When the Romans went to China
In 2004 already the University of Washington’s John E. Hill drafted an English copy of the Weilüe, a third century C.E. account of the interactions between the Romans and the Chinese, as told from the perspective of ancient China. “Although the Weilue was never classed among the official or ‘canonical’ histories, it has always been held in the highest regard by Chinese scholars as a unique and precious source of historical and geographical information,” says Hill.
For some time it has been known that Chinese records provide a considerable amount of information on Daqin 大秦 i. e. Great Qin (synonym of Roman Empire in Chinese records). Nevertheless, interpretation of these accounts requires a more coherent nexus.
Looking at the potential relationships between ancient Greece Rome and second century China one study that was published in Science on 8 Nov. 2019 established the influx of many people from the near East and areas that were part of to the Silk Road. Already mentioned by contemporary Greek historian Herodotus where the Tocharians (modern Xinjiang) whose languages are the easternmost group of Indo-European languages. Caucasoid mummies have been found in various locations in the Tarim Basin such as Loulan, the Xiaohe Tomb complex, and Qäwrighul. "Tocharian" was given to them by modern scholars, who identified their speakers with a people who inhabited the important area of Bactria from the 2nd century BC, and were known in ancient Greek sources as the Tókharoi (Latin Tochari). This subject of the relationship between China and Ancient Greece and Rome has during the past few years has also been intensively studied by specialized historians like for example also Randolph B. Ford who recently completed a book soon to be published by Cambridge University Press:
The historical reconstruction of the trans-Eurasian ‘Silk Roads’ has been the archaeological documentation coupled with the comparative analysis of the written sources, that is to say, those of the Roman and the Chinese authors. It has been argued that from a historiographical perspective, it must be stressed that ‘the invention of the Silk Roads’ was from the very beginning deeply associated with the History of the Roman Empire.
The Silk roads to the Mediterranean combined maritime and overland itineraries. From the production centers in the territories of North-Western China, the caravans moved westward through the overland roads of the Tarim basin. From the Pamir Mountains, silk passed through Bactria, avoiding Parthia, and then down the Hindu Valley to the Northern India ports. The Periplus testifies the existence of silk and silk products in the Indian ports of the Western and Eastern coasts of India. From Muziris different routes could be taken: the most direct was crossing the Indian Ocean to reach the Egyptian ports on the Red Sea, then across the desert up to Alexandria. Another possible route was leading carriers to the port of Charax Spasinou on the Persian Gulf, and then across the desert to Palmyra. From this important city (a key hub for the caravan trade), the silk was then taken to the Syrian cities of Tyre, Sidon, Antiochia, famous centers for textile manufacturing.
Indian merchants provided Roman business people with some necessary information about the location of China. Roman seafarers used the stars to determine the position of distant countries and plot the direction of sea crossings. Night journeys across featureless desert landscapes were also made using the constellations as a guide.¹ Greek pilots, therefore, tried to connect Indian information on China with star patterns that might reveal the global position of this distant country. The Periplus of the Erythraean Sea suggests that ‘Thinalies right under Ursa Minor and must be on the same level as the outer parts of the Pontus (Black Sea) and the Caspian’ (AD 50).² Based on this perspective, China was thought to be on the same latitude as the Caspian Sea in a location just slightly north of its correct position.
A concise history of the Roman contact with China
As ocean commerce developed, Roman ships began sailing around the southern tip of India to reach city-ports in the Ganges and Burma. But these Roman voyages remained within the Indian Ocean since the 1,000-mile-long Malay Peninsula was a significant barrier that hindered ventures further east. Roman ships were dependent on seasonal weather. Once the northeast monsoon began to blow in November, it was time for them to sail back across the ocean to Egypt. ³ This timeframe discouraged any Roman voyages around the Malay Peninsula to investigate the lands that lay beyond.
In the early second century AD, a Greek sailor named Alexandros gathered details from Indian merchants who sailed to a site on the northern part of the Malay Peninsula called Tamala. From Tamala, travelers trekked 100 miles across the narrow Kra Isthmus and boarded other Indian vessels on the eastern seaboard. These ships were outfitted to cross the Gulf of Thailand, and their Indian crews sailed to Cambodia and Vietnam in search of new trade opportunities. When they reached the southern tip of Vietnam some of these ships sailed south into the open sea and made the crossing to Borneo.⁴ Ancient Borneo was an extensive jungle forested island that was almost as large as Asia Minor (modern Turkey). Indian ships making landfall on the 700-mile-long northern coast of Borneo were therefore unsure if the landmass was an island or some southern extension of the Asian continent.
