View Full Version : Lost Roman Legion in Ancient China?

03-05-2005, 04:58 AM
For those who missed this recent documentary on Discovery


The battle of Carrhae ended 53 years before the birth of Jesus Christ, in the last day of the month of may, with a shameful disaster for the Roman army. Seven legions having the strength of 45,000 soldiers were humiliated and routed by 10,000 Parthian archers.

Carrhae, an ancient biblical city now known as Harran, is located on Turkey’s oriental border.

The commanding officer of this unfortunate expedition was Marcus Licinius Crassus, a 62 years old tribune who had organized that campaign eager to gain glory and wealth, even though he was already one of the most rich and powerful men in Rome.

Perhaps he did it just because he envied the military successes of Pompeius Magnus and Caesar, and foolishly thought that he may equal them, even though Pompeius Magnus and Caesar were war professionals while Crassus was a mere amateur. His only triumph had been the bloody defeat of Spartacus, but achieved with Pompeius’ help: in fact he had too little experience and genius to embark on a large-scale operation abroad.

The Republican government loathed to let him depart with such a sizeable army as there was no real emergency in the east, but Crassus eventually enlisted the support of Pompeius Magnus and Caesar, who did not fail to see the opportunity to free themselves of a powerful competitor whilst waiting to settle the score with each other.

During the hot public debate in the Senate a tribunus plebis named Ateius attempted to stop him. Plutarcus writes that, when he realised that his efforts were in vain and that he would not receive enough supporting votes, he lit a brazier and, while throwing grains of incense into the flames, started to curse Crassus and evoke the infernal gods. Judging from the name and the behaviour of this man, we can guess that he was of Etruscan descent.

Some metropolitan legions grouped in Rome and marched through Campania and then met at Brindisi with the others coming up from Calabria and then left in spite of the stormy sea. Not all the ships reached the other shore.

Crassus had fortune, the blind goddess, on his side during his youth: he came out unscathed from the civil wars; then was implicated in the Catiline conspiracy but bore no consequences; he paid the debts of a spendthrift Caesar whilst being tightfisted himself and with his family.

But things had changed and while aging he became a blunderer, making mistakes which were numerous and serious.

For instance, in a speech to his soldiers he proclaimed that he would destroy a bridge “so that none of you will be able to return”. Noticing their dismayed expression, Crassus corrected himself by explaining that he was referring to the enemy, not his own soldiers.

He ordered the distribution of lentils and salt to the troops, oblivious of the fact that this was the meal offered at funerals.

The worst possible omen occurred when Crassus dropped on the floor the slippery entrails of a sacrificial animal that were placed in his hands by a haruspex. (a soothsayer) Crassus attempted to correct this mistake by crying, “Fear not, despite my age, the hilt of my sword will not slip out of my hand”.

On the day of the battle, Crassus wore a black tunic, instead of the purple one de rigeur for Roman generals. Even though Crassus quickly returned to his tent to change, he left his officers speechless. We can still imagine those officers crossing their fingers (“fare le corna”, forefinger and little finger raised, a very efficacious propitiatory gesture of Etruscan origin) and grasp a certain part of their body.

Moreover, Crassus refused to listen to his veterans who were in favour of marching on the coast and avoid the desert to reach the Parthian capital. Rather, he trusted the arab Arimanes and his six thousand horsemen, who had secretly sided with the Parthians and abandoned the Romans few minutes before the battle.

Crassus, facing the enemy, ordered his soldiers to form a square, packed like sardines, instead of scattering them so that they ended up being slaughtered by enemy arrows before they could even attempt a response.

The Parthians were using reflex bows: those with recurved edges, such as the ones used by Mongols and Chinese. These bows doubled the propulsion power of the arrows enabling them to be shot to a distance of up to 400 metres – so that they were as lethal as Kalashnikov bullets. This kind of bow was a Chinese invention, and was further perfected by the Chinese themselves in the 16th century, with their arrows capable of reaching up to 600 metres.

Seeing the danger, Crassus’ son, Publius, attempted a sally with a thousand gaulish cavalrymen, but half of them were slain and ran through with arrows and the remainder were taken prisoners. The head of Publius was put on a spear and shown to the Romans and to his father, and on this tragic occasion we can see the only glimpse of roman greatness in Crassus, who for a while ceased to act like an old fool, as he told his soldiers to keep up the fight and that the death of his son was only his private injury, not theirs.

