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.

Romans in China

This post is also available in: Polish (polski)

Marcus Licinius Crassus was killed shortly after the Battle of Carrhae by the Parthians, who, according to Roman sources, poured liquid gold into his throat. Mocking the rich man, he was asked how he tasted it. Crassus’s head was then beheaded and sent to the Great Parthian King Orodes II to Seleucia on the Tiger. Greek actors at the court of Orodes reportedly used it as a prop on the stage when staging Bacchae Euripides.

In June 53 BCE, at Carrhae (current Harran in Turkey) there was a battle between seven Roman legions, commanded by the triumvir Marcus Licinius Crassus, and the Parthian army (led by Eran Surenas). The entire Eastern campaign resulted from the need for the glory of Crassus, who wanted to match in war fame the other triumvirs: Julius Caesar and Pompey the Great. The neighbourhood of the wealthy Partia, which controlled part of the Silk Road and trade between the Mediterranean world and India, influenced the imagination of Crassus, who wanted easy Roman conquests in the East.

However, the Roman army of nearly 40,000 was surprised by the mobility and strength of the cavalry Parthians. Parthian riders were flooding Roman infantry with a barrage of arrows and fleeing from direct clashes. Crassus had not enough cavalry and light-armed to oppose the Parthian cavalary. The Roman commander was forced to negotiate with the Parthians. Crassus himself was killed during peace talks, probably as a result of an argument. About 20,000 Romans were killed and 10,000 captured. The latter, according to Pliny the Elder, settled in Margiana (a land in Central Asia, close to the Chinese state) in the eastern part of the Parthian empire to guard the borders against the invasion of steppe nomads.

To this day, it is not really known what happened to Roman legionaries taken prisoner. Professor Homer Dubs suspects that some have fled, headed east and joined the wild Huns. At that time, the Chinese state under the Han dynasty waged wars with the Huns. Chinese historian Ban Gu (32-92 CE) wrote the work History of the Former Han Dynasty. According to this position, in 36 BCE two chiefs, Gan Janszou and Chen Tang, commanding troops in the west (now Xinjiang and part of Central Asia), led a 40,000 army against the Huns, occupying the area around the city of Zhizhi (now in Kazakhstan). Astonished Chinese warriors saw that the city was fortified with wooden palisades, fortified by powerful trunks. In Central Asia, the Huns did not know such a technique of building fortresses, but it is characteristic of the Roman martial art.

In the battle of Zhizhi, some Chinese opponents used amazing tactics – they combined their shields so closely that they resembled fish scales. This is similar to the famous Roman war formation called the “turtle” (testudo). The turtle’s troop was shielded by overlapping shields from all sides, including from above. Despite the support of legionaries known for their bravery, the Huns suffered defeat. The Han Dynasty army took 1,500 prisoners, among which were 145 former soldiers of Crassus. Emperor Juandi ordered the Romans to settle in the Fanmu district and founded a city called Liqian for them.

Former Roman soldiers and Hun allies were now to defend the Middle Kingdom against Tibetan invasions. The legionaries married local women and gradually assimilated. However, their genes remain. Professor Dubs believes that Liqian is the current village of Zhelaizhai. According to some experts, Liqian comes from the word legion. Others say that the Chinese during the Han dynasty called Liqian the Roman state.

Margiana was a historic land in Central Asia (present-day eastern Turkmenistan). There, according to Pliny the Elder, Roman legionaries were to hit defeat with the Parthians.
On Creative Commons Attribution license - On the same terms 3.0.

In 1993, a group of Chinese archaeologists conducting excavations in the village of Zhelaizhai near Yongchang, found the alleged Liqian settlement, with Roman fortifications. During the excavations, no conclusive evidence was found for the presence of the Romans in these areas. Roman coins were found, but they could be found here in connection with the Silk Road, where trade was extremely lively. In addition, the remains of defensive walls were discovered, which many enthusiasts thought were of Roman origin. Finally, the remains of a 180 cm tall man were found, which by Asian standards is a phenomenon. In addition, bullfighting is a popular spectacle in these areas, which is similar to adorning wild animal fights in Rome. Interestingly, such popularity of such “professions” has not spread to other areas of China. It was also decided to analyze the genotype of the Zhelaizhai families in 2005. They showed that 56% of village residents have genetic sequences similar to European ones. However, many scientists emphasize that this is no evidence. The Chinese fought the Huns, who had many Caucasians (white race) and many others in their families. Therefore, it can be presumed that this similarity is due to connections with the Huns.

