Great African Empires, Part 1: Staggering Timescales
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Who ruled the East while Rome ruled Europe? Meet four of the greatest empires in the history of Asia.
This week, the BBC announced the discovery of two “ethnically Chinese” skeletons at an ancient Roman burial site in England. Who were they? What drove them to the far end of the world? We don’t know, yet.
But for once, an article’s clickbait headline may not be exaggerating. If the genetic identity of these skeletons can be confirmed, it could indeed “rewrite Roman history” — or at least, a whole lot of long-held assumptions about who was in contact with whom in the days of the Roman Empire.
Oh, we’ve known for a long time the ancient Romans were aware of China’s existence — in fact, Chinese silk was such a drain on the Roman economy that the senate tried to outlaw it in the year 14 CE. And the Chinese emperors of the Han dynasty were certainly aware of Rome — they called it Da Qin and repeatedly tried to reach it with envoys and missionaries.
No one disputes the fact that these two cultures had centuries of indirect contact, via trade routes through India and Persia. Roman coins have been found as far east as Japan, and DNA evidence seems to suggest that Europeans settled on the western fringes of China as early as the 200s BCE.
What’s much less clear, though, is whether Chinese or Roman diplomats ever managed to achieve direct contact on each others’ native soil.
Until these Chinese skeletons were unearthed in England — at the far-western end of the Roman Empire, no less — no one had ever found any proof that a single Chinese envoy ever made it to Rome; or that a Roman envoy reached China. Which would mean…
Romans were largely locked out of the civilized world.
But wait… wasn’t Rome “the civilized world?”
That’s certainly what most of us (in the West, anyway) are taught in school. Back in my school days, I was taught a fair amount about Rome, a tiny bit about China, even less about Persia, and nothing at all about the Kushans, or the Axumites, or any of the other powerful empires that controlled large chunks of the globe — and often helped shape the cultures and fortunes of European nations.
Maybe you can relate to these frustrating knowledge gaps.
The truth is, though, that Rome’s Asian contemporaries completely dwarfed Rome in many respects: heritage, population density, cultural diversity, technology, architecture, medicine, philosophy, poetry… I could go on, but you get the idea. During the Roman period, the Asian continent was by far the wealthiest, most advanced, most culturally diverse place on earth.
Imperial Rome was a dim backwater by comparison.
Ever since I’ve learned that fact, it’s always made me sad to think of the Romans being largely cut off from the main action on the world stage.
If researchers can verify the ancestry of these skeletons in England, maybe Rome wasn’t quite as cut off as we always believed. It’s an exciting thought. But it doesn’t change the fact that, on the whole, contact between Rome and the East — and thus, between Eastern and Western cultural legacies — was mostly indirect, mediated by third (and often fourth and fifth) parties.
Who were these vast empires of Asia? What was it like to live in them? Where did they come from, and what legacies did they leave?
I’m glad you asked. Let’s take a journey to the East.
Before we begin our tale, we first need to briefly set our stage, and make sure all our actors are on their marks.
In the 200s to 400s CE (the range of dates during which the owners of those Chinese skeletons made their way to Roman Britain) the map looked something like this:
I say “something like this” because a whole lot was going on during those centuries:
Rome’s legions were fighting fiercely for control of Gaul (modern France and Germany), Britain, Egypt, and various parts of the Balkans; while a succession of (often unfairly maligned) emperors scrambled to hold Rome together through an endless series of famines, wars with the East, coups d’état, refugee crises, and revolts.
The steppe horsemen known as the Parthians lost control of Persia, which entered a great classical age under the Sasanian dynasty.
The Han dynasty lost its grip on China, which split into three powerful warring kingdoms.
Vast tracts of southern Asia were changing hands among a dozen or more competing empires, each with its own rich culture.
Since we don’t know exactly when those Chinese travelers (whoever they were) left China and arrived in Roman Britain, it’s hard to say exactly what kind of “China” they left, what kind of “Rome” they arrived in, or what kind of “Persia” — or what other empires, exactly — they had to pass through.
With that in mind, let’s spend some time in a few of those Asian empires, and get to know their people a little better.
