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'Empires of the Silk Road'

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Empires of the Silk Road, by C. I. Beckwith

Empires of the Silk Road, by C. I. Beckwith

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The Bottom Line

Empires of the Silk Road helps round out a traditional history background with Eurasian prehistory, ancient, medieval, and modern history. It provides a look at the usual stories of history from a different perspective -- one sympathetic to the early inhabitants of the Eurasian steppes. For historical linguists, there are sections on the spread of Indo-European languages. For iconoclasts who love seeing assumptions torn down, there is plenty of fodder. Lastly, Conan the Barbarian fans may enjoy this sympathetic look at people commonly despised as barbarians.
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Pros

  • Covers original ground.
  • From an unusual perspective.
  • Not PC.
  • Great summaries at the start of each chapter.
  • Excellent end page maps, easy to use to locate and surprisingly thorough.

Cons

  • Some points are hard to follow or keep in mind until next time.
  • Not all terms and not all instances of them are listed in the Index.
  • Multiple themes (chariots, comitatus, language, barbarian) unevenly covered.
  • Distinction between IE people and language is sometimes blurred.

Description

  • Christopher I. Beckwith, Empires of the Silk Road.
    Princeton University Press: 2009. 472 pages.
  • Beckwith believes the historical indo-European languages emerged when IE nomads made contact with peripheral inhabited areas.
  • Says there were 3 waves of IE language development, starting with Indo-Iranian.
  • Says there is growing evidence that the Chinese were not isolated. IE people may have brought the chariot to the Shang.
  • Supports the hypothesis of the Aryan invasion of the Indian subcontinent.
  • Calls war chariots (vs ox carts) sophisticated machines that originated in only Central Eurasia.
  • Says the greatest achievement of the Scythians was a system of trade.
  • Provides compact bios of some of the great Central Eurasian leaders.
  • Redeems the reputations of Mongol leaders like Genghis and Kubla Khan.
  • Criticizes modern treatment and attitudes towards Central Eurasia.

Guide Review - 'Empires of the Silk Road'

Beckwith wrote Empires of the Silk Road to counter the "barbarian" image and to fill a void, since there is no other work that covers the same area and expanse of time so sympathetically. The warrior nomads of the Central Eurasian Steppes spread Indo-European languages, created trading routes, served in foreign armies, introduced the war chariot to others, and may have brought the idea of writing to the Chinese. Later, they maintained empires and contributed to the transmission of the arts.

There are many surprises to learn about the Central Eurasians. Blame placed on the Mongols for the Black Death is chronologically unfeasible. The brutality they are accused of is actually no more savage than practices in the "civilized" worlds of Rome, Greece, Persia, and China. Mongols, for instance, attacked when their ambassadors were murdered, as other ancient groups would have done. While there were pastoral nomadic warrior leaders, there were also enough people to man cities and engage in agriculture. In their treatment of subject states, their concern was mainly to obtain taxes and prevent rebellion.

A difficulty in reading this excellent historical look at the traders and warriors of Central Eurasia is that the book's unfamiliar terms are treated as though adequately defined within the prologue. However, the prologue throws the unprepared reader into a world of exotic terms and mythological events in order to introduce two of the central themes, "the first story" and the comitatus. The first story is a cultural package shared by Eurasians going back to the Proto-Indo-Europeans. The comitatus is part of the warrior ethos that refers to the band of followers who are sworn to death, expect lavish rewards, and are revealed in burials, even in China. The leader's responsibility to reward followers leads to the warrior trader of the Steppes.

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