The Silk Road

Man traveling through desert with camels.
Feng Wei Photography / Getty Images

The Silk Road is actually many routes from the Roman Empire through the steppes, mountains, and deserts of Central Asia and India to China. By the Silk Road, the Romans obtained silk and other luxuries. Eastern empires traded for Roman gold, among other items. Besides the deliberate acts of trade, culture diffused throughout the area. Silk was a luxury the Romans wanted to produce for itself. In time, they discovered the carefully guarded secret.

Peoples Along the Silk Road

The Parthian and Kushan Empires served as intermediaries between Rome and the silk they so longed for. Other less powerful Central Eurasian peoples did as well. Traders who passed through paid taxes or tariffs to the state in control, so Eurasians profited and prospered far beyond the profit on individual sales.

Silk Road Products

Eliminating the very obscure objects of the trade from Thorley's list, here is a list of major products traded along the Silk Road:

"[G]old, silver, and rare precious stones, ... corals, amber, glass, ... chu-tan (cinnabar?), green jadestone, gold-embroidered rugs, and thin silk- cloth of various colors. They make gold-coloured cloth and asbestos cloth. They further have 'fine cloth', also called 'down of the water- sheep'; it is made from the cocoons of wild silkworms." —J. Thorley

Cultural Transmissions Along the Silk Roads

Even before there was a silk road, area traders transmitted language, military technology, and perhaps writing. During the Middle Ages, in connection with the declaration of a national religion for each country came the need for literacy for the book-based religions. With literacy came the spread of texts, learning of foreign languages for translation, and the process of book-making. Mathematics, medicine, astronomy, and more passed via the Arabs to Europe. Buddhists taught Arabs about educational institutions. European interest in the classical texts was resurrected.

The Decline of the Silk Road

The Silk Road brought East and West together, communicated language, art, literature, religion, science, and disease, but also made trade and merchants major players in the history of the world. Marco Polo reported on what he saw in the East, leading to increased interest. Nations of Europe financed sea voyages and exploration that allowed trading companies to bypass the middleman-states that had been supporting their socio-political systems if not getting rich, on taxes and to find new routes to replace newly blocked sea routes. Trade continued and grew, but the overland Silk Roads declined as the newly powerful China and Russia devoured the Central Eurasian nations of the Silk Road, and Britain colonized India.


"The Silk Trade between China and the Roman Empire at Its Height, 'Circa' A. D. 90-130," by J. Thorley. Greece & Rome, 2nd Ser., Vol. 18, No. 1. (Apr. 1971), pp. 71-80.

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Gill, N.S. "The Silk Road." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Gill, N.S. (2023, April 5). The Silk Road. Retrieved from Gill, N.S. "The Silk Road." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 11, 2023).