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Rome and China are two major civilizations that shaped the cultures within their sphere of influence. They are also cultures that appear to have been mostly isolated from each other. For this reason, any contact between the cultures has fascinated historians ever since Western scholars began to study China and Chinese scholars began to study the West. This includes stories like that of the lost legion of Carrhae, whose members may have ended up in Liqian, China.
The Legend of the Lost Legion of Carrhae
The legend begins in 53 BC with the Battle of Carrhae between the Roman general Marcus Licinius Crassus and the Parthian general Surena. Carrhae is a location near the modern-day Syrian-Turkish border. In antiquity, it was near the fringes of the Roman Empire in the west and the Parthian Empire in the east.
Crassus was already one of the wealthiest men in the Roman republic, but he had a desire to access the wealth of Parthia, so he convinced the Senate to let him lead 42,000 Roman soldiers into the battlefield against the Parthians. In the battle, Crassus and his army suffered a humiliating defeat at the hands of Surena and his 10,000 archers. Crassus attempted to negotiate a truce but was killed in the process. According to legend, liquid gold was poured down his throat as a punishment for his greed. He was also allegedly beheaded, and his body was desecrated.
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Bust of Marcus Licinius Crassus located in the Louvre, Paris. ( Public Domain )
Of the surviving Roman soldiers, 10,000 of them were captured alive by the Parthians. According to some accounts, they were relocated to the eastern border of the Parthian Empire. It is believed that they were most likely sent to what is now Turkmenistan. It was a Parthian custom to send prisoners of war captured in the west to the far east to secure their loyalty against their eastern rivals, the Huns.
17 years later, in 36 BC, on the western border of the Han Chinese Empire, the battle of Zhizhi was fought between the Chinese and the Huns , a classical enemy of China. The Chinese annals record mercenaries fighting on the side of the Huns who used a “fish scale” formation. The fish scale formation impressed the Chinese and they invited the soldiers to come back to China and become part of the border guard in the modern Gansu province. A city and county were also made for them which were named Li-Jien or Liqian.
Testudo formation. (Neil Carey/ CC BY SA 2.0 )
The Lost Legion of Carrhae and the Mysterious Army
The Chinese description of the fish scale formation used by the mercenary soldiers bears a vague resemblance to the testudo formation practiced by Roman legions. This has led to the popular theory that these mysterious soldiers were in fact exiled Roman legionnaires from the Battle of Carrhae who had hired themselves out as mercenaries for the Huns.
This idea was first suggested by the historian Homer Dubs. Dubs argued that some of the soldiers in exile gave up trying to go back to Rome and hired themselves out as mercenaries for local warlords in the region. Some of these former Roman soldiers may have found themselves working for the Huns in their war against the Chinese.
Proponents of this theory have searched for Liqian and believe that they have found it. Zhelaizhai is a modern village near Lanzhou. What is interesting about the town is that the people living there have traits such as brown hair and blue eyes, which contrast with the appearance of most of the surrounding people. Additionally, a helmet was reportedly found with Chinese characters written on it saying, “one of the surrendered.” Two other artifacts of interest are a Roman style water pot, and a trunk of wood with stakes similar to those used by the Romans to construct forts. The appearance of the villagers and the discovery of unusual artifacts has led many believers in the legend to identify Zhelaizhai with Liqian. Because the legend has been popularized, the town has used it to attract tourists, even going as far as to construct Roman style buildings and statues.
Assessment of the Facts
Is it possible that the inhabitants of the unusual village could be descendants of displaced Romans? This has attracted the interest of both Chinese and Western scientists. A genetic study from the University of Lanzhou showed that the inhabitants of the town do have connections to Europe, which makes the theory more plausible, though it is also true that the town is built along the old Silk Road so connections with western populations are more likely regardless of whether they were Roman. Another connection that has been noted is that the name “Li-Jien” sounds like “legion” when spoken in Chinese. Some have used this to argue that the name is originally derived from the word.
On the other hand, many scholars have doubts about the feasibility of the hypothesis. Although it is possible that a group of Roman mercenaries could have made it all the way to western China, it is still an enormous distance. And, even though there is circumstantial evidence, there is no evidence that would confirm that Romans had been in Liqian in the past.
A modern representation of Roman soldiers. ( CC0)
The Roman style pot could have been gained through trade, and the other artifacts are not uniquely Roman. Also, the physical appearance and genetic relations of the villagers doesn’t require that they be directly descended from Mediterranean peoples, since there are many central Asian ethnic groups that also have genetic ties to the Mediterranean region and traits such as blonde or brown hair and blue eyes.
Even if they do have European or Mediterranean lineage, this wouldn’t necessarily mean that they had to be descended from a lost Roman legion since the town is adjacent to the old Silk Road, making intermarriage with distant travelers at any time more likely. These problems do not rule out the theory, but they also leave it unconfirmed.
Another issue is that it is unlikely that the name Li-Jien is related to the word legion. Chinese scholars who have looked into the etymology of the name say that it is related to the state of Lixuan, which has connections to Ptolemaic Egypt but not to Rome. Thus, even if there is a connection to the western Mediterranean world, it is more likely a Greek connection rather than a Roman connection, according to this view.
Bust of Ptolemy I Soter, king of Egypt (305 BC–282 BC) and founder of the Ptolemaic dynasty. The identification is based upon coin effigies. Partially restored by Augustin Pajou. ( Public Domain )
Could the People of Liqian Be Related to the Lost Roman Army?
Since Rome and China were aware of each other in antiquity, and it was possible to travel between the two empires at the time, this hypothesis is made more plausible. It is possible that a Roman legion did make it to China, but the evidence is not conclusive.
