By Taylor Marvin
I’m currently reading International Systems in World History, whose authors Barry Buzan and Richard Little raise a fascinating question: why did Buddhism, which originated in northern India but was successfully exported through South and East Asia, never take root in the West?
Buddhism was spread throughout Eastern Asia through Indian trade networks. However, these networks were never able to expand westward, because overland trade routes through the Iranian plateau and seaborne trade through the adjacent Persian Gulf were blocked by the Parthian empire, and its post-3rd century Sassanid successor. The Parthians’ strategic position south of the Caspian Sea allowed them to extract rents from trade between the rich Chinese and Roman empires that bookended Eurasia. Conscious of the profitability of this position, the Parthians deliberately preserved their valuable middleman status by keeping Roman and Eastern traders from ever directly interacting — going so far as to once mislead a Chinese expedition aiming to make contact with the Romans — which would allow them to realize how costly the Parthian intermediary was. This policy blocked direct trade between the Mediterranean and East Asia, as well as the cultural diffusion inherent to direct trade networks.
The Romans were aware of this costly impediment to direct trade. Concerned about their trade deficit with China, the Romans tried but failed to bypass the Parthian intermediary. Overland trade routes north of Parthian control were far outside of the Roman sphere of influence. The Emperor Trajan’s short-lived conquest of Mesopotamia may have been partially motivated by the desire to secure a Persian Gulf seaport that would allow traders to bypass the Parthian empire and lower trade costs. However, the Romans were unable to hold Trajan’s overextending conquests, though they periodically contested western Mesopotamia for the next two centuries.
This is particularly interesting because Buddhism would likely have found a receptive audience in the West. Rome was famously receptive to Eastern religions — with the exception of Judaism and later Christianity, whose strict monotheism Roman authorities perceived as a threat to the civic responsibility of the emperor cult — and it isn’t unreasonable to speculate that Romans would have adopted Buddhist teachings with the same enthusiasm as the Cybele or Isis cults. This isn’t to say that the spread of Buddhism into the Mediterranean basin would have prevented the eventual dominance of Christianity — which, after all, outcompeted numerous other religious systems — but the spread of Buddhist culture into the Roman world would have certainly had led to a fascinatingly different Europe.
Alternative history writers, take note.
Correction: I later edited this post to clarify that the economic motivation for Trajan’s invasion is a theory, and added additional links.