Roman armor

The first Europeans to arrive in China for which there is evidence were ancient Romans. Roman historian Florus wrote of envoys between the “Seres” or Chinese and the Emperor Augustus (ruled 27 B.C. to A.D. 14). The earliest recorded official contact between China and ancient Rome was in A.D. 166 when, according to a Chinese account, a Roman envoy, possibly sent by Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius or Roman Emperor Antoninus Pius, arrived in then Chinese capital of Luoyang. This is the only meeting between the great civilizations of Rome and China of which a record survives. The Romans referred to the people of the remote East as the Seres—the Silk People. The term may have referred to tribes in Central Asia not the Chinese. The Romans, by the way, thought silk came from trees. The Persian Empire also traded with China about this time.

The Roman Empire reached its greatest territorial extent under the Emperor Trajan in the A.D. 1st and 2nd century, just as the Han empire in China was beginning to decline. Most historians believe that the two empires had only indirect contact, as silk and spices were traded along the Silk Road through merchants in exchange for Roman goods such as glassware. [Source: The Telegraph]

Richard Kurin, a cultural anthropologist at the Smithsonian institution, wrote: By the 1st century B.C.E. silk reached Rome, initiating the first "Silk Road." Pliny, writing about silk, thought it was made from the down of trees in Seres. It was very popular among the Romans. People wore rare strips of silk on their clothing and sought more; they spent increasing amounts of gold and silver, leading to a shortage in precious metals.[Source: Richard Kurin, the Smithsonian institution |*|]

“Coinciding with the development of ruling elites and the beginnings of empire, silk was associated with wealth and power — Julius Caesar entered Rome in triumph under silk canopies. Over the next three centuries, silk imports increased, especially with the Pax Romana of the early emperors, which opened up trade routes in Asia Minor and the Middle East. As silk came westward, newly invented blown glass, asbestos, amber, and red coral moved eastward. Despite some warnings about the silk trade's deleterious consequences, it became a medium of exchange and tribute, and when in 408 C.E. Alaric the Visigoth besieged Rome, he demanded and received as ransom 5,000 pounds of gold and 4,000 tunics of silk.” |*|


China was first known to ancient Europeans as Serica and the people of Serica were called the Seres, a word of ancient Greek origin. Serica was one of the easternmost places in Asia known to ancient Greek and Roman geographers. It is generally thought to refer to North China during the Zhou, Qin, and Han dynasties (11th century B.C. to A.D. 2nd century) and was reached by the overland Silk Road. Access to Serica was greatly enhanced following the Han conquest of the Tarim Basin (modern Xinjiang) but largely blocked when the Parthian Empire fell to the Sassanids. [Source: Wikipedia]

Serica is the source of the word sericulture ( the rasiing of silkworms to produce silk.). Sinae was another ancient name for China — particularly southern China reached via the maritime routes. It is the source of the word Sinology (the study of Chinese culture). A similar distinction between north and south China was made during medieval time with "Cathay" (north) and "Mangi" or "China" (south). The word Cathay comes form the Karakitay dynasty, an 11th century Buddhist empire in western China. In the Silk Road era this was the first part of China that Europeans reached when the approached China from the west. Some scholars argue the Seres were not the Chinese themselves but Indo-European-language-speaking tribes — such as the Yuezhi, Saka, and Tocharians — on the western periphery of China and traded with the ancient Indians.

Beginning in the 1st century B.C. with Virgil, Horace, and Strabo, Roman histories offer vague accounts of China and the silk-producing Seres.Florus seems to have confused the Seres with peoples of India, or at least noted that their skin complexions proved that they both lived "beneath another sky" than the Romans. The 1st-century geographer Pomponius Mela asserted that the lands of the Seres lay at the center of the coast of an eastern ocean, bordered to the north by the Scythians of the Eurasian Steppe and to the south by India. The A.D. 4th century historian Ammianus Marcellinus wrote that Seres was enclosed by great natural walls around a river called Bautis, which some have taken be a description of the Yellow River. The Turkic peoples of Central Asia the later Eastern Romans ( Byzantines) used a different name for China, Taugast (Turkic: Tabghach), during its Northern Wei (A.D. 386–535) period. By the time of the Eastern Roman ruler Justinian I (r. 527–565), the Byzantines purchased Chinese silk from Sogdian intermediaries. However, they also smuggled silkworms out of China with the help of Nestorian monks, who claimed that the land of "Serindia" was located north of India and produced the finest silk.