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The genetic findings could also be interpreted to mean that the people of the town descend from a local Caucasian population and there is no indisputable archaeological evidence of a Roman presence in the town in antiquity.
Could this boy be a relative of an ancient Roman? ( The Unz Review )
These problems do not rule out the possibility that a lost Roman legion ended up in China, they just make it less certain. One thing that is for certain, however, is that the people of Liqian stand out from the surrounding people in the region, a fact that remains unexplained.
Romans in China: The Lost Legions of Carrhae
The Romans in the first century BCE were perhaps the most growing empires around. Though the civil wars of Caesar and Pompey, and Octavian and Marc Antony dominated the scene a lot more happened around them. In 53 BCE a Roman army under Marcus Licinius Crassus, vanquisher of Spartacus and richest man in Rome, attempted to extend Roman power into Parthia, modern day Iran. He got as far as modern day Harran in southeast Turkey before he was met by a Parthian army under Surena.
Crassus was a little too cocky and pushed forward, thinking victory would be easy against these inferior barbarians. He was sadly mistaken as the Parthians were an efficient semi-professional army with the most elite horse archers the world had ever seen at the time. In a slaughter known as the battle of Carrhae the Romans lost nearly their entire army and Crassus was killed. The remaining 10,000 or so Roman legionaries were captured.
The Parthians had a standard practice of employing captured soldiers as border guards. By transferring the 10,000 legionaries to the eastern boarders they prevented any realistic chance of escape for the Romans who likely would have simply accepted their new lot in life. Record of the soldiers vanish for about 17 years when the battle of Zhizhi was fought as a Chinese army under Chen Tang assaulted a border town known today as Taraz, located in Kazakhstan near the border of Kyrgyzstan. Chinese historians note that the defenders held their shields in a “fish scale” pattern. The fight for the town was intense but the Chinese prevailed. The Chinese, under the Han Dynasty at this point, were near the height of their power this battle represented their greatest Westward expansion and their victory was achieved in part because many of the locals defected to the Chinese out of fear.
The Chinese were so impressed by these foreign warriors that they put them into another border town, this time guarding the border between China and Tibet as Tibetan raids were not uncommon around this time. Anywhere from 100 to 1,000 or more soldiers established themselves in this town that was known by the Chinese as Liqian/Li-Jien, which is pronounced as “legion”. These men were known to use tools such as tree trunk counterweight construction devices, and to reinforce the area into a square fort, a common site in the Mediterranean but quite rare in Asia.
The victorious Surena
It seems these Romans lived peacefully in Liqian, and 2,000 years later we have DNA evidence that over 50% of the villagers in modern day Liqian have Caucasian ancestry including green and blue eyes, increased average height and other distinguishing characteristics such as distinctly Roman noses. The people in the small village are aware of and proud of their ancestry, celebrating the Romans and showing a fond interest in bulls, a heavily worshiped animal of Roman legions.
The long journey of the Roman legion(s) lost at Carrhae, a distance of over 3,000 miles (5,000 kilometers) and nearly 5,000 miles from Rome itself. By Talessman CC BY 3.0
A great many modern historians absolutely dismiss the story of the legionaries in China as more of a fairytale than truth, though some prominent historians still argue that this sequence of events is quite possible and even the most probable of theories. Just because it is a hard to believe tale does not at all make it untrue. In every reference from the Asian sources the foreigners appear to be none other than the 10,000 legionaries captured at Carrhae. The only gap in knowledge is that the Romans transferred from Parthian control to Mongol control as the Mongols held the town at the battle of Zhizhi. It seems that either the Romans were captured and transported again, or more likely that they were sold as mercenaries.
Parthian horseman. notice a drawn bow while the horse is mid jump Parthians were experts at horse archery. Jean Chardin By Jean Chardin – CC BY-SA 3.0
Their “fish scale” formation at the battle is almost certainly the well-known Testudo formation, and the professional practice points to seasoned soldiers. These Romans would have had just each other for company through these many years so it’s understandable to think they had outstanding discipline and kept up their training, which would lead to them having such an impressive showing at Zhizhi that the Chinese used them to guard their own territory.
The modern descendants of the Romans are decent evidence of the Roman’s presence but two other theories are possible. The town of Liqian was near the multicultural Silk Road, therefore the Caucasian DNA could be from travelers along the road. The other possibility is that the soldiers at the battle and settlers of the Chinese town were actually descendants of Alexander the Great’s army, though this seems even more unlikely as the events are multiple generations removed from Alexander’s campaigns and the army at Zhizhi was clearly fighting in a professional and western way.
The only remaining evidence needed to authenticate the story would be Roman coins or other artifacts at Liqian. If the story is true, it is an amazing story of tragic loss followed by strict adherence to professional soldiery. By the time they settled in Liqian these soldiers would be in their forties and fifties and looking forward to retirement. Based off of the DNA of their descendants it does seem like they weren’t subject to many Tibetan raids, or perhaps they were put to the test again and finally held their own ground.
Lost Roman Legion
The Ancient Roman legions made up one of the most Badass Armies known to history. However, as powerful, disciplined, and successful as they were, they weren't invincible on multiple occasions, they were defeated in battle, and sometimes an entire legion was destroyed in a single dramatic battle, or else simply disappeared while on campaign with none returning to tell what happened.
Of course, people are free to speculate on what happened to those legionaries who went missing in action. That is where this trope comes into play.
There are usually two distinct ways this trope plays out:
- The story follows another Roman legion which has been sent to find out what happened to the lost legion and (if possible) recover its Eagle Standards. This one tends to appear more often in Historical Fiction.
- The story follows the lost legion itself and / or its descendants (assuming it leaves any behind). While also somewhat common in Historical Fiction, the idea of a Roman legion displaced in space, time, or dimension has been used so often in Science Fiction and Fantasy as to be regarded as cliche. Does not always end happily.
Many stories that use this plot are inspired by any of three particular cases of actual "lost legions" in Roman history: Marcus Licinius Crassus' defeat at the Battle of Carrhae, the destruction of three legions in the Teutoberg Forest, or the mysterious case of the Ninth Legion.
The Roman Ninth Legion's mysterious loss
The disappearance of Rome's Ninth Legion has long baffled historians, but could a brutal ambush have been the event that forged the England-Scotland border, asks archaeologist Dr Miles Russell, of Bournemouth University.
One of the most enduring legends of Roman Britain concerns the disappearance of the Ninth Legion.
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It is easy to understand the appeal of stories surrounding the loss of the Roman Ninth Legion - a disadvantaged band of British warriors inflicting a humiliating defeat upon a well-trained, heavily-armoured professional army.
It's the ultimate triumph of the underdog - an unlikely tale of victory against the odds. Recently, however, the story has seeped further into the national consciousness of both England and Scotland.
For the English, the massacre of the Ninth is an inspiring tale of home-grown "Davids" successfully taking on a relentless European "Goliath". For the Scots, given the debate on devolved government and national identity, not to say the cultural impact of Braveheart, the tale has gained extra currency - freedom-loving highlanders resisting monolithic, London-based imperialists.
The legend of the Ninth gained form thanks to acclaimed novelist Rosemary Sutcliff, whose masterpiece, The Eagle of the Ninth, became an instant bestseller when published in 1954.
Since then, generations of children and adults have been entranced by the story of a young Roman officer, Marcus Aquila, travelling north of Hadrian's Wall in order to uncover the truth about his father, lost with the Ninth, and the whereabouts of the Legion's battle standard, the bronze eagle.
The historians have dissented, theorising that the Ninth did not disappear in Britain at all, arguing both book and film are wrong. Their theory has been far more mundane - the legion was, in fact, a victim of strategic transfer, swapping the cold expanse of northern England, for arid wastes in the Middle East. Here, sometime before AD 160, they were wiped out in a war against the Persians.
But, contrary to this view, there is not one shred of evidence that the Ninth were ever taken out of Britain. It's just a guess which, over time, has taken on a sheen of cast iron certainty. Three stamped tiles bearing the unit number of the Ninth found at Nijmegen, in the Netherlands, have been used to support the idea of transfer from Britain.
But these all seem to date to the 80s AD, when detachments of the Ninth were indeed on the Rhine fighting Germanic tribes. They do not prove that the Ninth left Britain for good.
In fact, the last certain piece of evidence relating to the existence of the Legion from anywhere in the Roman Empire comes from York where an inscription, dating to AD 108, credits the Ninth with rebuilding the fortress in stone. Some time between then and the mid-2nd Century, when a record of all Legions was compiled, the unit had ceased to exist.
But what happened to the Ninth?
The early years of the 2nd Century were deeply traumatic for Britannia. The Roman writer Fronto observed that, in the reign of the emperor Hadrian (AD 117 - 138), large numbers of Roman soldiers were killed by the British.
The number and full extent of these losses remain unknown, but they were evidently significant. The anonymously authored Augustan History, compiled in the 3rd Century, provides further detail, noting that when Hadrian became emperor, "the Britons could not be kept under Roman control".
The British problem was of deep concern to Roman central government. Thanks to a tombstone recovered from Ferentinum in Italy, we know that emergency reinforcements of over 3,000 men were rushed to the island on "the British Expedition", early in Hadrian's reign. The emperor himself visited the island in AD 122, in order to "correct many faults", bringing with him a new legion, the Sixth.
The fact that they took up residence in the legionary fortress of York suggests that the "great losses" of personnel, alluded to by Fronto, had occurred within the ranks of the Ninth.
It would seem that Sutcliff was right after all.
It was the Ninth, the most exposed and northerly of all legions in Britain, that had borne the brunt of the uprising, ending their days fighting insurgents in the turmoil of early 2nd Century Britain.
The loss of such an elite military unit had an unexpected twist which reverberates to the present day. When the emperor Hadrian visited Britain at the head of a major troop surge, he realised that there was only one way to ensure stability in the island - he needed to build a wall.
Hadrian's Wall was designed to keep invaders out of Roman territory as well as ensuring that potential insurgents within the province had no hope of receiving support from their allies to the north. From this point, cultures on either side of the great divide developed at different rates and in very different ways.
The ultimate legacy of the Ninth was the creation of a permanent border, forever dividing Britain. The origins of what were to become the independent kingdoms of England and Scotland may be traced to the loss of this unluckiest of Roman legions.
Dr Miles Russell is a senior lecturer in Prehistoric and Roman Archaeology at Bournemouth University.
Episode 3 – Did a Lost Roman Legion Settle in Ancient China?
In 1957, American sinologist Homer H. Dubs published A Roman City in China, a book detailing the academic’s theory that a group of Roman soldiers worked as border guards for the Western Han Dynasty at the empire’s western edge. These ancient expatriates, Dubs suggests, were survivors of Rome’s catastrophic loss to Parthia at the Battle of Carrhae in 53 BCE, afterwards moving to the eastern front of the Parthian Empire before eventually finding their way into battle with Chinese troops. In defeat, Dubs claims, the out-of-place legionaries were moved by the Western Han Dynasty to “a specially created frontier city, to which the Chinese of course gave their name for Rome, which was Lijien (now Liqian).”
Today, Liqian is a small village of earth-rammed homes located in Gansu province and, in the decades since the publication of A Roman City in China, Dubs’ theory has led researchers, archeologists and even geneticists to visit the town, all looking to answer the same tantalizing questions: did a Roman legion settle in ancient China? And, if so, are those living in Liqian today the descendants of these lost troops?
