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
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
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
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
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