the Roman Kingdom and then the Roman Republic and then the Roman Empire which ends in the fifth century although the Eastern Roman Empire, the Byzantine Empire, continues on for roughly another thousand years. Now we also have depicted here a significant Persian Empire. You have the Parthian Empire and they were preceded by the Seleucid Empire and they were succeeded by the Sasanian Empire but I have the Parthians depicted here on the timeline and on the map. I also show Han China, both the Eastern and Western Han Dynasties both the Eastern and Western Han Dynasties you can see on this timeline as well. And in India, I show the Maurya Dynasty on the timeline I don't depict it here on the map but on the map I show the Kushan Empire and I also show it on the timeline. Now the reason why I wanna depict these empires at this specific time in the world is to highlight the fact that they weren't operating in complete isolation. In fact, as we get to the second and first century BCE, In fact, as we get to the second and first century BCE, especially as we get into the Common Era, we start seeing a significant amount of trade and interaction between these empires. Not to say that there wasn't trade and interaction before that time but it started to get accelerated and to a large degree it got accelerated because you had these continuous empires that at least within their borders were able to provide some level of stability for someone to travel across roads or travel across borders. And so you start to see the emergence of these trading networks. In red you see trading roads or paths in red and in blue you see those paths by sea. And this isn't even comprehensive. And even what I show on the empires are many other smaller kingdoms that also existed in the world that I just don't have depicted here. But what this contiguous block of empires allowed is for the trade of goods and ideas and sometimes collectively the routes that were used for this trade is referred to as the Silk Road or the Silk Roads is referred to as the Silk Road or the Silk Roads or really you could say, the Silk Routes. And so it's a collective number of paths that people used to trade things. Now why call it silk? Now why call it silk? Well it all boils down to silk being a major commodity of trade at this time period. So if you wanna think about the different things that were traded around the world that were traded around the world this is just a sample of it. Silk which comes from cocoons of these silk worms Silk which comes from cocoons of these silk worms that eat mulberry leaves was considered a sign of wealth. It was considered the finest cloth and China had a monopoly on how to make silk for many hundreds of years even after the period that we were talking about right here. So you can imagine around the world people were interested in getting access to that Chinese silk. But silk wasn't the only thing that was being traded. In fact, in order to trade you need to give something in exchange for even that silk. One of the Chinese motivations for trading with others is having access to horses. is having access to horses. Horses were valuable not just for transporting goods but also in wars especially fighting some of their northern enemies who had access to horses. They also were able to get gold from Europe, be able to get cotton from India. In Europe you also had other manufactured goods. So you had this fairly vast trading enterprise emerge between these different parts of the world. And to be clear, some of the things that were traded allowed or facilitated the trade itself. I mentioned horses were a source of transportation but camels in particular were very powerful sources of transportation especially across Central Asia and as you get into the Middle East and Africa because you have these large swaths of desert. Camels can not only carry a lot but they had a lot of stamina and they did not have to stop for water as frequently. In a lot of world history, we focus on the large non-nomadic empires like the Roman Empire and Han China but as trade became more important especially as you go through Central Asia, you could imagine that many of the people who were very good at trading who were good at moving things were people who were good at moving themselves, in particular, the nomadic people in Central Asia. Many of their cities along these trade routes became more and more wealthy became more and more wealthy and more and more powerful. Now as I mentioned, goods were not the only thing that were transported along these routes. One of the not so good things was the spread of disease. So in the historical record, we have two major plagues in Rome during the Roman Empire we have two major plagues in Rome during the Roman Empire and we believe these plagues were small pox although some people believe it might have been measles. And it is believed that it came from traders. It came from Asia, from the Middle East, and these were significant plagues. And the reason why we think that it was due to trade is that there's some evidence in Han China during this first plague of similar symptoms of a similar plague. But it really affected Rome. In these plagues, it's estimated that as much as 10% of the population might have died. In certain cities it might have been 25, 30% of the population. Some historians even point to these plagues as destabilizing the Roman Empire. And this is a theme that you'll see often in world history where if you have a population that doesn't have exposure to something, say small pox, and all of a sudden they encounter a population that does have exposure well that small pox might wreak havoc. But it wasn't just disease, you also have the spread of ideas and technology and religion. And the two religions that perhaps benefited the most from the early trade along the Silk Route or the Silk Roads were Christianity and Buddhism. And Buddhism, in particular was very appealing to many of these Silk Road merchants. The Kushan Empire, in particular started to significantly spread Buddhism. In previous videos we talk about Ashoka sending missionaries but the Kushan Empire help spread Buddhism into China and into the Far East. So what we talked about in this video was the very beginning of the Silk Road. As we get into the first few centuries BCE or the first few centuries of the Common Era. But as we'll see, the Silk Road will continue on for many hundreds or really over a thousand years.