This page cannot be viewed in frames

Go to page

If you have found a spelling error, please, notify us by selecting that text and pressing Ctrl+Enter.

Presence of Romans in China according to Chinese chronicles

This post is also available in: Polish (polski)

The emperor rose slightly from the throne, and a long furrowed wrinkle appeared on his forehead. The courtiers looked anxiously at the Son of Heaven, who for a moment looked more astonished than outraged. After a while, however, anger took control of the monarch.

– I am joining together the three most powerful forces in the universe: Heaven, Earth and Man, and the first one is not only a legitimate descendant, but also a governor! So how does he treat me – the Son of Heaven, your miserable ruler, giving me worthless gifts?! Was the old chroniclers who wrote about the powerful kingdom of Da Qin, supposedly even my own, lied so faithfully?! Shouted the agitated Emperor Huang. At this sound, not only the left and right ministers, the empress and accompanying ladies of the court and other notable people terrified. Two MPs started to shake most, who received an audience with a powerful monarch. The older of them tried ineptly to hide a piece of elephant or rhinoceros tusk behind their bosom, while the younger pressed the small, oval shell of the turtle even closer to him, as if it were to be an armor, protecting against the threatening look of the King of the Middle Kingdom.

This could have been the unfortunate audience of two Roman diplomats with the Chinese emperor Huang in 166 CE According to the Chinese chronicle, called the Book of the Later Han:

Their kings always desired to send embassies to China, but the An-hsi (Parthians) wished to carry on trade with them in Chinese silks, and it is for this reason that they were cut off from communication. This lasted till the ninth year of the Yen-hsi period during the emperor Huan-ti’s reign [166 CE] when the king of Ta-ts’in, An-tun sent an embassy who, from the frontier of Jih-nan (Anam) offered ivory, rhinoceros horns, and tortoise shell. From that time dates the (direct) intercourse with this country.

In earlier chronicles, ancient Rome, which they called Da Qin, appeared as an ideal state, almost as powerful as the kingdom of the heavenly ruler. It was a “great distinction” for Rome, because in Chinese annals other kingdoms were usually depicted as less developed and subordinate to the Middle Kingdom, and were often called: barbarians. “Chronicles have repeatedly mentioned the fabulous treasures and huge grain reserves that the inhabitants were supposed to have a distant country for him. The Book of Weilue lists more than a hundred valuable raw materials, among them a dozen types of ores, gems and precious perfumes and oils, and even … feathers of a kingfisher (a raw material still valued in the Middle Kingdom). they also said that the Romans, who were substantial and well-built, were characterized by great spirit qualities and most valued honesty in trade. Juggling was their favorite pastime. It is worth noting that acrobatics was highly valued in the Middle Kingdom , hence the skills that are valuable from the Chinese point of view these were also attributed to the residents of Da Qin. One should not be surprised at such a favorable description of the country and its inhabitants, because, as the document adds: the Romans came from… the Middle Kingdom. The only drawback of the immaculate state was the presence of wild tigers and lions on its territory. Therefore, the book warned against lonely venturing to these areas. However, J.E. Hill also claims that the name Da Qin itself could refer not to a particular country, but to an idea. The Chinese themselves may not have fully realized what this mysterious kingdom looked like. Their thinking could be compared to the Europeans of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and their idea of ​​”Orient”.

The contacts between the two powers prevented, as Chinese chroniclers said unanimously, the… Partians. Being one of the most important brokers on the Silk Road, they were afraid of losing profits from trade, primarily silk, with the Middle Kingdom. The motif of the Anxi state repeatedly appears in the notes, which effectively prevented both Chinese people from reaching Rome and Rome from China. They were the ones who turned back the fearless traveler and imperial emissary Gan Ying. The diplomat, on the order of General Ban Chao, set out in 97 CE in search of the kingdom of Da Qin – a potential ally of the Middle Kingdom in the fight against the kingdom of Sogdiana and the Kushans of Bactria. The Chinese only knew then that it was located west of the Indian Ocean. After a hard and dangerous journey he reached the kingdom of Messinia. There he also encountered merchants who advised him not to travel, warning him that if he went to sea, he would forget about his family and commit suicide. Book of the Later Han emphasized that the Parthians were traders. Raoul MacLaughlin, adds that there is a high probability that buyers advised him not to continue his journey not because of the threat of an alliance of China with Rome, but fearing for their own interests. Gan Ying traveled incognito.