The Periplus written by Alexandros has not survived, but it provided Claudius Ptolemy with most of the geographical data he used to map the southeast edge of Asia. Using this information, Ptolemy locates ‘Sinae’ (Han China) in a narrow band of territory on the very edge of the Asian continent. However, Ptolemy made errors in his reconstruction of the Far East. He theorized that the northern coast of Borneo was part of the Asian continent and therefore made the seaboard of Sinae extend southeast to enclose the entire southern ocean.⁵
The Maes Titianus Expedition
For centuries the overland Silk Routes around the Tarim Basin provided a conduit through which Chinese goods reached Bactria, India, and Parthia. Only one Roman merchant group is reported to have ventured into Central Asia and followed the Tarim routes to the Chinese Empire. The group was sent by a Roman entrepreneur named Maes Titianus sometime around AD 100. But this contact was exceptional and was only made possible due to particular circumstances that arose between the leading ancient empires.
In the late first century AD, the Han general Ban Chao restored Chinese authority over the Tarim kingdoms using a combination of diplomacy and military force (AD 74–97). By AD 84, Ban Chao had secured Kashgar, and the Han could re-establish direct political contacts with the Yuezhi in Bactria (the Kushan Empire). Chinese rule created stability on the silk routes and prevented intervening regimes from hindering travel, or monopolizing various sections of the caravan trails that led across the Tarim territories. In AD 87 the Parthians responded to these developments by sending an embassy to China which was received by the Han Emperor Zhang.⁶
They returned with oriental merchandise and brought new information about the Chinese Empire back to the Parthian capitals at Ecbatana in Iran and Ctesiphon in Babylonia.
These events probably motivated Maes Titianus to plan his own commercial venture into Central Asia. Sometime around AD 100, Maes arranged for a team of commercial agents to travel along the Parthian caravan routes that led from Iran into Afghanistan. This Roman group journeyed through the northern part of the Kushan Empire towards the Tarim territories. Somewhere near the Pamirs, they were intercepted by Han authorities who took them eastward through the Tarim kingdoms to China. The bewildered Romans were delivered to the Chinese capital Luoyang and brought before the Han Emperor He. On their return to the Roman Empire, the group offered an account of their exploits to Maes who wrote a report for his business colleagues. This account was read by educated Greeks and Romans, including geographers who extracted names, distances, and directions from work. One of these geographers was a mathematician named Marinus, who came from the Syrian city of Tyre. This is significant because Tyre was famous for its fabric industries and the city was a leading participant in the international silk trade.⁷ The original report by Maes has not survived into modern times, but Claudius Ptolemy copied the data collected by Marinus. Ptolemy used the information from Maes to construct new maps of the Far East and determine the geographical position of the people that the Romans called the Sinae (the Chinese).⁸
Claudius Ptolemy describes Maes as ‘a Macedonian who was also called Titianus and was the son of a merchant and a merchant himself’.⁹ Maes was a Syrian name, and the nomen ‘Titianus’ indicates that he came from a family granted Roman citizenship by a man called Titian. Therefore Maes Titianus was a Macedonian who spoke Greek, but he came from a family of businessmen who claimed elements of both Syrian and Roman identity. Maes could have inherited his Roman citizenship from an ancestor who served a leading politician named Marcus Titius.¹⁰ Titius was the Roman governor of Syria in 13 BC, and on the orders of Emperor Augustus he helped facilitate an important peace settlement with the Parthians. This was the agreement whereby the Parthian King Phraates IV sent several of his young sons and grandsons to Rome as political wards of the Roman Emperor.¹¹ Strabo describes how Marcus received four children, four grandchildren and two daughters-in-law of the Parthian King. He took responsibility for the safety and wellbeing of these Parthian royals from the time they crossed into Syria until their transfer to Rome.¹²
Marcus Titius would have sent trusted Syrian servants to the Parthian capital Ctesiphon to convey messages and arrange for the safe conduct of the royal family. Marcus probably granted some of these servants Roman citizenship, and as freedmen, they could have used their knowledge and political connections to create successful commercial businesses. They had high-status contacts in Ctesiphon who could acquire silk batches for dispatch to the cities of Roman Syria. Maes Titianus was probably from one of these merchant families, a Roman citizen with connections to the Parthian nobility, which ensured that his business requests would be granted. In this particular context, he was able to arrange for some of his commercial agents to join a Parthian caravan as it headed out across Iran towards Bactria and the Kushan Empire.
Claudius Ptolemy explains the route taken by the Maes group. The first stage in the expedition was a journey across the Parthian Empire from the Euphrates frontier to Merv on the eastern edge of Iran. Before the onset of summer, Parthian caravans would have left the hot and humid city of Ctesiphon and headed east to the seasonal capital of Ecbatana in the drier and cooler climate of Media.¹³ This was a journey of about 250 miles through passes in the Zagros Mountains which formed the outer fringe of the Iranian Plateau. Caravans followed this route in springtime when snows from the mountains melted and provided temporary streams of water for the benefit of travelers and their horse-mounted escorts.
