World history is a difficult task. Balancing breadth and depth puts historians between an intellectual Scylla and Charybdis. Broad and shallow brushstrokes risk impersonalizing history, while narrow and deep analysis excludes non-specialists. Empires and Exchanges seeks to have its cake and eat it too, by zooming into localized granularity and zooming out to macro exchanges. To achieve this feat, the editors enlisted an international array of scholars, most of whom presented papers at a 2013 conference titled “Worlds in Motion: Rome, China, and the Eurasian Steppe in Late Antiquity.” Expectations for this volume have been high, especially considering the caliber of scholars who were thanked in the acknowledgements for attending the conference, but whose papers were not included. The final product certainly lives up to those expectations.
The volume divides 26 chapters into three sections: first, historical thresholds; second, movements, contacts, and exchanges; and third, empires, diplomacy, and frontiers. There are contributions on ethnicity, religion, conceptual geography, and commodities, though on the whole the volume skews toward political interactions. Readers of the volume should be aware that “Rome” in all cases refers to Byzantium, not the Empire's western half; they should be aware that this review does not discuss every chapter due to space constraints, but rather attempts to convey a sense of the book's breadth and depth.
Michael Maas and Nicola Di Cosmo open with chapters on the steppe's relationship with Byzantium and China, respectively. Maas traces Byzantium's understanding of steppe peoples with its concomitant political, diplomatic, and religious adjustments. Di Cosmo delineates economic and political interactions that show the steppe's growing influence on China. Both chapters outline changes over the centuries and provide useful backdrops for the granularity of subsequent chapters.
Matthew P. Canepa's insightful contribution, “Sasanian Iran and the Projection of Power in Late Antique Eurasia, Competing Cosmologies and Topographies of Power,” asserts that Sasanian rulers used their empire's geographical centrality in Eurasia to assert cosmological supremacy. Non-specialists will find Canepa's ideas rich with symbolic insights, such as how a city created for Roman captives served as a spectacle of the Persian king's global reach. Disappointingly, the chapter lacks images of the visual evidence Canepa mentions.
Peter Brown's excellent chapter, “‘Charismatic’ Goods: Commerce, Diplomacy, and Cultural Contacts Along the Silk Road in Late Antiquity,” exemplifies the book's goals of granularity and interconnection. Beginning with an anecdote about giraffes, Brown zooms out to consider the prestige distant and rare goods bestowed on their possessors. Readers interested in the Silk Road or consumerism will find this chapter worthy of their attention.
Buddhism receives significant attention in two chapters suitable for undergraduate audiences. Valerie Hansen's “The Synthesis of the Tang Dynasty” narrates China's history with an eye on Central Asia's cultural and political influence. Of the influences, Buddhism and tanistry—the succession system in which rule goes to the best qualified—receive the greatest attention. The chapter concludes with Korea, Japan, Vietnam, and Tibet indirectly adopting parts of Central Asian culture from Tang China. Max Deeg's chapter, which appears later in the volume, more generally describes how Buddhism culturally influenced China.
In “Genetic History and Migrations in Western Eurasia, 500–1000,” Patrick J. Geary warns of using modern genetic evidence to retrace migrations in Late Antiquity and advises how scholars should use ancient DNA. One wishes, though, that he had devoted more time to the controversial Xiongnu-Hun connection rather than concentrating on Britain and Ireland.
Michael Kulikowski and Luo Xin offer chapters on western and eastern Eurasian historiography about northern invaders. In crisscross fashion, East Asian specialists will benefit most from reading Kulikowski's chapter (in which he poses questions directly to them), while Mediterranean and West Asian scholars will get more out of Xin's contribution.
The volume's most specialized chapter is Frantz Grenet's “The Circulation of Astrological Lore and its Political Use between the Roman East, Sasanian Iran, Central Asia, India, and the Türks.” Grenet's title oversells the chapter, since it focuses Sasanian political astrology and its afterlife in Sogdiana, while cursorily dealing with Rome and India. Nevertheless, Grenet exemplifies the editors' desired granularity and ends his chapter with the volume's most delicious anecdote.
Joel Walker effectively demonstrates how pearls symbolized Sasasian royal authority in his contribution. His second argument—that Sasanian pearl iconography influenced other regions outside Persia—is less convincing because of chronology. Suetonius, for example, reports Caligula drank pearls dissolved in vinegar (Gaius 37), but this ostentatious display significantly predates the Sasanian regime. Though the chapter is a delightful read, Walker might also have bolstered his analysis by connecting his insights to larger questions about power and its display. At the very least, the editors should have placed this chapter after Brown's “Charismatic Goods.”