The visit itself, although it mentions Chinese chronicles many times, is still difficult for historians and sinologists. The most important problem is determining which Roman emperor would send an unfortunate expedition. Historians have divided opinions, and three candidates emerge: Antoninus Pius, Lucius Verus or Marcus Aurelius Antoninus.

In the first case, the reign of the ruler (138-161 CE) would agree, assuming that the journey from Rome to China lasted several years. In addition, he created Claudius Ptolemy at the same time. In his famous work Geography he mentioned exactly the location of the country of Sinae and the nation of Serice. Another candidate can be the successor of Antoninus PiusLucius Verus. This ruler reigned in the years 161-169 CE, together with his adopted brother Marcus Aurelius. Rome was at war with the Parthians at that time, so it is likely that the ruler sent a message to the Middle Kingdom counting on an alliance. The last of these three is Marcus Aurelius. His reign lasted almost thirty years, and it ended only after the death of the emperor as a result of the plague in 180 years. Marcus Aurelius, in contrast to his half-brother, was characterized by seriousness, as well as a greater tendency to reflection and reflection. Therefore, it would be faster for the author of “Meditations” to send a message to a half-legendary country. Charles Patrick Fitzgerald emphasizes that many historians give this credit to Marcus Aurelius Antoninus. According to one hypothesis, this is argued by the fact that the Chinese called the old Greek city of Byzantium as Andu. They knew the name from the Romans who officially called this place Augustus Antonin . And it is from “Antonina” that the name “Andu” originates. So, following this lead, the very name “Andun” would also be a transcription of the word Antoninus here.

One hypothesis assumes that the delegates were not the Romans, but the Greek merchants, who, like many of their predecessors, were looking for a direct link with the then Indian Rajas and other rulers of distant lands. In this way, because they wanted to avoid the mediation of the Parthians and Kushans, who charged high fees for transferring valuable goods. The Silk Road can be compared to a relay race at this time, where buyers hand over the goods at each stage. According to Krisztina Hoppal, Greek merchants claimed to be emperor’s official emissaries to gain a better position in the negotiations. The gifts they were supposed to bear witness to the fraud. Friedrich Hirth believes that Roman merchants deliberately misinformed the Chinese people many times. For example, they were silent about the previously adopted trade with the Persians and India, which brought them ten-fold profits. Another scam would be the story of allegedly cutting off the trade route between Rome and China, by the Parthians. All these lies were intended to increase the price of goods. Krisztina Hoppal, on the other hand, also points to the political theme, mentioning that Syrian merchants could demand the strengthening of Chinese-Roman relations. The effect of their claims would be the aforementioned message.

Poor gifts influenced further Chinese-Roman relations. Book of the Later Han emphasizes that since then, Chinese perceptions of the Da Qin state have been verified against Rome and “cast doubt on tradition.” The chronicle adds that the items were purchased in the land of “Rinan”, most likely referring to the province or land of Annam located in the Gulf of Tonkin, on the Vietnamese coast. Luce Boulnois claims that another place to buy gifts could also be Alexandria or Indonesia. One step further goes two thirteenth-century historians Ma Duanlian, (Wenxian Tongkao), and Zhao Rugua (Zhufan Zhu), who in their works accuse deputies of … stealing valuable gifts. Instead, they were to offer quickly bought turtle shells and elephant and rhinoceros tusks.

Unfortunately, we do not know from the sources how the visit itself ended. However, as Luce Boulnois points out, the Chinese most likely concluded that the sea route that the diplomats had chosen was too far to be usable. This may explain the fact that, most likely, in ancient times no Chinese has ever reached the Eternal City, although it is known that several of them tried. Whereas the first subject of the Roman emperor who visited the Middle Kingdom was the merchant Leon (Qin Lun). According to Raoul MacLaughlin, he arrived in China in 226 CE For the second and most likely the last in this millennium, the Romans would come to China in 284 CE. It seems that the main reason for this turn of events was the considerable distance between these two civilizations, and the existence of Silk trail.

Author: Katarzyna Michalewicz

IMPERIUM ROMANUM needs your support!

If you like the content that I collect on the website and that I share on social media channels I will be grateful for the support. Even the smallest amounts will allow me to pay for further corrections, improvements on the site and pay the server.



Find out more!

Check your curiosity and learn something new about the ancient world of the Romans. By clicking on the link below, you will be redirected to a random entry.

Random curiosity

Random curiosity

Discover secrets of ancient Rome!

If you want to be up to date with newest articles on website and discoveries from the world of ancient Rome, subscribe to the newsletter, which is sent each Saturday.

Subscribe to newsletter!

Subscribe to newsletter

Spelling error report

The following text will be sent to our editors: