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  • Empires and Exchanges in Eurasian Late Antiquity: Rome, China, Iran, and the Steppe, ca. 250–750 ed. by Nicola Di Cosmo and Michael Maas
  • Barry Cunliffe
Empires and Exchanges in Eurasian Late Antiquity: Rome, China, Iran, and the Steppe, ca. 250–750 Edited by Nicola Di Cosmo and Michael Maas. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018. 504 pp., 9 maps, 39 illustrations, bibliography, index. Hardback US $145, ISBN 978-1-107-09434-5.

The publication of Peter Brown's seminal work, The World of Late Antiquity, in 1971 changed the direction of the study of the classical world by placing the Later Roman Empire in a much broader context, embracing the forested zone of northern Europe, Sasanian Iran, the early Arab Caliphate, and the polities of the Red Sea. By exploring the complex networks of connectivity that bound these disparate peoples together, Brown opened the way to a far more nuanced understanding of the processes of history. Inspired by this work, Nicola Di Cosmo and Michael Mass have taken the approach still further by introducing the concept of Eurasian Late Antiquity, which they define as "a formative era in world history with a distinct profile of far-reaching cultural contact and change, though one that has not been studied in a synthetic unitary fashion before and is not yet widely known" (p. 1). The theatre chosen for the study, extending from the eastern Mediterranean to the Pacific, encompasses the empires of Rome, Iran, and China, together with the vast expanse of steppe which both confronts and connects them.

The period of Eurasian Late Antiquity began about a.d. 250 and lasted to about a.d. 750, the dates being defined by the coincidence of major historical events across the region. It opens with the collapse of the Han dynasty in China (a.d. 220), the rise of the Sasanian dynasty in Iran (a.d. 224), and the mid third century crisis which brought about fundamental changes across the Roman empire. The period ends with the rise of the Abbasids and the defeat of the Tang army at the battle of the Talas river (a.d. 751), the fall of the Türk empire (a.d. 744), the An Lushan rebellion in China (a.d. 755), and the multiple crises faced by the Byzantine world in the middle of the century including the loss of its foothold in Italy.

Eurasia in Late Antiquity was, the editors claim, "a space full of new actors, new beliefs and new political structures with their own distinct histories and cultural traditions that became more closely linked together in networks unimaginable at the beginning of the period" (p. 1). In other words, this was a major formative period in world history—a period of transition from the classical world to the early Middle Ages—and as such is worthy of study as a cohesive phenomenon. It is this mission that the book sets out to forward.

Empires and Exchanges had its origin in a conference, "Worlds in Motion: Rome, China and the Eurasian Steppes in Late Antiquity," held at Princeton in New Jersey in 2013. It is composed of versions of many of the papers given there, augmented by additional contributions. The 26 chapters are written by scholars from Europe, Russia, China, and the United States, with an Introduction by the Editors and an Epilogue by Averil Cameron thoughtfully drawing out some of the major themes. No attempt has been made to create a grand narrative. Indeed, to do so would have been contrary to the ethos of the book—what several scholars have referred to as "decentred history," in which the rhythms of the multiple interactions that [End Page 224] make up the story are allowed to take center stage. Each chapter explores a web of connectivites; it is left to the reader to discover the multiple ways in which they may be linked.

This is not to imply that the book is without structure—quite the contrary. The chapters are arranged into three groups. Part I, "Historical Thresholds," sets out to establish the three sedentary empires of Rome, Iran, and China and explore their relationships with the mobile world of the steppe (chapters...


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