The multi-walled city of Ecbatana offered accommodation and supplies to the Parthian caravans that crossed ancient Iran. From Ecbatana, the route headed north across the Iranian plateau towards the coast of the Caspian Sea. This was a journey of about 200 miles through mountain valleys that descended towards the narrow seaboard of Hyrcania. Hyrcania was a 300-mile-long belt of low-lying territory between the mountains and the Caspian shore. This plain of fertile land was a vital corridor for east-west travel as it offered caravans a well-provisioned route around the eastern section of the Iranian Plateau. On the edge of Hyrcania, the merchant caravans passed through the Iranian city of Hecatompylos. This was the first capital created by the Parthians (the Parni) when they migrated from the Central Asian steppe to settle in northeast Iran (238–209 BC).
The caravan route from Hecatompylos (Qumis) to the Parthian frontier at Merv covered more than 450 miles across arid terrain. Merv was the last major outpost of the Parthian Empire, and from there, caravans would have entered Kushan territory and headed 300 miles east to the Bactrian capital Bactra (Balkh). Centuries earlier, Bactria had been part of a Greek kingdom that included an urban population descended from Macedonian colonists (256–140 BC). Perhaps the Maes group was able to exploit a shared Macedonian heritage to pass unhindered through this region.
In AD 100, there was peace between Parthian Iran and the Kushan Empire, which ruled in ancient Afghanistan. This meant that caravans were able to pass unobstructed between their realms and the Parthian merchants that reached Bactra (Balkh) were permitted to travel eastward to the Pamir Mountains. It was a journey of about 00 miles between Bactra and a trade outpost on the Kushan frontier known as the Stone Tower (Tashkurgan). The Stone Tower was a meeting-ground for the steppe peoples that Claudius Ptolemy calls the ‘Scythians.’ Ptolemy calculated that the entire route from Ctesiphon to the Stone Tower covered about 26,280 stadia, which is equivalent to about 2,600 miles.¹⁴ Caravans can travel up to 15 miles per day, but with frequent rest periods, the journey would have taken up to six months.
The Stone Tower trade outpost in the Pamir Mountains was about 250 miles from the oasis city of Kashgar on the edge of the Tarim Basin. Perhaps the Roman merchants sent by Maes expected to conclude their trade dealings at this distant site and then begin the long trek home to Syria. But in AD 100, Kashgar was a protectorate of the Han Empire, and Chinese observers were active on this new frontier. The Protector General Ban Chao was planning his retirement and wanted to impress the Han Emperor by returning to Luoyang with a range of foreign peoples from western countries beyond the Tarim territories. By chance, the Roman merchants were at the Stone Tower when Han agents were searching for external representatives who could give an account of their distant homelands to the imperial court. As a result, the Maes group was brought to the offices of Ban Chao in the Tarim kingdoms where they accepted the opportunity to travel onward to Luoyang.¹⁵
The Maes merchants spoke Greek and were found by Chinese agents near a country that had once been ruled by Hellenic dynasties (Bactria). They were also traveling with Parthian merchants and so did not identify themselves as Roman. This meant that Chinese authorities were not aware they were dealing with subjects of Da Qin (the Roman Empire). The Maes merchants were conveyed 600 miles across the Tarim kingdoms by a Chinese military escort and brought through the Jade Gate to the 600-mile-long Hexi a corridor that led into inner China and the 400-mile route to Luoyang.15
This part of the journey revealed the accurate scale of eastern Asia to Roman geographers. Ptolemy reports, ‘The distance from the Stone Tower to Sera, the capital of the Seres, is a journey of seven months, estimated at 36,200 stadia.’¹⁶ This distance was about 3,600 miles and suggested that a journey from the Euphrates to central China could be completed in about twelve months, or a full year of travel. Consequently, anyone making the round trip would be absent from their homeland for at least two years.
Maes wrote a full account of the journey taken by his business agents, but only the briefest summary of this work survives in the map-based discussion given by Claudius Ptolemy. Ptolemy describes how the Maes group journeyed for seven months through lands that were previously unknown to any Greek or Roman authority. As they traveled through the Tarim territories, the agents kept to a route ‘subject to violent storms’ until, at the end of their journey,
they entered the capital of the Seres. This was the imperial city of Luoyang, and the Maes group found themselves in the company of dozens of envoys from Central Asia who had come to pay honor to the Chinese Court.¹⁷
The Chinese history, known as the Hou Hanshu, reveals the incident from the Han perspective and dates this encounter to AD 100. It seems that the Maes group described themselves as Macedonians and explained the long distance between their Syrian homelands and the Chinese Empire. This information translated for the imperial court, and the Chinese scribes entered in their records that the Maes group came from a previously unknown region called Meng-chi Tou-le (Macedonia–Tyre). The Hou Hanshu reports: ‘the distant States of Mengchi and Tou-le came to make their submission by sending envoys to bring tribute.’¹⁸ The Chinese were informed that the route from Meng-chi Tou-le to the Han capital at Luoyang covered a distance of more than 10,000 miles (40,000 li). This made these western territories the most distant region in contact with the Chinese regime and placed Meng-chi Toule within the Roman Empire.
