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  • Empires of the Silk Road: A History of Central Eurasia from the Bronze Age to the Present
  • Richard Foltz
Empires of the Silk Road: A History of Central Eurasia from the Bronze Age to the Present. By Christopher I. Beckwith . Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2009. 504 pp. $35.00 (cloth and e-book); $16.95 (paper).

In this intriguing and strongly worded book, Tibetologist Christopher Beckwith aims to challenge what he sees as "the more or less unitary received view of Central Eurasians and Central Eurasian history" (p. viii). 1 The author offers no apologies for taking a "big-picture approach," focusing on details only when they interest him. He avows his lack of attraction to "world historical theories and metatheories," claiming instead merely to allow his analysis to arise from the data; he explicitly rejects both modernist positivism and postmodernist relativism ("anti-intellectual movements" which he hopes will be attacked and rejected by future generations), preferring instead to take as his model the approach of paleontology, which he sees as more of a "hard science" (p. x). Beckwith's view of history emerges from his observation that "human behaviour is remarkably consistent" over time, and that human sociopolitical structures are not fundamentally different from those of other primate species (p. xi).

Having from the outset rejected received views of Central Asian societies, Beckwith bases his own approach largely on a rehabilitation of pastoral nomadic warrior cultures, most often dismissed—unfairly, in his opinion—as "barbarian." He spells out his position most fully in a forty-two-page epilogue in which he critiques the historical "idea of the barbarian," but his sympathy for nomadic warriors underlies the whole book.

Beckwith summarizes the "received view," which he calls "a stereotype based on a misconstruing of only one segment of Central Eurasian society," as consisting of the notion that (1) the nomads were warlike due to their harsh environment, thus (2) poor and therefore constantly raiding wealthier oases, and finally, (3) due to their warlike abilities, able to militarily dominate Eurasia through much of history. This stereotype, he believes, belies the historical fact that both nomadic and settled populations in Eurasia were complex societies, "many different peoples who practiced several different ways of life"; they were "strong and weak, enlightened and depraved, and everything in between, exactly like people of any other area or culture" (pp. xxii-xxiv). As for [End Page 580] their warriors, in Beckwith's view they "were not barbarians. They were heroes, and the epics of their peoples sing their undying fame" (p. xxv).

Indeed the epic traditions of the various Central Eurasian peoples serve to inspire Beckwith's discussion throughout the book, appearing at the head of each chapter. The prologue and chapter 1 discuss the hero and chariot warriors, tracing the model of the comitatus—defined as the heroic leader and his "war band of his friends sworn to defend him to the death" (p. 12)—across the full range of epics from Hittite to Chinese. This ideal, Beckwith suggests, underlies the socio-religious structure throughout the history of Central Eurasian societies. Although the comitatus structure generated wealth to some extent through raiding and tribute, the bulk of this wealth came through trade.

Subsequent chapters discuss, in turn, the Scythians, the Roman-Han period, the Huns, and the Turks. Chapter 6 covers the golden age of the Silk Road, and chapter 7 extends into the Viking period. The historical narrative continues with chapters on the Mongols and their successors, then the division of Central Eurasia through European colonization. Chapter 11, "Eurasia without a Center," and chapter 12, "Central Eurasia Reborn," deal with the modern period. Beckwith takes this period as a platform to launch into a pair of lively digressions in which he offers up a vigorous critique of Modernism in the arts (pp. 291-301 and 313-319), expressing at the end his hope that Central Eurasians will be able to extricate themselves from a two-century "death-grip" of European influence in the artistic realm "and again embrace the art forms that they love" (p. 318—are we to understand that Central Eurasians uniformly hate Western art forms?).

The foregoing...