What Ancient Greeks and Romans Said About Seres (China)

The earliest surviving European accounts of the Seres are those in Ctesias's 5th-century B.C. “Indica”, where he calls them "a people of portentous stature and longevity". The authenticity of the account is disputed. [Source: Wikipedia]

In his A.D. 1st-century “Geography”, Strabo describes the Seres in two asides. 1) that "some writers" claim the Seres to be longer lived than the Indians of Musicanus, whom Onesicritus said lived to the age of 130; and 2) that, in a passage discussing the Greco-Bactrian Kingdom, Apollodorus of Artemita claimed the Bactrians' borders stretched "even as far as the Seres and the Phryni".

Pomponius Mela's De situ orbis mentions the Seres as one of three peoples inhabiting the eastern extremity of Asia between the Indians to the south and the Scythians to the north. He wrote: “From these the course [of the Caspian shore] makes a bend and trends to the coast line which faces the east. That part which adjoins the Scythian promontory is first all impassable from snow; then an uncultivated tract occupied by savages. These tribes are the Cannibal Scythians and the Sakas, severed from one another by a region where none can dwell because of the number of wild animals. Another vast wilderness follows, occupied also by wild beasts, reaching to a mountain called Thabis which overhangs the sea. A long way from that the ridge of Taurus rises. The Seres come between the two; a race eminent for integrity and well known for the trade which they allow to be transacted behind their backs, leaving their wares in a desert spot.

Pliny the Elder discussed the Seres in “Natural History, Book VI,” chapter xx. He placed the Seres beyond the steppes occupied by the Scythian and like, Virgil before him, described silk as coming from trees: “Then [sc. east of the Caspian], we again find tribes of Scythians and again desert tracts occupied only by wild animals, till we come to that mountain chain overhanging the sea which is called Tabis. Not till nearly half the length of the coast which looks north-east has been past do you find inhabited country. The first race then encountered are the Seres, so famous for the fleecy product of their forests ... The Seres 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.

In a different passage Pliny mentions that their iron—which they "send to us with their tissues and skins"—is the highest quality in the world, surpassing even Parthian iron. Pliny also mention a description of the Seres made by an embassy from Taprobane to Emperor Claudius, suggesting they may be referring to the Indo-European populations of the Tarim Basin, such as the Tocharians: “They also informed us that the side of their island which lies opposite to India is ten thousand stadia in length, and runs in a south-easterly direction—that beyond the Emodian Mountains (Himalayas) they look towards the Serve (Seres), whose acquaintance they had also made in the pursuits of commerce; that the father of Rachias (the ambassador) had frequently visited their country, and that the Serae always came to meet them on their arrival. These people, they said, exceeded the ordinary human height, had flaxen hair, and blue eyes, and made an uncouth sort of noise by way of talking, having no language of their own for the purpose of communicating their thoughts. The rest of their information (on the Serae) was of a similar nature to that communicated by our merchants. It was to the effect that the merchandize on sale was left by them upon the opposite bank of a river on their coast, and it was then removed by the natives, if they thought proper to deal on terms of exchange. On no grounds ought luxury with greater reason to be detested by us, than if we only transport our thoughts to these scenes, and then reflect, what are its demands, to what distant spots it sends in order to satisfy them, and for how mean and how unworthy an end!”

The country of "Serica" is situated on the A.D. 150 Ptolemy world map in the area beyond the "Imaus" (Pamir Mountains). This shows that he considered Serica to either incorporate or consist of what is now Xinjiang. In “Geographia” Ptolemy: “The inhabited part of our earth is bounded on the east by the Unknown Land which lies along the region occupied by the easternmost nations of Asia Major, the Sinae and the nations of Serice...The eastern extremity of the known earth is limited by the meridian drawn through the metropolis of the Sinae, at a distance from Alexandria of 119.5 degrees, reckoned upon the equator, or about eight equinoctial hours. (Book vii, ch. 50. Ptolemy also speaks of "Sera, the Capital of the Seres".

