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Beyond the Silk Road: Economic Development, Frontier Zones and Inter-Imperiality in the Afro-Eurasian World Region, 300 BCE to 300 CE

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Looking beyond the Silk Road

New research brings a much-needed global perspective to understanding the trans-imperial economic network formation that defined much of the ancient world.

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The period between 300 BCE and 300 CE was a time of significant transformation. From eastern China to the steppe of inner Asia, northern India and the Arabian Peninsula, the imperial networks of the Afro-Eurasian zone expanded into new regions. As these networks grew, new imperial frontiers emerged. These frontiers stimulated new economic activity, ultimately changing the geographies of exchange and facilitating a cultural convergence between overlapping spheres of imperial influence. Yet despite the vastness and diversity of this transformation, it is often lumped under the rather outdated banner of ‘Silk Road’ trade. “As interest in global exchange increases, scholars and other stakeholders tend to gravitate towards this colonial-era term,” explains Sitta von Reden, a professor of Ancient History at the University of Freiburg in Germany. According to von Reden, this is in large part due to the fact that little multidisciplinary research has been done to better understand global economics in this period of history – that is, until now.

Local economies and global connections

With the support of the EU-funded BaSaR project, von Reden conducted research on trans-imperial economic network formation that looked ‘beyond the Silk Road’ and brought a much-needed global perspective to the ancient world. “This project aimed to replace a theoretically outdated perspective on ancient global trends with a new, theoretically more sophisticated narrative of Afro-Eurasian economic development during the imperial period of 300 BCE to 300 CE,” adds von Reden, who served as the project’s principal investigator. “We tried to find out how local economies came to be connected to economies of much larger scales as trans-imperial trade and exchange were rooted in very local economic changes.”

The handbook on ancient Afro-Eurasian economies

A three-volume handbook, the project’s main deliverable, offers a comprehensive discussion of economic development in the empires of the Afro-Eurasian world region. It also takes a deep dive into the conditions under which large quantities of goods and people moved across the continents and between empires. “I am immensely proud of my extremely motivated postdoctoral research team, who worked together productively for over five years, sometimes across time zones, and through COVID in order to produce this groundbreaking work,” notes von Reden. Von Reden is currently putting the finishing touches on a monograph that succinctly summarises the entire handbook.

Inspiring future research

While a three-volume treatise on ancient global connections is impressive in its own right, the project’s impact goes well beyond the written word. “This was the first project where scholars specialising in different ancient cultures discussed and coordinated their research methods on a daily basis,” explains von Reden. These discussions spanned historiographical, numismatic and archaeological data sets, as well as different literary cultures, ecologies and customs. “The project’s success will be the research it inspires, research that will further increase our understanding of the interdependent development of ancient empires,” concludes von Reden. Some of this additional research may be led by von Reden herself, who is looking to apply for an ERC Synergy Grant. If successful, she and a colleague from another university hope to extend the BaSaR model for application to other Afro-Eurasian exchanges. The BaSaR project was supported by the European Research Council.


BaSaR, Afro-Eurasian, imperial period, imperial networks, Silk Road, ancient world, ancient history, ancient empires, global exchange, global economics

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