Roman-Chinese Contact In The Classical Era

During that phase of history referred to as the Roman Revolution, the general and triumvir Marcus Licinius Crassus led an army to the east from Rome to fight the empire of Parthia (roughly modern Iran).  He got his ass kicked good at the Battle of Carrhae, which is today in the Kurdish areas of southeastern Turkey.  Over 10,000 Roman soldiers, including the general, were captured, and the emperor kept the legions’ beloved standards.  The legend goes that Crassus’ love of gold was so legendary at that point the Parthains had heard of his cupidity, so after receiving the body of the slain general, the king allegedly had molten gold poured down Crassus’ throat for the entertainment of his court.

Another legend is that one of Crassus’ captured legions eventually gained their freedom somehow — they either defeated their captors at some point or were granted parole.  Having lost their eagle standards in the battle, they could not return home with honor and it would have been like the Partians to have relocated them to the eastern portions of their empire anyway.  (That way they couldn’t ever go home again and honored Rome above the Parthian king.)  So they made their way elsewhere, and were never heard from in Rome again.  These guys would have been pretty tight with each other, so they would have tried to have acted as a group — and as a group, the one thing they were good at was fighting.  Given such circumstances, hiring themselves out as mercenaries seems like a logical sort of decision for them — and particularly if they were hired out to a warlord who would take them as far away from Parthia as possible.

Two intriguing possibilities exist for their fates.  First, at a place in western China called the Tarim Basin, a large number of mummies were found.  Examination of them — some forensic, some genetic, and in the case of the best-preserved mummies, simply looking at them — reveals that they had fair skin, cloth of European manufacture, red hair, and larger noses than either the Turkic or Han peoples indigenous to the area.  Modern DNA testing reveals that they were of European origin, and carbon dating of the tissue reveals that they died between 3,000 and 2,000 years ago — in time to have either been members of Crassus’ lost legion, or perhaps descendants of them.  They could also have been Germanic or Slavic peoples who counter-migrated into western China, though; so far the more precise origins of the mummies has not been determined.  Some testing suggests that they originated in areas like what are now Georgia and Armenia, but others have genetic roots that strongly suggest Celtic origins — and Celtic origins of far western Europe, from places like what are now France and Belgium.

Second, and more intriguing, are reports from a Chinese general who describes encountering men who fought in a “fish-scale” formation.  This sounds a lot like the “tortoise” formation used by an advancing Roman legion in which one man bends over and holds his shield in front of him, and a man behind him stretches up and holds his shield, overlapping the first, at an angle, and the men behind him hold their shields directly over their heads.  You might remember having seen something like that in the opening battle scene of Gladiator.  A legion in this formation would move slowly, but would be invulnerable to most arrows and other missiles of the day, and so could move to the melee of a hand-to-hand battle at full strength.

So many reports survive that these blond-haired, blue and green eyed men fought well, but eventually succumbed to the better-armed and better-supplied army of the Han, and were captured again.  they settled in a place near the Gobi desert called Liqian, which allegedly translates to “Rome” in the language of the day. Today that area is known as the villiage of Zhěláizhài in Some residents of the area to this day have fair hair, lightly-colored eyes, big hooked noses, and retain a fondness for bullfighting, which traditionally is a European sort of thing to do.

This was discovered by an American scholar in the 1950’s, and a lot of publicity has fallen on this otherwise-obscure and impoverished village in China because of it.  The genetic testing of the inhabitants, however, appears to be inconclusive.  Part of the problem is that as a border area, Zhěláizhài would have had not only Han Chinese people but also Turkic peoples like Kazars and Uighurs, and like damn near everywhere else in Eurasia, would have been invaded by the Mongols in the twelfth century.

So Crassus’ legions are really lost to history, but there are intriguing suggestions that at least some of them wound up in China.  It wouldn’t be the only Sino-Roman contact in history; there were stories of traders from China in the first century traveling far to their west and coming to a great western sea held by a vast and powerful empire which impressed the ambassadors as technologically advanced and that wished to trade with China but could not because of Parthian interference

Roman coins bearing Julius Caesar’s image have been found in imperial tombs, and Romans had an active trade in silk as a luxury item, a trade good which for many centuries was made only in China.  But it doesn’t seem many Romans made it out that far east and ever came back to tell the tale — but Romans knew, at least, that China existed and they were able to gather some information about it.  Pliny the Elder gives secondhand reports about a land called “Serica” beyond a very high mountain range north of “Taprobane.”  Taprobane is clearly India, although Pliny described it as an island.  Pliny’s Serican peoples, however, were tall, blond-haired, and blue-eyed — suggesting that they were Turkic rather than Han.  Other Roman historians, including Strabo and Pomponius Mela, also mention Serica, which means “The Land Where Silk Comes From.”  Ptolemy the Geographer wrote in the second century of silk coming from a land in the far east populated by two nations, the “Sinae” and the “Serice.”

One wonders what the Romans and the Chinese who might have visited to trade or explore would have thought of one another.  For their part, Romans would probably have not considered the presence of people even with distinctive physical traits of Han Chinese more than remarkable, since their empire was so cosmopolitan and had such a mixing of racial groups to begin with.  My guess is that since they looked a little different than other folks, they probably were able to have all the sex they wanted.  The Chinese might have been surprised to find an advanced civilization so far from home; certainly a Roman province would have looked very different than the Parthian areas they had passed through to get there.

It’s all conjecture, of course, and the idea of tracing genetics after two thousand years of history to prove these ideas one way or another does not seem likely to yield conclusive results.  But I find the idea that a Roman legion somehow made it out to China and that its descendants are still there today intriguing and romantic.  At the least, it is a reminder that even two thousand years ago, the world was a much smaller place than most people imagined.

Burt Likko

Pseudonymous Portlander. Homebrewer. Atheist. Recovering litigator. Recovering Republican. Recovering Catholic. Recovering divorcé. Recovering Former Editor-in-Chief of Ordinary Times. House Likko's Words: Scite Verum. Colite Iusticia. Vivere Con Gaudium.