Model of Imperial Rome
Model of Imperial Rome

ROMANS IN CHINA

According to official history, it is considered that the first contact between Romans and Chinese occurred in the year 166, when an embassy sent by Marcus Aurelius arrived in Luoyang. Distances so great for those times prevented the establishment of regular diplomatic relations between the two most flourishing cultures known to date, and the knowledge that the two peoples had between them was vague and inaccurate. The Chinese called the Roman Empire Li-jien, which etymologically comes from the word “legion”, through some of their merchants who moved through Alexandria.

Based on studies from sixty years ago that connect narratives of contemporary Chinese and Roman historians, and thanks to genetic and anthropological works carried out in a small region in northwestern China which, incidentally, was called Li-jien in the past, a gap opens in what has been admitted to date concerning the contact between the two Empires, and what began with legends begins to emerge as a reality rather than plausible.

Let’s see what the history of each Empire tells us:

ROME

Year 53 BC

Licinius Crassus undertakes a risky campaign in Asia, and at the head of 45,000 men enters Parthia, a powerful eastern kingdom, half barbarian and half Greek, heir of Persia and the Hellenizing campaign of Alexander the Great, that was occupying the territories of the current Iran, Iraq and part of Turkey.

Crassus was one of the three strong men of the Republic of Rome who made up the triumvirate, and wanted to win a great war campaign, like Julius Caesar, who triumphed at that time in the war of Gaul, and Pompey, who had cleaned the Mediterranean Sea of Cilician pirates, and was in Hispania fighting against the Iberian rebels, who under the leadership of Sertorius aspired to establish an independent Hispanic state with capital in Osca (Huesca).

The Romans led by Crassus are composed of seven magnificent legions, 4,000 archers and 4,000 Gallic horsemen, and they believe themselves capable of defeating the dreaded Parthian Cavalry, which is the main body of the enemy army, in its own territory.

The events of this contest have come to us through the writings of Pliny and Plutarch. Once crossed the border between both Empires: the Euphrates River, probably with the troops stretched in a march formed by a thin column, they are caught by surprise by the enemy cavalry in Carrhae (Carras, the current Harran for the Turks).

Triumviri and general Marcus Licinius Crassus
Triumviri and general Marcus Licinius Crassus
Orodes coin
Orodes coin

There was a first level disaster, and as happened in other great Roman defeats, such as Teutoburg or Adrianople, the Parthians divided the fearsome Roman army, isolating it in groups and making it more vulnerable, in this case to the constant punishment of mounted archers and the attacks of heavy cavalry (the famous cataphracts). The result was more than 20,000 good legionaries killed, with Crassus in front, and more than 10,000 prisoners. From this catastrophic battle for Rome comes the expression “Crassus errare” (huge mistake).

A portion of the prisoners were enslaved and used in forced labour, but some elite units are sent to Bactria, another territory that was a Hellenistic kingdom, north of present-day Afghanistan, on the banks of the Oxus River (now called Amu Darya) to protect the frontier and fight against the ancestors of the Huns, nomads who then ravaged those lands. What could be better than sending the best surviving Romans to contain them?

Here, in the eastern confines of the known world to the Romans, the track of what must have been a legion, the lost legion, disappears.

In the year 20 BC under the wise empire of Augustus, a new lasting peace was signed between Rome and Parthia, again with the Euphrates River as a frontier. The emperor obtained the return of the eagles and although he demanded the return of the imprisoned soldiers, their track had been lost.

Terracotta warriors. Qin Dynasty. 210 BC
Terracotta warriors. Qin Dynasty. 210 BC
Great Wall of China
Great Wall of China

HAN EMPIRE 

Year 36 BC

The Han dynasty rules the Celestial Empire of China. This great state already had 40,000 kilometres of roads (about half of Rome) at that time and in that year general Gan Yanshou launched a military campaign in the western border territories, the current province of Xinjiang (also known as the Uygur Autonomous Region of Sinkiang), against the Xiongnu nomads, who belonged to the same pre-Hun people that roamed Bactria and the Oxus River.

The chronicles of this campaign have come to us through the historian Ban Gu, who tells a biography of the chinese general. At that time, theoretically only the Pamir area separated Gan Yanshou’s army from the lost legion of Crassus. But there is something fascinating in the narrations that suggests that they were even closer: near the current capital of Tajikistan (Dushanbe), in the city of Zhizhi, the historian describes how his army ran into and faced some barbarians, a mysterious enemy constituted by veteran soldiers, very disciplined and organized, well protected in a wooden fortress of grid form. He also describes his infantry, which was perfectly formed in a line like fish scales that protected body and extremities.

Even if it is only a hypothesis, because there is no archaeological evidence or conclusive evidence, everything seems to point to the fact that they faced the lost legion. Surely those brave ones preferred to flee from the domain of parthians and seek fortune on their own beyond the known, fought to the end for their lives against a powerful army of unknown origin to them, using the testudo against the arrows with great efficiency, and they gave such a military lesson and provoked such admiration in the chinese that they forgave the lives of the last 1,000 or 1,500 soldiers, who, according to Ban Gu, were assigned to the province of Gansu where they founded the city of Liqian (chinese name to Syria and the Roman East) to protect the great wall of the invaders.

Some believe that the descendants of this contingent was defeated and destroyed in the 8th century by Tibetan troops, who at that time were terrible mercenaries, real warlords, but the genetic studies done in Liqian give rise to think other things. On the one hand, there are very important physical differences between the natives of the area and the rest of chinese. It has been proven that 46% of its inhabitants have traits clearly of European origin: blue and green eyes, curly and/or brown hair, and even aquiline noses. Years ago they found around a hundred skeletons from more than a thousand years ago with an average height of more than 180 centimetres. And if you look for more archaeological evidence, Liqian has the remains of a fortress, with 30 metres long and a half high, which according to the natives until just over 40 years ago, measured more than 100 metres long and was much higher. A real pity that it has survived millennia and we have lost it in such a short time. Remains have also been found, such as a large cubic stone that has mysterious characteristics of western style.

Author of the illustration: Jagoba Lekuona. Designed for The Lost Legion of Eduardo Ortiz. Coming soon
Author of the illustration: Jagoba Lekuona. Designed for The Lost Legion of Eduardo Ortiz. Coming soon

While it is true that some of these arguments can be refuted and explained by other causalities, the combination of all forms an exciting theory. I believe that Rome and China met in Zhizhi, that the Romans fought fiercely in the bowels of the East, and that the last veterans of the lost legion finally achieved their deserved freedom with honour.

Author: Eduardo Ortiz Pardina