The Meeting Of East And West In Ancient Times

The Asian Way Of Life

 

 

     In the centuries immediately preceding and following the birth of Christ,

the great civilizations of the world - Roman, Indian, and Chinese - were

connected by commercial and diplomatic exchanges. These contacts began to

decline in the third century A.D. and were eventually cut off. But each

civilization remembered that beyond the mountains and the deserts to the east

or to the west lay other great civilizations. Many centuries later this

knowledge would incite adventurous spirits in the West to bring the "halves"

of world civilizations together once again.

 

[See Trade And Culture: Trade and cultural interchange about 50 BC.]

 

Beyond The Roman Frontiers

 

     During the first and second centuries A.D., the prosperous years of the

Pax Romana, the peoples of the Roman Empire maintained trade contacts

extending far beyond the imperial boundaries. Chinese silk, which the Romans

believed was produced from the leaves of trees, was sold in the market quarter

of Rome, and Indian cotton was converted into cloth at Alexandria. Contacts

between West and East had progressively increased after 334 B.C., when

Alexander the Great invaded Asia, until a chain of intercommunicating states

stretched across Eurasia from the Atlantic to the Pacific.

 

     After Alexander's death, the Seleucid and Ptolemaic kingdoms of the

Hellenistic Age maintained trade contacts with India over two routes, one by

land and the other by sea. The most frequented route was the caravan road that

began in Syria or Asia Minor, crossed Mesopotamia, then skirted the Iranian

plateau to either Bactra (modern Balkh) or Kandahar before crossing the Hindu

Kush to reach Taxila in India. The sea route began either at the Red Sea ports

of Egypt or at the head of the Persian Gulf and moved along the coast to

India.

 

Sea Traffic To India

 

     By the late first century B.C., after Egypt and Syria had succumbed to

Rome, Roman capital and appetite for the luxury goods of India - ivory,

pearls, spices, dyes, and cotton - greatly stimulated trade with the East. By

this time, however, the existing trade routes had serious disadvantages. The

Parthians, whose kingdom extended from the Euphrates to the borders of

Bactria, were levying heavy tolls on the caravan trade, and the Sabaean Arabs

of southwest Arabia had cut off the Red Sea route at Aden and were in control

of much of the overseas trade with India. From Aden, the Sabaeans sent Indian

goods north by caravan to Petra, which grew rich as a distribution point to

Egypt via Gaza and to the north via Damascus.

 

     Augustus broke the hold of the Parthian and Arab middlemen on the Eastern

trade by establishing direct commercial connections by sea with India. By 1

B.C., he had reopened the Red Sea by forcing the Sabaeans out of Aden and

converting it into a Roman naval base. Ships were soon sailing from Aden

directly to India across the Arabian Sea, blown by the monsoon winds recently

discovered by a Greek mariner named Hippalus. From May to October the monsoon

blows from the southwest across the Arabian Sea, while the countermonsoon

blows from the northeast between November and March. Thus, direct round-trip

voyages, eliminating middlemen and the tedious journey along the coasts, could

be made in eight months. Strabo, a Greek geographer during the time of

Augustus, stated that 120 ships sailed to India every year from Egyptian

ports. Augustus claimed that "to me were sent embassies of kings from India,"

probably to specify the towns within the Roman Empire and in India where

foreign merchants might freely conduct their business and practice their own

customs and religions.

 

     During the first century A.D., Roman-financed ships reached the rich

markets of southern India and Ceylon (Sri Lanka). Christianity may have

reached India at this time. Indian Christians claim that their small group of

about 2 million was founded by St. Thomas, one of Jesus' original twelve

disciples, who may have sailed to India about A.D. 50. In A.D. 166, according

to the Chinese History of the Later Han Dynasty, some merchants from Ta Ch'in

("Great Ch'in," the Chinese name for Rome), claiming to represent "King Antun"

(the emperor Marcus Aurelius Antoninus), arrived in South China by sea across

the Bay of Bengal and around the Malay Peninsula.

 

The Silk Trade With China

 

     The Chinese made the first move to pierce the land barrier separating

them from the West. In 138 B.C. the Han emperor Wu Ti dispatched an envoy to

Bactra to seek allies against the Hsiung-nu (Mongolian nomads). Although the

envoy failed to secure an alliance, the information he brought back amounted

to the Chinese discovery of the West.

