Empires of the Silk Road:
A History of Central Eurasia from the Bronze Age to the Present

Christopher I. Beckwith

Princeton University Press 2009
A book review by Danny Yee © 2011 https://dannyreviews.com/
Beckwith is a historian of the old school, trained in philology and careful analysis of sources; he is also rather biased, entirely unsystematic, and idiosyncratic in the extreme. Empires of the Silk Road is gloriously erudite and digressive, offering some unusual ideas and perspectives, but it needs to be read with care.

To give an idea of Beckwith's bias, here's the stirring end to his introduction.

"Recognition of the struggles of the Central Eurasian peoples against the more than two-millennia-long mistreatment by their peripheral neighbors is long overdue. The warriors of Central Eurasia were not barbarians. They were heroes, and the epics of their peoples sing their undying fame."

This is picked up in a forty page epilogue which attacks the concept of the "barbarian". Here Beckwith argues that Central Eurasian wealth and prosperity came from trade and enterprise, not from war, and that the "Silk Road" was not a route connecting east to west but an entire economy. He also argues, with Di Cosmo but contra Barfield and others, that Central Eurasians were not, despite their occasional military prowess, "natural warriors" or particularly prone to violence. And he explores the lack of any equivalent to "barbarian" in Chinese.

Much of this seems entirely on target: most of our sources come from what Beckwith calls "the periphery" and their biases are clear. But he carries it too far. In his account, attacks by Central Asians on peripheral states are always the result of provocation, and wars the result of expansionist policy by neighbours. Even the sack of Baghdad is explained: "The caliph refused to surrender, despite the reasonable Mongol offer and explanation of what would happen if he resisted." It reminds me of seeing books in Ulan Batar with titles like "Genghis Khan, Peacekeeper of God".

Beckwith also exaggerates the continuities and influence of Central Eurasian culture, and has a tendency to label states or peoples or ideas as "Eurasian" when they are presented positively, but as "peripheral" otherwise. When for example he analyses the Littoral System — the seaborne alternative to Central Eurasian commerce and communications — he draws on some suggestive but fairly limited parallels to conclude:

"The Portuguese, and the Spanish as well, were still essentially medieval in most respects and, as such, followed a Central Eurasian model of the commercial imperative practically identical to the model followed by the Scythians and other early Iranians in their establishment of the Silk Road economy."
The sustained and consistent perspective from the centre of Eurasia does, however, provide a useful counter to much more common biases.

The chapters are chronological and cover the whole region. A chapter "The Vikings and Cathay", for example, has sections on "The Western Steppe" and "North China and the Eastern Steppe" but also covers "Western and Southern Central Asia", "Tibet", and "Intellectual Growth in the High Middle Ages". Covering so much, there's necessarily some fairly bland recounting of events which isn't really fitted into any broader picture.

Beckwith uses and references archaeological work but doesn't engage directly with it, nor does he attempt to provide ethnographic background; his interests are predominantly historical and linguistic. For the later eras he draws more heavily on secondary sources — Millward for the Tarim Basin and surrounds, for example, and Manz for the life of Tamerlane. So this material is both less immediate and less speculative, though Beckwith still puts his own spin on it.

The more recent history is largely subordinated to political and aesthetic rants. A potted history narrates the twentieth century as one disaster after another, every one of them the fault of Modernism, or in some cases extreme Modernism, radical Modernism, religious fundamentalism, Postmodernism, or other variants. For Beckwith the horrors of Soviet collectivization or the Cultural Revolution are on a continuum with the populist excesses of Western "democracies", responsible for such evils as the imposition of mass schooling. Instead he harks back to the classical, aristocratic, and even monarchic past — the last Persian Shah is presented as a wise philosopher-king betrayed by the West. And, yes, it is possible to fit arguments about the merits (or lack thereof) of T.S. Eliot and The Wasteland, or serial music, into a history of Central Eurasia!

Beckwith does find room in this to describe the destruction of so much central Eurasian history and culture, at Soviet and Chinese hands but also at the hands of Modernist capitalism. His hope for the future is a Central Eurasian confederation, including a freed Tibet, East Turkistan, and assorted Russian republics, that will maintain "a generous suzerainty like the benevolent influence once exerted by the nomadic empires".

The most compelling material in Empires of the Silk Road is in its earlier chapters. This is Beckwith's core area of expertise and when he takes a contrarian or speculative stance here he backs it up with evidence. And his digressions, while often esoteric, are not quite so wildly aimed.

Beckwith's prologue explores two key parts of what he calls the Central Eurasian Cultural Complex: a complex of shared elements in hero and origin myths and the presence of a comitatus. "The core members of the comitatus, [the lord's] sworn friends, committed suicide, or were ritually executed, in order to be buried with him if he happened to predecease them." Beckwith is slightly obsessed by the comitatus and sees evidence of it everywhere, even in something as generic as loyalty to an individual rather than to a government. (I'm not sure I'd want to be one of Beckwith's doctoral students: they may be expected to bury themselves with him.)