The Sasanians could trace their cultural ancestry all the way back to the primordial mists of recorded history,
To the dawn of civilization itself.
They had taken Persia from the Parthians, who’d taken it from the Seleucids — descendants of Alexander the Great; an infamous villain in Persian eyes to this day — who’d ripped it from the hands of the glorious Achaemenid dynasty, who’d freed Mesopotamia from the brutal yoke of the Assyrian Empire, back when Rome was an unknown village.
The Assyrians, of course, had been just the latest in a line of conquerors reaching back through the Babylonians, though many long centuries, to the Akkadian Empire of Sargon the Great — the first documented multi-ethnic empire in world history, which owed its own cultural legacy, in large part, to the Sumerians.
By the time they met Rome, the Sasanians could look back through no less than 3,000 years of literate, urban society. The oldest works of poetry and sculpture in their treasure-houses were as ancient, for them, as the Iliad and the Odyssey, or the Old Testament, are for us today.
In fact, the land of Babylon had long ago been ruled by yet another dynasty from the Persian region.
The Elamite people, whose own literate culture was as ancient and venerable as that of the Sumerians, had conquered large swathes of Mesopotamia in the 1800s BCE, holding dominion until they were thrown out by an invading king called Hammurabi.
At its height, the Sasanian Empire spanned all of today’s Iran, Iraq, Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatif, Qatar, UAE, Syria, Palestine, Lebanon, Israel, Jordan, Armenia, Georgia, Azerbaijan, Dagestan, South Ossetia, Abkhazia, Egypt, large parts of Turkey, Afghanistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Yemen and Pakistan.
Sasanian Persia was geographically smaller than the peak-size Roman Empire — but it was more urban, and far more densely populated.
The Sasanian Empire’s subjects hailed from uncounted hundreds of tribes and peoples. They practiced at least ten different major religions, including Judaism, Hinduism and Buddhism; along with a late, decadent form of the religion of ancient Babylon.
The state religion, however, was Zoroastrianism — as it had been since the Achaemenid dynasty, five centuries before, and would remain until the coming of Islam (while many practicing Zoroastrians still live in the region, and around the world, today).
Though the Sasanians’ subject peoples spoke dozens of languages, the tongues of the court were Greek and Aramaic, along with an ancestor of the Farsi language now spoken in Iran.
At the head of the Sasanian state sat the shah-en-shah — the King of Kings, a title borrowed from the Achaemenid Persian emperors like Darius and Xerxes; who derived it, ultimately, from royal titles used by Babylonian and Akkadian conquerors, thousands of years before them.
Below the shah-en-shah, a meticulously organized pyramid of governors and viziers extended down to the powerful nobility of land-holding feudal aristocrats, who oversaw the middle castes of priests, warriors, commoners, and artisans.
At the bottom of the pyramid, of course, were slaves — mostly household servants, who seem to have been treated relatively mildly. Harming a slave was a crime, forbidden even to the shah himself.
The upper classes enjoyed the first recognizably “Persian” culture: brocaded silks, floral tapestries, ornate goblets, sumptuous carpets, intricate mosaics, and the styles of music, food and poetry that would so captivate their Islamic conquerors a few centuries hence.
In fact, this same culture would later captivate the Seljuk Turks, the Mongols and the Ottomans; and would continue to lend its distinct influences to Turkey and Iran even today. Any time you savor a bite of baklava or sip a glass of dark tea, thank the Sasanians.
You can also thank the Sasanian aristocracy for much of (what would later become) the medieval European aesthetic. Look at this Sasanian rock engraving, for example, and you’re essentially looking at a medieval European king:
…except that this engraving depicts the Sasanian shah-en-shah Shapur I, and dates from around 260 CE — a full thousand years before the European medieval period, when the height of Roman fashion was still togas and sandals. It’s like Shapur time-traveled to Rome from the future.
The Sasanian aristocracy, like their later medieval imitators, wore ankle-length robes and pointed slippers, tunics and trousers— more borrowings from the Achaemenids, Assyrians and Babylonians before them.
They rode into battle on famously enormous horses, outfitted in full suits of chain-mail armor, wielding broadswords and longbows, carrying jousting lances.