The Maes merchants followed the protocol practiced by foreign envoys and were permitted into the imperial palace to offer formal submission to Emperor He.
The group was carrying lightweight silks that had been rewoven in Syrian workshops and had some imperial gold coins that bore the image of the Roman Emperor. The Hou Hanshu reports that the representatives from Mengchi Tou-le ‘brought silks and the gold seal of their ruler’.¹⁹ There were dozens of visiting envoys offering tribute at this time, and the Maes group was accepted as just another party of exotic foreigners from a minor power on the western edge of Asia. They would have received the finest Han silks as diplomatic gifts before being escorted back to the Stone Tower to begin their long return journey to Syria.
The report written by Maes described a journey to the Far East that challenged the traditional view of Central Asia as a place occupied by monsters and cannibals.
The expedition confirmed the existence of robust and well-organized kingdoms on the eastern edge of Asia. This new awareness of China could explain a comment made by Juvenal when he complains that Roman women were interfering in traditional male interests by interrupting generals with the question, ‘what are the intentions of the Chinese?’²⁰
The Maes report suggested unique opportunities for the development of distant commerce and the advancement of Roman knowledge. For the first time, Roman subjects in Syria and Egypt knew for sure that there was an Asian superpower in the Far East that manufactured large quantities of silk and steel. Reports of the Maes expedition spread through Roman Syria at a time when Roman Emperor Trajan was engaged in conquering Dacia (AD 101–106). Perhaps knowledge of these distant contacts and the value of eastern commerce encouraged the Emperor to plan the conquest of Parthia.
The Antun Embassy
Chinese sources record that in AD 166, a Roman ship sailed around the Malay Peninsula and crossed the Gulf of Thailand to reach the South China Sea.
The Roman crew then sailed north along the coast of Vietnam and docked at a Chinese military outpost called Rinan. The Rinan Commandery (in what is now central Vietnam) was on the southern periphery of the Han Empire, where the Red River flowed into the Gulf of Tonkin. Its Han commander allowed the Roman crew to come ashore and made arrangements for some of their personnel to be escorted to the Chinese court at Luoyang.
This contact between China and Rome appears in a brief encyclopedia-like entry in the Hou Hanshu in the section marked ‘Da Qin’.²¹ The author was interested in descriptive facts and did not think it was relevant to explain the purpose of this contact. Unfortunately, this brief account is all that survives regarding this first meeting between the Han court and representatives from Rome. This event was a prime opportunity for the exchange of significant commercial, cultural, and technological innovations between the two ancient civilizations. But the contact had no long-term impact, and Chinese accounts provide the only record of these Roman representatives reaching Han China. This suggests that the Roman crew may not have made it safely back to Egypt on a sea voyage that would have spanned a quarter of the globe and crossed 8,000 miles of ocean.²²
The arrival of Roman subjects in China was probably connected with events in AD 162 when the Parthian King Vologases IV invaded the Roman client kingdom of Armenia and installed his candidate on the throne. In response, the Roman governor of neighboring Cappadocia, Marcus Sedatius Severianus, marched his legion into Armenia to restore imperial order. But the Roman army was outflanked, encircled, and massacred by a large force of Parthian horse riders. This meant that Emperor Marcus Aurelius was forced to declare a state of war between their regimes. After almost fifty years of peace on the eastern frontiers, the Roman and Parthian Empires prepared for full-scale military conflict.²³
As the situation escalated, the Romans probably decided to threaten Parthian interests by making direct contact with robust regimes in the distant east. This would have included the Kushan Empire in Afghanistan and the Caspian kingdom of Hyrcania, which had split from the main Parthian realm. The usual route chosen for this type of diplomatic contact was through Egypt and its Red Sea connection with India. Roman business people were probably given state messages to deliver to foreign rulers, and envoys from distant kingdoms were offered safe passage on Roman trade vessels are sailing to and from the Indus region.
These contacts had proved valuable in the reign of Nero when the Roman legions fought Parthian-backed forces for control of Armenia (AD 58–63). Roman successes in this war were aided by eastern conflicts that drew the Parthian military workforce away from the Armenian campaign. Tacitus reports, ‘Our successes were more easily gained because the Parthians were fully occupied with the Hyrcanian War. The Hyrcanians sent messages to the Roman Emperor asking for an alliance, and as a pledge of goodwill, they explained how they had detained the Parthian King in the east.’ For their return journey, these envoys were given quarters on the Roman ships that sailed from Egypt to the Indus kingdoms. Tacitus explains how the Roman commander Corbulo ‘was concerned that the deputies would be intercepted at the enemy’s outposts when they crossed the Euphrates. So he escorted them and conducted them down to the shores of the Red Sea, and they returned safely to their native lands by avoiding Parthian territory.’²⁴ These envoys would have traveled through the Kushan Empire from the Indus kingdoms to the northern frontiers of Afghanistan and from there to Hyrcania on the eastern shores of the Caspian Sea.
