You know how sometimes you’re kinda sad when finishing a book, because despite having approximately 4,568,892,626,942 other books you need to read, none of them will be quite like this book? Yeah, I felt that way about Raoul McLaughlin’s The Roman Empire and the Silk Routes: The Ancient World Economy and the Empires of Parthia, Central Asia and Han China. There are few books that manage to straddle the line between interesting enough to keep me plugging through to the end, but soporific enough to be a reliable insomnia cure. This book struck that exact balance.
It took me several months to get through, because I’d usually pass out after a page or two, but it was worth every moment. Raoul knows his subject! The book is stuffed full of things I never knew before about how the Roman, Chinese, and Parthian empires functioned and related to each other. There are lovely details that put you in the midst of history, and you’ll be suddenly rocking aboard ship on a trading mission, outrunning a Black Sea storm. Or you’ll be jolting in a carriage through the Chinese on a long journey to meet the Emperor. You might be trudging through the desert with a caravan, hoping for an oasis. You might be watching a military parade, watching silk banners snapping in the breeze. It’s good stuff.
There are plenty of places where the details get fascinating and informative, and you should be able to find spots that hit your nerd button no matter what your interests are. For me, there were two particularly fascinating sections. One described in detail what Romans did with Chinese Silk. I had no idea they used to unweave it, spin the threads thinner, dye it differently, and then re-weave it into a more sheer cloth! As a fiber arts enthusiast, I adored these details. And as a geologist, I marveled at the wonderful passage that described how Romans would carve intricate drinkwear out of rock crystal. It was nearly poetry.
Raoul has a writing style that is somewhere between a relaxing drone and a pleasant hum. That makes this a terrible book if you’re trying to stay awake and devour large chunks at a time, but a perfect book if you need something to both entertain and lull your brain for a short while at bedtime. Most books that put me straight to sleep have very little other value. This one gave me an education as well as rest. That’s a rare thing!
I do admit some disappointment with his inordinate focus on war, military logistics, hostilities, battles, weaponry, and fighting. Yes, some of it was important. You can’t understand empires without also understanding their conflicts. But I was expecting more information about trade and economics, dang it. I spent too many pages sighing, rolling my eyes, and thinking yeah, this is what happens when men write history.
My mom told me about being bored to literal tears in history class because it was overwhelmingly just a bunch of names, dates, and battles. This book suffers quite a bit of that, but the details are embedded in enough context to prevent it from being overly frustrating. And it’s very nice that Raoul explains how people within these empires thought, what motivated them, and how their actions had knock-on effects.
If you’re not a hard-core history nerd, this book may not offer you much. But if you love history, and also need a staid tome that will lull you into the arms of Morpheus without also leaving you bored unto frustration, this is an excellent reading choice. The fact that Amazon Prime members can borrow it for free makes it extra perfect. I absolutely do recommend it!
The Roman Empire and the Silk Routes: The Ancient World Economy and the Empires of Parthia, Central Asia and Han China by Raoul McLaughlin
This post is a companion to our Mediterranean Geology series over on Rosetta Stones.
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