Book Review: The Roman Empire and the Silk Routes by Raoul McLaughlin

[FULL DISCLOSURE: I received my copy of this book free from the author and/or publisher. I was not paid for this review and the opinion expressed is purely my own]

Many people think that global trade is a relatively new development in the world.  That is not the case and The Roman Empire and the Silk Routes by Raoul McLaughlin describes the ways in which ancient Rome and China traded goods over the ancient Silk Routes.

First, the specs.  There are 225 pages of text divided into 14 topical chapters and 5 appendices.  There are also extensive notes, a bibliography and an index.

While many histories of both Rome and China acknowledge that trade occurred between the two this is the first major study of which I am aware that details the specifics of the trade.  McLaughlin almost exhaustively details the economics and methods whereby trade occurred between what were then arguably the world’s two great superpowers.  In the process, he also examines how such trade affected the economies of both by examining their internal economies and the impact tax revenue from external trade had on both but especially that of Rome.

He traces the history of the establishment of the various trade routes both overland and sea routes through India.  The various middleman states and societies through which Silk Route trade had to pass are also examined and the arduousness of the routes and their effect on what was traded are examined.  The descriptions of the routes used and transport difficulties underline how difficult such trade was.

What I found most interesting was not that trade occurred but that the volume of trade in what we would today consider GDP terms was so large.  Such trade was much larger than I thought and because the difficulties of traveling and moving goods over a straight-line distance of over 3,000 miles with ancient transport methods it is no surprise that the absolute vast majority of such trade was in luxury goods.  Transport costs alone would have made trade in staple commodities economically nonsensical.

On the whole, the writing style is enjoyable to read although it is dry in places and that is unavoidable given the technical nature of some of the description.  However, this is an excellent book that provides a detailed glimpse at an often-overlooked aspect of the ancient world and I highly recommend it to anyone interested ancient Rome or ancient China.