 

     Intrigued above all by his envoy's report indicating great interest in

Chinese silks and his description of the magnificent Western horses, Wu Ti

resolved to open trade relations with the West. His armies pushed across the

Pamir Mountains to a point close to Alexandria Eschate (Khojend), founded by

Alexander the Great as the northern limit of his empire. Shortly after 100

B.C. silk began arriving in the West, transmitted by the Parthians. Wealthy

private merchants carried on this trade, organized into caravans that required

large outlays of capital. When the Chinese soon moved back across the Pamirs,

the Kushans of India became middlemen, selling the silk to the Parthians and

later to Western merchants coming by sea to India.

 

     It was not until about A.D. 120 that the Parthians allowed some Western

merchants to cross their land. Ptolemy used the information they brought back

on the Chinese in constructing his map of the world.

 

The Economic Consequences For The West

 

     To satisfy the Roman world's insatiable appetite for luxury goods,

Western trade with the East grew immensely in the first two centuries A.D. But

because such Roman exports as wool, linen, glass, and metalware to the East

did not match in value Rome's imports of silk, spices, perfumes, gems and

other luxuries, the West suffered seriously from an adverse balance of trade.

Gold and silver had to be continually exported to Asia. Late in the first

century A.D., Pliny estimated that India, China, and Arabia drained away

annually at least 100 million sesterces (perhaps 10 million 1991 dollars),

declaring, "That is the sum which our luxuries and our women cost us." The

discovery of large hoards of Roman coins in India supports Pliny's statement.

This serious drain was one of the factors in the general economic decline of

the Roman world in the third century A.D.

 

Severance Of East-West Contacts

 

     Beginning in the third century A.D., contacts between the East and the

West gradually declined. With the overthrow of the Han Dynasty in A.D. 220,

China's power and prestige dwindled in Central Asia. By coincidence, the

Kushan empire in northeast India fell at the same time, and India entered a

period of change and transition. But probably the most significant factor in

the disruption of East-West relations was the political and economic decline

of the Roman world in the third century A.D., a topic that will be described

in the following chapter.

 

 by a ceremonal stone

gateway (torana). Each gateway is decorated, like the west gate shown here,

with intricate relief sculptures depicting Jataka tales (events in the life of

the Buddha) and popular mythological figures. Government of India Tourist

Office]

 

South India

 

     With the exception of a short period during the Mauryan Empire, the vast

tableland of south India - the Deccan - and its fertile coastal plains

remained outside the main forces of political change in the north. The

Dravidian peoples of this area, with their dark skin and small stature,

differed in appearance, language, and culture from the Aryan-speaking peoples

of the north. Gradually, however, as Brahmin priests and Buddhist monks

infiltrated the south, Hinduism and Buddhism were grafted onto the existing

Dravidian culture.

 

     Politically the south remained divided into numerous warring states, the

most interesting being three Tamil-speaking (a Dravidian dialect) kingdoms in

the far south. Tamil folk poetry, which describes the people at work and at

play, is justly famous. By the first century B.C., Tamil Land had become an

intermediary in the maritime trade extending eastward to the East Indies and

westward to the Hellenistic kingdoms.

 

     When Augustus became head of the Roman world, the Tamil and Kushan rulers

sent him congratulatory embassies. At least nine other embassies from India

visited the Roman emperors, and Roman-Indian trade greatly increased. Indian

birds (particularly talking parrots, costing more than human slaves) became

the pets of wealthy Roman ladies, and Indian animals (lions, tigers, and

buffaloes) were used in the wild beast shows of Roman emperors. In view of

these contacts, we can understand why Ptolemy's second-century A.D. map of the

world shows considerable knowledge of the geography of India.

 

     The peace and prosperity that the Kushans brought to much of northern

India ended about A.D. 220. The collapse of the Kushan state was followed by a

century of chaos and almost total obscurity before a new era of unified

imperial rule, which rivaled that of the Mauryas, began in India under the

Guptas (see chapter 8). In the meantime another great civilization had arisen

in China.

 

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