The Romans probably used this same merchant network in AD 163 to contact distant regimes opposed to the Parthian rule. But this time, it seems that the Emperor decided to contact the Seres (Chinese) and send Roman representatives to the Far East. Perhaps Marcus Aurelius wanted to establish contact with the mysterious steel-equipped empire described by Maes Titianus.
In the spring of AD 163, the co-emperor Lucius Verus arrived in Syria to prepare the Roman legions for war against Parthia. Around the same time, arrangements were made for a Roman delegation to sail from a Red Sea port in Egypt to contact the Seres. Their first point of contact was the Kushan Empire, which had dealings with China via the overland Silk Routes. But by this period, the Tarim kingdoms were no longer subject to the Han rule, and the Kushan could not guarantee safe passage through Central Asia.
An alternative route to China was to cross the entire Indian Ocean and sail around the Malay Peninsula to reach the Gulf of Thailand and the South China Sea.
Indian merchants had recently discovered this route when they explored the north coast of Vietnam. Han accounts record that in AD 160 a regent from one of the Indus kingdoms managed to send envoys to southern China using this new maritime route.²⁵ The discovery of this sea passage offered an important new avenue for long-range diplomatic and commercial contacts. The Roman envoys, who were probably senior merchants, were sent east by Marcus Aurelius to confirm the existence of this route and establish a direct connection with the Han government.
The Romans spent the winter of AD 165 in an eastern port before resuming their voyage at the onset of the summer monsoon winds in AD 166. From Burma, they sailed 1,000 miles down the Malay Peninsula and through the treacherous Malacca Strait to enter the Gulf of Thailand. From Thailand, it was 500 miles to the southern tip of Vietnam and then a further 1,000 miles around the southeast coast of Asia to reach Rinan on the south edge of the Han Empire. Rinan was a Chinese military outpost established close to where the Red River flowed into the Tonkin Gulf (near modern Hanoi). The Roman crew probably arrived at Rinan in the late summer of AD 166, after spending over fourteen months at sea or in various foreign ports.
Rinan was managed by a Han administrator who oversaw Chinese interests in the region and had authority over the local rulers. In AD 166, the Han government had just restored order in the Rinan Commandery following a short series of military mutinies.²⁶ Consequently, the Romans who arrived at the port would have seen numerous military personnel dressed in strange uniforms and carrying unfamiliar weaponry. The travelers must have realized that they were dealing with a vast militarized empire similar to Rome.
The Chinese commander at Rinan recognized the significance of the Roman visitors, and they were immediately dispatched under guard to Luoyang, along with cargo samples removed from the ship. The journey from Rinan to Luoyang was more than 1,200 miles, which is almost the same distance as from Egypt to Italy.
Travel across China was conducted mainly through a network of wide roads, and the Roman group would have been conveyed in official carriages accompanied by a small escort of Chinese cavalry. The leading Chinese highways were over 50 feet wide, which made them twice the size of the most important Roman roads. A paved lane in the center of these highways was reserved for state carriages and dispatch riders.
Postal offices were situated on the main routes, and these managed the conveyance of messages and kept records of dispatches. Every 6 miles, there were Cantonal offices staffed by soldiers who policed the area and monitored traffic. At 10 mile intervals, postal stations provided couriers and state officials with fresh horses and offered facilities for overnight accommodation.²⁷ But even with these advantages, the journey north to the inland capital of Luoyang must have taken several weeks of fast-paced and relentless travel.
On their way north, the Romans would have seen the tall watchtowers in the Chinese countryside, which served as multi-story grain silos. They also had an opportunity to observe the formidable defensive walls that surrounded Han cities. These cities had none of the monumental stone-built classical buildings that a Greek or Roman might expect to see in an important urban center. Instead, the upper stories of the most significant Chinese buildings were constructed entirely from ornately carved wood supporting bright terracotta tiles.
Roman travelers would have noticed other cultural differences. In China, thick silk fabrics were worn by poor people of low status, including orphans and widows who were offered essential clothing as handouts by the state. High-quality steel was a rarity in the Roman Empire, but in China, it was used both for battle gear and standard work tools. In Roman domains, the image of the Emperor was widely produced on coins, army emblems, and public statues. But the Chinese did not display reverence in the same manner. During their weeks of travel through China, the Roman envoys might have wondered if the Han Emperor would be a soldier-general like Trajan, or perhaps a philosopher statesman like Marcus Aurelius.