Is the theory true?
Many recent studies have been dedicated to trying to demonstrate that this theory is false. In fact, recent genetic studies seem to rule out the hypothesis of a Roman origin.
Furthermore, it is not strange that Caucasian characteristics appear in the population in this region, as the Silk Road favored interracial marriages, but even more important is the fact that the original population of the region (much older than the Romans and the Han dynasty), is known to have been nomads with Caucasian characteristics, as indicated by the Tarim Mummies. The fact that no objects of Roman origin have been found to date also detracts from the legitimacy of the theory.
Personally, I think that it is an elegant theory which has given the inhabitants of Liqian something to be proud of take a look at these photos. Apart from this, it has created an economic development in the area, attracting some lost tourists. Therefore, where’s the harm in declaring Liqian the town founded by the Roman Lost Legion?
Did a Group of Lost Roman Soldiers Found a City in China?
There is a very popular story out there about how, supposedly, in the first century BC, a group of Roman soldiers inadvertently wound their way across the Asian continent, fighting as mercenaries for various peoples and being captured by others, before eventually settling in China. It is a truly fascinating story, but, unfortunately, there is probably no truth to it.
The story of the so-called “lost Roman legion”
Let’s start out with the part of the story that we know really happened. In the 50s BC, the late Roman Republic was extending its influence into the Middle East. Much of the Middle East at that time, however, was ruled by the Parthian Persian Empire. This naturally brought the Romans and the Parthians into conflict. In around early May 53 BC, the Roman forces under the command of the general Marcus Licinius Crassus faced off against the Parthians at the site of Harran in what is now southeast Turkey in the Battle of Carrhae.
Everything that could have possibly gone wrong for the Romans went wrong. The Romans’ allies deserted them before the battle, taking with them nearly all the cavalry they had. The Parthian army they found themselves confronted by was made up of around 9,000 horse archers and around 1,000 cataphracts. Even though the Romans had vastly greater numbers, they were utterly trounced. Around 20,000 Romans were killed and around 10,000 more were captured. Crassus himself was beheaded. All in all, the battle was a humiliating defeat for the Romans.
ABOVE: Roman marble portrait head of Marcus Licinius Crassus, the Roman general who led the forces in the Battle of Carrhae. Crassus was beheaded by the Parthians. Those of his forces that survived and were captured were transported to the eastern borders of the Parthian Empire.
The Roman legionaries who survived the battle and were taken as prisoners by the Parthians were sent to the far eastern end of the Parthian Empire. No one knows for certain what happened to them next, but, in 1941, the American Sinologist Homer Dubs (lived 1892 – 1969) proposed an extremely audacious and speculative hypothesis.
In 36 BC, roughly seventeen years after the Battle of Carrhae, Chen Tang, the deputy commander to the governor of the Western Regions of Han Dynasty China, led a strike force a thousand miles west of the Han Dynasty’s borders to attack and kill the Xiongnu leader Zhizhi, who was at the time in the kingdom of Kangju, located in Central Asia in what is now Uzbekistan.
The History of the Former Han, a history of the Han Dynasty from 206 BC to 23 AD compiled in around 111 AD by the historian Ban Gu (lived 32 – 92 AD) based on earlier sources, records that, during Chen Tang’s raid on Zhizhi’s stronghold, “more than a hundred” of Zhizhi’s soldiers lined up “in a fish-scale formation.” The History of the Former Han also records that the city gate had a double palisade.
Dubs noticed the striking similarity between the “fish-scale formation” made by Zhizhi’s soldiers during Chen Tang’s raid as described in The History of the Former Han and the famous Roman testudo (i.e., “tortoise”) formation in which a group of Romans would overlap their shields both on the sides and the tops to give themselves complete shield coverage from the enemies. The mention of a double palisade also reminded him strongly of the Romans.
Dubs speculated that maybe the Romans who had been taken prisoners after the Battle of Carrhae could have been traded by the Parthians to Zhizhi or perhaps escaped the Parthians and joined Zhizhi. He proposed that, maybe, the soldiers who did the “fishscale formation” during Chen Tang’s raid actually were Roman soldiers.
The History of the Former Han records that, after Chen Tang’s raid, 145 enemy soldiers were captured and around a thousand surrendered. The prisoners were divided up as slaves among the various kings who had supported Chen Tang’s expedition. Dubs speculated that, maybe, the Romans were among those captured.
Dubs noticed that a Chinese census from around 5 AD records the existence of a town in the Gansu Province of northwest China called “Líqián” (驪靬), which was one of several Chinese names for the Roman Empire. Dubs speculated that this city might have been founded by the Romans whom he believed had been captured by the Chinese after the raid on Zhizhi’s stronghold.
ABOVE: Depiction of Roman soldiers in testudo formation from the Column of Trajan, which was constructed between c. 107 and c. 113 AD.
ABOVE: Photograph from Wikimedia Commons of modern reenactors recreating a Roman testudo
Modern rebranding of Liqian (formerly Zhelaizhai)
When Dubs was writing, there was a city in Gansu Province at around the same location as the ancient city of Liqian known as Zhelaizhai. Many people in Zhelaizhai have features that are traditionally seen as European, such as high noses, pale skin, brown, red, or even blond hair, and blue or green eyes. Many people saw these physical features as proof that they were descended from members of the lost Roman legion that supposedly settled Liqian.
Over the past few decades, the city of Zhelaizhai has come to enthusiastically embrace the idea that some of the people there might be descended from members of a lost Roman legion. In effort to attract tourists, the city officially renamed itself “Liqian” after the ancient city. The city has also constructed a number of public monuments promoting the idea of its people’s Roman heritage.
