BMCR 2018.09.58

Eurasian Empires in Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages: Contact and Exchange between the Graeco-Roman World, Inner Asia and China

, , , Eurasian Empires in Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages: Contact and Exchange between the Graeco-Roman World, Inner Asia and China. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017. xvi, 333. ISBN 9781107190412, 9781108115865. ebook.

[Authors and titles are listed below.]

Grand narratives of Eurasia, though numerous, often fall short of sufficiently incorporating all constituent peoples and polities that played significant parts in its historical developments. Even studies that attempt to categorize, and thus consider, all regions nevertheless tend to sideline many in the interior of the continent.1 Steppe societies in particular have remained sporadic participants or even phantom menaces of broader historical narratives. The present volume admirably seeks to rectify these deficiencies by building on the current wave of cross-cultural comparative studies, including not only the so-called East and West but also the Center—“to remedy this problem it is necessary to look at what lies between the Mediterranean and the [Chinese Central Plains]: the steppes of Inner Asia” (p.3).2

Chapters of the first section (I) present a considerable push for equal attention to Central Eurasian steppe nomads in comparative historical discussions of political traditions (1) and large-scale geopolitics (3), with the lead editor of the volume, Kim, cautioning against “equating nomadism with decentralization and absence of political order” (p.17).3 The primary goal of this volume, similar to Kim’s previous book,4 is to demonstrate how the institutions of steppe societies are of equal importance to global historical developments as those of the classic civilizations of the Mediterranean West and Central Plains East. Frontiers of culture contact between steppe nomads and the regimes of China (2) and the Near East (3) are given robust narratives that account for mediations and large-scale consequences of those interactions.

But despite the overall goal of the volume for such equal attention, the tripartite comparison of Greco-Roman/Chinese/Inner Asian falls short in the subsequent sections. Section II presents one chapter with well-constructed cross-comparisons (6) as well as two chapters that together present a successful cross-comparative dialogue for a very focused topic—“honour and shame” (4-5); however these three chapters address only Rome and China and leave the reader of the collective volume wondering about institutions of social conduct (cf. 4-5) and of labor (cf. 6) in Inner Asian empires. Section III similarly proceeds with emphases on the imperial regimes of Rome and China (7, 8), with some mention of Persia and cursory mentions of the Central Eurasian regimes of the Hepthalites and Uighurs (8). Section IV (9-11) brings Inner Asia back to the discussion table, yet strangely without equal considerations of Greco-Roman and Chinese regimes. Although the chapters of the volume present intriguing case studies, by- and-large well-argued in their own right, collectively they do not result in a balanced cross-comparative discussion that incorporates all three proposed regions. Instead, an unintentional categorical division appears through the course of the book between regimes of Inner Asia and the agrarian cradles of civilization, even amidst individual chapters that very clearly demonstrate the dichotomy between the Steppe and the Sown is unreal (2). This imbalanced structure to the overall volume unfortunately undermines the necessary consideration of Inner Asian political and cultural institutions as comparable to those of Rome and China.

The volume traverses an impressive span of scholarly traditions, including history, art history, and archaeology. But much like the imbalance of interregional comparisons, the papers of multiple disciplines and sources are presented in a partitioned fashion that does not foster a productive interdisciplinary dialogue based on a common research inquiry.5 Archaeological studies, rather than integrated with historical studies, are relegated to a section on their own (IV). The two papers that present recent field work are each remarkably detailed and valuable studies for the data and analyses they entail. Yet they concern categorically different kinds of sites and materials—burials (9) and settlements (11)—and address profoundly different research questions—cultural practices and identity formation (9) and habitation patterns and urban networks (11)—making comparative discussions, in which the respective papers are informed by one another, impractical.