However, despite the lack of certain evidence and many indications, the inhabitants of Zhelaizhai village still consider themselves descendants of the Romans. It turns out that the inhabitants of a nearby village “have always” had fair hair, blue eyes and were of high height.

Map showing the Roman Empire and the Chinese state under the Han dynasty in the 1 CE. On the trade route connecting Rome and China, there was a Parthia that effectively took advantage of trade between the two countries.
Author: Gabagool | Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported

Roman-Chinese relations

Bronze coin of Emperor Constantius II found in Yecheng in China today.

Finally, it is worth mentioning the diplomatic relations between Rome and China. At the peak of its power, the Roman Empire occupied a huge territory stretching from Britain to Egypt, and from Spain to present-day Armenia. It is possible that Roman merchants maintained trade relations with China at the time. The first attempt to establish direct diplomatic contact between the two countries took place in 97 CE when the Chinese chief Mr Chao sent a message to Rome, which for various reasons did not reach the capital of the Empire. The Parthians, who were afraid of losing profits, had a large share in blocking the establishment of relationships. The Silk Road connecting Rome and China ran through Parthian areas, which guaranteed them high profits. The Chinese deputy, Kan-Ing, came back to the Parthian areas and turned back, hearing from the Parthians that he would have two years of sailing.

Some 30 years later, the Chinese diplomatic mission reached the foothold of the Hellenistic excursion of Baktrian. The mission probably ended in defeat, but for the first time, it brought China into contact with the West, on its initiative. In the time of Domitian, the Chinese mission reached Antioch.

Diplomatic relations were finally established in 166 CE during the reign of Marcus Aurelius (An-tun), when Roman diplomats paid a visit to the court of the Emperor Liu Zhi of the Han dynasty, as Chinese sources testify.

The Romans (Ta-ch’in) arrived in China bypassing the Parthians. A certain Hou Han-schu describes the Roman mission as follows:

The king of this country always wanted to send envoys to the Han, but Anxi, wishing to control the trade in multi-coloured Chinese silks, blocked the route to prevent [the Romans] getting through [to China]. In the ninth Yanxi year, during the reign of Emperor Huan, the king of Da Qin, Andun, sent envoys from beyond the frontiers through Rinan to offer elephant tusks, rhinocernos horn, and turde shell. This was the very first time there was communication. The tribute brought was neither precious nor rare, thereore raising suspicions that the accounts [of Da Qin] might have been exaggerated.

Historia Powszechna t. 4. Konsolidacja hellenizmu. Początki Rzymu i przemiany świata klasycznego, kons. prof. dr hab. E. Papuci-Władyka, prof. dr hab. J. Ostrowski, p. 693

Roman glass vessel, dated 52-12 CE, found in Begram, Afghanistan – city of the Kushan Kingdom. According to Australian archaeologist Warwick Ball, the item was on its way to China through the Silk Road along with other merchant goods.
  • André Bueno, Roman Views of the Chinese in Antiquity" in Sino-Platonic Papers, 2016
  • Grant Parker, The Making of Roman India, 2008
  • Valerie Hansen, The Silk Road: A New History, 2012
  • Historia Powszechna t. 4. Konsolidacja hellenizmu. Początki Rzymu i przemiany świata klasycznego, kons. prof. dr hab. E. Papuci-Władyka, prof. dr hab. J. Ostrowski
  • Krzysztof Kęciek, Rzymianie w Państwie Środka?, "Przegląd", 15/2007
  • Krawczuk Aleksander, Poczet cesarzy rzymskich, Warszawa 2004

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: