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When the West Was Itchin’ to Go to China
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The old city of Khiva in Uzbekistan. Some sections may be 5th century, but the strongest sections were built in 1686-88 and are the most intact Silk Road city. Photo: AFP / Manuel Cohen
The old city of Khiva in Uzbekistan. Some sections may be 5th century, but the strongest sections were built in 1686-88 and are the most intact Silk Road city. Photo: AFP / Manuel Cohen

Forget about the incessant drumming of Cold War 2.0 against China. Forget about think-tank simpletons projecting their wishful thinking on the perpetual “end of China’s rise.”

Forget even about a few sound minds in Brussels – yes, they do exist – saying Europe does not want containment of China; it wants engagement, which means business.

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

After the Fall of Rome and the Western half of the Empire in the 5th century, Constantinople – the second Rome – which was in fact Greek, turned into the maximum embodiment of the only true “Romans.”

Yet contrary to the Hellenistic Greeks following Alexander the Great, who were so enticed by Asia, Romans from the end of the Republic to the establishment of the Empire were prevented from traveling further on down the road, because they were always 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 were remarkably stable, ranging from the mountains of eastern Armenia to the course of the Euphrates and the Syria-Mesopotamian deserts.

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

Rome’s overarching strategy was not to allow the Parthians – and then the Persians – to totally dominate Armenia, reach the Black Sea and go beyond the Caucasus to reach the Russo-Ukrainian plains and forward to Europe.

The Persians, meanwhile, limited themselves to strengthening the Euphrates borders, which were only broken many centuries later, by the Seljuk Turks in the late 12th century and the Mongols in the early 13th century.

This is an absolutely crucial fracture in the history of Eurasia – because this border, later perpetuated between the Ottoman and Persian empires, is still alive and kicking today, between Turkey and Iran.

It explains, for instance, the current high tension between Iran and Azerbaijan, and it will continue to be exploited non-stop by divide and rule actors.

Cyclists ride around the Xi’an City Wall which dates back to the Ming Dynasty in Xi’an city in northwest China’s Shaanxi province. Photo: AFP / Peng hua / Imaginechina
Cyclists ride around the Xi’an City Wall which dates back to the Ming Dynasty in Xi’an city in northwest China’s Shaanxi province. Photo: AFP / Peng hua / Imaginechina

Follow the caravan tracks

Something extraordinary happened in the year 166: Roman merchants arrived at the court of Chinese emperor Huan-ti, the 27th emperor of the Han dynasty. We learn from the 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 in the 21st century would rename the Maritime Silk Road – from the Indian Ocean to the South China Sea all the way to northern Vietnam, then overland to Chang’an – today’s Xian.

Romans had been buying silk from Asia since the end of the 1st century BC, all the way from the land of “Seres” that quite a few scholars disagree about: some state that was China, others that it was Kashmir.

Trade along the Silk Road was in fact conducted by an array of intermediaries: nobody traveled the whole way back to back.

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

Caravan trade was controlled by Nabateans, Egyptians and Syrians. The most efficient “Roman” traders were in fact Greeks from the Eastern Mediterranean. Scholar JN Robert has shown how, since Alexander, Greek was a sort of universal language – like English today – from Rome to the Pamir mountains, from Egypt to kingdoms that were born out of the Persian Empire.

And that bring us to a literally groundbreaking character: Maes Titianus, a Greek-Macedonian trader who was living in Antioch in Roman Syria during the 1st century.

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

The trip was epic – and lasted more than one year. They started in Syria, crossed the Euphrates, kept going all the way to Bactria (with fabled Balkh as capital) via Khorasan, crossed the Tian Shan mountains, reached Chinese Turkestan, then traversed the Gansu corridor and the Gobi desert all the way to Chang’an.

Since the legendary Geographical Guide by Claudius Ptolemy, the Maes Titianus caravan is recognized as the only Classic Antiquity source completely describing the main Ancient Silk Road land corridor from Roman Syria to the Chinese capital.

Maes Titianus went as far as Tashkurgan in the Pamir. Map: Wikipedia
Maes Titianus went as far as Tashkurgan in the Pamir. Map: Wikipedia

A Rome-Xian super-highway?

It’s crucial to note that Bactria, in today’s northern Afghanistan, at the time was the known eastern limes of the world, according to the Romans. But Bactria was way 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 get in but you won’t get out”, goes the Uighur saying) were for centuries the major natural barriers for the West to reach China.

So it was geology that kept China in splendid isolation relative to the Roman empire and the West. In military terms, the Romans and then the Byzantines never managed to cross this eastern border that separated them from the Persians. So they never managed to advance their conquests all the way to Central Asia and China, as Alexander famously tried.

Yet the Arabs, during the lightning-fast expansion of Islam, actually managed it. But that’s another – long – story.

The Maes Titianus caravan adventure happened no less than over a millennium before the travels of Marco Polo. Yet Polo had much more sophisticated PR – and that’s the narrative imprinted in Western history books.