At nightfall, Crassus accepted to negotiate with the enemy but was caught instead in a trap and his head was also cut off. 20,000 Romans died that day, 10,000 were taken prisoner, and the remainder managed to escape and return to Italy.

This setback was partially redressed by Marcus Antonius few years later and a diplomatic solution with the Parthians was reached under Augustus in 20 BC when a peace treaty was stipulated and the lost insignia were retrieved. The Parthians agreed on the return of the eagles and the banners of the seven Roman legions, but when Augustus sought the return of the prisoners abandoned in 53 BC they maintained that there were no prisoners to repatriate.

The Parthian practice had always been to shift prisoners caught in the west to Turkmenistan in the east. By so doing they would secure their loyalty against their worst enemies - the Huns - and this is probably what happened to the unfortunate Romans whom the Parthians had caught. The Roman historian Plinius also upholds this theory in explaining the disappearance of so many men.

What happened then to those 10,000 legionaries? No plausible answer could be found for two thousand years until an American sinologist, Homer Hasenpflug Dubs, announced a possible answer during a conference in London in 1955 called, “A Roman City in Ancient China”.

Dubs had found out that in the annals of the Han dynasty there is the record of the capture of a Hun city, by the chinese army, in 36 BC named Zhizhi, now known as Dzhambul, located close to Tashkent, in Uzbekistan.

It made a deep impression on Dubs that the Chinese recorded that they found palisades of tree trunks, and that the enemy had used a previously unseen battle formation at the gates of the city, namely a testudo of selected warriors forming a cover of overlapping shields in front of their bodies in the first row and over the heads in the following rows. These facts are reported in the biography of Chen Tang, one of the victorious Chinese generals, written by the historian Ban Gu
(32 – 92)

Many prisoners were taken during this battle and it appears that the Chinese were so struck by the military skills of those warriors that they moved them, after enlisting, further east, in a place that by imperial decree was named Li-Jien (which sounds in Chinese as the word “legion” and is the name by which the Chinese called Rome) in Gansu province. The legionaries numbered 145, and formed a garrison protecting the inhabitants from Tibetan raids. It was uncommon for Chinese to name their cities after barbarian names: the only two other known cases, Kucha and Wen-Siu, occurred where large colonies of foreigners had settled.

The difficulty was to locate this outpost, as the name Li-Jien is not found on modern maps any longer. Dubs claimed to have found it, and identified the location as Zhelaizhai, not far from Lanzhou.

Subsequent archaeological expeditions made by Chinese, Australians and Americans teams appear to support the choice of this Chinese city even though the smoking gun which may finally solve the mystery has yet to be found.

During excavations in 1993 some fortifications were unearthed as well as a trunk fixed with stakes, possibly dating back to the time of the arrival of the legionaries. The trunk was a kind of hoist used by the Romans to build fortifications, but was unknown in China. It is now on display in the Lanzhou museum.

The physical features of the inhabitants, in some cases, are also strange. A certain Sung Guorong, for instance, seems to confirm the hypothesis advanced by Dubs. He has been interviewed and filmed by several journalists: he is 46 years old, 1.82 meters tall, blond, with an aquiline nose and big blue eyes, and he loudly proclaims that he is a Roman, not a Chinese. He also claims that there are at least 100 people that look like him in the area.

Not that real Romans had such features, but certainly among the Latin legionaries there were some german as well as gaulish auxiliaries. Perhaps one of Mr. Song’s ancestors is one of those 500 gaulish horsemen that were captured during Publius Crassus’ tragic sally. Lanzhou University has conducted DNA tests on the population of Zhelaizhai and findings show that 46% of them have genetic sequences that are similar to Europeans.

They must have been very tough these ancestors of ours to resist, to put down new roots over there, and to avoid falling prey to discouragement. They had left Rome 20 years earlier, abandoning their wives and children. Or perhaps, who knows? they may have called themselves very lucky seeing the fate of their unfortunate companions left on the field. At least they were still alive. They remarried with local chinese women, different indeed from their perfumed and refined Calpurnias, Messalinas and Clodias whom they had left behind in Rome but with them they did built a new house and a new family.

