Christopher I. Beckwith’s Empires of the Silk Road (2009) (i)

The long expanse of land that runs more or less from the lower Danube in the west to the Yalu River region in the east, known as Central Eurasia, has long been thought of as a backwater in world affairs, but in this arresting study Christopher Beckwith argues for its having been central. Its inhabitants, who often struck the peoples around them as uncivilized barbarians, a piece of demonization that recalls the grossly unfair construction of ‘barbarians’ by classical Greek and Roman authors, sustained their wealthy lifestyles not by plundering their settled neighbours but by exchanging their horses for goods such as silk. In this understanding, the peoples around the Central Eurasia emerge as peripherals. This is a work of great intellectual ambition that develops a compelling line of argument and is buttressed by very juicy endnotes. It is made stronger by the demonstration that things we have always seen as central to the western tradition (the legend of the founding of Rome by twins, the ethos of the Germanic comitatus) were in fact extreme outliers of stories and social practices known throughout Eurasia.  I now realise that Einhard’s account of the last Merovingian kings of the Franks trundling about in carts drawn by oxen describes a practice widely known in Eurasia.

The study is full of unexpectedly fascinating material. Discussing the development of the Indo-European languages, Beckwith proposes that the differences between them did not develop slowly as speakers of the original language lost contact with each other when they became dispersed, but very quickly, as creoles that developed when Indo-European migrants married local women in the lands they entered. There are all kinds of mysteries here; I’m intrigued at the presence in Greek of so many words with an ‘nth’ component (anthropos, plinthos, Corinth) that surely point to a pre-Indo-European substratum. The brief suggestions made on a possible relationship between Early Old Chinese and Indo-European are dazzling. Beckwith’s book is not only packed with Chinese characters, but obliged the typesetters of Princeton University Press to use the Arabic, Cyrillic and Greek alphabets as well! One is disposed to trust such an account.

This said, I’m uneasy about a tendency to line up developments across Eurasia (and beyond) that occurred at about the same time and see them as having the same cause. Hence a discussion of revolutions and rebellions in the mid-eighth century associates a short-lived rebellion in Byzantium that was surely a piece of internal politicing, the overthrow of the Umayyads by the Abbasids, and the overthrow of the Frankish Merovingians by the Carolingians. Discussing the last of these, Beckwith observes: ‘ The background of their overthrow of the Merovingians is fairly well understood and appears to be wholly political and internal. Other factors, however, may have been involved as well. Jewish merchants were extremely influential among the Carolingians…’ I can’t see that the second sentence follows from the first.

Yet nowadays this region that has been so central has become marginal and gripped by poverty. What has gone wrong? Beckwith sees the hand of modernism at work. But this turns out to be an important concept in his thought, to which it will be worth returning…

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