Ancient Greeks and China

After Alexander the Great’s conquest of western India in the 3rd century B.C., ancient Chinese people had contact with the Bactrian Greeks in what is now Pakistan and Afghanistan. The Dayuan (meaning "Great Ionians") were described in the Chinese historical works of “Records of the Grand Historian” and the “Book of Han” and is mentioned in the accounts of the famous Chinese explorer Faxian in 130 B.C. The country of Dayuan is generally accepted to be the Ferghana Valley in present-day Uzbekistan and includes Greek city Alexandria Eschate. Chinese accounts of the Dayuan describe them as urbanized dwellers with Caucasian features, living in walled cities and having "customs identical to those of the Greco-Bactrians". Strabo wrote that Bactrian Greeks "extended their empire even as far as the Seres (Chinese) and the Phryni". The War of the Heavenly Horses (104–101 B.C.) was a war between Dayuan and the Han dynasty.

Direct trade links between the Mediterranean lands and India had been established in the late 2nd century BC by the Hellenistic Ptolemaic Kingdom of Egypt. Greek navigators learned to use the regular pattern of the monsoon winds for their trade voyages in the Indian Ocean. Ancient Greece was resource poor and overpopulated. It needed to trade to secure resources.

In his A.D. 2nd century “Geography”, Ptolemy described a port city called Kattigara beyond the Golden Chersonese (the Malay Peninsula) that was visited by a Greek sailor named Alexander, who was probably a merchant. In the 19th century Ferdinand von Richthofen suggested that Kattigara was located near present-day Hanoi, which was part of the ancient Chinese province of Jiaozhi but the discovery of Roman and Mediterranean artefacts at Óc Eo (near Ho Chi Minh City, Saigon) in the Mekong Delta suggest that Kattigara was more likely in southern Vietnam.

In an an article entitled “Did Plato and the ancient Greeks know about China?”, Kaiser Kuo, wrote in Sup China: “With the caveat that an absence of evidence from extant historical sources doesn’t necessarily mean Plato (or any other highly educated man of the 4th century BCE Greek world) wouldn’t have known of the existence of China, it’s unlikely he did. Historians are in broad agreement that Plato’s works have all come down to us, and there are no stray references to works he might have written that would give credence to a claim that he knew of China. [Source: Kaiser Kuo, Sup China, February 17, 2020]

“Herodotus or those who came before him in the 5th century (Anaximander, Hecateus of Miletus) don’t make reference to specific lands to the east of the Central Asian steppe. In fact, even though Herodotus himself clearly knew of the existence of India and writes of it explicitly it in “The Histories”, he says (4:40) that “Asia is inhabited as far as India, but the territory east of India is uninhabited, and no one can say what sort of land exists there.” (From the Landmark Herodotus, p. 297).

“Plato was born either in 428/427 or in 425/424 BCE,. Remember that the Peloponnesian War was the major formative event of his life, occupying his whole young adulthood, and that for the rest of his life the Greek world was occupied primarily with matters in the Aegean, not far beyond the coastal settlements of Asia Minor. “China” — or, rather, the numerous, fragmented feudatories that remained after the old Zhou state’s crisis in 771 BCE — was in the time of Plato already in what historians call the Warring States Period: warfare had intensified and become more totalistic, the stakes higher as technologies of slaughter (and willingness to deploy them) improved. China, too, was very inward-focused.

“It’s not until the 3rd century BCE, after the unification of Qin, that we have evidence of the Greek world — now Rome’s world, really — being fully aware of the existence of a civilization in what is now China. In the 2nd century, a Han Dynasty emissary named Zhāng Qiān ventured quite far west after many misadventures but does not appear to have reached the frontiers of Rome. He did, however, encounter people likely of Hellenistic descent who lived in the Ferghana Valley of modern Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan. But this is long, long after Plato’s death.

Sino-Hellenic contacts since Hellenistic times are evidenced by a study of prestige gold provided which provides insight into trans-cultural contact between Han Dynasty China (206 B.C. to A.D. 220) and the Hellenistic world. This study shows that the quest for exotica and “heavenly horses” from the Ferghana Valley among the ruling elites acted as the driving force of imperial expansion of the Han court in Central Asia, as well as the establishment of a vast trading network that became the Silk Road in the first century B.C.. Much of the research has been done in connection with the Sino-Hellenic Academic Project.