For instance, Liqian erected a monument depicting a Hui Muslim woman, a Han scholar-official, and a Roman soldier. They erected another monument which included conventional representations of Roman soldiers alongside replicas of famous Roman sculptures, including the Augustus of Prima Porta and the Ludovisi Gaul. At least at one point, the city of Liqian was even talking about building a full-scale replica of the Colosseum.
At the Yongchang Museum, they even have an official video that they show to visitors explaining the thrilling tale of how Liqian was supposedly founded by Roman soldiers. Hilariously, though, the video uses footage from the 2007 fantasy action film 300—which is ostensibly about the Battle of Thermopylai, which was fought between a coalition of Greeks against the Achaemenid Persians and their allies in 480 BC—to represent the Battle of Carrhae, fought between the Romans and the Parthians in 53 BC.
Apparently the people who made the video cannot tell the difference between Greeks and Romans or the difference between Achaemenid Persians and Parthians. It is also apparent that no one told them how horribly inaccurate 300 is, since, as I discuss in this article I wrote in November 2019, the film is almost pure fantasy with very little basis in historical fact.
ABOVE: Monument in Liqian of a Hui Muslim woman, a Han man, and a Roman soldier
ABOVE: Photograph of the monument in Liqian with conventional representations of Roman soldiers alongside copies of various famous Roman statues, including the Augustus of Prima Porta and the Ludovisi Gaul
The “lost Roman legion” debunked
It is easy to see why Dub’s hypothesis has caught on. Who wouldn’t want to believe that there was a group of Roman soldiers who were captured by the Parthians, who fought as mercenaries for a Hunnic warlord, who were captured by the Han Chinese, and who ultimately settled down in a city in northwest China that they named after their homeland?
Unfortunately, Dub’s hypothesis is almost certainly incorrect and the evidence supporting it is almost comically flimsy. Let’s start out by looking at Dubs’s evidence for the presence of Roman soldiers at the raid of Zhizhi’s stronghold. First of all, we cannot even be sure that the “fishscale formation” mentioned in The History of the Former Han is even something that would resemble a Roman testudo at all the reference is simply too vague to make any kind speculations based on it.
Even if the “fishscale formation” were indeed a Roman-style testudo, there is no reason to assume that the soldiers at Zhizhi’s stronghold were Romans themselves. Although the testudo formation and double palisade are characteristic of Roman-style warfare, these are ideas and tactics that someone else could have easily come up with independent of the Romans.
Furthermore, even if we assume that the “fishscale formation” was a Roman-style testudo and that the ideas for the testudo and double palisade did indeed come from the Romans, this would not necessarily mean that the soldiers at the battle must have been Romans themselves. In fact, it would actually make far more sense to assume that Zhizhi’s soldiers simply learned these tactics from the Romans.
We have no historical records that could possibly explain how a group of Roman soldiers captured by the Parthians could have wound up fighting as mercenaries for Zhizhi and, frankly, it sounds rather implausible. On the other hand, it is not entirely unreasonable to think that some of the forces fighting for Zhizhi could have encountered the Romans captured by the Parthians at some point and adopted some of their tactics. Certainly, a double palisade would have been easy to adopt. The testudo formation would have been more difficult, but we do not know if the “fishscale formation” was really a testudo anyways.
As for the existence of the town by the name of “Liqian,” this really means absolutely nothing. I personally do not speak Chinese, but I have consulted with someone who does and they have told me that the name Líqián literally means something like “Black Horse.” It is perfectly understandable why a town that was not founded by Roman soldiers might have a name like this.
Now, it has been pointed out that, in 9 AD, the name of the town of Liqian was changed to a phrase meaning “A Prisoner Raised Up,” but this does not really mean anything either, since there were lots of “prisoners” who were “raised up” in antiquity. None of this proves that the town was founded by Roman soldiers who had been captured during Chen Tang’s raid of Zhizhi’s fortress.
There are also serious problems here. No artifact of Roman origin has ever been found in the immediate area of Liqian—no Roman coins, no Roman weaponry, no Roman armor, no Roman anything. Furthermore, a genetic study conducted in 2007 on modern-day natives from the immediate area failed to detect any evidence of Italian ancestry in any of them. The study did detect some evidence of Indo-European ancestry in some of them, but, as I shall get to in a moment, this is hardly surprising and certainly does not constitute evidence of Roman ancestry.
Only a die-hard romanticist could fail to see the serious flaws in Dubs’s hypothesis here. Dubs builds speculation on top of speculation with only a few tiny tidbits of evidence tossed in along the way. The only reason why Dubs’s hypothesis is so popular is because it makes for such a thrilling story. The tale of a small group of Roman soldiers from Italy fighting and being captured all the way across Asia before eventually settling in northwest China in a city named after their homeland has all the making of an epic poem or a Hollywood film. Unfortunately, it probably never happened.
The real reason why so many people from Liqian look European
Many people are probably wondering, “Well, if they probably don’t have Roman ancestors, then why do so many people from Liqian look European?” The answer is that the reason why so many people from Liqian look European is because many of them probably have distant ancestors who ultimately came from Europe. Those European ancestors, though, probably weren’t Romans, but rather members of another nation—a nation that has been practically erased from history.
One thing that is often left out of the discussion over whether the Romans actually went to China is the fact that Liqian is not the only place in western China where you can find large numbers of people with features that we normally think of as “European.” There are actually people all throughout northwestern China with blond hair, blue eyes, pale skin, and other traditionally “European” features.
