Because of this we stumbled across a concept that was totally new to us, Sino-Roman Relations. The Roman Empire and the ancient Han Dynasty progressively inched closer in the course of the Roman expansion into the Ancient Near East and simultaneous Chinese military incursions into Central Asia.
Who knew this was really something that happened, right? Hearing about this potential connection would make the expansive power of both empires huge!
Sino-Roman Relations were essentially indirect throughout the existence of both empires. However, powerful intermediate empires such as the Parthians and Kushans kept the 2 Eurasian flanking powers permanently apart and mutual awareness remained low and knowledge fuzzy.
Direct trade links between the Mediterranean lands and India had been established in the 1st Century BC. Greek navigators learned to use the regular pattern of the monsoon winds for their trade voyages in the Indian Ocean.
The lively sea trade in Roman times is confirmed by the excavation of large deposits of Roman coins along much of the coast of India. Many trading ports with links to Roman communities have been identified in India and Sri Lanka along the route used by the Roman mission.
Even the rest of the nations of the world which were not subject to the imperial sway were sensible of its grandeur, and looked with reverence to the Roman people, the great conqueror of nations. Thus even Scythians and Sarmatians sent envoys to seek the friendship of Rome. Nay, the Seres came likewise, and the Indians who dwelt beneath the vertical sun, bringing presents of precious stones and pearls and elephants, but thinking all of less moment than the vastness of the journey which they had undertaken, and which they said had occupied four years. In truth it needed but to look at their complexion to see that they were people of another world than ours.
Only a few attempts at direct contact are known from records. In 97 BC, the Chinese General Ban Chao unsuccessfully tried to send an envoy to Rome.
General Chao sent a Chinese envoy named Gan Ying, who made his way from the Tarim Basin to Parthia and reached the Persian Gulf. Gan Ying left a detailed account of western countries, although he apparently only reached as far as Mesopotamia.
While he intended to sail to the Roman Empire, he was dejected when told that the dangerous trip could take up to 2 years. Discouraged, he returned home to China bringing much new information on the countries to the west of Chinese-controlled territories.
Gan Ying is thought to have left an account of the Roman Empire which relied on lesser sources, likely sailors in the ports which he visited. The Hou Hanshu locates it in Haixi:
Its territory extends for several thousands of li. They have established postal relays at intervals, which are all plastered and whitewashed. There are pines and cypresses, as well as trees and plants of all kinds. It has more than four hundred walled towns. There are several tens of smaller dependent kingdoms. The walls of the towns are made of stone.
The Hou Hanshu gives a positive, if somewhat fanciful, view of Roman governance:
Their kings are not permanent. They select and appoint the most worthy man. If there are unexpected calamities in the kingdom, such as frequent extraordinary winds or rains, he is unceremoniously rejected and replaced. The one who has been dismissed quietly accepts his demotion, and is not angry. The people of this country are honest. They resemble the Chinese, and that is why the country is called Da Qin. The soil produced lots of gold, silver, and rare jewels, including the jewel which shines at night … they sew embroidered tissues with gold threads to form tapestries and damask of many colors, and make a gold-painted cloth, and a “cloth washed-in-the-fire” (asbestos).
The report described Rome correctly as the main economic power at the western end of Eurasia:
It is from this country that all the various marvelous and rare objects of foreign states come.
The author of the Hou Hanshu, Fan Ye, summed up:
In the ninth year [97 BC], Ban Chao sent his Senior Clerk Gan Ying, who probed as far as the Western Sea, and then returned. Former generations never reached these regions. The Shanjing gives no details on them. Undoubtedly he prepared a report on their customs and investigated their precious and unusual [products]. After this, distant kingdoms [such as] Mengqi and Doule all came to submit, and sent envoys offering tribute.
Several alleged Roman emissaries to China were recorded by ancient Chinese historians. The earliest recorded, supposedly from either the Roman Emperor Antoninus Pius or the later Emperor Marcus Aurelius, arrived in 166 AD.
Emperor Antoninus Pius died in AD 161, leaving the Empire to his adoptive son Marcus Aurelius. The Roman mission came from the south, probably by sea, entering China by the frontier of Rinan or Tonkin.
This was the earliest group of people claiming to be an ambassadorial mission of Romans to China was recorded in 166 AD by the Hou Hanshu. The embassy came to Emperor Huan of Han China from Andun, King of Da Qin.
It brought presents of rhinoceros horns, ivory, and tortoise shell, probably acquired in Southern Asia. The text specifically states that it was the primary time there had been direct contact between the 2 countries.
In classical sources, the problem of identifying references to ancient China is exacerbated by the interpretation of the Latin term Seres. This meaning fluctuated and could refer to a number of Asian people in a wide arc from India over Central Asia to China.
In Chinese records, the Roman Empire came to be known as Da Qin, apparently thought to be a sort of counter-China at the other end of the world. According to Edwin G. Pulleyblank, the “point that needs to be stressed is that the Chinese conception of Da Qin was confused from the outset with ancient mythological notions about the far west”.
Maës Titianus, an ancient Roman traveler, penetrated farthest east along the Silk Road from the Mediterranean world. During a lull in the sporadic Roman struggles with Parthia, end of the 1st Century or early 2nd Century AD, his party reached the famous Stone Tower.
While the existence of China was clearly known to Roman cartographers, their understanding of it was rather murkier. Ptolemy‘s 2nd Century geography separates the Serica at the end of the overland Silk Road from the land of the Qin reached by sea.
The Great Gulf served as a combined Gulf of Thailand and South China Sea, as Marinus and Ptolemy’s belief that the Indian Ocean was an inland sea caused them to bend the Cambodian coast south beyond the equator before turning west to join southern Libya.
