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ERC Advanced Grant for Sitta von Reden

European Research Council selects the Historian of Antiquity's "Beyond the Silk Road" project for a 2.5 million euro grant

Freiburg, Mar 27, 2017

ERC Advanced Grant for Sitta von Reden

Sitta von Reden. Photo: Olaf Pascheit

Sitta von Reden, Professor of Ancient History at the University of Freiburg, is to receive a 2.5 million euro Advanced Grant from the European Research Council (ERC). With her international, multidisciplinary research team, von Reden plans to develop a comprehensive model of exchange and interaction between ancient empires. She will investigate the multiple connections between economics, cultural exchange, migration, and the significance of border regions – precisely the factors which among other things made it possible for Chinese silk to reach Rome. The Advanced Grant is one of the most prestigious research awards in Europe. The ERC makes the grant to projects which promise to yield high scientific gain but also carry high risk.

"We aim to understand how economies and cultural exchange worked in the ancient empires and kingdoms, what were the differences in the economic systems of the Mediterranean, the Indian subcontinent, and of China; and then we plan to explain why and in what form they traded goods beyond their spheres of influence," von Reden explains. She adds that the early Silk Road which is believed to have been a major highway from the first century BCE onwards – as wealthy Roman ladies flaunted the delicate fabric from China – is a myth. "That was made up by the geographer Ferdinand von Richthofen in the 19th century. No merchant ever went all the way from Xi'an to Rome – by ship or overland."

Rather, there were differentiated structures in which trade was merely one of many forms of exchange. The empires paid tributes and exchanged gifts with nomad societies on the borders of China and Bactria – today's Afghanistan – rather than conducting trade with them. Armies stationed in the border regions obtained their supplies locally and maintained contacts beyond the borders. Highly mobile groups migrated long distances. Buddhist monks were in contact with other members of their religion regardless of borders and sponsored their temples. This in turn made it possible for Buddhists there to obtain exotic prestige goods – leading to a unique, culturally hybrid art tradition in Gandhara, today's northern India and Pakistan.

The focus of the research will be on frontier zones – border regions which were geographically closer to the neighboring empire than to the center of their own. Yet historical investigation is particularly difficult in such regions, von Reden says. "We will be working with complicated and often isolated archaeological finds, analyzing coins, and reading texts in many languages." This is one reason why the group's multidisciplinarity is so important – no individual researcher today could get an overview of the complex economies along the antique trade routes between the Mediterranean, India, and China.

But what makes the project risky? There is a much more comprehensive body of research into Greek and Roman antiquity than there is into the Qin and Han dynasties in China, or into the era of the Indian ruler Ashóka. Ancient Historians and archaeologists from all over the world have been investigating the ancient Mediterranean economy for decades. We have many ancient historical writings in Greek and Latin. That history also describes central Asia and India and has influenced national research in the countries there. Therefore, says von Reden, the danger of eurocentricity is enormous. "We could accept an imperial history in which the Greeks – after the campaigns of Alexander – and then the Romans changed everything in Asia. But that is exactly what we must avoid."

Sitta von Reden has been teaching in Freiburg since 2010. She studied Economics, History, and Latin in Freiburg and Berlin. She then went to England, completed her doctorate in Cambridge, and launched her academic career in Oxford and Bristol. In 2005 she returned to Germany, completing her habilitation in Augsburg. She spent 2013 and 2014 at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, USA, where she developed her current ERC-sponsored project.

Professor Dr. Sitta von Reden
Institute of Ancient History
University of Freiburg
Phone: 0761/203-3390