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Romans in China

Children are generally taught that the first European to arrive in China was Marco Polo, in the second half of the XIII century. In reality, Polo is only one of many European merchants to take either sea or land routes via the Silk Road….

Roman cartographers were definitely aware about China but the geographical position they attributed to it was quite vague, at least according to Ptolemy’s Geographia. It needs to be noted that the references to ancient China are made using the Latin term Seres, whose meaning fluctuated to a number of Asian territories from India over Central Asia to China.
It has always generally been acknowledged that there was no direct contact between Rome and China. That is probably not true: the Roman historian Florus describes the visit of numerous envoys, including Seres, to the first Roman Emperor Augustus, who reigned between 27 BC and AD 14.
In terms of Romans reaching China, the Book of Liang tells about a Roman merchant arriving to Jahozi (now Hanoi in Vietnam, but then South China) in AD 226. Actually, sixty years before that, an embassy arrived to Emperor Huan from Andun, king of Daqin [the Chinese name for the Roman empire]. Andun should refer to Emperor Antoninus Pius, but he died in AD 161 (five years before the fact) and Marcus Aurelius (Antoninus) was his successor: there might be a confusion here…. This claim of official representation of the Roman empire is dubious: most likely, these were enterprising merchants, falsely claiming a connection with the Emperor in order to ease their business in China. Nonetheless, this is the earliest record of Romans arriving in China, according to the History of the Later Han Dynasty.
But there may be more: a possible contact in the first century before Christ….

The facts regarding Rome

Rome, more than fifty years before Jesus-Christ’s birth. One of the triumvirs, Marcus Licinius Crassus, the allegedly wealthiest man in Rome, was losing prestige and honour to the other ones, Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus (Pompey the Great) and Julius Caesar (busy in the Gaul campaign). Marcus was under pressure to prove his leadership capabilities after the disastrous campaign against Spartacus and the slave revolts. He was after the most prized attribute in the Roman high society, the one that money could not buy: military success. He therefore decided to impress everybody: he raised himself seven legions! Yes: paying with his own money, he armed and equipped an estimated 30,000 men or more, together with 4,000 horses and about 3,500 light infantry! What for? To make a spectacular conquest against an old and wealthy enemy of Rome: the Parthian Empire (approximately today’s Iran). There was only one battle: the Battle of Carrhae (now modern day Harran in Turkey). And it was a plain disaster for Rome: a Parthian army of 10,000 men wiped out the seven legions and Marcus himself ended up beheaded. This is how the Greek-later-Roman historian Plutarch describes the battle outcome in his Lives:

Thereupon some of them went down and delivered themselves up, but the rest scattered during the night, and of these a very few made their escape; the rest of them were hunted down by the Arabs, captured, and cut to pieces. In the whole campaign, twenty thousand are said to have been killed, and ten thousand to have been taken alive.

This definitely stopped the eastbound Roman expansion for quite a while!

What happened after that is not crystal clear.
Apparently, Parthian king Orodes II transferred the 10,000 Roman prisoners to Margiana (now in Turkmenistan) to occupy the area close to the empire frontier.

Romans in Margiana
Margiana: where the Roman prisoners were brought
(from Wikimedia)

According to other sources, some legionaries were said to have escaped the fighting and marched towards East to elude the enemy. They supposedly fought as mercenaries and settled on the steppes of Western China.

The facts regarding China

Some time after the battle of Carrhae, Zhizhi, the nomadic Xiongnu chief, founded a state further East from the Parthian empire. In the History of the Later Han Dynasty, Chinese historian Ban Gu reports about a hundred men under Zhizhi’s command, who fought in a so-called fish-scale formation to defend a wooden fortress, in 36 BC. American Oxford Professor Homer Dubs, in his An Ancient Military Contact Between Romans and Chinese (published in 1941 in the American Journal of Philology) claimed that this might have been the Roman tortoise phalanx formation and that these men, who were captured by the Chinese, founded the village of Liqian (possibly from Latin legio) in the Yongchang county.

Turtoise (testudo) formation
Roman tortoise (testudo) formation
(by Neil Carey from Wikimedia)

But there is more. According to an article published in November 2010 on the Telegraph, DNA tests were conducted on some villagers in Liqian: their DNA was 56% Caucasian in origin. Given that some of the villagers had blue or green eyes, long noses and fair hair, speculation was made that they had European blood.

An earlier article published in December 2004 on the Economist, describes a singular situation about a village in Western China:

In a remote village of Western China, high on the dusty pastures that stretch toward the Qilian mountains, the local branch of the Communist Party is finishing off a new headquarters that stands out from the local buildings, all built of compacted earth. This building has a classical Roman portico, made of concrete, at the entrance. The local party chief and his deputy both think they are the descendants of Romans.

This is definitely circumstantial evidence in favour of Dubs’ theory.

The uncertainty

It is unlikely that these far-travelling Roman soldiers would have built Roman-like buildings and, therefore, archaeological findings haven’t included any of these so far. But Dubs’ theory could have been confirmed if some smaller findings (weapons, common-use objects, etc.) in the area could be attributed to a Roman style: unfortunately, these were never found and the theory is lacking of substantial archaeological evidence.

Dubs’ theory was definitely considered interesting and provocative by the scientific community, but was also criticised for jumping too quickly to conclusions. For example, Yang Gongle, professor at Beijing Normal University, stated that there has not been sufficient proof to link the villagers with the ancient Romans. According to his research, Liqian was founded in 104 BC, half a century earlier than the proposed arrival of the Roman soldiers.
Moreover, Dr Christopher Anthony Matthew from the Australian Catholic University in his Greek Hoplites in an Ancient Chinese Siege (published in 2011 in the Journal of Asian History) suggests that these strange warriors were no Roman legionaries who were fighting in the tortoise formation, but maybe Greek-Macedonian descendants of Alexander the Great’s army, that still fought as hoplites in phalanx formation. There were indeed Indo-Greek kingdoms in the Hindu Kush until the end of the first century BC, when the Indo-Scythians invaded the region. The fish-scale formation can then be more realistically explained by the possibility of Zhizhi employing Hellenic mercenaries using three-centuries-old tactics but already living in Central Asia, rather than Roman legionaries who once fought at Carrhae, twenty years before but three thousand kilometres away….

The certitude

Well before Marco Polo, China was known in Europe and interactions between Chinese and European were happening. It needs to be noted that the distance between Europe and China is in the order of magnitude of 7,000 km: some 30% more than the largest distance within the Roman empire at its greatest extent (around AD 117). Taking into account the turbulence in certains areas that needed to be crossed through, it would have taken months – or even years – for one only return trip between these two areas….

So different from today’s global village, isn’t it?

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