Ancient Romans and China

Golden medallions dating to the reign of Antoninus Pius (A.D. 138 to 161) and Marcus Aurelius (A.D. 161-180) were uncovered at Óc Eo (near Ho Chi Minh City, Saigon) in the Mekong Delta in southern Vietnam. Similar finds from around the same time have been found in Thailand, Indonesia, and Malaysia). Chinese histories say that merchants of "Daqin" (the Roman Empire) were present in Cambodia and Vietnam. [Source: Wikipedia]

Archaeological evidence seems to support a Chinese claim that a Roman mission sent by a ruler named "Andun" (either Antoninus Pius or Marcus Aurelius) in A.D. 166 first arrived in Jiaozhi. After the ancient Roman missions to China recorded in ancient Chinese histories, there appear to have been contacts between the Byzantine Empire and several dynasties of China, beginning with the Tang Dynasty (A.D. 618-907).

From Chinese records it is known that Michael VII Doukas (Mie li yi ling kai sa) of Fu lin (Byzantium) dispatched a diplomatic mission to China that eventually arrived in 1081, during the reign of Emperor Shenzong of the Song dynasty (960-1279 AD), centuries before Marco Polo's expedition.[7] Kublai Khan, the Mongol-ruler who founded the Yuan dynasty (1271-1368 AD) of China not only maintained correspondence with the Byzantine Greeks but hosted some of them at his court in Khanbaliq (modern Beijing). The History of Yuan (chapter 134) records that a certain Ai-sie (transliteration of either Joshua or Joseph) from the country of Fu lin (i.e. the Byzantine Empire), initially in the service of Güyük Khan, was well-versed in Western languages and had expertise in the fields of Greek medicine and astronomy that convinced Kublai Khan to offer him a position as the director of medical and astronomical boards.[8] Kublai Khan eventually honored Ai-sie with the noble title of Prince of Fu lin (Chinese: ; Fú l n wáng).[8] In his biography within the History of Yuan his children are mentioned by their Chinese names, which bear similarities to the Christian names Elias (Ye-li-ah), Luke (Lu-ko), and Antony (An-tun), with a daughter named A-na-si-sz.[8]

Trade in the Roman Empire

The Roman established wide trade network across the Mediterranean. Ships regularly crossed the open Mediterranean out of site of land from Italy to Carthage in Northern Africa. Important trade items included metals and olive oil from Spain and Africa, grain from Egypt, Africa and the Crimea, spices and silks from the east and wine from France and Italy. Goods were often carried in large jug-like red clay amphoras on square-sailed merchant ships. Ivory from Africa, silk from China, spices, pepper and cotton from India, wheat, and linen and marble from Egypt were carried by ships across the Mediterranean. The amphorae used to transport oil, wine and other foodstuffs were generally about five feet high.

By the 2nd century, the Romans had a well developed trade network with China. Silks, rich brocades, cloth of gold and jeweled embroideries made their way to Rome from China and Persia. Caravans loaded with perfumes from Arabia, spices and rare woods from India, and silk from China passed through Palmyra in Syria and other oasis towns and made their way to the Roman Empire. along what would later be called the Silk Road

Because of the stormy weather in the Mediterranean during the winter ships usually stayed in port from October to March. Even during the Middle Ages, Venetian ships only made one trip a year between Italy and the Levant (present-day Lebanon). One fleet left Venice after Easter and returned in September.

Trade Routes between Europe and Asia during Antiquity

During the period between 250 B.C. and A.D. 250, a maritime sea route existed between Alexandra in Northern Africa and India and the Far East. Stopping places included Sumharam Port (in Oman) and then the ports around the Arabian coast to Aila (Aqaba), from where one could travel by land to Alexandria. Trade along this route produced a number of kingdoms that flourished when the trade was at its peak and died out when the trade declined.. Along one of the main routes. Arab and Indian dhows followed the seasonal monsson winds and traveled from the Red Sea and Persian gulf in th west to Palk Bay in Sri Lanka and coastal cities of India. Indian dhows traveled from India to places in Southeast Asia where they met Chinese junks. Some Chinese junks traveled as far as Sri Lanka and the Maldives where they met Arabs. [Source:]

