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January 22, 2010

Mighty Kingdom Far, Far Away

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --

Not long ago I bought a book by Philip Matyszak with the charming title "Ancient Rome on Five Dinarii a Day" (Amazon link here.)

It' a pretty painless introduction to life at the heart of the Roman Empire circa 200 AD in the guise of a travel guide. It even includes some Latin phrases that might be of use, for example: Scorpio sum -- quod signum tibi es? (I'm a Scorpio -- what sign are you?).

One passage that particularly intrigued me was this one on page 67:

The Romans do know of China. Chinese records speak of a visit of merchants from the emperor An'tun (probably Antonius or Marcus Aurelius), but trade between the two empires is done through intermediaries.

Can you truly wrap your mind around the idea of a distant kingdom or empire about which you know almost nothing, yet that rivals yours in scale? My problem is that no such thing is possible in today's world and hasn't been for hundreds of years. It's simply not part of our life-experience. When I was a kid, there might have been a few undetected tribes someplace in the Amazon basin or New Guinea, but even that smidgen of geographical and cultural ignorance has been eliminated.

One might raise the matter of civilizations on planets of distant stars, but these are presently hypothetical and not real as China was in Roman times.



posted by Donald at January 22, 2010


I wonder why the Romans never had a Marco Polo? Silks were being passed from China to the Roman Empire (and, what - gold? - the other way?), and I think some Greek merchants got there, but didn't somebody write book?

Another point is how real knowledge of distant parts morphed into fantasy. Rhinoceros > unicorn is a wonderful example (if valid). There's also the Kingdom of Prester John. It was a vast Christian empire in, at first, Africa (folk memory of Ethiopia) and later in the Far East. This was partly defensive - Christians were aware, apparently, of being outnumbered by non-Christians (in Wolfram von Eschenbach's Parzival, 5/6 of the world is outside Christendom) - and partly a utopian projection of a perfect Christian state. In some ways Confucian China met the criteria, except for not being Christian, and that no doubt informed the vision.

BTW, I love the fantasy geography of medieval literature, especially when it half-melts into real geography. In Parzival, Wales morphs in to Waleis and Norgals (north Wales), accessible by horseback from Anjou in France, while the Middle East is ruled by the mighty Baruc of Baldac. Baldac is Baghdad, but what is a Baruc?

Posted by: Chris Burd on January 22, 2010 12:36 PM

Ah, a kindred soul who wonders about the time that the edges of maps were shrouded in darkness which could conceal almost anything.

I don't know if the Romans and Alexander the Great spent much time wondering about what lay beyond conquering range. I suspect so, but maybe they realized the distances were so great that there was no real possible interaction. Still, I'd have to imagine the curiosity would driven some of them.

On a small scale, the internet has ruined that particular sense of discovery of the unknown, especially of the small and trivial. Of course one always logically knew that someone else must have found it first. But now you're faced with it a few clicks away instead of simply knowing it in the abstract, thus allowing just enough uncertainty to give you that faint thrill.

Personally, I play computer games like Civilization to capture some small taste of what that must have been like. Of course, in that game, you know the rules, so if you don't know what *is* out there, you always know what *can be*. And with the internet, you couldn't reproduce that experience of uncertainty, even if you tried.

Posted by: Tom West on January 22, 2010 1:02 PM

Can you truly wrap your mind around the idea of a distant kingdom or empire about which you know almost nothing, yet that rivals yours in scale?

I've always wondered about that: what it's like to have known-to-be-real, but may-as-well-be mythical, empires sharing the planet. Would Cathay occupy a different part of the imagination than El Dorado? In my own childhood and adolescence there were still scattered pockets of "magic kingdoms", still imaginatively remote due to remaining barriers in transport, communication, and (in many cases) political restrictions - Central Asia, for example, was real, but glamorously remote. As late as the nineteenth century, the accounts of the players in the Great Game, and even those of the various European actors of the 20th - eccentric soldiers, agents without portfolio, and madmen - read as if these men had walked off the ends of the earth into worlds not accessible by ordinary means of moving from A to B.

But only just - glamorously remote, but not impossibly remote. Restricted countries, fatal khanates, but not Forbidden Kingdoms; no hope of captive basilisks, in cunningly contrived boxes scented with exotic perfumes, coming through customs in the baggage of returning travellers. And one knew beyond the shadow of a doubt that there was no throne out there, upon which sate Prester John.

Was China more like another planet to Romans, the caravanserai of the Silk Road more a chain of asteroids than a quotidian trade route? Places are farther or closer, or more real or more mythical, not so much in conformance with time's arrow but with the vicissitudes of empire - perhaps China was more remote to the Romans than to, say, Alexander's home-keeping subjects, and remoter still a few centuries after Rome was gone. (I would not bet on it, but then again, I would not be surprised, if in what remains of my own lifetime, the distances and the strangeness were to increase yet again.)

Posted by: Moira Breen on January 22, 2010 6:56 PM

Actually, there were Greeks and Romans who went quite a distance eastward through the Indian Ocean and who came back with descriptions of the land clear to China -- not terribly detailed or accurate descriptions, but descriptions. We generally don't know their names, but we do know they must have existed, because later Roman geographers had a reasonable description of the Indian Ocean's coastline clear past modern Singapore to southern China, and also had some idea of the terrain along the Silk Road.

As to why the Romans weren't more aggressive about exploration: that's a great question, and it's one that H.G. Wells asked in his Outline of History.

My guess at an answer is that when Rome was successful, they had little incentive to go exploring. On the one hand, their ships weren't all that great by later standards, and they weren't a naval power so much as a land power using the Mediterranean as a convenient means of transportation between parts of their empire. On the other hand, the Imperial government inhibited expansion because successful generals were a threat to the Emperor, and thus the most effective means Romans had of exploring (sending the legions into a new territory) was specifically banned. So neither naval nor land power of Rome were likely to be used to expand into new territories even when Rome was doing well. And, of course, once Rome began to fail, there was even less incentive to explore. The (very sketchy) records we have of Romans getting to China end after the golden age of the Antonines.

For a lot of fine details about this stuff, I strongly recommend The World The Romans Knew by N.H.H. Sitwell. It's out of print but easy to get as used books via Amazon's affiliates (which is how I got my copy), and it's a one-of-a-kind book.

Posted by: Erich Schwarz on January 23, 2010 8:41 PM

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