BMCR 2019.05.40

Empires and Exchanges in Eurasian Late Antiquity: Rome, China, Iran, and the Steppe, ca. 250-750

, , Empires and Exchanges in Eurasian Late Antiquity: Rome, China, Iran, and the Steppe, ca. 250-750. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018. 500. ISBN 9781107094345 $145.00.


Late Antiquity is a matter of perspective. The historiographical construct has expanded the concerns of ancient historians once exclusively focused on a “classical” Mediterranean—still their primary object of inquiry—to include not only later, post-classical centuries, but also Middle Eastern and, to a lesser extent African regions beyond the Roman frontiers. Nicola Di Cosmo and Michael Maas urge the extension of Late Antiquity’s geographical scope along an axis of steppes and highlands reaching from Constantinople to Chang’an. They do so, importantly, without seeking to disrupt the traditional constructs of Central Eurasian and East Asian historiographies. They rather introduce “Eurasian late antiquity” as an ancillary perspective, an interpretive instrument, to be employed to locate Rome and China like within transcontinental processes beyond their control—and often beyond their knowledge—that nevertheless shaped their respective destinies in the same centuries, circa 250-750. The contributors to the volume demonstrate the unambiguous utility of the instrument and set a historiographical agenda encompassing once disparate fields, in a manner reminiscent of the original Late Antiquity of the 1970s and 1980s.

What China and Rome shared was—to borrow Luo Xin’s term (166)—an “Inner Asian-ness” in the period. Xin has in mind the extent to which the political cultures of nomadic and Chinese formations and become so interwoven and interdependent as to have become inextricable, even indistinguishable from one another, from the era of the Sixteen Kingdoms through the Tang dynasty. Di Cosmo outlines the ascendancy of the Xiongnu and Xianbei dynasties, with varying degrees of success, in what had once been the Han heartland of the Yellow River and of the empire of the Turks better organized than its predecessors to check Chinese dominance. The famous self-proclamation of the Tang ruler Taizong as emperor and qaghan reflected, according to Jonathan Skaff, Turk success at rivaling the Chinese claim to imperial legitimacy, which had gone unchallenged in the Han era. Valerie Hansen and Max Deeg document the cultural and material impacts of the erosion of boundaries with the steppe, ranging from grand phenomena such as the rise of Buddhism together with its novel dharmic discourse of imperial legitimacy to the more mundane discovery of linguistic tonality or the introduction of chairs.

So far, so familiar to students and scholars of Chinese history, in the broad outlines of a China repeatedly transformed through nomadic encounters. The notion of a nomadic role in Roman or Iranian history, however, remains largely alien to a historiography regarding nomads as mere military challenges. Daniel Potts retains such a traditional outlook in his rather encyclopedic—albeit bibliographically highly partial—overview of Iranian martial confrontations with the Huns and Turks. The Romanist contributors, by contrast, place an emphasis on the development of networks of political communication and the acquisition of knowledge regarding nomadic political formations whose complexity the Roman court increasingly, if hesitantly, recognized. For geographical reasons, Rome never entered into the intimacy characteristic of Chinese-nomadic relations, with the Eastern European steppes distant from Constantinople (Mark Whittow, 274). Peter Golden, moreover, argues that the nomadic political formations in the West never developed imperial aspirations on account of their distance from the competitive interstate politics of the eastern steppes. The late Roman court nevertheless made a priority of acquiring accurate knowledge of steppe polities, establishing working diplomatic relations their courts, and even enlisting their military forces as allies in their relations with Iran, in stark contrast with high imperial ethnographic and diplomatic practice, as Michael Maas, Ekaterina Nechaeva, and Whittow all persuasively argue. Its knowledge, as Giusto Traina emphasizes, never encompassed China.