“According to the Metropolitan Museum of Art: “Long-distance trade played a major role in the cultural, religious, and artistic exchanges that took place between the major centers of civilization in Europe and Asia during antiquity. Some of these trade routes had been in use for centuries, but by the beginning of the first century A.D., merchants, diplomats, and travelers could (in theory) cross the ancient world from Britain and Spain in the west to China and Japan in the east. The trade routes served principally to transfer raw materials, foodstuffs, and luxury goods from areas with surpluses to others where they were in short supply. Some areas had a monopoly on certain materials or goods. China, for example, supplied West Asia and the Mediterranean world with silk, while spices were obtained principally from South Asia. These goods were transported over vast distances— either by pack animals overland or by seagoing ships—along the Silk and Spice Routes, which were the main arteries of contact between the various ancient empires of the Old World. Another important trade route, known as the Incense Route, was controlled by the Arabs, who brought frankincense and myrrh by camel caravan from South Arabia. [Source: Department of Ancient Near Eastern Art, Metropolitan Museum of Art, October 2000, \^/]

““Cities along these trade routes grew rich providing services to merchants and acting as international marketplaces. Some, like Palmyra and Petra on the fringes of the Syrian Desert, flourished mainly as centers of trade supplying merchant caravans and policing the trade routes. They also became cultural and artistic centers, where peoples of different ethnic and cultural backgrounds could meet and intermingle. \^/

““The trade routes were the communications highways of the ancient world. New inventions, religious beliefs, artistic styles, languages, and social customs, as well as goods and raw materials, were transmitted by people moving from one place to another to conduct business. These connections are reflected, for example, in the sculptural styles of Gandhara (modern-day Pakistan and northern India) and Gaul (modern-day France), both influenced by the Hellenistic styles popularized by the Romans. \^/

Trade Between the Romans and the Empires of Asia

According to the Metropolitan Museum of Art: “By the end of the first century B.C., there was a great expansion of international trade involving five contiguous powers: the Roman empire, the Parthian empire, the Kushan empire, the nomadic confederation of the Xiongnu, and the Han empire. Although travel was arduous and knowledge of geography imperfect, numerous contacts were forged as these empires expanded—spreading ideas, beliefs, and customs among heterogeneous peoples—and as valuable goods were moved over long distances through trade, exchange, gift giving, and the payment of tribute. Transport over land was accomplished using river craft and pack animals, notably the sturdy Bactrian camel. Travel by sea depended on the prevailing winds of the Indian Ocean, the monsoons, which blow from the southwest during the summer months and from the northeast in the fall. [Source: Department of Ancient Near Eastern Art, Metropolitan Museum of Art, \^/]

“A vast network of strategically located trading posts (emporia) enabled the exchange, distribution, and storage of goods. Isodorus of Charax, a Parthian Greek writing around the 1 A.D., described various posts and routes in a book entitled Parthian Stations. From the Greco-Roman metropolis of Antioch, routes crossed the Syrian Desert via Palmyra to Ctesiphon (the Parthian capital) and Seleucia on the Tigris River. From there the road led east across the Zagros Mountains to the cities of Ecbatana and Merv, where one branch turned north via Bukhara and Ferghana into Mongolia and the other led into Bactria. The port of Spasinu Charax on the Persian Gulf was a great center of seaborne trade. Goods unloaded there were sent along a network of routes throughout the Parthian empire—up the Tigris to Ctesiphon; up the Euphrates to Dura-Europos; and on through the caravan cities of the Arabian and Syrian Desert. Many of these overland routes ended at ports on the eastern Mediterranean, from which merchandise was distributed to cities throughout the Roman empire. \^/

“Other routes through the Arabian desert may have ended at the Nabataean city of Petra, where new caravans traveled on to Gaza and other ports on the Mediterranean, or north to Damascus or east to Parthia. A network of sea routes linked the incense ports of South Arabia and Somalia with ports in the Persian Gulf and India in the east, and also with ports on the Red Sea, from which merchandise was transported overland to the Nile and then to Alexandria.” \^/

Trade Between Ancient Rome and China

The indirect exchange of goods on land along the Silk Road and sea routes included Chinese silk, Roman glassware and high-quality cloth. Roman glassware and silverware have been discovered at Chinese archaeological sites dated to the Han period. Roman coins and glass beads have also been found in Japan. [Source: Wikipedia]

One maritime route opened up with the Chinese-controlled port of Rinan in Jiaozhi (in present-day Vietnam) and the Khmer kingdom of Funan by the A.D. 2nd century, if not earlier.

The extent of the sea trade in Roman times is confirmed by the excavation of large deposits of Roman coins along much of the coast of India. Many trading ports with links to Roman communities have been identified in India and Sri Lanka along the route used by the Roman mission. The trade connection from Vietnam 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 north-eastern coast of the Red Sea.. Archaeological evidence stretching from the Red Sea ports of Roman Egypt to India suggests that Roman commercial activity in the Indian Ocean and Southeast Asia declined heavily with the Antonine Plague of A.D. 166. Some scholars do not consider discoveries such as the Roman and Roman-inspired goods at Vietnam to be conclusive proof that Romans visited these areas and suggests that the items could have been introduced by Indian merchants.

High-quality glass from Roman manufacturers in Alexandria and Syria was exported to many parts of Asia, including Han China. The oldest Roman glassware discovered in China is a blue soda-lime glass bowl dating to the early 1st century B.C. and excavated from a Western Han tomb in the southern port city of Guangzhou, which may have come there via the Indian Ocean and South China Sea. Other very old Roman glass items include a mosaic-glass bowl found in a prince's tomb near Nanjing dated to A.D. 67 and a glass bottle with opaque white streaks found in an Eastern Han tomb of Luoyang. Roman and Persian glassware has been found in a A.D. 5th-century tomb of Gyeongju, Korea. Roman glass beads dated to around the same time have been discovered in within the Kofun-era Utsukushi burial mound near Kyoto.

Other Roman luxury items sought by the Chinese included gold-embroidered rugs and gold-coloured cloth, amber, asbestos cloth, and sea silk, which was a cloth made from the silk-like hairs of a Mediterranean shellfish, the Pinna nobilis. Silver and bronze items, perhaps originating from the Seleucid Empire, and dated to the 3rd–2nd centuries B.C. have found throughout China. A Roman gilded silver plate dated to the B.C. 2nd–3rd centuries was found in Jingyuan County, Gansu, along a Silk Road trade route. The plate has a raised relief image depicting the Greco-Roman god Dionysus resting on a feline creature.

The main Chinese trade item sought by the Roman Empire was silk, starting in the 1st century B.C.. Much of the silk that made its way to Rome on the early Silk Road did so via Parthian and Kushans who controlled the lucrative trade routes in Central Asia and served as intermediaries. During the 1st century B.C. silk was a rare treasure. By the A.D. 1st century it was more widely available. In his Natural History (77–79 AD), Pliny the Elder commented on the financial toll the desire for silk had on the Roman Empire, blaming that Rome's "womankind" and the purchase of luxury goods from India, Arabia, and China for draining 100 million sesterces per year from the Roman treasury. Some scholars have argued that the Roman purchase of other foreign commodities, particularly spices from India, had an equal or greater impact on the Roman economy. In A.D. 14 the Senate issued an edict prohibiting the wearing of silk by men, but the trade continued as strong as ever. The huge amount of wealth expended on silk clothes were also considered to be decadent and immoral by Seneca the Elder (3 B.C. – A.D. 65), who wrote: “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.

Shortly after the smuggling of silkworm eggs into the Byzantine Empire from China by Nestorian Christian monks in the A.D. 6th century, the Central-Asia-based Sogdians attempted to establish a direct trade of Chinese silk with the Byzantine Empire. This led to alliances with the Sasanian Persians and warss with the the Hephthalites and Turks. Even after Byzantine silk production started in the 6th century, Chinese varieties were still considered to be of higher quality.

Roman Coins in China

Roman coins minted from the 1st century AD onwards have been found in China. A coin of Maximian and medallions from the reigns of Antoninus Pius and Marcus Aurelius during the A.D. 2nd century were discovered in Jiaozhi in modern Vietnam. [Source: Wikipedia]

Valerie Hansen said in 2012 that no Roman coins from the Roman Republic (509–27 B.C.) or the Principate (27 BC – 284 AD) era of the Roman Empire have been found in China. Nevertheless, Warwick Ball (2016) cites two studies from 1978 summarizing the discovery at Xi'an, China (the site of the Han capital Chang'an) of a hoard of sixteen Roman coins from the reigns of Tiberius (14–37 AD) to Aurelian (270–275 AD). The Roman coins found at Óc Eo, Vietnam, near Chinese-controlled Jiaozhou, date to the A.D. mid-2nd century. A Maximian (r. 286–305 AD) Roman coin was discovered in Tonkin. Roman coins of the 3rd and 4th centuries AD have been discovered in Okinawa, Japan.

The small number of Roman and Byzantine coins found during excavations of Central Asian and Chinese archaeological sites from the Sogdian era suggests that direct trade with the Sogdians remained limited. The earliest gold solidus coins from the Eastern Roman Empire (Byzantium) found in China date to the reign of Byzantine emperor Theodosius II (r. 408–450 AD) and altogether only forty-eight of them have been found (compared to 1300 silver coins) in Xinjiang and the rest of China. The use of silver coins in Turfan persisted long after the Tang campaign against Karakhoja and Chinese conquest of 640 AD, with a gradual adoption of Chinese bronze coinage during the A.D. 7th century. Hansen has said the these Eastern Roman coins were almost always found with Sasanian Persian silver coins and Eastern Roman gold coins were used more as ceremonial objects like talismans, confirming the control that of Greater Iran over Chinese Silk Road commerce of Central Asia compared to Eastern Rome.

Ball has argued that the scarcity of Roman and Byzantine coins in China, and the greater amounts found in India, suggest that most Chinese silk purchased by the Romans was from maritime India, largely bypassing the overland Silk Road trade through Iran. Chinese coins from the Sui and Tang dynasties (6th–10th centuries AD) have been discovered in India; significantly larger amounts are dated to the Song period (11th–13th centuries AD), particularly in the territories of the contemporary Chola dynasty.

Roman Legionnaires Reach China During the Han Dynasty?

Romans are believed by some to have made it as far east as the Gobi Desert around 2,000 years ago. The people in Liqian, a village in Gansu Province in western China on the fringes of the Gobi Desert, near the Qilian mountains, insist they are descendants of Romans and say the curly hair, straight noes, and light-colored eyes that some of them have proves it.

The Romans that made it to China are said to have been soldiers under Crassus—a Roman leader who formed the First Triumvirate with Julius Caesar and Pompey—who survived a battle against the Parthians in Syria and Iran and then made their way east, working as mercenaries for the Huns, until they were captured by Chinese troops during a Chinese attack on the Hun ruler Zhizhi in present-day Uzbekistan.

According to this theory Roman legionaries settled in the Liqian area in the first century B.C. after fleeing the disastrous battle in 53 B.C. in which Crassus’s army was pitted against a larger force of Parthians, from what is now Iran, bringing to an abrupt halt the Roman Empire’s eastwards expansion. Thousands of Romans were slaughtered and Crassus himself was beheaded, but some legionaries were said to have escaped the fighting and marched east to elude the enemy. They supposedly fought as mercenaries in a war between the Huns and the Chinese of the Han Dynasty in 36 B.C. Some stories say that 145 Romans were taken captive and wandered the region for years.

Evidence for this claim, first proffered by Oxford historian Homer Dubbs in the 1950s, includes: 1) the mention of “fish scale formations”—a formation of overlapping shields — believed to be a reference to "tortoise" phalanx formations made only by Roman soldiers”— by Zhizhi's army; 2) Roman-style palisades found in the wall in the town where Zhizhi lived; and 3) a city called Liqian in a historical record dated to A.D. 5. At that time Liqian was also the name used by Chinese for Rome. Only two other Chinese cities mentioned had the names of foreign places—Kucha and Wen-suit—and both were given the name of the foreigners that lived there.

Among the biggest promoters of the Roman connection are tourist officials in Liqian who have erected a statue of Roman next to ones of a Han Chinese and a Muslim Hui Chinese, and built a new museum with a skeleton said to be of a Roman, found in a 2000-year-old tomb, and charts that show Roman physiological features found among the local people. As of the mid-2000s the town boasted a luxury hotel for tourists, an “Imperial City Entertainment Street” and a Caesar Karaoke bar. A statue at the entrance of the nearby town of Yongchang, shows a Roman legionary standing next to a Confucian scholar and a Muslim woman, as a symbol of racial harmony.

Caucasian DNA Found in Remote Chinese Villagers: Evidence of Romans in China?

Caucasian-originating DNA has been found among villagers in remote parts of China. While some see this as evidence of Roman ancestry; others point they could be other sources of the Caucasian DNA could be Sogdians from Central Asia; Eastern Iranians: Bactrians, Saka Scythians or Tocharians or other peoples that spoke Indo-European language (which gave birth to English an many other European languages) or have some roots in Europe and the West.

