Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Roman city in China?

In Liqian (骊靬), a remote and decrepit little village in China's western Gansu province bordering on the Gobi Desert, one can find such Chinese oddities as green eyes and blond hair. Even more bizzare is the persistent theory that these villagers are Romans—descended from soldiers of Marcus Licinius Crassus' "Lost Legion."

Crassus was one of the richest men in history, owing mostly to his private fire brigade, which would rush to houses on fire, buy them from their owners at a really low price, and then proceed to put out the fires. But although he was the rich boy of the First Triumvirate, he certainly wasn't the most military-savvy. While his fellow triumvirs Julius Caesar and Pompey the Great, experienced and professional generals, waged successful campaigns in Gaul and Syria, amateur Crassus was jealous of their glory and foolishly thought he could match them with a campaign of his own. So at age 62 and with no military experience whatsoever, Crassus made the stupidest move in the history of old rich people—personally leading an army to invade Mesopotamia—and getting himself killed in the process.

Crassus: billions of dollars but little common sense.

What Crassus caused was one of the worst disasters to ever befall the Roman Army. At the desert engagement of Battle of Carrhae in 53 BC, a small scouting detachment of 10,000 Parthian horsemen completely annihilated Crassus' army of some 35,000 legionnaires and 8,000 supporting cavalry. When the Parthian horsemen closed in on the heavily-armored but slow-moving legionnaires, Crassus ordered his troops to form the testudo to protect them from the arrows of the Parthaian horse archers. He was planning to use the testudo to wait out the barrage until the enemy ran out of arrows, but he hadn't counted on the clever Parthians using camels to act as mobile reload stations for their horse archers, which allowed them to keep up the bombardment for many hours.

After baking in that sardine-can formation for hours under the desert sun, the legionnaires were beginning to collapse due to thirst and heat exhaustion, and it took only a final charge by the Parthian cataphracts to rout the army. Of the over 40,000 Romans who participated in Crassus' campaign, less than 10,000 made it out alive, the rest having been killed or captured. Crassus of course was captured and executed, and it was said the Parthians had molten gold poured down his throat to symbolize his greed for money, though unfortunately nothing was done to symbolize his idiocy.

Roman soldiers in testudo formation.

In 1957, Oxford sinologist Homer H. Dubs in his controversial paper "A Roman City in Ancient China" proposed that some captured Roman soldiers from Carrhae reappeared 18 years later at the Western frontier of Han China. Using circumstantial evidence he claims that these soldiers fought as mercenaries under the Xiongnu leader (a title known as Shanyu), against the Han, were captured in battle, and eventually settled at the Liqian site.

In order to understand why the Han Chinese were in Central Asia in the first place, a little backstory is needed. Ever since the Warring States Period, China proper suffered periodic attacks from nomadic neighbors to the north known as the Xiongnu (匈奴). Traditionally, Western historians have identified the Xiongnu with the Huns that later invaded Europe, though the theory that the Huns were descendants of the Xiongnu is still controversial. The Xiongnu cannot be classified under any single ethnic brand, since they were likely a conglomeration of several ethnic groups, and the common language of the Xiongnu is yet to be verified. In any case, since the start of the Han Dynasty the imperial policy towards the Xiongnu had been appeasment in the form of marriage alliances. But starting in 133 BC, the stronger Han dynasty began a series of aggressive military confrontations that expelled the Xiongnu from much of northern China and gained them territories in the west. These territories were administered as the Protectorate of the Western Regions (roughly today's Xinjiang province).

Map showing the migration of the Yuezhi, who would later establish the Kushan Empire, but also gives us a good idea of the neighboring peoples, incuding the Xiongnu, Wusun, and Sogdians, in relation to each other.

By 56 BC, the Xiongnu confederation was split in civil war between Huhanye, leader of the Eastern Xiongnu, who decided to submit to tributary status to the Han, and his brother Zhizhi, leader of the Western Xiongnu. While the Eastern Xiongnu lived happily and contentedly under the tutelage of the wise and mighty Chinese, Zhizhi was stirring up ruckus out west in Central Asia, alternately allying and betraying local kingdoms such as the Wu-sun and Sogdiana. In 36 BC there arrived on the scene a junior Chinese army officer Chen Tang and his superior, Gan Yanshou, the new Protector-General of the Western Regions.

Now, Chen was bright and capable young fellow but wasn't exactly very scrupulous. He was alarmed at Zhizhi's rash of empire-building activity and thought (rightly so) that his Chinese troops, when augmented with some native auxilliaries, could defeat the Xiongnu warlord before it was too late. His superior Gan agreed, but pointed out that they needed approval of the imperial court before making any military action. Chen knew that asking the Emperor for such an expedition would bring about many bureaucratic delays, so seizing an opportunity when Gan fell ill, he forged an imperial edict authorizing the expedition. When Gan recovered and discovered the act insubordination, he was of course appalled, but he was faced with a fait accompli since such a forgery was a capital offense. With no choice but to go on with the plan, Gan set off with Chen and some 40,000 men and marched west against Zhizhi, while simultaneously sending east a document indicting themselves of the forgery.

The Roman and Han empires, circa AD 1.

