The Silk Road

One person can get something done.  Two people still can…sometimes.  Much above that and you have de facto formed a committee, that neat human invention for substituting talking about something for actually doing it.  It is a sad truth of human nature that getting a large enough gaggle together, however well intentioned, usually means you supplant directed activity with your own Brownian motion.  Everyone shows lots of individual action, but the overall net movement is too small to detect.

Unless, of course, you a) put someone in charge, and b) give that someone enough authority to do the job.  That is the theory behind the way we run that largest of human endeavors, warfare.  We make someone commander in chief and then keep our hands off while that person wins (or loses) the war.

Most of the time, it works.  That is why, in America, we have extended that happy model to most of our important enterprises.  Whether it is a company, a sports team, a charity, or a Boy Scout troop, we Americans fervently believe in the idea of putting some one individual in charge and then giving them the credit or the blame for the result.  We believe that the only alternative is where everybody “does their own thing.”  We have seen how, far too often, that leads to chaos.

Yeah, but.  I know that is what the books say, but I would maintain that there is something to be said for a more free-for-all method of organization.

For example:  Imperial Rome is the classic (in every sense) example of putting someone in sole charge.  Everyone ultimately answered to the emperor, and he answered only to history.  If you count the Byzantine part, it lasted nearly 1500 years, which is not a bad track record.

However, along about 70 CE one of their senior wise men, Pliny the Elder, issued a warning that Rome’s treasury was being undermined by no less dark a force than women’s decadent fashions.  Pliny was bemoaning the terrible economic impact of draining off 100 million sesterces of gold every year to pay for the new (and scandalous) fashion for wearing diaphanous garments made of silk.

It seems that Cleopatra, as reported by that wonderful old gossip, Lucan, was seen, all too clearly, with “her white breasts resplendent through the Sidonian fabric, wrought…by the skill of the Seres.”  This apparently started a scandalous fashion among the ladies of the Roman haute-monde.  Pretty soon you were just about nobody if your nipples weren’t visible through your silk.

What is interesting about this particular balance-of-payments problem is that the ultimate destination of all that gold was almost unthinkably remote: Imperial China.  (Seres was the Roman word for the Chinese.)  How on earth was such a remote trade carried on?  All of that silk (looking at it in one direction) and all of that gold (in the other) was carried all the way across Asia and a good part of Europe on the backs of Bactrian camels.

Now the Bactrian camel is a good, sturdy, miserably bad-tempered beast.  Unlike the horse, which can be over-loaded to the point of injury or even death, an overloaded camel simply refuses to rise until the load is more to its liking.  Usually that load is a maximum of about 500 pounds.  Which means that 100 million sesterces worth of silk and/or gold translates into thousands upon thousands of camel loads.

All those camel caravans traveled the fabled Silk Road.   For centuries, beginning in the capital of China, ChangAn (‘Eternal Peace,’ today’s XiAn, ‘Western Peace’), it wended its way through a series of outposts, oases, and cities whose names are redolent with romance: Kashgar, Samarkand, Tashkent, Tehran, and Tabriz, ending at Damascus or Byzantium.  All of those places and dozens of others too small or ephemeral to be named were controlled by avaricious tribes and nations whose conduct varied from asking a reasonable toll for security to something pretty close to outright piracy.

Imagine trying to organize that.

The very idea of sending shipments of many tons of silk or gold on a route thousands of miles long through some of the driest, most desolate, and most dangerous terrain on earth would daunt our hardiest entrepreneur or our mightiest captain of industry.  But, in fact, the problem was much more complicated than that.  That term, Silk Road, is something of a misnomer.  Those camels had to carry vastly more than just silks and gold.  Going from west to east, in addition to Roman gold they carried linen, silver, ivory, precious stones, glass items, frankincense & myrrh, pomegranates, walnuts, and, most importantly, horses of a new and larger breed.  (The Chinese loved those horses, as you can see from the vast numbers of depictions of them that still survive.)

Going in the opposite direction, from east to west, aside from those silks, the camels carried jade, furs, bronze items, laquer ware, cast iron, oranges & lemons, peaches & apricots, and spices like cinnamon, nutmeg, & cloves.

They apparently also carried ceramics in both directions.  This is a surprise.  For many years everyone knew that Arabia got many of its ceramic techniques from China while the Chinese took nothing much from the West.  Today, not only has it been determined that the lead for the wonderful sancai (three color) Tang glazes came from Arabia, but graves have been found in China with Arabian pottery while samples of Chinese ware have been dug up in the Middle East.

One might ask who decides what goods you trade.  After all, it is not too hard to justify loading some poor animal with silk, which is light enough for its bulk.  And it is pretty hard to argue with carrying gold on someone’s back.  Gold, after all, is the original standard of the best value for weight.  But, come on now, ceramics?  Bronze?  Jade (it’s rock, for crying out loud!)?  Cast iron, for God’s sake?!

Clearly, if there was a market for it, some poor animal would have to carry it.  Weird.

But to resume:  Who organized this vast enterprise?  One can imagine it was some canny (and immensely rich) trader in Baghdad or Samarkand, or even Byzantium.  Or was there some oriental potentate along the way commanding his minions to hitch up and waving goodbye to them with a cheerful “by the way, be careful, see you in a year or two”?

One can imagine it, but that’s not the way it happened

Instead, what happened was that some trader in ChangAn would organize a caravan of miscellaneous goods for a market town down the line, say, LanZhou.  There he would peddle everything he brought, load up with locally procured merchandise, and head back to ChangAn.  Somebody else, who had just unloaded his own goods in LanZhou, would load up with stuff he thought he could sell back home in DunHuang, which just happened to be the next town down the Silk Road.  In DunHuang, everything would be resold again, with some of it being bought by a fellow organizing a caravan to Urumqi.  And so on down the line, through Samarkand or Tashkent, with some of it going on to Herat and Baghdad and some to Ankara and Byzantium.

In short, absolutely nobody organized it.  There was no mighty merchant in Baghdad who knew  what the current price of pomegranates was in the far distant Imperial Capital of ChangAn as well as he knew the going rate for silk in the Imperial Capital of Rome.  No such person existed.  Instead, centuries of commerce involving vast amounts of money and many thousands of tons of goods was the impromptu summation of the efforts of a lot of guys who knew how well pomegranates were doing in his cousin’s town out west and what he might hope to sell a few bales of silk for at his uncle’s place out east.

Yes, we human beings can manage to plan, organize and even operate some pretty big enterprises, but our biggest and best things, like our various cultures, or our economic systems, or even the wonderful Silk Road, weren’t really organized by anybody.

Like Topsy, they “just growed.”

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