Today I am going to speak about the relationship between Romans and Chinese. You can argue that they were too far to estabish a link, but in this post I am going to explain how they know each other and the possible effect of a closer connection.
Firstly, Sino – Romans relations were set up on the Silk route, which Eastern merchants walk through in order to sell silk to the Western people. The route was opened by Alexander the Great, who conquered a large empire made by Macedonia, Greece, Egypt and the Persian state. After his death, his empire broke up and the Seleucid empire, which was established in Syria and the Middle East region, continued to trade with Chinese.
Eastern traders could reach the West by sea, sailing through the Indian Ocean and the Red Sea, or crossing the ground caravan route through deserts and mountains.
When Romans conquered the Middle East and the Seleucid state, they started to discover the goods which came from China, especially silk. According to the ancient historians, Romans were hung up on that. Some people were worried about silk because it was considered as a threat to the harsh Romans customs. Nevertheless the Roman Senate was anxious, on account of the fact that silk was expensive and a lot of gold came out from the Roman territory to the foreign countries, among which there were the Parthians. They were one of the most dangerous enemy out of the Roman borders and at the same time they were the main seller of the Chinese silk, thanks to the fact that the Parthian empire was in the midst between the Roman and the Chinese state. So, while the Roman emperor was paying very much gold to fight Parthians in Syria, the Roman nobility was buying silk from their enemy, consequently supporting the war against Romans.
Owing to silk, Romans started knowing the Chinese people. But they had indeed diplomatic relations, according to the Roman historian Florus, who explained that the first Roman emperor Augustus received a Chinese embassy.
But the most important event happened between the end of the first and the beginning of the second century BC. In fact, in 97 BC a Chinese general called Ban Chao started a campaign against the Huns, reaching the Caspian sea, near the Parthian borders. Here he decided to send a messenger in order to explore the Roman empire. He arrived only at the Black Sea but anyway he succeed in writing some notes about the Romans. Ban Chao gained a treaty alliance with the Parthians, according to that he was allowed to establish some strongholds near the Parthian capital city Ctesiphon. Some years later, in 116 BC, the Roman emperor Trajan crossed the Parthian border and raided Ctesiphon. Romans and Chinese were very close to each other, but they did not have any contact and in a short time they would have left the region.
A question can be immediately put. What if the Romans had met the Chinese? A lot of historians wrote long books about a possible meeting which would have changed the humankind’s story. In fact, the two empires were too far to be enemies. Moreover, they had a common interest in defeating the Parthian empire, due to the fact that it was exercising an intermediary role between them, increasing the prices of their goods. If they had established a link, they would have gained only advantages from the richest market of the Ancient age.
And that is not all! In fact, some historians have supposed that some Roman soldiers had fought in the Chinese army. According to the Chinese chronicles, during a battle between Huns and the Chinese in 35 BC, the Huns’ chief used a personal guard, who fought in a so – called “fish – scale formation” and came from a different ethic group. It could be the famous testudo formation.
The historian Homer Dubs believed that these soldiers were Roman legionaries captured by the Parthians in the débâcle of Carrhae in 36 BC, where 10.000 men were taken as prisoners and sent at the eastern border of the Parthian empire as border patrols. Here they would probably had been captured by Huns, who used them in order to defend their chief against Chinese. After the victory against Huns in 35 BC, Chinese would have captured the Roman personal guard in order to serve in the army. According to the Chinese chronicles, they settled a village called Li – Jien. The recent archeological findings are proving that the ancient inhabitants of Li – Jien had in majority Caucasian traits, not Asiatic ones. So it is possible that the village was founded by Roman soldiers, who had an European origin. But the key aspect is that Li – Jien was one of the name used by Chinese to point the capital city of the Roman empire, Rome. Is it only a coincidence?