Sino-Roman relations

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Sino-Roman relations started first on an indirect basis during the 2nd century BCE. China and Rome progressively inched closer with the embassies of Zhang Qian in 130 BCE and the military expeditions of China to Central Asia, until general Ban Chao attempted to send an envoy to Rome around 100 CE. Several alleged Roman embassies to China were recorded by a number of ancient Chinese historians. The first one on record, supposedly from either the Roman emperor Antoninus Pius or the later emperor Marcus Aurelius, arrived in 166 CE.


[edit] Background

Both Han China and the Roman Empire were great powers of their day. Han China ruled a territory that extended from the Pacific to the Aral, while Rome controlled the Mediterranean. As both dominated their sphere of influence, the western expansion of China and the eastern expansion of Rome brought the two empires more than a thousand miles apart. Trade was conducted between the two through intermediaries. Parthians and several Chinese explorers ventured west in an attempt to find the Roman Empire and learn more about the western regions.[citation needed] There was high demand in Rome for the silk exports of Han China.

[edit] Zhang Qian's embassy

A horse statuette of the Late Han Dynasty (1st–2nd century CE).

In 130 BCE, with the embassies of the Han Dynasty to Central Asia, following the reports of the ambassador Zhang Qian (who was originally sent to obtain an alliance with the Yuezhi against the Xiongnu, but in vain), the Chinese emperor Wudi became interested in developing relationships with the sophisticated urban civilizations of Fergana, Bactria and Parthia:

The Son of Heaven on hearing all this reasoned thus: Fergana (Dayuan) and the possessions of Bactria (Daxia) and Parthia (Anxi) are large countries, full of rare things, with a population living in fixed homes and given to occupations somewhat identical with those of the Chinese people, but with weak armies, and placing great value on the rich produce of China.

Fan YeHou Hanshu or Book of the Later Han

The Chinese subsequently sent numerous embassies, around ten every year, to these countries and as far as Seleucid Syria. According to the Book of the Later Han, "Thus more embassies were dispatched to Anxi (Parthia), Yancai (who later joined the Alans), Lijian (Syria under the Seleucids), Tiaozhi (Chaldea) and Tianzhu (northwestern India) ... As a rule, rather more than ten such missions went forward in the course of a year, and at the least five or six."

[edit] Chinese silk in the Roman Empire

Maenad in silk dress, Naples National Museum.

Trade with the Roman Empire followed soon, confirmed by the Roman craze for Chinese silk (supplied through the Parthians) from the 1st century BCE. Although the Romans knew of wild silk harvested on Cos, they did not at first make the connection with Chinese silk. Hence, Pliny the Elder, in his Natural History, wrote:

The Seres (Chinese), are famous for the woolen substance obtained from their forests; after a soaking in water they comb off the white down of the leaves… So manifold is the labour employed, and so distant is the region of the globe drawn upon, to enable the Roman maiden to flaunt transparent clothing in public.

Pliny the ElderThe Natural History VI, 54

Yet later in the same work, he writes:

The larva [of the 'bombyx'] then becomes a caterpillar, after which it assumes the state in which it is known as 'bombylis', then that called 'necydalus', and after that, in six months, it becomes a silk-worm. These insects weave webs similar to those of the spider, the material of which is used for making the more costly and luxurious garments of females, known as 'bombycina'. Pamphile, a woman of Cos, the daughter of Platea, was the first person who discovered the art of unravelling these webs and spinning a tissue therefrom; indeed, she ought not to be deprived of the glory of having discovered the art of making vestments which, while they cover a woman, at the same moment reveal her naked charms.

Pliny the ElderThe Natural History XI, 26

The Senate issued, in vain, several edicts to prohibit the wearing of silk, on economic and moral grounds: the importation of Chinese 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 labour 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 Younger c. 3 BCE–CE 65Declamations Vol. I

The Roman historian Florus also describes the visit of numerous envoys, including Seres (perhaps the Chinese), to the first Roman Emperor Augustus, who reigned between 27 BCE and CE 14:

Now that all the races of the west and south were subjugated, and also the races of the north, (...) the Scythians and the Sarmatians sent ambassadors seeking friendship; the Seres too and the Indians, who live immediately beneath the sun, though they brought elephants amongst their gifts as well as precious stones and pearls, regarded their long journey, in the accomplishment of which they had spent four years, as the greatest tribute which they rendered, and indeed their complexion proved that they came from beneath another sky.