Geographical distance limited the cultural and social impact of Central Eurasian phenomena on the Middle East and the Mediterranean, and there is no talk here of a hybrid “Eurasian synthesis” in the west of the kind Hansen (110) posits for the East. The Silk Road—studiously undefined here, as usual, despite nods to the challenges of Tamara Chin’s landmark article —nevertheless subjected Roman and Iranian societies to transcontinental flows, wittingly or unwittingly.1 Richard Lim provides an overview of the paroxysms of exchange—cultural and commercial—characteristic of the era that precipitated a “demonstrable rise in the cultural knowledge of the other” (82). Rong Xinjiang charts the political and social developments in the Sogdian communities who established the enduring infrastructures of exchange that drove trans-continental commerce. The result, Peter Brown reveals, was the steady expansion of the imaginative horizons of late Roman elites, as well as of their central and eastern Eurasian counterparts. An awareness of distant worlds gave new agency to exotic goods no longer simply luxuries, but artifacts of distant, dimly understood polities—and evidence of their possessors’ global, cosmopolitan reach. Such objects validated the universalist claims of imperial elites, so effectively captured in Matthew Canepa’s contribution concerning Iranian cosmology and its influence on other Eurasian ideological frameworks. Joel Walker takes the use of Iranian pearls as an index of the pan-Eurasian impact of Iranian court culture. Frantz Grenet traces the exchange of politically consequential astrological knowledge—and associated material assemblages—between India, Iran, and central Eurasia. And in what is perhaps the volume’s most original contribution Sören Stark demonstrates that exotics exercised an appeal and possessed an agency no less powerful and nomadic than in Roman or Iranian communities. The Turks, in his account, made thoughtful use of the ideological potential of the high-value commodities whose trans-continental commerce, according to Di Cosmo (52) they consciously fostered. Their recombination of Roman, Iranian, Indian, and Chinese elements in the service of an imperial, cosmopolitan project suggests their perspective on the known world of Late Antiquity closely approximated the lens the volume’s editors propose.

Stark’s chapter highlights a historiographical contribution of the volume of special importance for scholars of western Eurasia: its emphasis on the political complexity of nomadic state makers. The notion of nomads as simple in terms of their political cultures and economies remains dominant. It recurs in a tentative form in Averil Cameron’s conclusion, where nomadic empires are “reliant on conquest, tribute, and booty,” unlike the supposedly more bureaucratic Roman and Chinese empires. The most clear example of such a tendency to simplify is the imaginative grip of “migration” on ancient historians. One would hardly tell a Roman history through arrows on a map. It remains conventional to do so for nomadic elites, Huns, Avars, and Turks, not to mention less consequential groups. At the conceptual level, Michael Kulikowski offers a searching genealogy of the historiographical construct of migration and its embedding within an episteme of the “barbarian,” both ancient and modern. At the evidentiary level, Ursula Brosseder brilliantly deconstructs the archaeology of a Hun migration from Mongolia to the west. Patrick Geary challenges the new genetic histories of migrating peoples that are particularly popular in studies of central Eurasian nomads, albeit in the pre-historic and Mongol periods, so far. Walter Pohl presents a constructive approach to accompany such salutary deconstructions. Primordialist notions of ethnicity underpin arrow-animated accounts of migration: “real” Huns migrating from Mongolia to the Hungarian plain, for example. Pohl applies models of ethnic groups as constantly changing their composition in accordance with political circumstances worked out in scholarship on the early medieval West to argue for the peculiar salience of ethnicity and highly fluid nomadic polities as a means of “translating the ever-changing allegiances to social groups of all sizes into a relatively time-resistant set of distinctions between collective actors” (205). The arguments fits nicely with the contributions of Michael Drompp, Andrew Eisenberg, and Naomi Standen that locate the success of nomadic polities in their ability laterally to integrate mobile elite communities, often around ethnic imaginaries such as those of the Xianbei and the Turks. Engaging in varied ways with David Sneath’s arguments for nomadic states as aristocratic orders, these articles introduce ancient historians to the phenomenon—and the relevant literatures—of nomadic political stability and endurance of the kind that ancient ethnography and modern historiography alike have served to obscure. The conceptual center of Eurasian Late Antiquity resides in the “biological infrastructures” (303), in the memorable phrase of Michael Drompp, sustaining such regimes whose comparative invisibility vis-à-vis the physical infrastructures of Rome or China has led historians to ignore their existence. The greatest achievement of Empires and Exchanges is in making such ignorance inexcusable.