The most contentious paper in this volume comes from Mark Whittow's “Byzantium's Eurasian Policy in the Age of the Türk Empire,” which opposes Thomas Noonan's view that the peoples of the Eurasian steppes and Byzantium had limited diplomatic interactions with each other. Whittow concedes that after 650 C.E., Noonan is correct (Noonan's argument pertained to Byzantium and the Khazars); before 650, however, Whittow shows that Byzantines found the Gok Türk qaghanate useful against Persia's eastern flank. Yet despite repeatedly referencing tangential scholarship, Whittow never connects his cogent argument with Edward Luttwak's assertions about Byzantine grand strategy.
Michael R. Drompp provides a valuable chapter on how the early Türk empires asserted their legitimacy in non-military ways: though foundation myths, diplomatic and economic networks, and collaborations from within and without. Though the chapter concerns the early Türks, it should be required reading for anyone interested in nomadic empires, as it offers a welcome balance to our sedentary authors of our usual sources, whose interests skew toward warfare.
Sören Stark's chapter on elite representation during the early Türk qaghanate provides a clear example of a nomadic people selecting—not blindly copying—aspects of a sedentary civilization to imitate. Stark peppers the chapter with 20 images of early Türkish creation, such as the Bugut Stele, Boroo Stela, Shorron-Bumbagar tomb, Idėr Memorial, and imitation Byzantine coins, demonstrating how Chinese and Byzantine imagery was appropriated to mark prestige and status.
Ekaterina Nechaeva's excellent chapter, “Patterns of Roman Diplomacy with Iran and the Steppe Peoples,” first shows how Byzantine-Sasasian diplomacy operated with parity. Nechaeva then demonstrates how Huns and Avars at first adopted to Byzantine diplomatic protocol by assuming a subordinate status, which eventually shifted to near equality. One of the most cogent and concise chapters in the volume, Nechaeva's contribution will be valuable to anyone studying the Huns, Avars, or Byzantine foreign relations.
Andrew Eisenberg's chapter, “Collapse of a Eurasian Hybrid: The Case of the Northern Wei,” focuses on strife within the Northern Wei's court contributing to the kingdom's demise. As they evolved from a nomadic confederacy to patrimonial empire, Northern Wei rulers adopted some Chinese political ideas, which disadvantaged Tuoba and Xianbei court participation. Although this chapter may trouble non-specialists, it offers world history instructors an opportunity to compare the ethnic minority rule of the Northern Wei to that of Visigothic Spain or Ostrogothic Italy.
The final two chapters can be read in tandem. For a top-down approach, Jonathan Karam Skaff's “Ideological Interweaving in Eastern Eurasia: Simultaneous Kingship and Dynastic Competition, 580–755” shows how Chinese and Turkic leaders borrowed and conferred each other's titles to win loyalty from those living in the borderlands between China and Inner Mongolia. For example, by claiming to be “Heaven-Conceived,” Türk qaghans tapped into the power of the Chinese Mandate of Heaven. The ideological entanglements described in this chapter will interest anyone studying ancient borderlands, while the emphasis on titles makes this chapter ripe for a future comparative study with Roman or Frankish titles.
For a bottom-up approach in Eastern Eurasia, Naomi Standen argues that followers possessed and exerted substantial leverage over their superiors. Instead of seeing politics as a series of zero-sum competitions to become alpha-male, Standen contends that many leaders were willing to assume a subordinate role. She uses the insightful and helpful analogy of dancing to describe political relationships in which subordinate leaders searched for and switched alliances with higher authorities. As a Mediterranean specialist, I found Standen's “Followers and Leaders in Northeastern Eurasia” to be the volume's most eye-opening chapter.
The volume's flaws are cosmetic. The editors must have ordered their chapters to highlight the messiness of Eurasian interconnections, because chapters that complement one another are sometimes not next to each other. The absence of images in a few chapters also disappoints. Though the volume as a whole contains 39 images, 36 of them are concentrated in just two chapters. Some authors resort to describing iconography: one author, in describing the Nestorian Monument, wrote “despite the fact that no Iranian language (per se) appears in the inscriptions, the Persian character of the entire monument is clear” (p 218). In the absence of an image, it is hard to say otherwise.
The maps could also have been better. The mismatch of vertically-orientated pages with Eurasia's predominantly horizontal orientation presents challenges, but offers a (missed) chance to flip the view by offering maps pointing south, east, or west instead of our standard north. Not only would this have afforded new Eurasian perspectives, but would have prevented city names from being truncated at the book's spine on maps that spanned two pages. Maps seven and eight are also nearly identical.
Notwithstanding these foibles, the volume is outstanding overall. Empires and Exchanges in Eurasian Late Antiquity will most benefit world history instructors and will grace many a reading list for graduate students. Individual chapters, such as those by Brown, Hansen, Deeg, and Nechaeva, can also be assigned to advanced undergraduates.