When the Romans reached Luoyang, they were probably taken to an administrative headquarters within the imperial palace for assessment. A vast civil service managed China, and the Han palace complex in Luoyang resembled a self-contained city filled with scholars, archivists, ministers, and bureaucrats. Han officials might have summoned translators from the Indian merchant community resident at Luoyang, or perhaps asked assistance from one of the Buddhist temples that had been established within the city. There were also members of the Parthian nobility living in Luoyang who were associated with Silk Route commerce and the propagation of Buddhism.²⁸ The sight of Han officials in the company of these Parthian nobles would have been highly disconcerting for the Roman envoys.
After careful questioning, the Roman delegates were granted an audience with the Han Emperor and summoned to the inner court. As part of this protocol, the Han officials subjected the Romans to a list of stock questions designed to ascertain the scale and character of their regime. According to Chinese records, the delegates claimed to represent ‘Antun,’ which is a reference to the ruling Roman household and the Emperor Marcus Aurelius Antoninus. The Chinese recognized that Rome had a ruling political family similar to the Han dynasty and shortened the dynastic name Antonine to ‘Antun.’
The Antonine delegates confirmed that there was a direct overland route to the Roman Empire that passed through Parthian territory. They told the Chinese that the Roman regime had been trying to send representatives to China, but their efforts had been blocked by the Parthians who wanted to maintain control of the overland silk trade. Further questions concerned the profits that Roman merchants made from their trade ventures to India. The Chinese probably asked the envoys about the military strength of the Roman Empire, as this is an essential feature in most Han reports concerning foreign powers. However, the envoys did not reveal Roman military numbers or explain their methods of warfare. Maybe they thought it was unwise to disclose this information to a foreign power, or perhaps the presence of Parthians in the Han court inhibited their response.
It was customary for embassies to offer exotic and expensive diplomatic gifts to foreign rulers as tokens of respect and measures of prestige. Even trade delegations followed this practice in order to begin successful commercial negotiations with foreign governments. However, it seems that the Antonine group had no valuable ambassadorial gifts to present to the Han court and no high-value Roman merchandise to hand over as diplomatic offerings. This cannot have been an oversight, so the Romans may have lost their prepared gifts during some previous encounters. Perhaps they were compelled to part with these items by some foreign ruler at one of the eastern kingdoms they had visited on route to China. This could have been the price they paid for a safe-harbor during the preceding winter.
In place of Roman gifts, they offered the Han Emperor the cargo samples that had been removed from their ship and conveyed to the palace at Luoyang. These items were a collection of ordinary eastern merchandise that disappointed the Han officials. Based on existing reports from the silk routes, the Han were expecting to receive gemstone jewelry, objects fashioned from delicate red coral, or exquisite western fabrics dyed vibrant colors. The Hou Hanshu records: ‘Antun the ruler of Da Qin, sent envoys from beyond the frontiers to reach us through Rinan. They offered us elephant tusks, rhinoceros horns, and turtle shells. This was the very first time there was ever communication [between our countries.
The Antonine envoys offered no explanation for their lack of appropriate diplomatic gifts and this caused concern in the Han court. All previous reports collected by the Han government suggested that Rome was as powerful as the Chinese Empire, so the absence of suitable diplomatic offerings was suspicious. This was viewed as a possible lack of commitment by the Romans or a sign that their empire was not as wealthy as existing reports claimed. The Hou Hanshu comments, ‘The tribute they brought was neither precious nor rare, raising suspicion that the accounts of Rome might be exaggerated.’²⁹
In 1885 a German scholar named Friedrich Hirth translated this passage and assumed that the Chinese were ‘suspicious’ about the delegates. He suggested that the envoys were opportunist Roman merchants who offered trade cargo as diplomatic tribute.³⁰ But the Han court had protocols for assessing foreign groups and the passage in the Hou Hanshu suggests the diplomats were on a genuine mission from the Emperor. An accurate reading of the ancient text indicates that the meager gifts made certain Chinese officials doubt established reports describing the wealth and significance of Rome. This exchange of gifts concluded the meeting, and the Antonine envoys were escorted back to Rinan and their waiting ship.
The Antonine delegates probably expected to spend the summer of AD 168 in India with their return to Roman Egypt scheduled for November of that year. Given these schedules, the Chinese anticipated further contacts from the Romans in AD 170. But no one returned, not even opportunistic merchants exploiting lucrative new opportunities. Chinese officials sought explanations for the lack of contact by Rome and drew attention to the condition of the gifts offered by the Antonine group. They accepted that the diplomats were genuine, but concluded that Rome was not as wealthy or as politically ambitious as their foreign informants had claimed.