To evoke it now is a reminder of the early steps of the Ancient Silk Roads, and how the interconnectedness remains imprinted in the collective unconscious of great parts of Eurasia. Peoples along the routes instinctively understand why an evolving trade corridor uniting China-Pakistan-Afghanistan-Iran-Eastern Mediterranean makes total sense.

Parachuted Prime Minister Mario “Goldman Sachs” Draghi may insist that Italy is Atlanticist, and may be constantly deriding the BRI. But sharp heirs of the Roman Empire do see that business partnerships along New Silk Road corridors make as much good sense as during the time of Maes Titianus.

(Republished from Asia Times by permission of author or representative)
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  1. anonymous[197] • Disclaimer says:

    It is interesting to learn about these old connections between China and West Asia. In the book The Persianate World, Nile Green writes:
    “When the early Ming dynasty Muslim admiral [emphasis is mine] Zheng He (1371-1433/1435) led a trading mission across the Indian Ocean, Persian … Chinese and Tamil [were the] three languages selected for the stele he had erected in Galle in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) in 1409. … Another linguistic trace of the maritime interaction between Chinese and Persian is the adoption of the Mandarin word for an ocean storm, da’feng (great wind), into Persian as tufan (and thence, probably via Portuguese, into English as typhoon.”

    • Thanks: Rahan, Marshal Marlow
  2. Very interesting certainly, but the world has changed somewhat on 1850 years and Rome did not want to be dominated by the Chinese which is the aim of the current BRI

  3. COP26 says:

    Sending a delegation or two is not itchin’. It was impossible for the so-called West to go to China. Quite a stretch to compare such attempts with the current situation.

    Neighbouring countries should develop partnerships? In the 21-st century? That’s Mr. Obvious material.

    But the EU partnering with China? Wait a minute, that’s not so simple as it seems. Maybe you haven’t heard, the future won’t be all peace and business and profit.

  4. Great history – trends point to Central Asia having a revival of those days. It will take a while – but it is certainly in the process.

  5. @Dale Entwhistle

    Maybe the reason over 100 countries are actively participating in BRI is because they don’t believe the same propaganda that you believe… Kind of like the debt trap folly. China is the largest banker to the world now. Countries borrow from China specifically because China doesn’t try to dominate them like the IMF and World Bank do when they borrow from those to US led institutions..

    • Replies: @Dale Entwhistle
  6. Right_On says:

    Informative article.
    Reminded me that, after Antony’s defeat at the Battle of Actium, Cleopatra planned to sail to India with all her treasure. The Romans paid Arab mercenaries to burn her boats, so that put paid to her scheme.
    But the fact that she even considered that option shows that commerce between East and West was not as unusual at that date as we (or, at least, poor ignorant I) usually imagine.

    • Replies: @mulga mumblebrain
  7. For Draghi and the other Atlanticists preferring ‘the West’ is a matter of racial and civilizational supremacism, now heavily leavened with fear and hatred as China comprehensively outdoes the West. Decades of increasingly foetid hate-mongering in the West has the dullard, brainwashed, losers blaming China for all their woes, not their home-grown and other, insidious, elites. The West’s Nutterdammerung approaches.

    • Agree: Daemon
  8. @Right_On

    Trade with India, through the Red Sea and Persian Gulf, was immense. Rome was virtually emptied of silver to buy muslin, and pepper and other spices from India.

    • Replies: @Mary Marianne
  9. @Dale Entwhistle

    Very interesting certainly, but the world has changed somewhat on 1850 years and Rome did not want to be dominated by the Chinese which is the aim of the current BRI

    Greek finance minister and China’s debt trap…

    My personal concern is how unattractive American women have become…..that’s the real debt trap.

    • LOL: d dan, nokangaroos
    • Replies: @Dale Entwhistle
  10. @mulga mumblebrain

    Every age the West has a trade deficit with the East and then has an epic bitchfest about said deficit. Rome with muslin, pepper and other spices from India; the British empire started two Opium Wars because they couldn’t afford the tea from China; and today the West has a deficit because they’re buying affordable consumer goods that are all Made In China.

    • Agree: d dan
  11. @showmethereal

    I try not to believe any propaganda whether it’s Chinese, US, EU, IMF, Russian or anybody else’s , I try to look at reality and make up my own mind. As for the China doesn’t want to dominate them narrative, well it’s true that China mostly isn’t concerned about their domestic policies (as long as they don’t affect Chinese interests) but try telling that to the Sri Lankans or African countries which have fallen victim to the apparently mythical debt trap diplomacy. Being sceptical of the motives of the CCP does not equate to credulously accepting the narrative of the US, EU IMF or any of the rest of the bunch

  12. @dogbumbreath

    Just because Yanis Varoufakis says something doesn’t mean it’s correct. I read his book about the Eurozone crisis and while he makes some very telling points about the EU he’s also trying to defend his unsuccessful tenure as Greek Finance Minister. Regarding China, his own ideological background makes him prone to be overly sympathetic and trusting of the CCP in a way he wouldn’t be (rightly) with the US or even the EU

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