Ever wondered how Roman legions would fare against medieval knights? You don’t have to wonder — the Romans fought hundreds of battles against the Sasanians, and the Sasanians often beat the Roman legions to a bloody pulp; especially when fighting on the defensive.
When the Roman army started incorporating their own armored heavy cavalry, they got better at fighting back against the feudal knights of the Sasanian aristocracy — but the Romans never made any permanent incursions into Sasanian territory, or inflicted many serious defeats.
The Sasanians never made it very far into Roman territory, either. For hundreds of years, the two armies held each other, in large part, at a stalemate.
It wasn’t only in military matters that the Sasanians were centuries ahead of their time. Their scholars translated the works of Plato and Aristotle — preserving many books that were later lost to the West — and organized debates between sages and scholars of dozens of philosophies and religions, from all across Asia.
The shah established a “Grand School” at the capital city of Ctesiphon (in modern Iraq), where more than 30,000 pupils studied astronomy, architecture, medicine and literature. In fact, a few centuries later, when the Roman emperor Justinian forcibly closed all the Greek schools, the Sasanians would welcome the fleeing Greek philosophers with open arms.
An empire like the Sasanians’ doesn’t collapse easily.
Long after the Western Roman Empire fell beneath waves of attack from the Huns and Goths, the Sasanian emperors continued to hold their own against the Eastern Roman Empire, slowly growing weaker under relentless losses against the Byzantines, the Turks, the Khazars, and hordes of other enemies.
By the time the armies of Islam rode out of Arabia, the once-great Sasanian Empire was fragmented and exhausted. An army led by Caliph Umar ibn al-Khattāb captured city after Sasanian city throughout the mid-600s; and by 651, the remains of the knightly and priestly aristocracy fled, in despair, into the vastness of the Central Asian steppe-land.
It’s often been said, though, that no one truly captures Persia.
Instead, Persia captures her conquerors. There’s no doubt that she captured the Arabs.
Much of what we think of as “Arabian culture” today — the distinctive styles of art, food, architecture and music; the tales of The 1,001 Nights; the wealth and opulence of Middle-Eastern monarchs— owes far more, in fact, to the Sasanian palace gardens than to the deserts of Arabia.
And yet the Sasanians themselves had, in the same way, been captured by a culture far older than their own: the ur-culture of Babylon, Akkad and Sumer, which had flourished in the Cradle of Civilization since time immemorial.
These knights of the Silk Road, then, were only the latest in a long line of gatekeepers who held the keys to the Garden of Eden.
The Yuezhi had once been a confederation of steppe horse-tribes, raiding along the borders of territory controlled by China’s Han dynasty.
When a more powerful tribe known as the Xiongnu (who may have been related to the Huns who later threatened Rome) defeated the Yuezhi, the confederation split up, each tribe riding outwards in its own direction: some north into what’s now Russia; others west, skirting the eastern borders of Persia; still others down into today’s Pakistan and Afghanistan.
It was that last tribe of Yuezhi — the ones who headed south — who managed to weld all the neighbouring Yuezhi tribes into a tight military machine, and began to seize control of the rich river valleys they found.
The territory they conquered — starting in what’s now Afghanistan — had been hotly contested since the days of Alexander the Great, who had wrenched it away from the Achaemenid Persians about three hundred years earlier.
Those forested valleys were still filled with ruins of Greek cities — many of them now inhabited by Scythians, another tribe of fierce Indo-Iranian horse-people, whose own warrior culture wasn’t too different from that of the invading Yuezhi. All the same, the Yuezhi promptly kicked the Scythians out and/or assimilated them.
However, some of the Greek cities in the Peshawar valley were still inhabited by their Hellenic conquerors (distant relatives and descendants of Alexander the Great) who introduced the Yuezhi to the Greek language and alphabet, along with Greek coinage, religion, and philosophy.
Somewhere around this time — it’s hard to say exactly when, because the tradition was mainly oral, and left few written records — the Yuezhi began styling themselves “Kushan” (Guishuang to the Chinese).
No one’s sure where the name comes from; but it soon became widely known, as Kushan armies swept westward and southward through Pakistan and into northern India, cheerfully assimilating new languages, clothes, technologies, and faiths every step of the way.
At the time, no one had the power to stop them.
The Scythian tribes were warring incessantly among themselves; their petty chiefdoms collapsed before the Kushan onslaught. Far to the east, the Han Chinese were tied up with their own border struggles against the Xiongnu and other steppe tribes.
Persia was under the thumb of the Parthian dynasty — who, strangely enough, were also horse-people, with a stern warrior culture related to the Kushans’ own, and to that of the Scythians they’d kicked out. The Parthians and the Kushans seem to have been evenly-matched enough that they tried to stay out of each others’ way.
For the Kushans, this was almost too good to be true.
By the 200s CE, their warrior aristocracy had piled up wealth beyond their wildest dreams. They were dressing like Persians, speaking like Greeks, trading actively with Rome and China, and practicing an easygoing mixture of Zoroastrianism, Buddhism, Hinduism, and Greco-Roman polytheism.
Kushan kings lived in splendor amidst art and architecture that freely combined Greek, Persian, Chinese and Indian influences. Some of the Kushan kings seem to have taken Greek throne-names; others took Indian or Persian ones.
Spot the Kushan in the image below! (He’s on the left.) “Day 65: the Buddhist monks have accepted me as one of their own…”
I sometimes wonder if it’s precisely this melting-pot nature of the Kushan Empire (combined with their relative lack of written records) that’s consigned them to the neglected back-alleys of history.
It’s easy to point at a temple and say, “That’s Greek,” or to a silk carpet and say, “That’s Chinese” — but the Kushans seem to have been content to trade, prosper, and delight in the culture of everyone around them, without leaving behind much of anything that was uniquely their own.
And to be honest, it’s hard to blame them. These homespun horse-folk, fleeing the harshness of the steppe, landed smack-dab in the middle of one of the richest cultural whirlpools the world has ever seen.
They had Greek philosophers, Roman architects, Persian poets, Indian musicians and Chinese trade routes; thousands of years of collective cultural experience, right at their fingertips.
Maybe the Kushans knew better than to try to fix a system that clearly wasn’t broken.
Perhaps it was for similar reasons that the Kushan Empire always found itself pulled in divergent directions. Kushan kings managed to hold their western frontiers for two centuries against the Parthian rulers of Persia— but once the Sasanian dynasty seized control and started probing east, the Kushans began to lose western territory faster than they could recover it.
When the Kushan king Vasudeva I died in 225 CE, the empire split into eastern and western halves — each of which was too ripe and vulnerable for its neighbors to resist.
High-powered Sasanian knights steamrolled through the Western Kushan territories, snatching up wealthy cities by the bucketload, barely even breaking a sweat.
The Eastern Kushan Empire, meanwhile, dissolved into near-anarchy for about a century, as small dynasties like the Yaudheyas battled fellow Kushans, petty warlords, invading steppe nomads, and a rising local power known as the Guptas.
It was this last empire that finally finished off the eastern Kushans around 320 CE. And it’s with them that our tale enters its next chapter.
Ask any group of people what constitutes their culture’s “golden age,” and you’ll get a different answer. For some Brits, it might be the Victorian Era. For Italians, the Renaissance (or, of course, the Roman Empire). For the Chinese, maybe the Han or Tang dynasty.
The Gupta period undeniably counts as a golden age not only for northern India, but as one of the world’s all-time greatest explosions of culture — comparable in ambition and influence to the golden-age blossomings of Babylon and Athens.
For an empire of such splendor and influence, the Guptas have left us remarkably little information about their own origins. Scholars agree that they descended from people who’d been living in India for some time —
Some say they were a local caste who rose up against oppressive rulers. Others say the Guptas came from further south, conquering as they progressed northward. We don’t even have exact dates for the reigns of the first few Gupta kings.
What we know for certain is that, by about 320 CE, a Gupta king named Chandragupta I consolidated his alliances and resources around the city of Pataliputra (modern Patna, in the Indian state of Bihar), and proceeded to conquer almost all of the northern Ganges river valley.