The volume, by its title and introductory words, implies comparisons and discussions primarily of empires, asserting them as the driving forces of exchanges and transmissions across the Eurasian continent. However, a few of the chapters interestingly divulge agents and dynamics that belie the control of large empires. Lieu’s (8) narrative on the spreads of Manichaeism throughout Eurasia demonstrates not “the extraordinary reach of pan-Eurasian imperial networks which made such diffusion possible” (p.316). Rather, it evidences movements between and into empires, not of empires. Propagators and prosthelytizers of Manichaeism were agents not of imperial networks but of a fluid transregional organization and that exploited existing political networks (and their patrons) in different realms to infiltrate and, in the case of Uighurs, even convert the ruling factions of imperial societies. In many cases it was not the empires but rather the individual peoples and communities that actively spread objects and ideas into empires and across Eurasia. Lieu’s study thus brings to the fore notions of entities and dynamics that operated outside of and beneath the framework of empires and their agendas, and of how the leaders of those empires reacted to such groups and developments. It was not always the empires or their supposed “pan-Eurasian geopolitical networks which facilitated the exchange of political and cultural ideas” (p.313). The central Eurasian “Silk Roads” were not coordinated creations masterminded and controlled by empires but organic networks shaped by a plethora of agents within and outside of the core regions. If we take the lead of Lieu, then we may reverse the tide of peripheral empires intruding upon and governing over a passive Eurasian core. These early empires were clearly concerned with safeguarding against as well as exploiting the long- distance flows of ideas and goods.

Although the peripheral regimes of Eurasia were clearly affected by many of the same movements that flowed through the heart of the continent, far-distant regimes such as China and Rome were not in direct “culture contact” with one another. Culture contact no doubt occurred between neighbouring entities in Eurasia (2, 3, 9, 11), but the long-distance transmissions touted by models like the “Silk Roads”6 were not ones of culture contact. They transpired through a wide spectrum of avenues between societies and polities that were often not directly linked, and thus should not be explained through models of diffusion (e.g. p.316), which inherently assume power disparities of “inventors” and “laggers.”7 Diffusion and other intrinsically dichotomous models run the risk of perpetuating the division between inventive agrarian civilizations and lagging barbarian societies, a trend contrary to the goals of the book.

The editors of the volume astutely note that the many disparate regions and peoples of Eurasia repeatedly show intense degrees of “entanglement.”8 But connectivity does not necessarily create a cohesive “cultural synthesis” (p.316). For example, Bopearachchi’s (10) study of overlapping Scythian, Hellenistic, Indian, and Kushan traditions illustrates the complex cultural mediations and hybridities that often formed in areas of Central Eurasia like Ghandara.9 Although this volume proposes that “Eurasia was in Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages an interconnected totality” (p.29), such a totality should not be seen as a synthesized singularity. In this case, we should heed the warning of modern sociologists that even amidst current globalization trends of technologies and interactions that make our world smaller, we are not hurdling toward a singular global culture.10

The stated goals of this compiled volume are indeed admirable ones, presenting a much-needed scholarly call to arms—for truly interdisciplinary investigations and for balanced comparative considerations of the multiple regions and societies of pre-modern Eurasia, especially the often neglected steppe nomads. Although these goals are unfortunately not always collectively reached, many of the individual papers open other avenues of inquiry necessary to a more robust understanding of cultural exchanges in early Eurasia both in the face of overlapping regimes and regarding the means and effects of long-distance transmissions.

