Peter Frankopan's The Silk Roads: A New History of the World

A Book Review of Peter Frankopan's 2015 History of the World

Zoroastrian Fresco from the Sogdian Town of Penjikent
Zoroastrian Fresco from the Sogdian Town of Penjikent. Walter Callens / Getty Images

The Silk Roads: A New History of the World, by Peter Frankopan. Alfred A. Knopf: 2015. ISBN 978-1-101-94632-9 (hardcover). ISBN 978-1-101-94633-6 (eBook)

In 1963, William Hardy McNeill published his world history, The Rise of the West: A History of the Human Community. Some noted that the title showed an optimistic change from the late eighteenth century's big book, The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, by Edward Gibbon.

In 2015, Peter Frankopan published another tome, The Silk Roads: A New History of the World. In this, the focus for world history has shifted eastward; beyond the cradle of civilization to the Silk Roads, which basically ran from western China to the Persian Empire with the related spice roads going from the Indian to the Arabian peninsula. This is not a superficial observation, but the crux of what Frankopan sees happening in world history.

The Silk Roads: A New History of the World, begins with the long-lived, enormous, and successful Persian Empire, governed by means of an extensive series of roads and capable leaders. Between invaders from Central Asia, and its own attempts to expand, it eventually fell to the great Macedonian leader of the Greeks, Alexander, who, along with his successors, attempted to expand and protect his territory to the western Asian side of the nomad-inhabited Steppes and into the Indian peninsula.

At the same time the Chinese were engaged in similar enterprises to the east of the Steppes. Along the Steppes and deserts of Central Asia, trade corridors formed.

In addition to these caravan-traveled routes, called the Silk Roads for the fine material China produced and traded ("treasured by the nomads for its texture and its lightness as a lining for bedding and clothing.

It was also a symbol of political and social power"), were other donkey and camel-crossed routes, the Spice Roads, bringing myrrh and frankincense from Yemen and Ethiopia, and other highly desirable, costly exotic spices of the Arabian peninsula, Asia, and Africa, to interested buyers. In centuries to come, sea routes would link eastern and western sides of the Eurasian land mass more cheaply than land caravans.

A New History

The Silk Roads: A New History of the World is a general world history with an amazing breadth and depth, but it uses a focused perspective, as it ploughs the furrows of millennia of duplicity and corruption, complemented by frequent bouts of natural disaster and virulent epidemics. Political and religious organizations have been responsible for most of the man-made trouble (as well as some of the famines).

  • "The advances into Central Asia were greatly facilitated by the chaos that had started to embroil the steppe region at the same time that Persia crumbled. A┬ádevastating winter in 627-28 resulted in famine and the death of very large numbers of livestock, and precipitated a major shift in power."

Hiding behind mantles of nobility, be the sacred cow democracy or god, as it was in the early years of Islam and the Crusades, Frankopan sees valuable resources as the real driving force.

Religion served as a banner under which the average Joe might serve faithfully, but be paid faithlessly, and also as a reliable sore spot with which to goad the enemy.

  • "The extinguishing of the [Zoroastrian] sacred fire was an aggressive and provocative act, designed to belittle the religious cornerstone of Persian identity. The news was celebrated with wild enthusiasm by the Romans and their allies. As hostilities continued, religion became increasingly important. When troops revolted over a proposed reduction in pay, for example, the commanding officer paraded a sacred image of Jesus in front of the troops to impress on them that serving the Emperor meant serving God."

In itself, greed might not be so bad, but when coupled, as it has always been, with lack of vision and refusal to learn from history, while arousing jealousy in the others, whoever they might be,

  • "The Turks were playing an increasingly dominant role in trade, much to the annoyance of the Chinese, who portrayed them as difficult and untrustworthy-a sure sign of their rising commercial success."

the consequences are almost inevitable. The average people will suffer, whether through starvation, slavery (not just African):

  • "It was the sale of slaves that paid for the imports that began to flood into Europe in the ninth century. The silks, spices and drugs that are increasingly visible in the sources as highly desirable luxury objects or as medical necessities were funded by large-scale human trafficking.
  • "So rampant was the desire for profit from slavery that, although some Scandinavians obtained licences from local rulers to plunder new regions and take prisoners, others were more than willing to put each other in bond....
  • "Huge numbers were imported from subSaharan Africa: one trader alone boasted of selling more than 12,000 black slaves in markets in Persia. Slaves were also taken from the Turkic tribes of Central Asia...
  • "Slave markets thrived across central Europe, stocked with men, women and children waiting to be trafficked to the east-and also to the court at Cordoba, where there were more than 13,000 Slavic slaves in 961."

conscription, disease, or something else, while the powerful will get richer while making mortal enemies who can't wait for revenge.