However, if the Antonine delegates had returned safely to Egypt, they would have found the Roman Empire amid an unprecedented crisis. In AD 165 the Roman legions successfully invaded the Parthian Empire, captured the city of Seleucia, and occupied Babylonia. But an unknown disease broke out amongst the troops during the winter months, and this lethal sickness soon reached high levels of infection. The Roman army was forced to abandon the war and retreat to Syria, with many men still infected by the outbreak. Dio reports that the co-emperor Lucius Verus ‘lost a great many of his soldiers through supply shortages and disease, but he made it back to Syria with the survivors’.³¹
The returning troops spread the disease into the main cities of the Roman Empire. The Historia Augusta claims that ‘it was his fate that disease seemed to follow Verus through whatever provinces he traveled on his return until finally, it reached Rome.’³² This disease, known to academics as the ‘Antonine Plague,’ quickly reached epidemic levels in many parts of the Empire. Major outbreaks kept reoccurring in previously affected regions, causing further distress and death to the Roman population. In AD 168, the imperial physician Galen had to treat an epidemic amongst the Roman army in northeast Italy. He reports, ‘When I reached Aquileia, the infection was at a greater intensity than previous outbreaks. The Emperors immediately went back to Rome with a few soldiers, while the majority had difficulty surviving and most perished.’³³ In AD 169, the co-emperor Lucius Verus died suddenly due to an undisclosed illness that might have been the disease, or a sickness caused by the toxic effects of preventative medicines.³⁴
Galen documented the symptoms and effects of the disease, which seems to have been a virulent new form of smallpox. The infection caused many deaths since the Roman population had no inherited resistance to this lethal strain. Possible death rates are suggested by papyrus documents recovered from Roman Egypt. Tax records for Socnopaiou Nesos confirm that between September AD 178 and February 179, a village with 244 male inhabitants lost seventy-eight men due to the disease. This is almost one-third of the male population in six months.³⁵ A bronze plaque from Virunum, near the Noricum iron mine, gives a membership list for a local temple devoted to Mithras. In AD 183, the Mithraeum lost five of its ninety-eight members during a fresh outbreak of the disease.³⁶ Modern strains of the smallpox virus can leave survivors visually impaired or infertile, so many who recovered from the infection were left with severe disabilities that made them dependent on others, or vulnerable to further illness.
As the legions succumbed to disease, the Roman defenses on the northern frontiers were overrun by Germanic invaders. Marcus Aurelius spent the remainder of his reign campaigning to restore the Roman Empire and safeguard its European frontiers. Unknown to the Romans, the same disease was spreading through the Far East and inflicting a similar death rate on the Chinese Empire. The Hou Hanshu records that in AD 162 one third of the Han army stationed on the northern frontiers died or were debilitated during the early stages of this pandemic.³⁷
International trade declined, and long-distance communications were no longer feasible as both empires suffered severe damage to their manpower. Hopes of an alliance between distant empires were no longer achievable as the governments of China and Rome fought for individual survival in a world were devastating disease reduced settled populations and crippled entire armies.
Roman contact with Southern China In AD 184 the Chinese Empire was destabilized by a major political uprising known as the Yellow TurbanTaiping dao (or Way of Great Peace) rebellion also translated as the Yellow Scarves Rebellion. The rebels mobilized Chinese peasants and rural militia who wore yellow fabric around their heads to identify their allegiance to a revolutionary Taoist sect that practiced faith-healing. To restore order the Han regime gave greater political, military and tax-collecting powers to provincial governors, local rulers, and Chinese generals. These new warlords suppressed the yellow scarves' rebellion and then fought to claim power for themselves (AD 196–208).
China was split into three rival kingdoms with a warlord named Cao Cao ruling the northern half of the country (the Kingdom of Wei). South of the Yangtze River the lower provinces of China were divided between the Kingdom of Shu in the west and the Kingdom of Wu in the east. The Han dynasty officially ended in AD 220 when the weak and ineffective emperor Xian was forced to abdicate by the son of Cao Cao.
During this era, the Roman Empire also suffered a period of serious political and economic instability as the population declined and imperial revenues diminished.
This crisis included a civil war that threatened to split the Roman Empire into three rival domains (AD 192–197). Clodius Albinus seized power in Gaul, Pescennius Niger claimed Syria, while Septimius Severus gained Pannonia and Italy. When Severus successfully defeated his rivals he founded a new imperial dynasty that stabilised the Roman Empire for several decades (AD 198–235).
