Kushan Empire Research Paper

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The Kushan era (c. 45–230 CE) was one of the most important and influential periods in the history of ancient Eurasia. During the early centuries of the Common Era, the Kushans dominated the politics, culture, and economy of a vast region of Inner Eurasia.

Through its active engagement in Central Asian politics, economics, art, and trade along the Silk Roads, the Kushan Empire (c. 45–230 CE) exerted significant cultural influence upon a vast region of Inner Eurasia, including much of present-day Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan, the western edge of Xinjiang (in northwestern China), the whole of Afghanistan and Pakistan, and much of northern and central India. The Kushans were one of the key powers of their era during a period in which much of Afro-Eurasia was controlled by just four empires—the Han, the Roman, the Parthian, and the Kushan.

Despite their undoubted importance, evidence for the Kushans remains problematic. They produced no significant body of literature, and only a very few of their fragmentary inscriptions are known. Yet both the Yuezhi—a tribal confederation from whom the Kushans were descended—and the Kushans themselves are frequently mentioned in the literature of a wide range of contiguous societies, including Chinese dynastic annals, Indian, Tibetan, Persian, Manichaean, and Sogdian sacred and secular texts, Islamic histories, and several Greco-Roman sources. It is from this often incidental evidence that much of their history has been constructed.

Only a few examples of Kushan monumental architecture have survived, although seventh-century Chinese sources attest to their construction of impressive palaces, Buddhist stupas, and dynastic sanctuaries. Archaeologists have uncovered evidence of substantial urban construction during the Kushan era, in both Afghanistan and Pakistan. In addition, the important Kushan-sponsored art workshops in Mathura (northern India) and Gandhara (northwestern Pakistan) and the discovery of international art collections near the royal palaces at Begram (Afghanistan) and Taxila (Pakistan) provide evidence not only of the Kushan monarchs’ syncretistic approach to art production but also of the significant levels of trans-Eurasian cultural exchange that occurred during the Kushan era.

The most substantial evidence for the Kushans is numismatic. Kushan coins have been discovered in the thousands throughout the extent of their territory. They provide evidence of early cultural influences on the empire, military and political expansion, the genealogy of royal succession, religious and ideological beliefs, Kushan economic domination of the region, and the eventual dissolution of Kushan political control in the third century CE.

The Yuezhi and “Early Kushans”

The Kushans were descended from a tribal confederation known to the Chinese as the Yuezhi who probably spoke Tocharian, an Indo-European branch language. Han historians describe how the Yuezhi were crushingly defeated near Dunhuang by another tribal confederation, the Xiongnu, in 162 BCE. Forced to migrate away from their homelands in present-day Gansu (north central China), the Yuezhi eventually relocated in Bactria (ancient Afghanistan) where they defeated the remnants of the Greco-Bactrian kingdom and sometime during the first century BCE occupied Bactria in five tribal (yabghu) divisions. By 45 CE, Kujula Kadphises, a prince of the Yuezhi Kueizhuang (hence Kushan) tribe, reunited the tribes into a single powerful confederation and established the Kushan Empire.

The migration of the Yuezhi was directly responsible for the opening up of extensive Silk Roads trade and subsequent trans-Eurasian cultural interaction. In 138 BCE the Han emperor Wudi (reigned 140–87 BCE) sent Zhang Qian to follow the Yuezhi in an attempt to form an alliance with them against the Xiongnu. Although Zhang Qian was unsuccessful in eliciting support from the now resettled Yuezhi, the information he brought back to the Han court persuaded Wudi to adopt an expansionist policy that brought Han commercial interests into contact for the first time with the traders of Central Asia, Parthia, and eventually Rome.