  • 'With the Roman Empire buckling under one internal revolt after another, Persian forces turned the screw: cities in Mesopotamia fell like dominoes, with Edessa the last capitulating in 609. Attention then turned to Syria. Antioch, the great city on the Orontes, first See of St. Peter and the major metropolis of Roman Syria, fell in 610, followed by Emesa in western Syria the following year."

    In short, Frankopan's history is a very depressing read, making one ashamed to be a citizen of the (insert your nation here). Although I believe some U.S. presidents were skipped, it seemed as though Frankopan tarred them all, from Wilson on. The British fared little better, especially at the hands of Chamberlain and Churchill. Frankopan remarks on the hypocrisy of accusing Germany of empire building when empire maintenance was the goal of the European allies.

    Not to mention the idea that the British treated with the Russians because they feared that, otherwise, Russia would interrupt their lucrative trade in the vicinity of the Iranian end of the Silk (now, Oil) Road. Indeed, the British almost allied with Germany, with whom they were more sympathetic and even related by blood.

    Unfortunately for the European leaders, their imperial age was just about over, even if they failed to see the signs. It had happened before in the west:

    • "Trade in the Christian Mediterranean, already dwindling on the eve of the wars with Persia, foundered. Once bustling cities like Athens and Corinth contracted sharply, their populations reduced and their centres all but abandoned. Shipwrecks from the seventh century onwards, a good indicator of the volume of commercial exchange going on, disappear almost entirely. Trade that was not local simply came to an end."

    The center of power passed to Russia to the east and the U.S. to the west, for the bulk of the post-war twentieth century.

    Since then it has been shifting again.

    A Fatalistic Perspective

    The point is not to make one sympathetic to the Germans or the Iraqi, or any other nation, so much as to see that what we've been told in history classes is only one way of looking at events. Frankopan's perspective just happens to be fatalistic, although he might argue that he sees some hope in the Chinese because they are at least looking ahead a couple of decades and may finally have learned from previous mistakes, like

    • "In [8th century] China, meanwhile, the defeat brought repercussions and upheaval, triggering a major revolt against the ruling Tang dynasty led by the Sogdian general An Lushan, which led to an extended period of unrest and instability that created a vacuum for others to exploit."

    Those who should be required to read the book are the college administrators cost-cutting humanities courses, military and political policy makers, including the entire U.S. Congress, U.N. diplomats, and conspiracy theorists. Almost everyone else would benefit from reading it. Since the book has a focus, and since it is a world history, there are many omissions. It deliberately dovetails with what we see going on in the news today making one think twice about assigning blame, picking a target, and letting fly some harebrained scheme that has been tried and failed before.

    A Summary

    Pleasantly surprised by the careful treatment of the ancient world, I noted that classical scholar Paul Cartledge advised Frankopan. Frankopan also had access to world-class libraries and recently declassified U.S. documents, making some of the revelations amazing, although I must insert the disclaimer that I am not well-informed about modern history except as I have lived through it, so some of what amazed me might be less than novel to you.

    The arrangement of the surprisingly named chapters makes sense--at least while you are reading along, since one chapter glides into the next. Although focusing for the first few chapters on the area and products of the silk roads, the silk roads become the road of faith, furs, revolution, slavery, and black gold. And, just as the ancient and medieval silk roads are known for conveying language, diseases, and ideas, as well as physical items, Frankopan's roads (as indicated by chapter titles) are also pathways to Heaven and Hell, death and destruction, gold and silver, catastrophe, and tragedy.

    Written in clear, non-scholarly English, it is a long, dense, thought-provoking book that challenges our traditional western-centered focus of history.

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