The following clash was known as the Battle of Zhizhi, and occurred outside a fortified town Zhizhi had built on the Talas River, the site of modern-day Taraz, Kazakhstan. Zhizhi was defeated and his severed head was sent to the Emperor, while Chen and Gan got out of trouble. Homer Dubs claims that in this engagement there were 145 Roman mercenaries fighting for the Xiongnu side. His evidence are as follows:

  • Pliny's account of the Battle of Carrhae states that prisoners were sent by the Parthians to guard their eastern frontier province of Margiana, which is located in Central Asia. Some of them must have made it from Margiana to Zhizhi's base.
  • The Chinese account of the battle includes a description of "over a hundred" footsoldiers in "fish-scale formation." This is something unique in Chinese sources. Dubs speculates that it refers to the Roman testudo formation, which to a Chinese viewer would indeed resemble fish-scales.
  • Zhizhi's town was defended by a "double-wooden palisade," which is something typical of Roman fortifications.
  • Soon after the battle, there was a town founded in Gansu called "Lijien," which was the Chinese name for Alexandria and the Roman Empire as a whole. Dubs says this was founded by the Roman mercenaries, who were taken prisoner by the Chinese after the battle.

There are some problems with Dub's analysis. First, 骊靬 (pinyin: Liqian) is the name of the town, and (pinyin: Lijian) is the Chinese term for Rome that he's referring to, two completely different names. Then we consider the "evidence" of the palisade and the "fish-scale formation," which could not decisively indicate the troops were Roman. Many militaries of that time large shields for their soldiers, and the idea of interlocking them must not have been unique to the Roman testudo. Regarding Pliny's statement, he only said that the prisoners were moved to Margiana, and did not mention that the Romans were employed as border guards at all. It is very likely that whatever arms and armor the Romans possessed, they surrendered to the Parthians at Carrhae. And in a final attempt to prove the case, a DNA test was conducted of the Liqian villagers, but the results do not confirm this hypothesis.

So what's the final verdict? I say the idea is an interesting one, but not very likely. Nevertheless, the story of Roman soldiers in China might be beneficial, after all, regardless of its historical truth. In the impoverished town of Liqian, villagers are excited by their legendary fame which even inspired a small tourism industry. I hear that nowadays in Liqian, one can find a "Imperial City Entertainment Street" and even a Caesar karaoke bar.


H. H. Dubs, A Roman City in Ancient China, Greece & Rome, Second Series, Vol. 4, No. 2 (Cambridge University Press, Oct. 1957)

Richard Spencer, "Roman descendants found in China?", The UK Telegraph, Feb 2, 2007

Gruber, "The Origins of Roman Li-Chien"


blah said...

Well, I am not particularly surprised,considering the fact that there probably was some degree of intermingling between the cultures during that time period. There was some trade in Eurasia, along what would later become the silk road, and therefore there definitely would be a few, small, isolated populations of traders who settled down. Soldiers captured in battle, much less likely. But the world definitely is strange...

squarecircle said...

Interesting and probably true as I have a few antique Jades in which one looks like Lucifer but in beast form and a Warrior kneeling and wearing a helmet with a hook on top.(A similar figurine in bronze was excavated by Chinese archaeologist). Before knowing about Liqian,I thought it was from a Jewish settlement but in Gansu,China.

Anonymous said...

There is no concrete evidence to prove that a band of Roman soldiers appeared in Han Dynasty China. Homer Dubs based his theory on the 'fish-scale' infantry formation which he identified as Roman testudo formation and the double wooden palisade which is often refered as Roman style of fortification. Even DNA could not prove whether the vilagers of Zhelaizhai are descended from these supposed Roman soldiers. It only proves that they had Caucasian genetic markers which is also found among the population of the Middle East. Fish-scale formation is found in Chinese texts prior to the battle with the Xiongnus. It refers as tightly packed infantry formation with shields protecting all sides. It is similiar to the testudo formation. Also If they are being intergrated into Han Chinese military and are stationed as border guards, they will be armed and equiped with Han Chinese military equipment. These supposed Romans are not even in their Roman Legionary equipment when captured by the Chinese. Roman Legionary equipment will be taken by the Parthians as spoils and these Roman wouuld be equiped with Parthian military equipment if they were stationed as border guards by the Parthians. In my conclusion, the villagers of Zhelaizhai are most likely descended from merchants and adventurers traveling along the Silk Route and intermarried with local population.

Logan Locke said...

I know it's a very old post, but I just wanted to comment. Crassus did have some military experience. In order to proceed up the political ladder in the late Republic, you pretty much had to have at least a few years of service under your belt.

Crassus served in the legions during the conflicts between Marius and Sulla. He commanded a flank during the Battle of the Colline Gate and helped win said battle for Sulla.

Otherwise, it's a very interesting and thought-provoking article.

Unknown said...

I looked it up--this is the same Crassus who defeated Spartacus and his men, and never got proper credit for it because hmmf, slaves aren't properly soldiers, and some other ugly politicking.
But I have a slightly more urgent question. I used this page and its map to introduce my Korean students to the Roman Empire. Twice they have objected vociferously that the Korean peninsula was never part of the Han Dynasty. The lines appear to be drawn to include Gogoryeo but not Silla and Baekja. I'm doing some research but since you posted the map I'm hoping you have a simple answer for this.
I'm aware of the vassal state dynamic but I don't think that's what's going on here.

Joshua L Redmond said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Joshua L Redmond said...

Hey unknown commenter,
Here is a bit more accurate map of the time period:

The post lives on!