The Rise and Fall of the First World-Order

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Ancient Eurasia

In the 2nd century AD four empires reigned supreme over ancient Eurasia – the Roman, Parthian, Kushan and the Han.

Often, in the western tradition, one finds imperial Rome as the great predecessor to Occidental glory and dominance, to which subsequent rulers often aspired. Yet at the same time as her dominance ancient Eurasia revolved around three other, perhaps lesser known power – the Parthian, Kushan, and Han empires. In the 2nd century, when Rome reached its height under Trajan (98-117 AD), a merchant could well have used the overland route (‘Silk Road’?) in a journey from the Mediterranean to the Han capital, Loyang, and only had to encounter three or so border markers – Rome-Parthia, Parthia-Kushan, Kushan-China. In these days the Roman emperor stood alongside the Parthian king, Kushan overlord, and Chinese emperor in governing geographically expansive territories. Close examination of the political histories of these four empires reveals a remarkable resemblance in their growths, acmes, and declines.

Emergence to Prominence

An examination of chronology would suggest a remarkable coincidence in timing. The rise, or coeval periods, so to speak, of these four empires seems to have occurred within a time frame of a hundred years in the 3rd century. Rome, as was acknowledged even by Romans, grew first to trans-Italian prominence through its wars with Carthage, which epic trilogy first began in 264 BC. The Parni (soon to be Parthians), too, first invaded the Seleucid province of Parthia and Hyrcania after 239 BC under Arsaces, while the founder of the Western Han dynasty (207 BC – 9 AD), Liu Bang, established the rule of the Liu clan, ending the short rule of the Qin, which itself had been the culmination of several centuries of unrest and competition between warring kingdoms – the most recent of which being a war with the state of Chu under Hsiang Yu, in the aftermath of the fall of Qin. The Kushans, are slightly anomalous, if still ultimately sharing in the same imperial fortunes of the other three; possibly identifiable with the Sakas (themselves plausibly the better known ‘Scythians’ in classical literature), who seem to have spread into Central Asia in the mid 2nd century BC, and attained dominance over the region under Kujula Kadphises in the 1st century AD, the first Kushan emperor. Certainly from the geopolitical perspective Central Asia from the 3rd to 1st centuries BC, before the Kushan rise to prominence, was a much more chaotic and politically unstable region (which complexity is being gradually revealed by numismatic researches), for lack, unlike the other regions, of a pre-existing cultural base.

The Dominion of Eurasia

Nonetheless, the Roman, Parthian, Kushan, and Han, having risen to imperial dominance through military conquest, overcoming existing political entities, seem by the 1st century – 2nd centuries AD, to have settled into the dominant positions they had accrued. Crucially, they all found monarchy to be the ideal form for the government of broad, multi-racial states. Rome was under the rule of Augustus (27 BC -14 AD), propagating the pax Romana, and would lead to the golden era of Imperial Rome; under Trajan (98-117 AD) Rome achieved its greatest territorial expansion. Parthia and the Kushans, about whom we know much less, seem to have maintained the political dominance in their regions. Parthia enjoyed lengthy rulers, such as as Artabanus II (10-38 AD), but equally suffered perennially rebellion and civil war. The Kushans, too, under the founder Kujula Kadphises and his successor Wima Kadphises (dates not absolutely certain, but within the 1st century AD), may well have suffered from internal dissension, with such challengers as the Indo-Parthian king Gondopharnes (known famously from the Gospel of St. Thomas), despite aspirations, as we see in Kujula’s coinage, to Augustan Roman rulership. The Han dynasty, finally, experienced a period of internal disruption, with the collapse of the Western Han, the usurpation of Wang Mang (9-23 AD), and restoration in the foundation of the Eastern Han (23-220 AD). Such internal disorder, however, should not detract from a notion of imperial order, and political overlordship, such as the rulers of these four empires may have each entertained. That there was general peace and stability, at the same time, could only have been a boon for Eurasian trade and political unity. At this point such internal problems as would flourish in the 3rd century could not prove overwhelming. Rome’s AD 69, the Han’s Xin dynasty interregnum, and Parthia’s intermittent civil wars, could not permanently undermine the monarchic nature of these states. Indeed, such foreign wars between these empires, as between Rome and Parthia (in the 60s, 115-6, and 160s), Parthia and the Kushans, and the Kushans and Eastern Han (under Ban Chao in the 90s AD) arguably strengthened their individual imperial self-definitions; border treaties and peaces made could only solidify even more imperial frontiers, and the boundaries of hegemony.

3rd Century collapse

Such a state of imperial order, peaking in the first two centuries of the Common Era, began to disintegrate in the early third. In Rome, Parthia, and the Eastern Han, internal social and political problems erupted – during the 2nd century Rome experienced heavy barbarian invasions under Marcus Aurelius (161-80 AD), Parthia more burdensome civil wars, and the Han emperors peasant rebellions and foreign invasions. Providentially, perhaps, the imperial order they had come to represent dissolved, never to be known again, in the 220-30s AD. The Roman Empire, from the accession of Maximinus Thrax in 235, would encounter a half century of civil war and barbarian invasions; the last Parthian king Artabanus IV was overthrown in 226 by the rebel governor of Persis, Ardashir, marking the end of Arsacid rule and the beginning of the new, Sassanid era on the Iranian Plateau. The end of the Kushans as a dominant force also came with the rise of Ardashir, who seems to have invaded their realm and ended a precipitous harmony in central Asia. The Kushans would persist in ruling, albeit only as lesser vassal kings to greater lords. In the east, too, the Han dynasty, which had provided much stability for four centuries, came to an end in 220 when the last Han emperor Xiandi was forced to abdicate by the military governor Cao Cao. Ultimately, the internal challenges to the monarchic rulerships of these four powers conspired to overthrow the status quo.

An Ancient World-Order

This has only been a hypothesis, which of necessity has omitted important details; yet an examination of the contemporaneous developments, floruits and declines of the Roman, Parthian, Kushan and Han Empires, suggests the presence from the 1st century BC to 3rd century AD of an ancient ‘world-order’ – the first of its kind in humanity, when Eurasia, the heart of known human history, was anchored and unified under the aegises of four monarchic states.

Bibliography/References:

  1. Debevoise, N.C. A Political History of Parthia University of Chicago 1938
  2. Garzetti, A. From Tiberius to the Antonines 1974
  3. Lewis, M.E. The Early Chinese Empires: Qin and Han. Harvard University Press, 2007
  4. Loeschner, H. ‘Notes on the Yuezhi – Kushan Relationship and Kushan Chronology’ Journal of the Oriental Numismatic Society 2008
  5. Potter, D.S. The Roman Empire at Bay AD 180-395 London 2004