Empires of the Silk Road

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I’m now reading Empires of the Silk Road. I’m about 2/3 of the way through the main text, and being slowed down by the fact that I keep reading the footnotes on almost every page. Additionally, there are 40 pages or so of endnotes which I haven’t gotten to yet, but each one reads like a very interesting blog post (I do not refer to it as such to cast aspersions but praise!). I’ll probably have my full thoughts up in a few days. It has a little less ecology and archaeology than I’d like so far, but the density of fact is pretty awesome (The Ruin of the Roman Empire is a book where the opposite is the case, it could have been about half as long due to its repeated exposition of the same series of facts with a slight twist). There are some issues where genetics might offer a slightly different perspective than the author, and I’ll definitely mention that….



  1. Broad-scope history is coming into its own. About time. 
    Beckwith’s “The Tibetan Empire in Central Asia” is also excellent, though of course more limited. This book is a magnum opus and he does a great job. He’s pretty cranky on a number of rather secondary issues and I wish he wouldn’t do that, but the book is a must-read. 
    I also recommend Pitas Kelekna’s “The Horse in Human History” (Cambridge, 2009). It’s also tendentious — she’s making a case that the domestication of the horse was the driving factor of much of history, including the history of the sedentary world. I doubt that anyone will accept the entire argument, but again, it’s a must-read. (It supercedes Barclay’s “The Role of the Horse in Human Culture”, which isn’t even in the bibliography but remains worth reading for the period after about 500 BC.) 
    Christian’s “Maps of Time: an Introduction to Big History” remains for me to read. His excellent “History of Russia, Central Asia, and Mongolia” is hardly restricted in scope, but “Maps of Time” starts with the Big Bang, more or less. The book is 500 pages plus 130 pages of notes, etc., and the human race only appears on p. 139. 
    William McNeill is the father of all this. He was the last Toybeean, more or less, and also was influenced by pre-1950 technological and environmental determinism. After 1950 history went toward smaller, more easily mastered problems and more cautious hypotheses, and I would imagine that he became very isolated. But he’s had the last laugh.

  2. Also on my to-read list: “The Retreat of the Elephants”, Mark Elvin, Yale, 2004. Environmental history of China, from more or less the beginning to more or less the present. Elvin’s “Pattern of the Chinese Past” is a standard work.

  3. fwiw, i was a little disappointed by elvin’s book.

  4. Hm. I started it but put it down. Maybe I was a bit disappointed too. As I remember, he relied too heavily on literary sources, which sometimes mean nothing at all. (That is, if all the poets are suddenly writing about hunger or cold, that doesn’t mean that people are in general hungrier or colder.)

  5. (That is, if all the poets are suddenly writing about hunger or cold, that doesn’t mean that people are in general hungrier or colder.) 
    Wait, wouldn’t Mencius Moldbug assert otherwise? In a 10,000 word long winded and heavily argued essay no less?