To find the reason why so many people in western China have features that are normally seen as European, we have to go back long before the Romans. Sometime around the fifth millennium BC or thereabouts, millennia before the Roman Empire was even an idea in someone’s head, there was a people known as the Proto-Indo-Europeans. The Proto-Indo-Europeans were nomadic herdsmen who probably lived in the steppes north of the Black Sea in what is now eastern Ukraine and southwest Russia. They spoke a language which linguists have termed “Proto-Indo-European.”
ABOVE: Map from Wikimedia Commons showing the migrations of various Indo-European groups out of the Indo-European homeland or Urheimat and across much of Europe and southwest Asia
Sometime perhaps around 3,500 BC or thereabouts, the Proto-Indo-Europeans began to migrate out of their homeland in the steppes north of the Black Sea across Europe and much of western Asia. As they spread across Eurasia, they brought their language and their culture along with them. The vast majority of European languages, along with many Indian and Iranian languages, are directly derived from Proto-Indo-European.
There was one group of Indo-European people who went further east than any of the others. These people settled in the Tarim basin in what is now the Xinjiang region of northwest China. We do not know much about these early Indo-European settlers of the Tarim basin, because they did not have written records at first, but we do know that many of them bore features commonly associated with northeastern Europeans because a large number of mummies have been found in the Tarim basin dating between c. 1800 BC and c. 200 AD bearing obviously European features.
By around the second century BC, numerous city-states of people speaking Indo-European languages had arisen in the Tarim basin. In around the fifth century AD, the Indo-European peoples of the Tarim basin began writing in their native languages, which linguists have dubbed “Tocharian.” There are three known Tocharian languages: Tocharian A, Tocharian B, and Tocharian C. The people who spoke these languages are known as “Tocharians.”
Many Tocharians had European features. Chinese sources describe the Tocharians as predominately light-skinned, blond or red-haired, and blue or green-eyed, with high noses and full beards. A Tocharian fresco from the Qizil Caves in the Tarim basin depicts Tocharian men with pale skin and blond hair.
ABOVE: Sixth-century AD Tocharian fresco from Qizil Caves in the Tarim basin depicting Tocharian men with pale skin and blond hair
ABOVE: Wooden tablet dating to between c. 400 and c. 800 AD with writing in Tocharian B
In 640 AD, Emperor Taizong of the Tang Dynasty began a campaign against the Tocharian city-states of the Tarim basin. The Tocharians were conquered and brought under the rule of the Tang Dynasty. Later in the eighth century AD, the Uyghur Turks settled in the Xinjiang. The Tocharians largely assimilated into Uyghur culture and intermarried with the Uyghurs. To this day, many Uyghurs have still pale skin, blond or red hair, and blue or green eyes.
The Uyghurs are not the only ones in northwest China who probably have Tocharian ancestors, however the Tocharians have left a significant genetic footprint on northwestern China as a whole. Thus, many people who live in northwestern China have distant ancestors who lived in the steppes of Ukraine and southwest Russia many thousands of years ago.
Ancient Tocharian features such blond hair, pale skin, high noses, and blue eyes still occasionally resurface in the native populations of this region of China. That is probably the reason why so many people from Liqian look European. It is probably not because they have Roman ancestors it is far more likely because they have Tocharian ancestors.
Honestly, Roman ancestors don’t make especially much sense as an explanation for why some people in western China have blond hair and blue eyes anyway, since the Romans were Italian. The population of Italy hasn’t changed drastically since ancient times and, back then, blond hair and blue eyes were just as rare in Italy as they are now. Obviously, there are some people in Italy who do have blond hair and blue eyes, but these features are not nearly as common in Italy as they are in, say, southwest Russia or Ukraine.
ABOVE: Photograph from Wikimedia Commons of a blond-haired, blue-eyed Uyghur girl from Turpan, Xinjiang, China. To this day, many Uyghurs still have blond hair, blue eyes, and other features traditionally seen as European.
In the end, Homer Dubs’s hypothesis has effectively became a modern legend. There is really no evidence to support it, but many people go on believing in it anyways because it makes for a good story. In much the same way that Vergil’s Aeneid furnished a founding myth for the Roman people by claiming that the Romans were descendants of Aeneas, a hero who fought for Troy in the Trojan War, Dubs’s hypothesis has provided a founding myth for the city of Liqian by claiming that the people of Liqian are descendants of Roman soldiers, captured first by the Parthians and later by the Chinese. I expect that, with future generations, the legend will probably only be further elaborated until perhaps it gets an epic of its own.
Ultimately, there was some contact between the Roman Empire and the Han Empire, but it was largely limited to a handful of merchants and embassies. In ancient Roman sources, Chinese people are referred to as “Seres.” The Roman historian Lucius Annaeus Florus (lived c. 74 – c. 130 AD) records in his Epitome of Roman History 2.34 that “Seres” and Indians came from the far east to the court of the Roman emperor Augustus (ruled 27 BC – 14 AD), bearing gifts of precious gems, pearls, and elephants. Here is what he writes, as translated by E. S. Forster:
“Now that all the races of the west and south were subjugated, and also the races of the north, those at least between the Rhine and the Danube, and of the east between the Cyrus and the Euphrates, the other nations too, who were not under the rule of the empire, yet felt the greatness of Rome and revered its people as the conqueror of the world.”
“For the Scythians and the Sarmatians sent ambassadors seeking friendship the Seres [i.e., Chinese] 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.”
The History of the Later Han records that, in 166 AD, a group of emissaries arrived at the court of Emperor Huan claiming to have been sent by “Andun” (安敦), the king of “Daqin.” “Daqin” was the most common Chinese name for the Roman Empire. The “Andun” mentioned in The History of the Later Han is most likely the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius Antoninus (ruled 161 – 180 AD).
The History of the Later Han states that the arrival of this embassy was the first time there had been direct diplomatic contact between the Chinese and the people of Diqin, which suggests that the “Seres” at the court of Augustus mentioned by Florus were probably independent merchants and not an official embassy sent by the Han emperor.