A Chinese text called the Liang-shu 梁書 records how a Roman merchant named Lun reached southern China in AD 226. Lun could be the Greek name Leon phonically simplified by Chinese scholars.³⁸ Lun, or Leon, arrived aboard a Roman ship that sailed from Thailand around Vietnam to reach the Chinese Kingdom of Wu. On arrival, he was questioned by the Chinese Prefect of Tonkin (northern Vietnam) and identified himself as a merchant specializing in long-distance trade. The Prefect of Tonkin sent Leon to Wuchang (modern Ezhou) which was the inland capital of the Wu Kingdom and the court of the regional Emperor Sun Quan.³⁹
By AD 226 the Kingdom of Wu had reached a political and military stalemate with the powerful Kingdom of Wei in northern China. But Sun Quan wanted to expand his domains and was interested in extending his rule south into Cambodia and Vietnam. He had maritime interests in the East China Sea and was preparing an armada with 10,000 troops to invade the nearby island of Taiwan (AD 230).⁴⁰
Sun Qian may have been surprised to learn that the Roman Empire was still intact and functioning as a unified state at a time when China had split into three rival kingdoms. The Liang-shu reports that Sun Quan ‘asked Lun for details about his native land and its customs, and Lun prepared a report in reply.’ The prospect of establishing political and commercial contacts with Rome must have been intriguing. The Liang-shu records that Sun Quan selected a Chinese officer named Liu Hsien to accompany Leon on his return journey to the Roman Empire.
While he was present at the Wu court, Leon expressed interest in some tiny dark-skinned captives that had been seized by Chinese forces in Southeast
Asia. Leon remarked that these people were rare and valuable in Rome, so Sun Quan gave twenty of the captives to him as a gift, possibly hoping to ensure the return of further Roman merchants to the WuKingdom. Leon left China around AD 227, but there is no record that his ship ever made it safely back to the Roman Empire. The vessel may have been wrecked by storms, attacked by pirates in the Gulf of Thailand, or perhaps succumbed to the paralyzing calms in the Straits of Malacca. The Liang-shu recorded that ‘Lun returned directly to his native land, but Liu Hsien must have died on the way.’⁴¹ The contemporary Roman sources make no mention of this contact or the arrival of any distant foreigners at the court of Severus Alexander (AD 222–235). Once again, an opportunity to establish direct political and commercial contacts had been lost.
1. The Geography of Strabo. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press; London: William Heinemann, Ltd. 1924, 17.1.45.
2. The Periplus of Hanno a voyage of discovery down the west African coast. Translated by Schoff, H. 1912, 64.
3. Epistulae (Pliny), the letters of Pliny the Younger, 6.26.
4. Ptolemy, Geography, 1.14.
5. Ibid., 7.3; 7.5; 7.7; 8.1; Berggren and Jones, Ptolemy’s Geography (2000), 22.
6. Hou Hanshu, Book of Later Han《後漢書》88.10.
7. Procopius of Caesarea (Greek: Προκόπιος ὁ Καισαρεύς Prokópios ho Kaisareús; Latin: Procopius Caesariensis; c. 500 – c. after 565), Secret History, 25.
8. Ptolemy, Geography, 1.
9. Ibid., 1.11.
10. Cary, "Maes, Qui et Titianus" The Classical Quarterly, New Series, 6.3/4 (July–October 1956)(1956).
11. Velleius Paterculus, 2.94; Suetonius, Octavian, 21; Orosius, 6.21.
12. Strabo, 16.1.28.
13. Strabo, 11.33.1.
14. Ptolemy, Geography, 1.11.
15. Hou Hanshu, 4.14 (November, AD 100).
16. Ptolemy, Geography, 1.11.
17. Leslie and Gardiner, The Roman Empire in Chinese Sources (1996), 148.
18. Hou Hanshu, 4.14; 88.1.
19. Ibid., 4.14.
20. Juvenal, DECIMVS IVNIVS IVVENALIS 6.400–3.
21. Hou Hanshu, 88.12.
22. Equator: 24,901 miles.
23. Rose Sheldon, Rome’s Wars in Parthia (2010), 155–7.
24. Tacitus, Annals, 14.25.
25. Hou Hanshu, 88.15.
26. Leslie and Gardiner, The Roman Empire in Chinese Sources (1996), 137; 153.
27. Joseph Needham, Science and Civilisation in China, Volume 4 (1971), 3–38.
28. Buddhist Parthian prince An Shigao: biographies in Chu Sanzang Jiji and Gaoseng Zhuan.
29. Hou Hanshu, 88.12.
30. Friedrich Hirth, China and the Roman Orient (1885), 173–8.
31. Dio, 71.2.
32. Historia Augusta, Lucius Verus, 8.1–4.
33. Claudii Galeni Opera Omnia, 19.17–18.
34. Historia Augusta, Lucius Verus, 11.
35. F. Preisigke, Sammelbuch Griechischer Urkunden aus Aegypten (Scrapbook Greek documents from Egypt), 16.12816.
36. C.I.L. 3.5567.
37. Hou Hanshu, 65/55.2133 (4a–b).
38. Leslie and Gardiner, The Roman Empire in Chinese Sources (1996), 100–1.
39. Yao Silian (姚思廉) Book of Liang (Liáng Shū), , 48.
40. Li, China at War (2012), 454–5.
41. Yao Silian, Liang-shu, 48.