The Liangshu records the arrival in 226 AD of a merchant from the Roman Empire at Jiaozhi. The Prefect of Jiaozhi sent him to Sun Quan, who asked him for a report on his native country and its people. An expedition was mounted to return the merchant along with 10 female and 10 male “blackish colored dwarfs” he had requested as a curiosity and a Chinese officer who died en route.
An account appears about presents sent in the early 3rd Century by the Roman Emperor to Cao Rui of the Kingdom of Wei in Northern China. The presents consisted of articles of glass in a variety of colors.
While several Roman Emperors ruled during this time, the embassy may have been sent by Severus Alexander. This would be most logical since his successors reigned briefly and were busy with civil wars.
Another embassy from Da Qin is recorded in the year AD 284, as bringing presents to the Chinese empire. This embassy presumably was sent by the Emperor Carus, whose short reign was occupied by war with Persia.
Chinese annals record other contacts with merchants from Fu-lin, the new name used to designate the Byzantine Empire taking place in 643 AD during the reign of Constans II. Other contacts are reported taking place in AD 667, 701 and perhaps 719, sometimes through Central Asian intermediaries. Still other contacts are recorded by the Chinese in the 11th Century.
High-quality glass from Roman manufactures in Alexandria and Syria was exported to many parts of Asia, including Han China. Further Roman luxury items which were greatly esteemed by the Chinese were gold-embroidered rugs, gold-colored cloth, asbestos cloth and sea silk.
Trade with the Roman Empire, confirmed by the Roman craze for silk, started in the 1st Century BC. Although the Romans knew of wild silk harvested on coa vestis, they did not at originally make the connection with silk which was also produced in the Pamir Sarikol kingdom.
There were few direct trade contacts between Romans and Han Chinese, as the rivaling Parthians and Kushans were each jealously protecting their lucrative role as trade intermediaries.
“By the lowest reckoning, India, Seres and the Arabian peninsula take from our Empire 100 millions of sesterces every year: that is how much our luxuries and women cost us.”
—Pliny the Elder, Naturalis Historia 12.84.
The Senate issued, in vain, several edicts to prohibit the wearing of silk, on economic and moral grounds: the importation of silk caused a huge outflow of gold, and silk clothes were considered to be decadent and immoral:
I can see clothes of silk, if materials that do not hide the body, nor even one’s decency, can be called clothes … Wretched flocks of maids labor so that the adulteress may be visible through her thin dress, so that her husband has no more acquaintance than any outsider or foreigner with his wife’s body.
—Seneca the Elder c. 3 BC–65 AD, Excerpta Controversiae 2.7
A maritime route opened up with the Chinese-controlled Jiaozhi and the Khmer kingdom of Funan by the 2nd Century, if not earlier. Jiaozhi was proposed by Ferdinand von Richthofen in 1877 to have been the port known to the geographer Ptolemy and the Romans as Cattigara.
Richthofen’s view was widely accepted until archaeology at Óc Eo in the Mekong Delta suggested that site may have been its location. At the formerly coastal site of Óc Eo, Roman coins were among the vestiges of long-distance trade discovered by the French archaeologist Louis Malleret in the 1940s.
The historian Homer H. Dubs speculated in 1941 that Roman prisoners of war who were transferred to the Parthian eastern border might have later clashed with Han troops there.
After losing at the Battle of Carrhae in 54 BC, an estimated 10,000 Roman prisoners were displaced by the Parthians to Margiana to man the frontier. Sometime later the nomadic Xiongnu chief Zhizhi established a state further east in the Talas Valley.
Taking up these 2 strands, Dubs points to a Chinese account by Ban Gu of about “a hundred men” under the command of Zhizhi who fought in a so-called “fish-scale formation” to defend Zhizhi’s wooden-palisade fortress against Han forces, in the Battle of Zhizhi in 36 BC.
However, Dubs’ synthesis of Roman and Chinese sources has not found acceptance among modern historians on the grounds of being highly speculative and reaching to too many conclusions. Although DNA testing in 2005 confirmed a predominantly “Caucasian origin” of a few inhabitants of Liqian, this influx of Western genes could be explained just as well by transethnic marriages with other peoples along the Silk Road.
A much more comprehensive DNA analysis of more than 200 male residents of the village in 2007 showed a close genetic relation to the Han Chinese populace and a great deviation from the Western Eurasian gene pool.
The researchers conclude that the people of Liqian are probably of Han Chinese origin. Moreover, the area lacks clear archaeological evidence of a Roman presence.
A new hypothesis from 2011 by Christopher Anthony Matthew from the Australian Catholic University suggests that these strange warriors were no Roman legionaries with their testudo formation, but maybe Greek–Macedonian descendants of Alexander the Great’s army, that still fought as hoplites in the phalanx formation.
What is not in question is that both Rome and China controlled a vast amount of land, various ethnic groups and dominated their respective region for thousands of years. Not too many others can say that.
We hope you enjoyed learning about Sino-Roman Relations and will come back to join us on another adventure soon.
Till next time, Don’t Stop Rome-ing!
Pulleyblank, Edwin G. The Roman Empire as Known to Han China, Journal of the American Oriental Society, Vol. 119, No. 1 (1999). pp. 71–79.
Schoff, Wilfred H. The Eastern Iron Trade of the Roman Empire, Journal of the American Oriental Society, Vol. 35 (1915). pp. 224–239.
Stein, Aurel M. (1907), Ancient Khotan: Detailed report of archaeological explorations in Chinese Turkestan. 2 vols. pp. 44–45. M. Aurel Stein. Oxford, Clarendon Press.