Between 300 BCE and 300 CE, the Han and Roman empires were hegemons of the opposite ends of the Eurasian continent (Tingor et al. 298). However, due to the considerable remoteness, they had rather scarce information about each other. Although the Romans expanded their holdings to the east and the Chinese advanced to the west, two empires shared geographical obstacles that posed a hindrance for constant communication. Despite these challenges, the emergence of the Silk Roads significantly contributed to both trade and knowledge exchange between these two great empires (Tingor et al. 354). There is a debate over whether Rome or China benefited the most from the connection, but the amount of benefit varies with different perspectives. For instance, while it was economically more advantageous for China, constant wars with neighboring territories and tax rise to finance them led to the Han Dynasty’s fall in 220 CE.
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The Silk Roads received its name because of the primary good that was traded on its routes – silk. Because the technology used to make silk was exclusively known to only two Chinese, it became a significant source of wealth. Chinese silk was sold to every corner of Eurasia, including the Roman Empire. Silk had been transported from China to Rome for several centuries by 100 CE, so the Romans called the Chinese the Seres, which meant the Silk People, from the Latin name for silk – serica (Tingor et al. 326). The profit that came from the trade was so considerable that some scholars today refer to this glorious period in the Chinese economy as a Pax Sinica, which means Chinese Peace (Tingor et al. 309). While the Romans too exported goods, they did not have as much popularity as the Chinese silk.
From a religious viewpoint, the Silk Roads were more beneficial to the Romans. With the advent of Christianity in the I and II centuries CE, the Silk Roads became a route not only for traders but also for missionaries (Tingor et al. 324). By the end of the third century, Christian communities emerged in every settlement of the empire. In contrast, the Chinese practiced Confucianism, and its religious beliefs were common only among the Chinese. Confucianism did not become widespread with the growth of the Silk Roads. Instead, Buddhism and the Vedic religion spread through Asia (Tingor et al. 355). The Chinese were not able to adequately use the resources provided by the Silk Roads to extend their ideologies beyond the borders of their empire.
The trade, though indirectly, had adverse effects on the societal situation in China. Motivated by the many advantages of the Silk Roads, the Han Empire pursued expansion to other territories, which would allow them to establish new trade routes (Tingor et al. 310). Shortly after the Pax Sinica, because of continuous military confrontations and the rising taxes to finance them, the social setting in the empire became tense (Tingor et al. 311). After a series of uprisings and social disorder, the Han Empire faced decentralization and was divided into three competing states – the Wei, the Shu, and the Wu (Tingor et al. 312). At the same time, the Roman Empire experienced peace and prosperity throughout its territories.
In general, the trade that was possible due to the emergence of the Silk Roads benefited all parties that were involved. However, there were also adverse effects and consequences, and their significance varied between different contexts. From an economic perspective, the Chinese Empire enjoyed the most because of the popularity of silk. From a religious viewpoint, the Silk Roads brought more benefits to Rome because of the possibility of spreading Christianity. In the social context, the benefits of the trade indirectly led to the fall of the Han Empire in the second century.
Tignor, Robert, et al. Worlds Together, Worlds Apart: A History of the World from the Beginnings of Humankind to the Present (2nd ed.). WW Norton, 2014.