Monday, December 17, 2012

The Interconnected Ancient World I: Chinese Influence on Roman Policy

The late Hugh Nibley once observed: “There are no fields—there are only problems!”—meaning that one must bring to the discussion and solution of any given problem whatever is required to understand it: If the problems calls for a special mathematics, one must get it; if it calls for three or four languages, one must get them; if it takes twenty years, one must be prepared to give it twenty years—or else shift to some other problem.[1]

Fields of study compartmentalize the ancient world into discrete areas that make study more manageable. Once one has learned Latin, for example, a brave new world of literature has been opened to view. Thousands of previously inaccessible works await the eager reader. One can make a discipline of Latin studies and limit it to works written in Latin. Everything is neat and discrete and contained. The only problem is that the ancient world was never neat, discrete and contained. Anyone who has studied much Latin can tell you that Latin was constantly interacting with Greek, to the point that classics majors find they must study both Greek and Latin to understand the Roman world where the vast majority of the bureaucratic apparatus was established by the Greeks and simply taken over by the Romans who continued it mostly in Greek.

But surely the Roman world, centered on the Mediterranean, was isolated from remote regions such as Xin Dynasty China! Alas, such was not the case. Therein lies a tale.

After the death of the dissolute Han emperor Aidi (7-1 BC), Wang Mang took charge of China. After his two puppet emperors died untimely deaths, he made himself emperor of a new dynasty, the Xin dynasty. Wang Mang initiated a number of reforms such as redistributing the land and banning the sale of slaves, both of which he was forced to take back because many of his “reforms did not actually improve the economic position of any class.”[2] They made him so unpopular that when a rebellion broke out in AD 23 he found himself without friends and was killed.

One of Wang Mang’s reforms is of particular interest. The emperor took gold money out of circulation and insisted that all gold must be exchanged for copper. The effect of this regulation was to take gold out of circulation and concentrate it in the hands of the emperor. Indeed, when Wang Mang died the Chinese treasury held more gold than the entire supply in circulation in Medieval Europe.[3]

In the Roman world, gold coins started to be used in 46 B.C., after the Romans had siphoned off the precious metals of the Mediterranean and the gold coins of “Macedon, Carthage, Ptolemaic Egypt, and Gaul had ceased to circulate.” [4] Gold coins became the norm when one wanted to convey large sums of money, or to more easily conceal one’s money, or when one wanted to trade outside the Roman Empire.[5]

By the Han Dynasty, eastern China was producing a wide variety of silk which, as a light and easily transported luxury good, found its way from Korea to Syria.[6] By the first century B.C. a fortified silk road had developed between China around the Taklimakan desert to the Sogdians and Parthians took over and took the silk to the Roman empire.[7] Alternate trade routes developed, partially as a means to insure trade in case the Parthians and Romans were at war, which they frequently were.[8]

The Roman writer Seneca wrote, “I see silk clothes, if they can be called clothes, which can protect neither the body nor the modesty.”[9] The emperor Tiberius complained that the women’s dress was diverting Roman wealth to foreign nations.[10] In the middle of the first century, Roman taste for exotic imports cost the empire 100,000,000 sesterces to the East of which 55,000,000 sesterces went to India alone.[11] Since the Romans had nothing besides gold that the Chinese wanted and the Chinese would not allow the gold to circulate, gold going to China was gold going into a black hole. Under such circumstances, Tiberius supposedly banned the wearing of silk.[12] The Chinese emperor was affecting decisions by the Roman emperor.

Even in the ancient world, the world was interconnected and a change in one part of the world could cause a chain reaction elsewhere.

[1] Hugh W. Nibley, An Approach to the Book of Abraham (Provo, Utah: Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, 2009), 49.
[2] Homer H. Dubs, “Wang Mang and his Economic Reforms,” T’uong Pao, 35/4 (1940): 220.
[3] Ann Paludan, Chronicle of the Chinese Emperors (London: Thames & Hudson, 1998), 42-43.
[4] Christopher Howgego, “The Supply and Use of Money in the Roman World 200 B.C. to A.D. 300,” The Journal of Roman Studies 82 (1992): 2, 5, 10.
[5] Howgego, “Supply and Use of Money in the Roman World,” 11-12.
[6] Michael Loewe, “Spices and Silk: Aspects of World Trade in the First Seven Centuries of the Christian Era,” Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland 2 (1971): 169.
[7] Loewe, “Spices and Silk,” 172.
[8] J. Thorley, “The Development of Trade between the Roman Empire and the East under Augustus,” Greece and Rome 16/2 (1969): 215-16.
[9] Seneca, De Beneficiis, 7.9.5.
[10] Tacitus, Annals 3.53.
[11] Loewe, “Spices and Silk,” 173.
[12] Paludan, Chronicle of the Chinese Emperors, 43.