Over the next hundred years, a line of energetic Gupta kings expanded their empire over all of northern India, along with large swathes of modern Pakistan, Bangladesh and Nepal.
While this was a geographically small empire, it proved to be an intensely vibrant one. The Sanskrit-speaking Gupta kings divided their empire into 36 provinces, set up a strict hierarchy of administrators and bureaucrats, established trade links with Rome, Persia, and China—
There, the Guptas created what can only be described as one of the most astonishing cultures in all world history.
A major reason why Gupta culture is so surprising— especially as a contemporary of the Roman Empire— is that its rulers and administrators organized their world in terms that seem strikingly modern, even today.
Throughout the 300s and 400s CE, Gupta kings instituted urban zoning, planted their cities with public gardens of trees and flowers, and actively worked to raise the common people’s standard of living. They outlawed torture and capital punishment — unheard-of at that time, anywhere in the world — and established an explicit policy of tolerance toward all religions.
Perhaps this wasn’t altogether novel, even in the Gupta period. The Gupta kings were, after all, heirs to a cultural tradition that reached back as far as that of the Persians and Babylonians.
At bronze-age sites like Harappa and Mohenjo-daro, Indian contemporaries of the Sumerians had constructed planned cities with organized linear grids of paved roads and sewers — and had possibly begun to develop yoga.
Five hundred or so years before the Guptas — around the time of the golden age of Athens — the Buddhist emperor Ashoka, of the Mauryan dynasty, had imposed a royal ban on killing animals, revised the judicial code to ensure due process for prisoners, and endowed traveling doctors and roadside facilities to treat the sick throughout his empire\
Ashoka also publicly declared his respect for all religions, and invited teachers of all faiths to come exchange ideas in Pataliputra. He sent Buddhist missionaries to China and Persia, and tried to send some to Europe; but it’s unclear if any of them made it that far.
Influenced by Ashoka’s example, the Guptas publicly sponsored roadside inns, orphanages and hospitals; and donated large sums of money to philanthropic causes, particularly medicine and education — going so far as to set up public schools where anyone could study Sanskrit literature.
If this all sounds like Gupta propaganda, it’s worth noting that even visiting Chinese monks (Fa Xian and Xuanzang, for example) expressed their amazement at the law and order of Gupta cities, at the literacy and refinement of Gupta people, and at the fact that any ordinary citizen could walk the streets safely, day or night.
Gupta kings commissioned entire libraries’ worth of books, plays, poems and songs that are still widely enjoyed in India. Gupta mathematicians invented the mathematical concept of zero, and created the base-10 positional numeral system we use today.
Their astronomers proposed that the earth was round, rotated on its own axis, and orbited the sun. Gupta doctors invented new medical instruments, and performed surgeries with local anaesthetic. The four divisions of the Gupta military (infantry, cavalry, elephants, and chariotry) inspired the invention of the game of chess.
Speaking of the Gupta military, it was one of the best-armed and most tightly organized of its time. Its discipline was legendary among Chinese and Persian contemporaries, and its troops always seemed to arrive well-fed and fully supplied. Gupta steel was so finely forged that it was said to be immune to rust; it was highly prized across all Asia.
Yet although the Guptas were famous for their military organization— not to mention their war-elephants and fire-arrows — they never showed much interest in adopting the cavalry tactics that proved so successful for their Sasanian neighbors. They never seemed to suffer for it, either.
When the Gupta Empire finally did collapse — in the late 470s CE, almost exactly the same time Rome was falling to the Goths — it wasn’t at the hands of any one enemy, but under ceaseless waves of enemies from all directions.
The Gupta army battled the Huns, had more success than the Romans did, and succeeded in driving the invaders out of India.
Before they had time to catch their breath, a different confederation of nomadic invaders, known as the Hephthalites, broke in from the northwest.
Meanwhile, another neighboring empire, that of the Aulikara dynasty of Malwa — who’d been the Guptas’ staunch ally against the Huns just a decade before — began to make grabs for Gupta territory. Yet another competing empire, that of the Vakatakas, was rising in the south.
It was all too much, all at once. Sources are unclear about exactly what happened; but by about 500 CE, the Guptas had been driven out of northern India, and their beautifully organized empire was no more.
