On the blog today, author Nic Fields introduces us to his new book.
The Roman Empire and Western Han China coexisted with Parthia and Kushan, spanning the middle expanse of Eurasia. These four military superpowers maintained a certain world order and stimulated the rise of transcontinental trade along was later known as the Silk Road. Still, the Roman Empire and Han China never established formal diplomatic relations because of the great distance and rival powers between them. There is, however, a strange tale told of 'lost' Roman legionaries watching over the desert frontier of Han China.
Along the main thoroughfare of the remote provincial town of Yŏngchāng, Gansu province, North-West China, stand three larger-than-life concrete statues: in the middle of the gigantic group is a scholarly courtier of the ethnic Han majority; to his right, a shepherdess of the Hui minority, predominately rural and Muslim; to his left, a Roman legionary. Why, you may ask, the latter?
In the early summer of 36 BC, 17 years after Crassus had sent his legions to oblivion in the arid wasteland somewhere beyond Carrhae, Marcus Antonius invaded the Parthian Empire in a bid to restore Rome’s honour. Meanwhile, about 800km from the eastern Parthian frontier, somewhere on the banks of the River Dulaishui (possibly the Ili or the Talas) in what is now eastern Kazakhstan, Zhìzhī, one of the two claimants to the title chānyú or ruler of the nomadic Xiōngnú (the other was his half-brother), was facing a concerted attack from an imperial expeditionary force out of Western Han China. Oddly enough, Zhìzhī had opted to fight this battle from behind the earthen walls of his so-called capital, even if he did post a small force of horsemen outside the defences. As well as the earthen walls studded with wooden towers, these consisted of a double wooden palisade and water-filled moat.
The Chinese historian and court official Ban Gu (AD 32–92), in his Han shu (History of the Former Han), describes the ensuing encounter. A swarm of crossbow quarrels scattered the initial Xiōngnú charge, the powerful missiles effortlessly outranging those loosed from the composite bows carried by the horse archers even though the crossbows had a slower rate of fire. The Chinese infantry then advanced with the ‘great shields … in the van and the spears and crossbows in the rear’ (quoted in Dubs 1955: 10–11). The moat was drained, the gates blocked, and the double wooden palisade burnt down. Zhìzhī, along with his consort and concubines, shot bows from the ramparts. During the missile exchange, he was struck and seriously wounded in the nose by a crossbow quarrel. That night, a mounted relief force despatched by the allied kingdom of Sogdiana (Kangju to the Chinese) arrived, and in the darkness attempted to break the Chinese stranglehold. It failed miserably. In the meantime, Zhìzhī and a hundred or so warriors had withdrawn into the inner citadel. This was eventually set on fire. Along with that belonging to Zhìzhī, the victorious Chinese collected 1,518 heads.
As well as a thousand Sogdians, it appears that among the prisoners of war were 145 ‘Romans’. According to the American sinologist Homer H. Dubs (1941, 1957), these unfortunates were a ragbag band of survivors from Crassus’ unprovoked invasion of Parthia and now serving as mercenaries with Zhìzhī. An out-of–the-ordinary don, Homer Hasenpflug Dubs (1892–1969) was raised in China as the son of missionaries. Graduating from Yale University (1914), he returned to China as a missionary, studying Mandarin Chinese in Nanjing before taking up a post in Hunan. Having returned to the United States, where he attended Chicago University and acquired a PhD in philosophy (1925), he taught at a number of American universities (1925–47) before taking up the chair of Chinese at Oxford University (1947). An eccentric, erudite and esteemed scholar, he is best known for his translation of sections of the Han shu.
In the battle narrative given by Ban Gu, there is an intriguing remark concerning the opening of the engagement: ‘more than a hundred foot soldiers, lined up on either side of the gate in a fish-scale formation (my emphasis), were practising military drill’ (quoted in Dubs 1955: 10). Homer Dubs posits that this disciplined tactical configuration was none other than the Roman testudo, in which legionaries locked their scuta so as to cover the front and top of their formation to form a protection against incoming missiles. In this case, continues Professor Dubs, they did so to protect themselves against the Chinese crossbow quarrels. Even so, these quarrels could crash through the toughest metal and wood, as the ‘Romans’ were soon to discover, which probably explains why they retired behind the earthen walls.
Homer Dubs goes on to speculate that this group of ‘Roman’ soldiers were deported and resettled by the Chinese on the edge of the Gobi desert in a settlement named Liqián (the name was also used by the Chinese for Rome), currently known as Zhěláizhài and not far from Yŏngchāng. Once settled, the twice-defeated soldiers rendered due military service by guarding the desert frontier of China. Professor Dubs also takes for granted that these men married local women. At this point we should note the locals with big noses, prominent cheekbones, blue eyes and blond hair. This is indeed physiognomy more Caucasian than Asian.
Genetic analysis in 2005 revealed that 56 per cent of the DNA of some of the residents of this small rural town could be classified as Caucasoid but did not determine their origins. Two years later, in a subsequent DNA study, the notion of any of Crassus’ legionaries ending up in Han China was apparently quashed. It is not strange that Caucasian characteristics appear in the population of this region, as the Silk Road promoted the mixing of genes. Additionally, the genetic analysis of the Tarim mummies from the Tarim Basin in present-day Xinjang region, North-West China, indicates that early settlers in this region were Caucasoid. Finally, the fact that no artefacts of Roman provenance have been found to date also detracts from the elegant tale of ‘the lost legionaries of Liqián’. Controversially, it appears that Professor Dubs has left us with an intriguing but extremely improbable hypothesis.
Still, despite the compelling science and the storm of scholarly criticism, municipality officials of Yŏngchāng were unfazed. Sensing potential tourist revenue, they enthusiastically embraced the suggestion that some of the locals might be descended from Roman legionaries. Accordingly, they went ahead and erected the enormous statue group mentioned at the beginning of this article.
If you enjoyed today's blog post you can find out more about 'CAM 382: Carrhae 53 BC' here
 The first crossbows probably appeared in China before the Spring and Autumn period (770–476 bc). In the tomb of Qín Shĭ Huáng, ‘The First Emperor of Qín’ (r. 221–210 BC), one of the famous terracotta warriors is obviously a crossbowman.