15 July 2006

Roman Legionaries in China?

The story started from a battle between the Chinese soldiers and the Hun tribes in 36 BC. An Oxford history professor Homer Hasenphlug Dubs came over an ancient document written by the Chinese historian, Ban Gu (32-92 BC). It describes an expedition of two generals of the Han Dynasty (206 BC - 220 AD), who led 40,000 men to conquer Zhizhi (Dzhambul, Kazakhstan).

They encountered a nomadic army1 entrenched in a camp surrounded by double wooden palisade. In the ensuing fight, a strange band of nomads locked their round shields shoulder to shoulder and formed a screen like fish scales. The Han army victoriously defeated the nomads. About 150 nomads of the band were captured and brought back to China. Emperor Yuandi (48-33 BC) granted the captives amnesty and settled them in a town called Lijian (or Liqian) in western China. The nomads were retained to serve as local militia for the Emperor.

However, Professor Dubs compared the tactics of the nomads with a more disciplined army. The use of wooden fortifications and the fish-scale formation were unusual for the tribal warriors of the Huns. Particularly, the unique formation was similar to the Tortoise (Testudo) formation that had only been used by the Roman Legionaries.

Terra Cotta Cavalry Roman Tortoise Formation
Left: Han Terra-Cotta Cavalry     Right: Roman Tortoise Formation

In 1955, Professor Dubs concluded that the nomads were the remnants of a disintegrated Roman army in the battle of Carrhae (southeastern Turkey) in 53 BC.2 The name of the outpost town Lijian was the translation of Alexandria that the Han referred to Rome. In 1957, Dubs published a book entitled A Roman City in Ancient China.

After 30 years, an Australian writer and adventurer, David Harris, read Dubs' book and was intrigued by this story. He came to China to search for Lijian. He met a scholar at Northwest University of Nationalities in Lanzhou. Guan Yiquan had already researched about Lijian for about 10 years. He identified Zhelaizhai village near Yongchang, Gansu Province as the probable location of Lijian in the late 1980's. Many of the villagers had high-bridge noses and curly brown (blond?) hairs, and they had a custom of worship of ox. They also practised bull dancing and bull sacrifices. In 1991, Harris published his book, Black Horse Odyseey, sharing his experiences of the journey. However, Guan died in 1998 before he finished his research and his book about Roman CIty.

Ptolemy Map
Ptolemy's Map. ca. AD 140
Based on a map published by National Geographical Magazine

Dubs' theory has not been universally accepted and there are still arguments. Some researchers have gone to the Lijian area to perform genetic research on local villages who have prominent Caucasian features. Some problems arise that the area was located in the trade route of the ancient Silk Road. Various ethnicities from as far as the Mediterranean came and went. Moreover, soldiers in the Roman legions were supposed to consist of peoples of different ethnic and national backgrounds. Several tombs of Han Dynasty were uncovered in Yongchang in 2003. The burial chamber of one tomb was large for a person of 1.8 metres tall. Some hope that these finds might provide more concrete evidence for the theory. Elsewhere, a Roman inscription of 2nd-3rd centuries has been found in eastern Uzbekistan in the Kara-Kamar cave complex. The relic has been analysed to belong to some Roman soldiers of the Pannonian Legion, XV Apollinaris.

It is not important to know whether the existence of some errant Roman Legionaries, as the Roman republic and Han dynasty had already known trades through intermediaries.3 There are official records of emissaries who claimed to come from Rome and presented themselves before the Han imperial court in 144 AD. There are also records written by Florus, a Roman historian, which described several envoys sent by a Roman emperor to Han imperial court. It is useful to know if ancient persons would journey or wander a long and hazardous distance from the Mediterranean area to China.4 More important it is significant to put some insight into how the exchange of ideas and knowledge between two physically isolated peoples.


[1] The Han armies were driving out the Huns, a Turkic tribe that descended from Xiongnu. According to The History of the Former Han Dynasty, two Han generals in the Western Regions led a campaign to the territories west of Yumenguan Pass.

[2] Roman Consul Marcus Licinius Crassus was the First Triumvirate with Julius Caesar and Pompey. In 53 BC, Crassus led seven legions of 45,000 soldiers and invaded Parthia (Iran, 247BC-224AD). He was defeated by Parthian at Carrhae (Harran, Turhey). Crassus was decapitated and over 10,000 Legionaries were captured and taken into slavery. Some of the Romans were thought to make their way east to Uzbekistan to join a Hun tribe of the Chief Jzh Jzh (or Zhizhi).

[3] The Silk Road carried a two-way trade between China and the Middle East and Central Asian countries. The most significant exports for China was silk, while the other countries were Arabian horses. The treasured "Blood Sweating Horses" were sought by Han emperors. Many think the horse that transpired blood like sweat is merely a romantic fiction. Horses with thin skin will normally appear to be reddish when the horses become hot and sweaty. Such appearance particularly happens to galloping 'white' Arabian horses.

Some Chinese scholars have found an answer while they visited the Central Asia. The local horses are thought to carry a skin disease in which some parasites burrow under the skin. When the parasites dig out from the skin, the skin will then sweat blood from the wound. Nevertheless, some journalists/investigators have witnessed the horses that sweated a blood-like fluid in Central Asia. Anyway, this rare horse is known Akhal-Teke (pure-tribe) horse of Scythian type and these fast desert horses still survive in Turkmenistan.

Flying Horse Statue Flying Horse, 2nd century AD
A statue of an original bronze buried with a Han dynasty general. This bronze horse depicts a Han horse that had a small head, "dished" face, long neck, sloping shoulder, strong hindquarters, tail carried high and arched, and hard clean leg.

[4] Alexander the Great of Macedonia (500-323 BC) made the exploration into the Asia. The objective was to track down Darius, Emperor of Persia, and his generals. One of the his goals was to reach the sea at the east end of the round earth that just told by his teacher, Aristole. After this exploration, he founded a settlement of Alexandria Eschate (Alexandria the Farthest) in Tajikistan (Sogdiana and Bactria) about 329 BC.

1. www.celestial.com.kg (Kyrgystan)
2. www.chinaculture.org (China)
3. www.china-horse.com (Beijing, China)
4. www.wikipedia.org
5. McBane, S. and H. Douglas-Cooper, Horse Facts, Quarto Publishing plc, 1991.


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