In many ways, though, Gupta culture never really ended.
Quite a few forms of Classical Indian music come directly from the Gupta period — as do many styles of literature, types of clothing, words, traditions and holidays still celebrated in India today.
Even we in the West owe the Guptas for the game of chess, the number zero, our “arabic” numeral system, and the Kama Sutra (to name just a few things), across two continents and nearly two thousand years of history.
Imagine if you could visit Rome today, and find it still populated by Latin-speaking, toga-wearing Romans.
Or if you could go to modern-day Iraq and find the ziggurats and hanging gardens of Babylon still standing. That’s essentially what happened in certain areas of China, for about 3,000 years straight.
The Zhou dynasty were largely responsible for this consistency. In the 1000s BCE, they introduced two concepts that changed China forever. These two ideas reverberated through Chinese history and culture, across thousands of years, all the way to the Maoist revolution of 1949 — and beyond.
The first of the two concepts was the Mandate of Heaven.
The Zhou sages taught that it was Heaven itself — not the whims of fate or the ambitions of individual men and women, but the fundamental order of the universe — which decreed how long each dynasty and emperor would rule China.
When Heaven grew displeased with a corrupt ruler, Heaven sent an army or an assassin to eliminate him. When Heaven wanted a new dynasty on the throne, Heaven put them there — whether they were of noble birth or not.
It was not the role of mere mortals to question such a decision. It was Heaven’s will.
When one dynasty fell and another replaced it, this was seen not as a revolution, but simply as the passing of the Mandate from one Heaven-chosen set of rulers to another.
The second crucial concept introduced by the Zhou ( paired tightly with the concept of the Mandate of Heaven) was that—
Cultural variation was a sign of low breeding — and was to be avoided at all costs, particularly by the aristocracy.
Not only, they taught, did Heaven approve of certain rulers and disapprove of others; Heaven also preferred specific styles of art, architecture, clothing and music. Aristocrats and artists who diverged from this aesthetic taste were likely to find themselves on the bad side of Heaven.
Thus, even when a new set of rulers seized power; even when China split into warring kingdoms, as it did several times throughout its history—in fact, even when invading alien peoples swept in and took over Chinese cities —every single one of those conquerors followed the protocol of transferring the Mandate of Heaven to themselves, and scrupulously observed the Zhou rules of aesthetics and courtly etiquette.
Around 500 BCE, a philosopher and statesman known as Kung Fuzi (“Master Kung,” known in the West as “Confucius”) codified the heavenly rules into a series of texts that would form the backbone of Chinese culture for the next two thousand years.
Master Kung’s intricate philosophy, known in the West as Confucianism, utterly permeated every area of Chinese existence, from statecraft to family life, from etiquette to martial arts. Everyone, from the highest nobility to the lowest peasants, was raised on Master Kung’s principles. Many people in China still live by his maxims today.
Those cultural codes, deriving their authority from the Mandate and organized by Master Kung, are the reason why you can look at a Qin dynasty temple from the 200s BCE, view a Song dynasty painting from the 1200s CE, hear a piece of music from the Ming dynasty in the 1600s, and scan a text written any time from the Zhou period all the way to the modern People’s Republic, and easily recognize all of them as aesthetically “Chinese.”
There’s simply no Western equivalent for this level of cultural continuity.
Sure, our alphabet is based on those of the Greeks and Romans, as are certain elements of modern European architecture and language. But we don’t still identify as “citizens of the Roman Empire,” and we certainly aren’t ruled by emperors who derive their authority from the gods of Mt. Olympus.
Neither do most Chinese people today believe in the Mandate of Heaven— but at the time of the Roman Empire, the people of the Han Dynasty considered themselves the proud heirs of a culture with at least 1,000 years of unbroken recorded history—
Chinese culture that would continue to honor the Mandate and observe the Confucian rules, with only minor variation, all the way up to the overthrow of the monarchy in 1911.
The Mandate of Heaven, the sages said, had first descended when the Zhou dynasty seized power from the corrupt Shang — about three hundred years before the founding of Rome, in what we today call (roughly) the year 1046 BCE. This was the official beginning of the state of Qin, which would someday be known, in the West, as China.