A Roman Legion Lost in China.
The battle of Carrhae ended fifty-three years before the birth of Jesus Christ, on the last day of May. It was a shameful disaster for the Roman army: seven legions with the strength of 45,000 men were humiliated and routed by 10,000 Parthian archers.
The commanding officer of the unfortunate expedition was Marcus Licinius Crassus, a sixty-two-year-old tribune eager for glory and wealth, even though he was already the richest man in Rome. He organized the campaign – perhaps also because he envied the military successes of Pompey and Caesar, and foolishly thought his amateur dramatics might equal their professionalism. His only triumph had been achieved with Pompey’s help: the bloody suppression of Spartacus and his slaves. He had insufficient experience to embark on a large-scale operation himself thus, Rome’s Republican government were loathe to let him depart with such a sizeable army, especially since there was no real emergency in the east. During the heated public debate about the excursion, a tribunus plebis named Ateius argued vehemently in opposition. Plutarch wrote that, when Ateius realised that his efforts were in vain and that he would not receive enough supporting votes, he theatrically lit a brazier and, while throwing grains of incense onto the flames, started to curse Crassus and evoke the infernal gods. Judging from the name and the behaviour of this man, we can guess that he was of Etruscan descent! To strengthen his own case, Crassus had enlisted the support of Pompey and Caesar, who saw an opportunity to free themselves of a powerful competitor.
When the Senate granted approval, Crassus assembled metropolitan legions in Rome, marched to Campania and then to Brindisi, where he met with other legions summoned from Calabria. The troops embarked despite of stormy seas – an early indication of his ineptitude. Not all the ships reached the other shore.
Crassus had the blind goddess Fortune on his side during his youth: he emerged unscathed from the civil wars, and though he was implicated in the Catiline conspiracy he suffered no consequences. He also settled the debts of a spendthrift Caesar whilst being tightfisted himself and with his family.
But as he aged he became a sort of blunderer, making numerous and serious mistakes, some of them mentioned by the historians who have written in detail about his last expedition. For instance, in a speech to his soldiers he proclaimed that he would destroy a bridge ‘so that none of you would be able to return’ but when he noticed the expressions of dismay amongst his soldiers, Crassus quickly corrected himself by explaining that he had been referring to the enemy. At one point he ordered the distribution of lentils and salt to the troops, oblivious that this was a meal offered at funerals. And when he dropped on the floor the entrails of a sacrificial animal placed in his hands by a haruspex (a soothsayer) Crassus cried: “Fear not despite my age, the hilt of my sword will not slip from my hand!” On the day of the battle Crassus wore a black tunic, instead of the purple colour de rigour for Roman generals, and even though he quickly returned to his tent to change, he left his officers speechless.
Moreover Crassus refused to listen to his veterans advisors in favour of marching on the coast and avoiding the desert to reach the Parthian capital. Rather, he trusted the Arab, Arimanes, and his 6,000 horsemen, who had secretly sided with the Parthians and abandoned the Romans shortly after engaging in the battle.
Crassus ordered his soldiers to organize themselves in square formations, shielded on all sides without and packed like sardines within. It caged them, and they were slaughtered by the Parthian’s arrows, shot from their reflex bows with recurved edges. These bows doubled the propulsion power, enabling them to shoot at a distance of up to 400 metres. This kind of bow was a Mongol invention further perfected by the Chinese in the seventeenth century, when their arrows became capable of reaching a distance of up to 600 metres.
Seeing the grave danger, Crassus’ son, Publius, attempted a sally with a thousand Gallic cavalrymen, but he and half of them were slain, the remainder taken prisoners. The head of Publius was put on a spear and shown to the Romans and to his father. On this tragic occasion we can see the only glimpse of Roman greatness in Crassus who momentarily ceased to act like an old fool and told to his soldiers to keep up the fight. The death of his son, he said, was his private injury, not theirs.
At nightfall, Crassus agreed to negotiate with the enemy however, it was a trap. He was killed and his head was also cut off. 20,000 Romans died that day 10,000 were taken prisoner, and the remainder managed to escape back to Italy.
This shameful setback was partially redressed by Marcus Antonius a few years later and a diplomatic solution with the Parthians was reached under Augustus in 20 BC with a peace treaty that allowed for the retrieval of lost insignia, including the return of the eagles and the banners of the seven Roman legions. When Augustus sought also the return of prisoners from 53 BC the Parthians maintained that there were none to repatriate. Their practice had always been to shift prisoners caught in the West to Turkmenistan in the East. By so doing they aimed to secure their loyalty against their worst enemies – the Huns – and this is probably what happened to the unfortunate 10,000 legionnaires captured during Crassus’s battle. The Roman historian Plinius also upheld this theory, which stood until 1955, when an American Sinologist, Homer Hasenpflug Dubs, gave a speech during a conference in London, titled, “A Roman City in Ancient China”.
Dubs had found that in the annals of the Han dynasty there is record of the capture of a Hun city by the Chinese army in 36 BC named Zhizhi, now known as Dzhambul, located close to Tashkent, in Uzbekistan. Dubs was deeply impressed by the fact that the Chinese recorded the discovery of palisades of tree trunks, and that the enemy had used a previously unseen battle formation, namely a testudo of selected warriors forming a cover of overlapping shields in front of their bodies in the first row and over the heads in the following rows. 
The Roman Testudo
The Chinese were so struck by the military skills of the opposing warriors that they moved them, after enlisting, further East, to a place that by imperial decree was named Li-Jien (which sounds in Chinese as the word “legion” and is the name the Chinese called Rome) in Gansu province. It was uncommon for Chinese to name their cities after barbarian names: the only two other known cases, Kucha and Wen-Siu, occurred where large colonies of foreigners had settled. The legionnaires numbered 145, and formed a garrison protecting the inhabitants of Li-Jien from Tibetan raids.
