Silk Ties: The Links Between Ancient Rome & China

China and Rome were the two great economic superpowers of the Ancient World. Yet their empires were separated by thousands of miles of inhospitable terrain, dramatically reducing the opportunities for direct communication. Raoul McLaughlin investigates.

The empires of Han China (206 BC–AD 220) and Rome together ruled over half the world’s ancient population. Their empires had sophisticated governments, commanded formidable armies and controlled vast territories. Each had the force to dominate smaller states on its frontiers and become a superpower of the ancient world. As the civilizations of Rome and China possessed unique resources and developed distinctive expertise, successful communication between the two empires would have dramatically changed the direction of world history.

Yet vast distances, inhospitable landscapes and the Parthian empire separated them and many smaller kingdoms discouraged contact for political and mercantile reasons. It was therefore ‘foreign’ peoples who trafficked exotic goods between the two, conducting these trade exchanges across long and arduous routes over the great expanse of inner Asia. Goods travelled between Rome and China from the late first century BC, but the empires remained only vaguely aware of each other’s existence.

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