The recorded history of this region, however, reaches back long before the state of Qin. Inscriptions on bones, in a language recognizably related to modern Mandarin Chinese, date back at least to the 1500s BCE — the golden age of Babylon.
Tradition holds that the very first ethnically Chinese dynasty was that of the Xia, in the 2100s BCE. Scholars regarded this as a mythical tale; until 1959, when excavations in Henan province unearthed artifacts that were carbon-dated to this age range.
Chinese civilization, then, is just slightly younger than the Egyptian Pyramids — or the empire of Sargon of Akkad in Mesopotamia.
After the Shang and Zhou dynasties had come the Qin, whose founder Qin Shi Huangdi was the first person to proclaim himself Emperor of China.
This energetic ruler burned thousands of books, executed thousands of dissident philosophers, joined a string of walls along the western border into the Great Wall, and expanded his realm to encompass most of what’s now central and southern China. He died in 221 BCE, frantically searching for an elixir of immortality, and was buried with his famous terracotta army.
Meanwhile, far to the west, Alexander the Great’s descendants were warring for the remains of an empire that stretched from modern-day Greece to Afghanistan; while the Roman Republic was beginning to make its name as a regional player on the Italian peninsula.
But when the Mandate of Heaven passed from the Qin dynasty to the Han, the Chinese cared little about the squabbles of Western barbarians.
Their main concerns were the vast tribes of steppe horsemen, like the Xiongnu, constantly nipping at their borders; and the delicate political balance between the capital and the feudal kings who controlled most of the land.
China was, at that time, by far the wealthiest, most technologically advanced, most densely populated region of the world. The Han capital of Chang’an (“Perpetual Peace”) was organized along a grid of rectangles, the royal palace at its head, each street zoned for specific types of buildings.
An army of civil servants—each of them recommended by a patron; promoted strictly on merit— produced a wealth of forms and reports along remarkably consistent templates. These documents give us an almost unbelievable level of detailed insight into the daily lives of people in Han China.
At the apex of society sat the emperor, a personage so august that it was blasphemous to address him by name; courtiers instead used titles like “under the steps to the throne.”
The punishment for entering the palace without permission was execution — and even those permitted inside could only progress so far, according to rank and the emperor’s whim, through a series of concentric rings of increasing opulence; until at last, if they were truly blessed by Heaven, they might enter the throne room itself, where the Superior One sat at the center, orbited by swarms of minor kings, nobles, bureaucrats, scholars, eunuchs, concubines and slaves.
It’s unclear whether the Persians imported this type of court from China, or drew on Babylonian traditions closer to home — probably both — but by the time of the Sasanian emperors, the Persian court was heavily influenced by the awe and mystery of Chang’an.
In fact, it was this sense of overpowering august majesty — concentric rings of access, worshipful titles of address, precise and subtle rules of etiquette — that would later influence the courts of the Byzantine and Ottoman emperors. Through them, indirectly, echoes of Chang’an would someday reverberate in the court of Louis XIV in France.
The Palace of Versailles is, in its way, one of the last dim shadows of the Han Imperial court.
But all that, of course, still lay more than a thousand years in the future. As the Roman emperor Diocletian was rising to power in the West, the Han Chinese were churning out popular novels and poetry collections with printing presses, tracking earthquakes with seismographs, and running bamboo pipelines into the earth to fuel their furnaces with natural gas.
They were directing their armies with odometers and compasses, developing mathematical matrices and linear equations, mapping their country on a graduated-scale grid system, exploring the high seas, analyzing the water cycle and re-engineering their crops, and developing the techniques of acupuncture.
No other civilization in the world would experience anything remotely like this until the golden age of Baghdad in the 900s CE.
Most of Europe would have to wait until the 1400s, or later.
Han-dynasty craftsmanship was the most prized along the entire Silk Route, imitated by many other cultures in Asia, but never duplicated. Chinese silk was, of course, valued highly from India to Rome.
Even when silkworms could be smuggled out of China (the penalty was death), the skills of Persian and Indian artisans were no match for the mastery of Chinese silk-weavers, who knew the secret of producing intricate woven patterns not only on one side of the fabric, but on both sides simultaneously.