Decentering is supposed to be an inherently good thing. The value of the volume seems rather to be in re-centering our narratives: in fluid steppe networks across thousands of miles rather than the fixed points of Rome or Constantinople. The utility of such a perspectival shift resides in the commonalities revealed across the otherwise disparate historiographies of Rome, Iran, and China, in precisely the designated chronological parameters. The framing device “Eurasian” may prove, in time, no less politically troubled and analytically constrained as its compeer “Silk Road.”2 Its exclusion of the Indian Ocean only seems justifiable pragmatically in the short term, not conceptually over the long term. Global history has never been pursued literally, as if Tasmania and London were analytical equals. As Averil Cameron suggests in her concluding remarks, associating the turn toward trans-regional, trans-cultural history in Late Antiquity with the emerging literature of global history—perhaps best embodied in the work of Jürgen Osterhammel and Chris Bayly—seems promising, perhaps more so than employing another geographical framework heavy laden with political and philosophical baggage. But such a suggestion quibbles. There can, thanks to the labor of Di Cosmo, Maas, and their contributors, be no doubt of the utility of Eurasian Late Antiquity as a lens, especially in fields and disciplines to which Late Antiquity is a foreign chronological category. If decentering is an ambiguous good, defamiliarizing yields reliable dividends. We need to look at the societies traditionally—and rightfully—at the center of ancient historical interest from the perspective of the steppes.

Table of Contents

Part I. Historical Thresholds
1. How the steppes became Byzantine: Rome and the Eurasian Nomads in historical perspective. Michael Maas
2. The relations between China and the steppe from the Xiongnu to the Türk Empire Nicola Di Cosmo
3. Sasanian Iran and the projection of power in Late Antique Eurasia: competing cosmologies and topographies of power. Matthew P. Canepa
4. Trade and exchanges along the silk and steppe routes in Late Antique Eurasia. Richard Lim
5. Sogdian merchants and Sogdian culture on the silk road. Rong Xinjiang
6. ‘Charismatic’ goods: commerce, diplomacy, and cultural contacts along the silk road in Late Antiquity. Peter Brown
7. The synthesis of the Tang Dynasty: the culmination of China’s contacts and communication with Eurasia, 310-755. Valerie Hansen
8. Central Asia in the Late Roman mental map, second to sixth centuries Giusto Traina
Part II. Movements, Contacts, and Exchanges
9. Genetic history and migrations in Western Eurasia. Patrick Geary
10. Northern invaders: migration and conquest as scholarly topos in Eurasian history. Michael Kulikowski
11. Chinese and inner Asian perspectives on the history of the Northern dynasties (386-589 CE) in Chinese historiography. Luo Xin
12. Xiongnu and Huns: archaeological perspectives on a centuries-old debate about identity and migration. Ursula B. Brosseder
13. Ethnicity and empire in the Western Eurasian Steppes. Walter Pohl
14. The languages of Christianity on the silk roads and the transmission of Mediterranean culture into central Asia. Scott Fitzgerald Johnson
15. The spread of Buddhist culture to China between the third and seventh centuries. Max Deeg
16. The circulation of astrological lore and its political use between the Roman East, Sasanian Iran, Central Asia, and the Türks Frantz Grenet
17. Luminous markers: pearls and royal authority in Late Antique Iran and Eurasia. Joel Walker
Part III. Empires, Diplomacy, and Frontiers: 18. Byzantium’s Eurasian policy in the age of the Türk Empire. Mark Whittow
19. Sasanian Iran and its northeastern frontier: offense, defense, and diplomatic entente. Daniel T. Potts
20. Infrastructures of legitimacy in inner Asia: the Early Türk Empires. Michael R. Drompp
21. The stateless Nomads of Central Eurasia. Peter B. Golden
22. Aspects of elite representation among the sixth- to seventh-century Türks. Sören Stark
23. Patterns of Roman diplomacy with Iran and the steppe peoples. Ekaterina Nechaeva
24. Collapse of a Eurasian hybrid: the case of the northern Wei. Andrew Eisenberg
25. Ideological interweaving in Eastern Eurasia: simultaneous kingship and dynastic competition, 580-755. Jonathan Karam Skaff
26. Followers and leaders in northeastern Eurasia, ca. seventh to tenth centuries. Naomi Standen
Epilogue. Averil Cameron


1. Tamara Chin, “The Invention of the Silk Road, 1877,” Critical Inquiry 40 (2013): 194-219.

2. See S.V. Glebov, Evraziistvo mezhdu Imperiei i Modernom: Istoriya v Dokumentakh (Moscow: Novoe Izdatelstvo, 2010), for a comprehensive study and collection of key texts of the Eurasianist movement.