FlorusEpitomae II, 34

A maritime route opened up with the Chinese-controlled Giao Chỉ (centred in modern Vietnam) and the Khmer kingdom of Funan probably by the first century CE. At the formerly coastal site of Óc Eo in the Mekong Delta, Roman coins were among the vestiges of long-distance trade discovered by the French archaeologist Louis Malleret in the 1940s.[1] Óc Eo may have been the port known to the geographer Ptolemy and the Romans as Kattigara. The trade connection extended, via ports on the coasts of India and Sri Lanka, all the way to Roman-controlled ports in Egypt and the Nabataean territories on the northeastern coast of the Red Sea. The Hou Hanshu records that a delegation of Roman envoys arrived in China by this maritime route in 166 CE; this may well have been an exaggeration, by the envoys or the scribe, of what was actually an unofficial party of Roman merchants.

[edit] Castaways

Pomponius Mela (Book III,Chapter 5), copied by Pliny the Elder, wrote that Quintus Caecilius Metellus Celer, proconsul in Gaul, 59 BCE, got "several Indians" (Indi) as a present from a Germanic king. The Indians were driven by a storm to the coasts of Germania (in tempestatem ex Indicis aequoribus):

Metellus Celer recalls the following: when he was Proconsul in Gaul, he was given people from India by the king of the Sueves; upon asking why they were in this land, he learnt that they were caught in a storm away from India, that they became castaways, and finally landed on the coasts of Germany. They thus resisted the sea, but suffered from the cold for the rest of their travel, and that is the reason why they left.

Sueves is an emendation to the text.

It is unclear whether these castaways were people from India or Eastern Asia, since "Indians" designated all Asians, Indian and beyond, during Roman times. Pomponius is using these Indi as evidence for the Northeast Passage and the northward strait out of the Caspian Sea (which in Antiquity was usually thought to be open to Oceanus in the north). Edward Herbert Bunbury suggests that they were of Finnish origin. There are also some speculations that they may have been American Indians castaway across the Atlantic.

Some confusion may be suspected in this passage since Metellus Celer died before taking up his proconsulship, thus leaving it free for Julius Caesar.

[edit] Roman soldiers in the East

The Roman prisoners of the Battle of Carrhae were brought to Margiana by king Orodes.

There are several known instances of Roman soldiers being captured by the Parthians and transferred to the East for border duty. According to Pliny, in 54 BCE, after losing at the battle of Carrhae, 10,000 Roman prisoners were displaced by the Parthians to Margiana to man the frontier (of the 40,000 troops under Crassus, half had lost their lives, one quarter escaped, and one quarter were taken prisoner):

It was to this place (Margiana) that Orodes conducted such of the Romans as had survived the defeat of Crassus

Plin. Hist. Nat. 6. 18[2]

About 18 years later the nomadic Xiongnu chief Zhizhi established a state in the nearby Talas valley, near modern day Taraz. The Chinese have an 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 BCE. The historian Homer H. Dubs claimed that this might have been the Roman testudo formation and that these men, who were captured by the Chinese, were able to found the village of Liqian (Li-chien) in Yongchang County.[3] There is, however, no evidence that these men were Romans,[4] and recent DNA testing of the male inhabitants of Liqian does not support the hypothesis.[5]

A Roman inscription of the 2nd–3rd centuries CE has been found in eastern Uzbekistan in the Kara-Kamar cave complex, which has been analysed as belonging to some Roman soldiers from the Pannonian Legio XV Apollinaris:[6]


[edit] Gan Ying

The Chinese impression of the Daqin people, from the Ming Dynasty encyclopedia Sancai Tuhui

In 97 AD, a Chinese envoy named Gan Ying, sent by the general Ban Chao, made his way from the Tarim Basin to Persia and either the Black Sea or the Persian Gulf. Gan Ying left a detailed account of western countries, although he apparently only reached as far as Mesopotamia, then under the control of the Parthian Empire. While he intended to sail to Rome through the Black Sea, some Parthian merchants, interested in maintaining their profitable role as the middleman in the trade between China and Rome, falsely told him the dangerous trip would take two years at the least (when it was actually closer to two months). Deterred, he returned home.