The Early Kushans

Beginning with Kujula Kadphises (c. 45-85 CE), the early Kushan kings greatly expanded Kushan territory, conquering the Kabul Valley, Kashmir, Gandhara, and much of northwestern India. Numismatic evidence indicates early Roman influence on the dynasty. By the mid-first century CE the Romans were clearly involved in the silk and luxuries trade with India, Central Asia, and China along both the sea routes from Alexandria and the overland Silk Roads through Parthia and Central Asia. Kujula and his successors in turn exerted some Kushan influence on the Han Empire. The Kushans may have exercised direct political and economic control over Hotan (or Khotan) and Kashi (or Kashgar), two major oases towns along the Silk Roads in the Chinese-controlled Tarim Basin, at various times during the first century. Kujula was followed by his son Vima Takto (reigned c. 85–100) and grandson Vima Kadphises (reigned c. 100–127), who in turn was succeeded by his son Kanishka the Great (reigned c. 127–153), one of the most important rulers in the history of ancient Central Asia.

The Great Kushans

With the advent of Kanishka and his successors, Kushan history entered its most significant phase— that of the “Great Kushans” (c. 127–c. 228). Kanishka and his successors Vasishka, Huvishka, and Vasudeva, presided over a huge, wealthy, multicultural, and relatively peaceful empire in an era often described as the Golden Age of ancient Central Asia. The Great Kushans continued to issue the standard range of copper and gold coins established by Vima Takto. The remarkable weight consistency is in itself evidence of stability and strong central government. The coins reflect a tolerant and broadminded approach to religion, depicting Zoroastrian deities mostly, but also some Greek and Indian divinities.

Although personally devoted to Zoroastriansim, Kanishka is also recognized as a great patron of Buddhism, and the depictions of Buddha on at least one of his gold and several of his copper coin series are amongst the first physical representations of the Buddha. Kanishka is also venerated for having convened an important synod in Kashmir, at which the decision was apparently made to rewrite the Buddhist scriptures from Brahmi and Kharosthi to the more popular and accessible language of Sanskrit. Buddhist tradition suggests that the translations facilitated a great surge in the popularity of Mahayana (“Great Vehicle”) Buddhism, which was then carried across central and eastern Asia by pilgrims using the Silk Roads.

The Great Kushan kings were also patrons of the important art schools established in Gandhara and Mathura. The output of these workshops reflected a cultural synthesis almost unique in art history. The physical representation of the Buddha and bodhisattvas that resulted—a synthesis of Bactrian, Iranian, Indian, and Hellenistic cultural influences—then spread along the trade routes, penetrating India as far south as Sri Lanka, and traveling through China into Korea, Japan, and Southeast Asia.

The Later Kushans

Following the death of Vasudeva around 228, Kushan history entered a period of decline. The Sasanian ruler Ardashir led his forces from the Plateau of Iran into Kushan territory soon after 226, and the northwestern areas of the former Kushan Empire were incorporated into the Sasanian state of Kushanshar. Sasanian kings emphasized their connection to the Kushans by using Bactrian script to proclaim themselves as Kushan Shah, or “King of the Kushans.” Groups of Kushans remained restive until well into the fourth century, however. As late as 367 the Sasanian king Shapur II (309–379) was forced to fight a damaging battle with the Kushans of Balkh in 367 or 368.

In India the rise of powerful monarchical states further undermined Kushan power, although Kushan cultural influence remained pervasive. Even the extensive gold coinage of the Guptas was clearly modeled on the Kushan dinar. An inscription from Allahabad dated around 335, which lists foreign kings who paid tribute to the Guptas, uses Kushan titles to describe the Guptan rulers—“Descendant of the Son of Heaven” and “King of Kings.”

While the disintegration of the Kushan Empire occurred quite quickly, and might have brought to an end the Golden Age of ancient Central Asia, the cultural, political and economic achievements of the Kushans continued to influence their regional successors to perhaps as late as the Islamic conquests (completed early in the eighth century CE). The evidence for the Kushans may be sparse, but is clearly sufficient to demonstrate the significance and cultural legacy of an extraordinary civilization that dominated Central Asia for several centuries and that influenced the world around it more than any other civilization before the rise of Islam.


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  12. Wheeler, M. (1958). Rome beyond the imperial frontiers. Harmondsworth, U.K.: Penguin.

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