In the future, deeper examinations conducted on the Y chromosome (which is subject to little variation as it is transmitted directly from father to son) will further shed light on this mystery. This will help gather more precise information to assess kinship ties with people now living in Europe, and will help to prove the hypothesis of Dubs.

From the point of view of the artifacts, Roman coins and pottery have been unearthed in Zhelaizhai, as well as an helmet bearing the engraving in Chinese characters, “One of the prisoners”. However, since this village is located along the Silk road, these are
natural discoveries and similar artifacts have been found in distant places such as Vietnam and Korea.

One of Zhelaizhai’s specific characteristics, worth mentioning, is the passion for bulls and tauromachy which continues to this day, and is not shared by neighboring areas.

Local authorities have immediately sensed the tourist potential offered by this possible link and have built a pavilion with Roman marble statues to attract visitors.

The Chinese were aware of the existence of a big empire in the west and sent a legation in the year 97 AD, headed by Kan Ying. This legation arrived in Mesopotamia but, prior to boarding a ship to Rome, the Parthians (always them!) convinced the Chinese that two years of sailing would be necessary to reach the Eternal City.

The Parthians did not have any interest, commercially speaking, in having their two main customers meet, as this would have cut them out of a lucrative trade. For istance it is well-known that Caesar spent a considerable amount for silk bespoke-tailored togas, and that he gave Servilia, his mistress and mother of Brutus, a pearl from the south seas for which he paid 60,000 sesterces and Caesar was a trend-setter, imitated by other wealthy romans. Something like few years ago with Italians imitating FIAT’s chairman Giovanni Agnelli habits and choices.

The naïve Kan Yin trusted them and decided to return back to China empty handed.

Marcus Aurelius in 166 AD sent an official delegation of Romans carrying presents to the Chinese capital of Luoyang and their arrival is recorded in the dynastic annals.

The Chinese however did not respond to the Roman openings, perhaps because of the occurrence in 184 AD of the peasant rebellion known as the Yellow Turbans, which caused a frightful civil war and the fall of the Han dynasty, which had ruled over China for four centuries.

Angelo Paratico


03-05-2005, 09:24 AM
If they can prove that there was indeed a Roman village in China that would be absolutely amazing. I'm even more surprised that even 2000 years later there are still people with Roman features around.

That was a very good read. Thanks!

03-05-2005, 09:50 AM
If they can prove that there was indeed a Roman village in China that would be absolutely amazing. I'm even more surprised that even 2000 years later there are still people with Roman features around.

That was a very good read. Thanks!


Regretably in the documentary, the findings were inconclusive. IMO, all it would've taken was the discovery of evidence such as ancient latin graffiti or pottery to prove that it was indeed a roman settlement - but there was none documented

Those people who claimed to be descendants of the romans no doubt had caucasian aquiline features but their ancestors could've been persians or other indo-european groups who frequently roamed central asia

03-05-2005, 10:35 AM
one of the oldest documents about slavs (prabably about ancestors of Poles but it is still mystery) are written by chinese cartographs somwhere about 700-800 AC

03-05-2005, 11:33 AM
one of the oldest documents about slavs (prabably about ancestors of Poles but it is still mystery) are written by chinese cartographs somwhere about 700-800 AC

They weren't "the oldest" for sure :) . Romans were visiting slavic territories long before Christ. City of Calissia (todays Kalisz) is noted on romanian maps from the 1st century AD.

03-05-2005, 11:47 AM
one of the oldest documents about slavs (prabably about ancestors of Poles but it is still mystery) are written by chinese cartographs somwhere about 700-800 AC

They weren't "the oldest" for sure :) . Romans were visiting slavic territories long before Christ. City of Calissia (todays Kalisz) is noted on romanian maps from the 1st century AD.
i said one of not the oldest

03-08-2005, 02:35 AM
Reminds me of those mummified Gaels who were found in inner Mongolia.

If those Roman legionnaires decided to stay in China after meeting Chinese women, it would be because... never mind :oops:

03-08-2005, 03:53 AM
very interesting read, thanks

03-08-2005, 05:49 AM
really interesting post, good job man.