Gan Ying left an account on Rome (Daqin in Chinese) which may have relied on second-hand sources. He locates it to the west of the sea:

Its territory covers several thousand li [a "li" is around half a kilometre], it has over 400 walled cities. Several tens of small states are subject to it. The outer walls of the cities are made of stones. They have established posting stations  There are pines and cypresses.

Hou Hanshu, cited in Leslie and Gardiner

He also describes the adoptive monarchy of the Emperor Nerva, and Roman physical appearance and products:

As for the king, he is not a permanent figure but is chosen as the man most worthy ... The people in this country are tall and regularly featured. They resemble the Chinese, and that is why the country is called Da Qin (The "Great" 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 colours, and make a gold-painted cloth, and a "cloth washed-in-the-fire" (asbestos).

Hou Hanshu, cited in Leslie and Gardiner

Finally Gan Ying determines Rome correctly as the main economic power at the western end of Eurasia:

It is from this country that all the various marvellous and rare objects of foreign states come.

Hou Hanshu, cited in Leslie and Gardiner

Some authors even claim that Ban Chao himself advanced to the Caspian. However, this interpretation has been criticized as a misreading[7].

[edit] Eastern travels of Maes Titianus

Maes Titianus went as far as Tashkurgan, known as the "Stone Tower" in Antiquity, the doorstep to China (in blue).

Maës Titianus was the ancient traveller of Hellenistic culture[8] who penetrated farthest east along the Silk Road from the Mediterranean world. In the early second century CE[9] or at the end of the first century BCE,[10] during a lull in the intermittent Roman struggles with Parthia, his party reached the famous Stone Tower, Tashkurgan,[11] in the Pamirs.

[edit] First Roman embassy

With the expansion of the Roman Empire in the Middle East during the 2nd century, the Romans gained the capability to develop shipping and trade in the Indian Ocean. Several ports containing Roman ruins have been excavated on the coast of India.

Ptolemy's world map, reconstituted from Ptolemy's Geographia (circa 150), indicating "Sinae" (China) at the extreme right, beyond the island of "Taprobane" (Sri Lanka, oversized) and the "Aurea Chersonesus" (Southeast Asian peninsula).

Groups of Romans probably travelled farther eastwards, either on Roman, Indian, or Chinese ships. The first group of people claiming to be an ambassadorial mission of Romans to China was recorded in 166, sixty years after the westbound expeditions of the Chinese general Ban Chao. The embassy came to Emperor Huan of Han China "from Andun (Chinese: 安敦; Emperor Antoninus Pius), king of Daqin (Rome)". (As Antoninus Pius died in 161, leaving the empire to his adoptive son Marcus Aurelius (Antoninus), and the convoy arrived in 166, confusion remains about who sent the mission given that both Emperors were named 'Antoninus'.) The Roman mission came from the south (therefore probably by sea), entering China by the frontier of Jinan or Tonkin. It brought presents of rhinoceros horns, ivory, and tortoise shell, probably been acquired in Southern Asia. About the same time, and possibly through this embassy, the Chinese acquired a treatise of astronomy from the Romans.

The existence of China was clearly known to Roman cartographers of the time, since its name and position is depicted in Ptolemy's Geographia, which is dated to c. 150. On the map, China is located beyond the Aurea Chersonesus ("Golden Peninsula"), which refers to the Southeast Asian peninsula. It is shown as being on the Magnus Sinus ("Great Gulf"), which presumably corresponds to the known areas of the China Sea at the time; although Ptolemy represents it as tending to the southeast rather than to the northeast. Trade throughout the Indian Ocean was extensive from the 2nd century, and many trading ports with links to Roman communities have been identified in India and Sri Lanka along the route used by the Roman mission.