In 2010, Nick Spence, wrote in The Telegraph: “Genetic testing of villagers in a remote part of China has shown that nearly two thirds of their DNA is of Caucasian origin, lending support to the theory that they may be descended from a ‘lost legion’ of Roman soldiers. Tests found that the DNA of some villagers in Liqian.... was 56 per cent Caucasian in origin. [Source: Nick Spence, The Telegraph, November 23, 2010]

“Many of the villagers have blue or green eyes, long noses and even fair hair, prompting speculation that they have European blood. A local man, Cai Junnian, is nicknamed by his friends and relatives Cai Luoma, or Cai the Roman, and is one of many villagers convinced that he is descended from the lost legion. Archeologists plan to conduct digs in the region, along the ancient Silk Route, to search for remains of forts or other structures built by the fabled army. “We hope to prove the legend by digging and discovering more evidence of China’s early contacts with the Roman Empire,” Yuan Honggeng, the head of a newly-established Italian Studies Centre at Lanzhou University in Gansu province, told the China Daily newspaper. Maurizio Bettini, a classicist and anthropologist from Siena University, dismissed the theory as “a fairy tale”. “For it to be indisputable, one would need to find items such as Roman money or weapons that were typical of Roman legionaries,” he told La Repubblica. “Without proof of this kind, the story of the lost legions is just a legend.”

In 2007, Richard Spencer wrote in The Telegraph, “Scientists have taken blood samples from 93 people living in and around Liqian...more than 200 miles from the nearest city. “I really think we are descended from the Romans,” said Song Guorong, 48, who with his wavy hair, six-foot frame and strikingly long, hooked nose stands out from his short, round-faced office colleagues. “There are the residents with these special features, and then there are also historical records about the existence of these people long ago,” Gu Jianming, who lives near Liqian, said it had come as a surprise to be told he might be descended from a European imperial army. But then the birth of his daughter was also a surprise. Gu Meina, now six, was born with a shock of blonde hair. “We shaved it off a month after she was born but it just grew back the same colour,” he said. “At school they call her ‘yellow hair’. Before we were told about the Romans, we had no idea about this. We are poor and have no family temple, so we don’t know about our ancestors.” [Source: Richard Spencer, The Telegraph, February 2, 2007 ^]

Cai Junnian “said his great-grandfather told him that there were Roman tombs in the Qilian mountains a day and a half’s walk away, but he had never connected them to the unusual appearance he inherited from his father. Prof Xie Xiaodong, a geneticist from Lanzhou University, cautioned against over enthusiasm. “Even if they are descendants of the Roman empire, it doesn’t mean they are necessarily from the Roman army,” he said. “The empire covered a large area. Many soldiers were recruited locally, so anything is possible.” The issue has split the university’s history department, with some scholars supporting the claim, some rejecting it. Prof Wang Shaokuan poured scorn on Prof Dubs’s thesis, saying the Huns themselves included Caucasians, Asians and Mongols.” ^

Ancient Chinese Skeletons Found in Roman Cemetery in London

In 2016, archaeologists announced found two pairs of remains belonging to people of Asian ancestry“ in a Roman cemetery in London,. Analysis indicated it was highly likely the people were Chinese, meaning they or their ancestors traveled around 5,000 miles to get to England. "Many people traveled, often vast distances, for trade or because of their occupation, for example in the military, or their social status, for example if they were enslaved," Dr. Rebecca Redfern, one of the archaeologists, wrote in The Journal of Archaeological Science. [Source: Jeva Lange This Week, September 28, 2016]

NextShark reported that the bones date back to sometime between the A.D. 2nd and 4th century A.D. Only one other person of Asian ancestry had ever been discovered at a Roman Empire site

According to This Week: “While nothing is conclusive yet, researchers can begin to speculate about what kinds of lives the people lived; perhaps the pair were immigrants who had come to Europe to set up their own business. Other skeletons in the area have been linked to African and Mediterranean peoples, suggesting the neighborhood was perhaps home to a diverse community of immigrants that shared the same social or economic status as the other locals.”

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: CNTO (China National Tourist Organization),, UNESCO, Wikipedia, Lonely Planet guides, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, National Geographic, China Daily, Xinhua, Global Times, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Bloomberg, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, Compton's Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Updated in August 2021

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