Royal Roads: The First World Empires and the Creation of the Silk Road, 550–150 BCE

Dr. Rolf Strootman is working this long-term project, which is connected to his other projects: Iranians in the Hellenistic World (Fourth to Second Century BCE) and The Achaemenid Aegean (Fifth to Fourth Century BCE).

How were big, ‘supranational’ empires held together? Premodern empires—by their very nature extensive composite systems of control and exploitation, created through conquest and characterized by internal political and cultural diversity—compared to modern nation states seem delicate political systems under constant pressure from centrifugal forces and always in danger of becoming overextended. Yet seen from the perspective of world history, empires, together with cities, arguably were the most enduring state forms in the history of Eurasia before the rise of the West (if indeed ‘states’ they were).

The ‘Global Turn’ in present-day historical research compels the ancient historian to understand political and cultural developments from a broader, Afro-Eurasian perspective. This challenge has been taken up more fervently by Roman historians—who have begun to reinterpret the relationship between Roman imperialism and Mediterranean cultural exchanges in the light of globalization theory—than by historians of the Achaemenid Empire and Hellenistic World. But the Central-Eurasian interconnectedness that emerged in the Persian and subsequent Hellenistic periods arguably surpassed Roman ‘globalization’ both in terms of geographical scope and long-term impact. In addition, the ‘Imperial Turn’ in current historical studies has opened up new perspectives on the Persian and Macedonian empires: no longer to be seen as bounded, centralized nation states avant la lettre, these universalistic empires too are now open for reinterpretation as negotiated enterprises and ever-shifting networks of various local and imperial interest groups.

Until the western European maritime powers rose to global dominance after c. 1750 CE, the main routes of interaction that connected the civilizational cores of Asia, Europe and Africa followed an east-west direction via land (with the exception of the Indian Ocean system of interaction). Although peoples, goods and ideas had always freely moved around most parts of Afro-Eurasia, it was specifically in the second half of the First Millennium BCE that the intricate nets of connected cities, now known as the ‘Silk Road’, emerged as an enduring network of long-distance interaction from China to the Mediterranean.

Working from the premise that in premodern Eurasia supranational empire and international connectivity are mutually reinforcing, it is this project’s contention that the institutionalization of a trans-Eurasian system of exchange and its accompanying, more or less standardized, modes of intercultural communication originated with the political, and to a significant degree also cultural, integration of the urbanized core regions of Central Eurasia in a single hegemonic system overseen by Persian and later Macedonian imperial dynasties, continuously linking the Mediterranean directly to Central Asia and India from c. 550 to 150 BCE. The last centuries of the period under scrutiny moreover saw the emergence of the first Chinese empire (under the Qin and then Han dynasties) as well as the first political unification of the northern steppe zone by the nomad confederacy of the Xiongnu (Hsiung-nu). In short, in understanding premodern Eurasian ‘globalization’, empire is key. But how exactly did the first world empires succeed in integrating disparate communities into a single political system over vast geographical distances?