The world’s first great civilizations were
founded in the region now known as the Fertile Crescent, but the greatest power that eventually
formed around this region was the Persian Empire in the sixth century BC.
It was inclusive, efficient and bureaucratic, with good trade and a powerful military; all
of these made it a great power, and many outsiders respected Persia for its culture and might.
One of these was the new King of Macedon, Alexander.
He decided that the best way to gain glory and power was to conquer the East.
The Persians were against this, but he pointedly ignored their protests.
His conquest of Persia and expansion deep into the East not only established one of
the greatest empires at that time but also drew Hellenization, the spread of Greek culture,
to the East. When Alexander died in 323 BC, his empire
fragmented; however, this fragmentation did not stop the process of Hellenization from
continuing. And not only did Greek culture influence Eastern
cultures, but Eastern cultures also influenced those of the West; and likewise, as the West
expanded to the east, the East expanded to the West.
One nation was notable in this: China. You see, China was frustrated with giving
huge amounts of tribute to dangerous tribes in exchange for peace, and it decided to correct
this situation in their advantage. In the late 2nd and early 1st centuries BC,
China conquered the Gansu Corridor, and through that it conquered what was then Xiyu, meaning
‘Western Regions’. Apart from pacifying the tribes, this had
the added benefit of making the hostile, nomad-infested steppes between the Chinese heartland and
the Pamir mountains far to the west much more traversable for the Chinese.
Thus a new trade route from East to West was born: the Silk Roads.
This new trade route nicely opened up the supply part of the equation, but where did
the demand for the incredibly valuable Chinese goods come from? While the birth of a new
regime in Persia around 247 BC provided great stability and an increase in their demand,
their paltry hunger for goods was far overshadowed by the newly-emerging, competitive and militaristic
power of Rome in the Western Mediterranean. But this area was a relative backwater in
comparison to the wealth and culture of the Eastern Mediterranean.
So the Romans turned their eyes and their armies from the western half of the Mediterranean
to the eastern half, culminating in the capture of the incredibly fertile and wealthy kingdom
of Egypt in 30 BC. The riches and, more importantly for the people
in general, food gained by these seizures of Asian and Egyptian territories were massive,
flowing to the capital of Rome. After conquering Egypt, the first Emperor,
Augustus, wanted to understand what exactly there was deeper in the East.
So in due course expeditions were sent out across the length of the Red Sea and to the
Persian Gulf and into the land routes of Central Asia.
The Stathmoi Parthikoi, Parthian Stations, an invaluable text for traders in the East,
was produced. The conquest of Egypt also resulted in an
explosion of trade with India. Roman coins and amphorae have been found in
India, while items from as far away as Vietnam and Java came into the Mediterranean.
Imbued with wealth and luxurious goods, the tastes of the Roman elite turned to the exotic
and extravagant. As one would expect, Roman moralists and traditionalists
were appalled. The luxuries that shaped these new, morally
dubious lifestyles were absurdly expensive. 100 million sesterces, half the annual mint
output and more than 10% of Rome’s budget, were spent on trade for such luxuries.
Such large sums of money being pumped out meant that cities grew, business flourished
and networks improved greatly. These coins themselves even had a significant
impact on foreign coinage, such as that of the Kushan Empire.
This Kushan empire was placed on trade routes between Persia and China, meaning that it
grew quite wealthy. However, this and the other intermediary regions
of Persia and Central Asia meant that China itself had little direct impact on the Roman
Empire, but China did have a significant presence in these intermediary regions, frequently
sending ambassadors to them. Rome, on the other hand, was very interested
in the semi-mythical regions of India and China.
It not only wanted to obtain goods from these regions; it wanted to conquer them.
So it made one of its long-term goals the expansion to the East through its neighbour
Persia. However, this long-term goal turned into a
long-term failure, and actually hurt them in the grand scheme of things.
Persia was energized by its rival’s ambitions, and its trade and economy was booming due
to its advantageous location. In the early 3rd century AD, Persia’s rulers,
the Parthians, were overthrown by the Sasanians, who established a very centralized power station
and reined in the all-too-independent provincial governors.
Administrative reforms further tightened control, trade regulations ensured taxes, irrigation
programmes led to an increase in agricultural production, and expansion into Kushan territory
increased its own trade with the Far East. As Persia grew stronger, Rome grew weaker.
Territorial growth, vital to its construction, slowed to a stop as natural boundaries were
met. The treasury grew emptier and emptier as the
huge costs of maintaining the defenses grew. Aggressive attempts by Emperor Diocletian
in the late 3rd and early 4th centuries AD to solve economic problems were sudden and
controversial and were met with resistance. When Diocletian retired, worn out by the strain
of trying to accomplish this, a turbulent time rocked the Empire until Constantine the
Great became Emperor. He enacted a radical plan.
He built a new power center, the city of Constantinople, on the banks of the Bosporus, at the crossroads
of Europe and Asia. Its position firmly established where Constantine’s
attentions lay; to the East. But a new capital was not his only big Eastern
introduction to the Roman world. He introduced Rome to its new soul: Christianity.
And, in this integrated world, it was about to spread in all directions.