Authors and Titles

Introduction, Hyun Jin Kim, Frederik Juliaan Vervaet
I Political Organization and Interactions of Eurasian Empires
1 The Political Organization of Steppe Empires and their Contribution to Eurasian Interconnectivity: the Case of the Huns and Their Impact on the Frankish West, Hyun Jin Kim
2 Tang China’s Horse Power: the Borderland Breeding Ranch System, Jonathan Karam Skaff
3 Cimmerians and the Scythians: the Impact of Nomadic Powers on the Assyrian Empire and the Ancient Near East, Selim Ferruh Adali
II Socio-Institutional Aspects of Eurasian Empires
4 Honour and Shame in the Roman Republic, Frederik Juliaan Vervaet
5 Honour and Shame in Han China, Mark Lewis
6 Slavery and Forced Labour in Early China and the Roman World, Walter Scheidel
III Cultural Legacies of Eurasian Empires
7 Homer and the Shi Jing as Imperial Texts, Alexander Beercroft
8 The Serpent from Persia: Manichaeism in Rome and China, Samuel N.C. Lieu
IV Archaeology of Eurasian Empires
9 Alans in the Southern Caucusus?, Antonio Sagona, Claudia Sagona, Aleksandra Michalewicz
10 Greeks, Scythians, Parthians and Kushans in Central Asia and India, Osmund Bopearachchi
11 Enclosure Sites, Non-Nucleated Settlement Strategies and Political Capitals in Ancient Eurasia, Michelle Negus Cleary
Conclusion, Hyun Jin Kim, Frederik Juliaan Vervaet, Selim Ferruh Adali


1. Victor Lieberman, Strange parallels: Southeast Asia in global context, c. 800-1830. Volume 2: mainland mirrors: Europe, Japan, China, South Asia, and the islands, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 2010; see also review by Alan Strathern in Journal of Global History 7(1), 2012, 129-142.

2. cf. Walter Scheidel (ed.), Rome and China: Comparative Perspectives on Ancient World Empires, Oxford: Oxford University Press. This push to broaden narratives includes a necessary expansion beyond the classic Silk Roads of Central Asia to include North-South exchanges that reached into the steppe worlds; see David Christian, “Silk Roads or Steppe Roads? The Silk Roads in World History”, Journal of World History 11(1), pp. 1-26.

3. see also David Sneath, The Headless State: Aristocratic Orders, Kinship Society, and Misprepresentations of Nomadic Inner Asia, New York: Columbia University Press 2007; William Honeychurch, Inner Asia and the Spatial Politics of Empire: Archaeology, Mobility, and Culture Contact, New York: Springer 2015.

4. See R. Payne’s review of Kim’s book BMCR 2014.03.40.

5. cf. Ray Laurence, “The Uneasy Dialogue between Ancient History and Archaeology”, in E.W. Sauer (ed.) Archaeology and Ancient History. Breaking Down the Boundaries, New York: Routledge, 2004, pp. 99-113; Elena Isayev, “Archaeology ≠ object as history ≠ text: nudging the special relationship into the post-ironic”, World Archaeology 38(4), pp. 599-610.

6. Valerie Hansen, The Silk Road: A New History, Oxford: Oxford University Press 2012; Victor Mair and Jane Hickman (eds.), Reconfiguring the Silk Road: New Research on East-West Exchange in Antiquity, Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press 2014.

7. Barbara Wejnert, “Integrating Models of Diffusion of Innovations: A Conceptual Framework”, Annual Review of Sociology 28, 2002, pp. 297-326; for alternatives to diffusion models see James G. Cusick (ed.), Studies in Culture Contact: Interaction, Culture Change, and Archaeology, Carbondale: Center for Archaeological Investigation 1998.

8. The editors cite Eliga H. Gould, “Entangled Histories, Entangled Worlds: The English-Speaking Atlantic as a Spanish Periphery”, American Historical Review 112(3), 2007, pp.764-786; see also notions of material culture entanglement by Nicholas Thomas, Entangled Objects. Exchange, Material Culture, and Colonialism in the Pacific, Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press 1991.

9. For a discussion of the critical differences between synthesis and hybridity, see Matthew Liebmann, “Parsing Hybridity: Archaeologies of Amalgamation in Seventeenth-Century New Mexico”, in J.J. Card (ed.) The Archaeology of Hybrid Material Culture, Carbondale: Center for Archaeological Investigation, pp. 25-49.

10. Ulf Hannerz, “Notes on the Global Cultural Ecumene”, Public Culture 1(2), 1989, pp.66-75; Anthony D. Smith, “Towards a Global Culture?” Theory, Culture and Society 7, 1990, pp.171-191.