When the West wanted to go to China

Forget about Cold War 2.0’s relentless drumming against China. Forget the fools of think tanks who project their wishful thinking on the perpetual “end of the rise of China”.

Forget even a few healthy minds in Brussels – yes, they exist – saying that Europe doesn’t want to contain China; he wants engagement, which means business.

Let’s travel back in time to almost two millennia ago, when the Roman Empire was fascinated by the business opportunities offered by these “mysterious” lands of the East.

After the fall of Rome and the western half of the Empire in the 5e century, Constantinople – the second Rome – which was in fact Greek, became the maximum embodiment of the only true “Romans”.

Yet unlike the Hellenistic Greeks following Alexander the Great, so drawn to Asia, the Romans from the end of the Republic to the establishment of the Empire were prevented from moving on, as they still have been blocked by the Parthians: never forget the spectacular Roman defeat at Carrhae in 53 BC.

For more than four centuries, in fact, the eastern limes of the Empire was remarkably stable, stretching from the mountains of eastern Armenia to the river Euphrates and to the Syro-Mesopotamian deserts.

So we actually had three natural limes: mountain, river and desert.

Rome’s overall strategy was not to allow the Parthians – then the Persians – to completely dominate Armenia, to reach the Black Sea and to go beyond the Caucasus to reach the Russian-Ukrainian plains and advance towards it. ‘Europe.

The Persians, for their part, limited themselves to strengthening the borders of the Euphrates, which were not broken until several centuries later, by the Seljuk Turks at the end of the 12e century and the Mongols at the beginning of the 13e century.

This is an absolutely crucial rift in Eurasian history – for that border, later perpetuated between the Ottoman and Persian empires, is still alive today, between Turkey and Iran.

This explains, for example, the current high tension between Iran and Azerbaijan, and it will continue to be exploited endlessly by divide and rule actors.

Cyclists bypass the city walls of Xi’an, which date back to the Ming Dynasty, in the city of Xi’an, in northwest China’s Shaanxi Province. Photo: AFP / Peng hua / Imaginechina

Follow in the footsteps of the caravans

Something extraordinary happened in the year 166: Roman merchants arrived at the court of Chinese Emperor Huan-ti on the 27the Emperor of the Han Dynasty. We learn from History of the later Han that a “Roman envoy” – probably sent by none other than Emperor Marcus Aurelius – was received by Huan-ti in Luoyang.

They traveled via what the Chinese at 21st century would rename the Maritime Silk Road – from the Indian Ocean to the South China Sea to northern Vietnam, then overland to Chang’an – present-day Xian.

The Romans had been buying silk in Asia since the end of the 1st century BC

Trade along the Silk Road was in fact carried out by a multitude of middlemen: no one came all the way back to back.

Luxury industry products – silk, pearls, precious stones, pepper – from China, India and Arabia only come into contact with Roman merchants in one of the legendary hubs of the “corridors.” of communication ”between East and West: Alexandria, Petra or Palmyra. Then the cargo would be loaded in the ports of the eastern Mediterranean to Rome.

The caravan trade was controlled by the Nabataeans, Egyptians and Syrians. The most effective “Roman” traders were in fact the Greeks from the eastern Mediterranean. Scholar JN Robert has shown how, since Alexander, Greek has been a kind of universal language – like English today – from Rome to the Pamir Mountains, from Egypt to the born kingdoms of the Persian Empire.

And that brings us to a literally revolutionary figure: Maes Titianus, a Greco-Macedonian trader who lived in Antioch in Roman Syria in the 1st century.

Even before this envoy sent by Marcus Aurelius to the court of the Han, Maes Titianus managed to send a heavy caravan beyond Central Asia to the land of Seres.

The journey was epic – and lasted over a year. They started in Syria, crossed the Euphrates, continued to Bactria (with the legendary Balkh as its capital) via Khorasan, crossed the Tian Shan mountains, reached Chinese Turkestan, then crossed the Gansu corridor. and the Gobi Desert to Chang ‘un.

From the legendary Geographical Guide of Claudius Ptolemy, the Caravan of Maes Titianus is recognized as the only source from Classical Antiquity fully describing the main land corridor of the ancient Silk Road from Roman Syria to the Chinese capital.

Maes Titianus went as far as Tachkurgan in the Pamirs. Map: Wikipedia

A Rome-Xian highway?

It is crucial to note that Bactria, in present-day northern Afghanistan, was at the time the known eastern limes to the world, according to the Romans. But Bactria was much more than that; the key trade crossroads between China, India, the Parthians and Persia, and the Roman Empire.

The Pamir Mountains – the “roof of the world” – and the Taklamakan Desert (“you can go in but you will not get out”, the Uyghur saying goes) have for centuries been the main natural barriers the West has to face. reach China.

It is therefore geology that has kept China in splendid isolation from the Roman Empire and the West. On the military level, the Romans then the Byzantines never succeeded in crossing this eastern border which separated them from the Persians. Thus, they never succeeded in advancing their conquests as far as Central Asia and China, as Alexander did.

Yet the Arabs, during the lightning rapid expansion of Islam, actually succeeded. But that’s another – long – story.

The adventure of the Maes Titianus caravan took place no less than a millennium before the voyages of Marco Polo. Still, Polo had much more sophisticated PR – and that’s the tale imprinted in Western history books.

Bringing it up now is a reminder of the early stages of the ancient Silk Roads and how interdependence remains imprinted on the collective unconscious of large parts of Eurasia. People along the roads instinctively understand why an evolving trade corridor uniting China-Pakistan-Afghanistan-Iran-Eastern Mediterranean makes sense.

Parachuted Prime Minister Mario “Goldman Sachs” Draghi can insist that Italy is Atlanticist, and can constantly laugh at the BIS. But the sharp heirs of the Roman Empire see that business partnerships along the corridors of the New Silk Road make as much sense as they did in the days of Maes Titianus.

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