This basically a follow-on to McLaughlin’s study of trade across the Indian Ocean. Despite being almost the same size, it feels like an appendix to it.

Whereas his former book spent a lot of time giving specifics of particular trade goods and where Romans were going to get them and trying to get an idea of the overall Roman budget, this is more of a jumbled history of some of the land area between Rome and China. He starts off with a discussion of what Rome had to get from China, which is interesting.

The obvious part is silk, and he goes into the difference between ‘domesticated’ silk, and ‘wild’ silk, where the latter uses threads from cocoons where the larvae ate it’s way out, cutting the strands. Chinese ‘domesticated’ silk is so good because it has extremely long single strands to work with. At any rate, the lesser version was produced in many places, including the Greek island of Cos. More surprising is the assertion that Chinese steel was superior to what Rome could produce, so high-quality steel was an import. I’d like to see some sort of study of the history of metallurgy to check that. The most surprising part is indications that Rome was exporting silk to China. It wouldn’t have been much, but the Roman world had access to some brilliant dyes that China did not, so dyed silks left the Empire again.

Most of the rest of the book takes a look at various areas and regimes along the northern trade routes that made up the Silk Road(s). He starts with China’s troubles with the Xiongnu (Huns!), which started China exploring to the south of their territory looking for potential allies against them. This eventually gets them to Bactria… but just as the post-Alexandrian nation there is dissolving into fragmented city-states.

There is some look at the Chinese economy, but it’s not nearly as well developed, and most of the book he seems to try to avoid discussing their currency. (“Han revenues: 12,300 million cash”, without saying cash what.) At one point near the end he does define the wushu, which seems to be the currency base for his calculations. He spends some time discussing the differences between revenue collection between the two, which could probably stand to be more in depth, though I’d have to spend a fair amount of time thinking about it to make sense of everything he does have there.

All that is basically the ends of the book. In between, there’s a discussion of various regions in between, their contacts with other areas, trade routes through, but mostly little on the actual trade itself. It makes for a good history of central Asia from ~200 BC to ~100 AD, also with some helpful notes on the geography involved, but it doesn’t integrate them with each other very much except for a time line given in the front. So, it’s nowhere near as useful as The Roman Empire in the Indian Ocean, though it is interesting, and good books on this region are rare.