Between the East and the West

Review of Empires of the Silk Road: A History of Central Eurasia from the Bronze Age to the Present, by Christopher I. Beckwith (Princeton University Press 2009)

Though Eurasia is the world's largest unified landmass, Eurasian history has traditionally been marked by its disunity. Historians have written histories of the Greeks and Romans, and of the Arabians, Indians, and Chinese, but were the stories of these neighboring regions and peoples as disconnected as history books imply?

Cover of Empires of the Silk Road: A History of Central Eurasia from the Bronze Age to the Present by Christopher I. Beckwith
Cover of Empires of the Silk Road: A History of Central Eurasia from the Bronze Age to the Present by Christopher I. Beckwith.

In Empires of the Silk Road, Christopher Beckwith unites the history of the peoples of the world's largest landmass into a remarkable history of Central Eurasia from the Bronze Age to the Present.

His goals for the book are twofold. First, he aims "to write a realistic, objective view of the history of Central Eurasia and Central Eurasians" (xii). He martials impressive research in primary sources to provide a picture of Central Eurasians from within. Secondly, Beckwith hopes the inevitable gaps in his wide-ranging history will inspire young historians into the spacious field of Central Eurasian history.

Throughout Empires of the Silk Road, Beckwith argues against the popular notion of Central Eurasians as barbarian nomads. He argues that "successful warlike behavior is what defines a hero throughout history in every Eurasian society" (353), but the victors' historians have created a false dichotomy between the heroic victors and the barbaric losers.  Beckwith portrays the humanity of Central Eurasians throughout history—"[they] were urban and rural, strong and weak, ... good, bad, and everything in between, exactly as all other known people on earth" (355).

In the absence of textual and material sources, Beckwith employs linguistic analysis to describe the first Central Eurasian diaspora, arguing nearly all the civilizations around Central Eurasia were conquered by Indo-European chariot warriors of Central Eurasia. He then unifies these geographically separated peoples with the "Central Eurasian Cultural Complex." The crucial element of the Complex is the ruler and his comitatus, a group of warriors sworn to their leader. In exchange for their loyalty, the ruler lavishly rewarded them. Maintaining such a system required significant resources, which were most efficiently obtained through trade and tribute. Central Eurasians were willing to wage war to maintain access to markets and keep tribute payments flowing.

Beckwith conceptualizes Central Eurasian history in terms of the continental and periphery. He sketches a historical pattern in which a Central Eurasian people build a trade-based empire whose economic and cultural achievements attract the attention of regional powers on the periphery. When the regional powers expand inward, they disrupt the trade networks that maintain comitatus-based societies; having conquered Eurasia, the regional powers gradually decline themselves, and the cycle repeats.

Chronologically, Beckwith divides his narrative into four regional empire periods. The first period begins when the Chinese and the Romans each invaded the prosperous Scythian steppe empire in the first millenium. This aggressive foreign policy destabilized Silk Road commerce, which may have contributed to the decline of the Roman and Chinese empires. In the subsequent "Great Wandering of Peoples," Germanic Huns moved westward into the declining Roman empire. Beckwith describes medieval feudalism, characterized by the special status of the warrior class and trading cities, as another form of the Central Eurasian Cultural Complex.

Beckwith argues for a much broader understanding of the Silk Road than the ancient superhighway conjured up in the popular imagination. He sees it as "the entire Central Eurasian economy, or socioeconomic-political-cultural system" (264). During the early Middle Ages, the Türk brought most of Central Asia under their rule and reestablished the Silk Road, thus reconnecting the regional empires on the periphery. In this period, the Eurasian states developed political protocol, adopted world religions, and supported the spread of literacy and learning. Beckwith sees Central Eurasia as the nexus of this vibrant intellectual activity. But as the empires on the periphery grew during this Second Regional Empire Period, Central Eurasia increasingly became a battleground. This period, too, closed with rebellions and dynastic changes in the regional empires.

In the late thirteenth century, Chinggis Khan again reunited the steppe and expanded Central Eurasia to Russia, Persia, Tibet, and China, making the Mongol Empire the world's first superpower. In the Pax Mongolica that followed, Central Eurasia flourished commercially and culturally. After the devastating Black Death of the fourteenth century, the Timurids restored Central Asia to the cultural and political center of Eurasia.

The Third Regional Empire Period begins with the voyages of discovery during the Renaissance. Continental and littoral trade networks had long coexisted, but after de Gama's circumnavigation of southern Africa, the littoral system developed into an independent economic sphere and the continental Silk Road system gradually declined. As the coastal European powers developed port cities in South, Southeast, and East Asia, wealth and power shifted to the Littoral System. Maritime powers jostled for control of markets around the globe, as the periphery again dominated Central Eurasia. Beckwith considers World War I as a war in which "the Littoral powers—England, France, and their allies in Europe and America, and Japan in Asia—defeated and punished the continental powers..." (290). (This interpretation seems overly simplistic given the complex genesis of the war, and the fact that the eastern front pitted against each other two continental powers.) After both world wars, political revolutions proliferated; millions of Central Eurasians suffered under Soviet and Chinese regimes.

To Beckwith, the conquest of Central Eurasia in the modern period has been calamitous because of the inherent destructiveness of Modernism, which he describes as a "permanent revolution", a "continuous rejection of the traditional or immediately preceding political, social, artistic, and intellectual order" (289). Modernism unquestionably replaced traditional political systems with "democratic" variants, and it also destroyed traditional art forms: "Central Eurasian culture suffered the most of any region of the world from the devastation of Modernism in the twentieth century" (288).

The Fourth Regional Empire Period begins at the end of the twentieth century, with the collapse of the USSR, and the rise of the European Union as a new peripheral power. In this new period of Central Eurasian history, Beckwith hopes the new Central Asian states will recover economically and culturally, and eventually "create an enlightened, liberal confederation like the European Union" (313).

In Empires of the Silk Road, Beckwith writes about Central Eurasia with the love of a man who has spent over thirty years studying his subject. His clear writing and helpful system of notes make this book especially appealing to both general and academic audiences. He is at his best describing the Central Eurasian Cultural Complex and its manifestations across time and space, but his wide-ranging critique of Modernism fails to consider the benefits of modernity, such as health and communication technologies. One also wishes he had outlined a more realistic vision for the development and recovery of  Central Eurasia. But who is to predict the future of Central Eurasia? In any case, Beckwith is to be thanked for his fresh look at world history, and one can only hope that it will indeed attract more interest in his field.