Han ceramics, steel, and jade-work fetched such outrageous prices in the West that merchants would gladly risk their lives for a shot at the profits. In an age when most texts were written on wood or animal skins, scraps of Han paper were saved, stockpiled and re-used across Asia — giving us centuries of documentation on the daily lives, not only of the Han themselves, but also of their trading partners.
The Han army was said to number in the millions — almost certainly an exaggeration; but we do know from Han records that every male commoner aged 23 or older (in a population of 58 million) was liable for conscription into the infantry, cavalry or navy.
This army was every bit as tightly organized as those of the Guptas and Romans; divided into regiments, companies and platoons. Although the peasants might mainly serve as arrow fodder, the Han also maintained a standing army of thoroughly drilled and disciplined troops, ready to serve as the backbone of any fight. The swordsmen were armed with legendarily strong Han steel; the archers with crossbows; the cavalry with lances and stirruped saddles.
Han military commanders were just as thoroughly trained and well-read as the civil servants in every other field. Informed by tactical manuals like Sun Tzu’s The Art of War (already a 600-year-old classic in the Han period), sharpened against the relentless assaults of horse-archers from the steppes, the Han army represented the peak of ancient Chinese military expertise.
It’s tempting to wonder how a battle between Han Chinese archers and Roman Imperial legions might’ve played out.
Such a war never happened, of course — although it is just possible that a “lost” Roman legion once battled a Chinese force in Kazakhstan.
On the whole, however, Northern Asia’s sprawling steppe-lands served as a continent-spanning buffer zone between the Chinese and their nearest neighbors — a void where empires like the Scythians and the Sogdians would someday take root.
While Chinese monks and merchants were in active contact with the Kushans, the Guptas, the Parthians, the Sasanians — and now, it seems, even with the Romans — the Han shared no large, immediate borders with any of these empires. Their enemies, from the most ancient times onward, came from the wilds of the steppe — or from inside China itself.
It was those internal enemies who finally pulled the Han Empire apart in 220 CE, setting off the Three Kingdoms period, after which the Mandate of Heaven passed to the Jin dynasty, who ruled until just before the fall of the Western Roman Empire.
Depending on when, exactly, the owners of those Chinese skeletons left China, they may have departed from the Han Empire, one of the Three Kingdoms, or the empire of the Jin.
Whatever the case, it would’ve made very little difference in terms of the language, the architecture, the technology and the luxuries they left behind. Like the Han, and the dynasties before them, the rulers of the Three Kingdoms piously accepted the Mandate of Heaven, and governed their lands according to Confucian principles — as did the Jin after them.
In fact, modern Chang’an — now called Xi’an, built atop the ruins of the ancient city — is still based on the same type of rectangular grid layout created by the Han dynasty.
By the time the Huns (and later invaders, like the Mongols and the Turks) arrived at Rome’s eastern frontiers, they or their close relatives had already survived battles against the armies of the Chinese, the Persians, and possibly other empires like the Kushans and Guptas —
—civilizations with thousands of years of tactical tradition, and the most advanced weaponry of their age.
For those Hunnic invaders, as for most Asians of that time, Europe was almost beneath serious notice. The steppe tribes wanted it mainly for grazing land.
As any Asian horseman or merchant could easily see, not even the wealthiest European cities held a candle to Ctesiphon or Pataliputra or Chang’an. The West was a dark forest haunted by primitive tribes; the Romans only scarcely cleaner and more civilized than the rest of them.
“This, too,” Marlowe says in Heart of Darkness, “has been one of the dark places of the earth.”
The “dark continent” he’s talking about is none other than England.
Who can say what went through the heads of those Chinese travelers — whoever they were — as they left the light and life of the civilized world behind, setting off on their journey into the savage West?
How can we guess what they felt at the end of their lives, realizing they would die in Roman Britain, a wilderness at the far end of the world — or what drove them there in the first place?
If you’d grown up in one of the great Asian cities, would you have been brave enough to depart for the darkness?
Or would you, like so many millions of others, have thanked the heavens that you were born into the light?