[edit] Other Roman embassies

Detail of Asia in Ptolemy's world map. Gulf of the Ganges left, Southeast Asian peninsula in the center, China Sea right, with "Sinae" (China).

Other embassies may have been sent after this first encounter, but were not recorded, until an account appears about presents sent in the early 3rd century by the Roman Emperor to Cao Rui of the Kingdom of Wei (reigned 227–239) in Northern China. The presents consisted of articles of glass in a variety of colours. While several Roman Emperors ruled during this time, the embassy, if genuine, may have been sent by Alexander Severus; since his successors reigned briefly and were busy with civil wars.

Another embassy from Daqin is recorded in the year 284, as bringing presents to the Chinese empire. This embassy presumably was sent by the Emperor Carus (282–283), whose short reign was occupied by war with Persia.

[edit] See also

[edit] Notes

  1. ^ Milton Osborne, The Mekong: Turbulent Past, Uncertain Future (2001:25).
  2. ^ "Next comes the district of Margiane, so remarkable for its sunny climate. It is the only spot in all these regions that produces the vine, being shut in on every side by verdant and refreshing hills. This district is fifteen hundred stadia in circumference, but is rendered remarkably difficult of access by sandy deserts, which extend a distance of one hundred and twenty miles: it lies opposite to the country of Parthia, and in it Alexander founded the city of Alexandria. This place having been destroyed by the barbarians, Antiochus, the son of Seleucus, rebuilt it on the same site as a Syrian city. For, seeing that it was watered by the Margus, which passes through it, and is afterwards divided into a number of streams for the irrigation of the district of Zothale, he restored it, but preferred giving it the name of Antiochia. The circumference of this city is seventy stadia: it was to this place that Orodes conducted such of the Romans as had survived the defeat of Crassus." Source:Plin. Hist. Nat. 6. 18
  3. ^, Italy Magazine, Xinhua, The Daily Telegraph, 2 February 2007
  4. ^ Detailed analysis by Ethan Gruber
  5. ^ Zhou R, An L, Wang X, Shao W, Lin G, Yu W, Yi L, Xu S, Xu J, Xie X, Testing the hypothesis of an ancient Roman soldier origin of the Liqian people in northwest China: a Y-chromosome perspective. J Hum Genet. 2007; 52(7): 584-91.
  6. ^ Reference: Ustinova, Yulia, “New Latin and Greek Rock-Inscriptions from Uzbekistan,” Hephaistos: New Approaches in Classical Archaeology and related Fields, 18/2000, pp. 169–179. Through Roman inscriptions in Uzbekistan
  7. ^ For example by J. Oliver Thomson, A History of Ancient Geography, Cambridge 1948, p.311. Thomson cites Richthofen, China, 1877, I, 469 and some other authors in support of the claim that Ban Chao marched to the Caspian, and Yule/Cordier, Cathay and the way thither, 1916 p.40(?), Chavannes, Seidenstrassen, p.8, and Teggart, Rome and China as references for such claims being erroneous.
  8. ^ His "Macedonian" origin betokens no more than his cultural affinity, and the name Maës is Semitic in origin (Cary 1956:130).
  9. ^ The mainstream opinion, noted by Cary 1956:130 note 7, based on the date of Marinus, established by his use of many Trajanic foundation names but none identifiable with Hadrian.
  10. ^ This is Cary's dating.
  11. ^ Centuries later Tashkurgan ('Stone Tower') was the capital of the Pamir kingdom of Sarikol.

[edit] Further reading

  • Hill, John E. 2004. The Western Regions according to the Hou Hanshu. Draft annotated English translation.[1]
  • Hill, John E. 2004. The Peoples of the West from the Weilue 魏略 by Yu Huan 魚豢: A Third Century Chinese Account Composed between 239 and 265. Draft annotated English translation. [2]
  • Henry Yule. Cathay and the Way Thither. 1915.

[edit] External links

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