The first chapter proper is an account of the Indo-European diaspora, in which Beckwith locates "the origins of modern civilization"; the linguistic reconstruction this is based on is fleshed out in a twelve page appendix. Beckwith emphasizes the role of the war chariot in Indo-European conquests, and the role of creolisation in the evolution of Indo-European languages. Particularly notable to me was an argument for extensive Indo-European influence on China, extending to language:

"Only further linguistic research will establish whether Early Old Chinese is a minimally maintained Indo-European language or a minimally maintained local East Asian language."

Around the beginning of the first millennium BC a north Iranian expansion, probably involving the introduction of mounted cavalry, planted the Scythians in the Western Steppe, the Sogdians in the urban core of Central Asia, and the Hsiung-nu (who most probably included an Iranian component, or were influenced by them) in the Eastern Steppe. Here Beckwith also speculates about possible trans-continental philosophical links involving Greece, India, and China.

The successes of the Alans, Parthians, Tokharians, Kushans, Hsiung-nu and Hsien-pei notwithstanding, the period of the Roman and Han Chinese empires was a low point for central Eurasia.

"The aggressive foreign policy successes of the Chinese and Roman empires ultimately had disastrous consequences. The partial closing of the frontier to trade by both empires, and their destabilization of Central Eurasia by their incessant attacks, resulted in internecine war in the region. The serious decline in Silk Road commerce that followed — observable in the shrinkage of the areal extent of Central Asian cities — may have been one of the causes of the long-lasting recession that eventually brought about the collapse of both the Western Roman Empire and the Eastern Han Empire, and with them the end of Classical civilization."

The "Great Wandering of Peoples" that took place starting around the second century AD "reestablished nearly all of Western Europe as part of the Central Eurasian Culture Complex, which spread at that time to Japan as well". The Second Regional Empire Period (more commonly known as the Early Middle Ages) saw the Türks "link up all the peripheral civilizations of Eurasia via its urbanized core, Central Asia" — while the Franks, the Arabs, the Tibetan Empire, and the T'ang all tried to conquer at least those parts of Eurasia nearest to them.

"Within a thirteen-year period in the mid-eighth century, every Empire in Eurasia suffered a major rebellion, revolution or dynastic change." But in the following century Eurasian trade stimulated economic development in Northern Europe, while Central Asians brought about "a brilliant fusion of intellectual-scientific culture in the Arab Empire".

After the previously mentioned chapter "The Vikings and Cathay", Beckwith devotes just twenty pages to Chinggis Khan and the Mongols (and Tamerlane and the Timurids). This was "the apogee of Central Asia and the Silk Road", but "the widely held view that [the Mongol conquest] was a fundamental, formative event, a watershed dividing Eurasia before and afterward, does not really accord with the historical evidence".

The early modern period saw the rise of regional empires of Central Eurasian derivation — Ottoman, Mughal, Russian, Manchu — and the development of an alternative, European-dominated "Littoral System". The Chinese destruction of the Junghars and the partitioning of Central Eurasia between Russia and China brought a "closing of the road" which, combined with the growth of the rival Littoral System, pushed the region into "the most severe, long-lasting economic depression in world history" as it "declined into oblivion". Which takes us up to the twentieth century, where I have already described Beckwith's jeremiads.

In The Tibetan Empire in Central Asia Beckwith's footnotes almost overwhelmed his text. Here the longer and more involved digressions are relegated to forty-five pages of endnotes. Many of these tackle philological and linguistic questions — the etymology of T'u-men/Bumïn, for example, or the linguistic affiliation of Khitan — but others digress to wherever Beckwith's fancy takes him. So half a page is devoted to rejecting conspiracy theories about the Pearl Harbour attack on the grounds that the American government wasn't competent enough to carry out anything like that.

Whatever else it is, Empire of the Silk Road is never boring, despite its involved detail. I would recommend it to anyone with enough of a background in world history and linguistics to be able to cope with a mix of outright speculation, grounded contrarianism, and straightforward history, and willing to pass over, or be entertained by, chunks of politico-aesthetic moralising. It is not really suitable for newcomers to central Eurasian history.

August 2011

External links:
- buy from Bookshop.org
- buy from Amazon.com or Amazon.co.uk
- share this review on Facebook or Twitter
Related reviews:
- Christopher I. Beckwith - The Tibetan Empire in Central Asia: A History of the Struggle for Great Power among Tibetans, Turks, Arabs, and Chinese during the Early Middle Ages
- books about Central Asia + Mongolia
- more history
- books published by Princeton University Press
%T Empires of the Silk Road
%S A History of Central Eurasia from the Bronze Age to the Present
%A Beckwith, Christopher I.
%I Princeton University Press
%D 2009
%O paperback, footnotes, endnotes, bibliography, index
%G ISBN-13 9780691150345
%P 472pp