Books: History on a Wide Screen

THE RISE OF THE WEST by William H. McNeill. 829 pages. University of Chicago Press. $12.50.

In 101 B.C. soldiers of China's Han dynasty, pushing west, garrisoned the Gerghana oasis in what is now Iran. The consequences were silk and pestilence: merchants for the first time had a protected land route to carry their goods—and their ills—between China and the Mideastern Parthian empire (with the Roman dominions beyond). The opening of the silk road effected what Historian William McNeill calls the "closure of the ecumene"—his term for the great community of civilization, thus linked together across the land mass of Eurasia from...

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