Dubs claimed to have identified Li-Jien as the place now known as Zhelaizhai, near Lanzhou. Subsequent archaeological expeditions made by Chinese, Australians and Americans appear to support the choice of this Chinese city even though the smoking gun, which may finally solve the mystery, has yet to be found.
During excavations in 1993 fortifications were unearthed, as well as a type of trunk fixed with stakes, possibly dating back to the time of the arrival of the legionnaires. The ‘trunk’ was a kind of hoist used by the Romans to build fortifications but unknown in China. It is now on display in the Lanzhou Museum.
The physical features of those living in Lanzhou, in some cases, also give some credence to Dubs’s theory. A certain Sung Guorong, for instance, stands at the unusual height of 1.82 metres, is blond and with an aquiline nose and big blue eyes, and loudly proclaims that he is Roman, not Chinese. He also claims that there are at least 100 others in the area with similar features.
Certainly among the legionnaires there were some German as well as Gaul auxiliaries. Perhaps one of Mr Song’s ancestors was one of those 500 horsemen captured during Publius Crassus’s tragic sally. Lanzhou University has conducted DNA tests on the population of Zhelaizhai and their findings show that 46 per cent of them have genetic sequences similar to Europeans’.
Future research conducted using the Y chromosome (which is subject to little variation as it is transmitted directly from father to son) will shed more light on this mystery, and will help gather more precise information about European kinship ties.
Apart from this genetic evidence, Roman coins and pottery have also been unearthed in Zhelaizhai, as well as a helmet bearing the engraving in Chinese characters: One of the Prisoners. However, Zhelaizhai is located along the Silk Road, where such discoveries are found frequently. Similar artefacts have been found in distant places such as Vietnam and Korea.
One of Zhelaizhai’s specific characteristics, worth mentioning, is the passion for bulls and bullfighting, which continues to this day, and which is not shared by neighbouring areas. Local authorities, wishing to capitalize on the tourist potential offered by this link, have built a pavilion with Roman marble statues to attract visitors.
The Chinese were aware of the existence of a large Western empire and sent a legation in the year 97 AD, headed by Kan Ying. This legation arrived in Mesopotamia but, prior to continuing on to Rome, were misled by the Parthians into believing the journey would take two years of sailing. The Parthians had no interest in having their two main customers meet, as this would have cut them out of a lucrative trade.
The naïve Kan Yin trusted the Parthians and decided to return to China empty handed.
Marcus Aurelius in 166 AD sent an official delegation of Romans to the Chinese capital of Luoyang and their arrival is recorded in the dynastic annals however, the Chinese did not respond favourably to the Roman overtures, perhaps because of the occurrence in 184 AD of the peasant rebellion known as the Yellow Turbans, which caused a frightful civil war and the fall of the Han dynasty, which had ruled over China for four centuries.
(This article was published in a Hong Kong magazine on February 2003. Since than my story went viral on the web. I was contacted by an historian from Turkey asking if I knew more, because it seems that traditionally it was from Zheilazhai that begun the march West of the Turkish nation, or better say the Ashina clan within the Turkish nation..)
This article was published for the first time in Fabruary 2003.
 Carrhae, now known as Harran, is located on Turkey’s oriental border.
 These facts are reported in the biography of Chen Tang, one of the victorious Chinese generals, written by the historian Ban Gu (32 – 92).
 It is well known that Caesar spent a considerable amount of gold for bespoke-tailored togas made of silk, and that he gave Servilia, his mistress and mother of Brutus, a costly pearl from the South Seas. He was a trendsetter…
Part 1 : A lost Roman legion….in China?
The year was 53 BC, Caesar was enforcing civilisation in Gaul and the politics of empire danced their dangerous dance around the Vestal flame. In the midst of this turbulence, 10,000 ravaged, beaten and humiliated soldiers of a once proud Roman army were marched under the yoke into the mists of time, never to be heard of again……or were they?
Marcus Licinius Crassus, the proclaimed ‘wealthiest man in Rome’, was losing the war of prestige and honour to his fellow triumvirates, and under intense pressure to prove his worth as a leader of men after the disastrous campaign against the slave revolts under Spartacus. He craved the one thing money could not buy, the most prized attribute in the high echelons of Roman society, the ‘dignitas’ gained from total war. He therefore decided he would make his mark in the most spectacular way. He raised himself seven legions of Rome’s finest, an estimated 30,000/35,000 men, 4,000 horse, and about 3500 light infantry.
This Roman military machine, it’s engine emitting the throaty roar of impending conquest and the jewel encrusted prospect of unimaginable riches, invaded the heartlands of it’s mortal nemesis, the Parthian empire. Alas it would prove to be one of the most disastrous campaigns in Roman history, ending in just one significant military engagement. On the banks of a tributary of the Euphrates, a Parthian army of 10,000 blocked the way of the might of Rome it would be recorded through the annals of time as the battle of Carrhae. (Now modern day Harran, Turkey)
The battle was scarcely a battle, with the enemy not presenting themselves for close quarters combat, the Roman legions were completely outmanoeuvred and utterly cut to pieces. Parthian horse archers, who are now, as then, famous for the ‘Parthian shot’, in which an archer could turn in the saddle and loose several more arrows as they rode away. This was devastating for the Roman ethos of war, which principally consisted of a stand and be destroyed way of fighting, the army was designed for close quarter action. In almost a forerunner to the last days of the Empire centuries later, the Parthian archers blitzed the Roman position for a full day, and with the final blow of the death on legs that were the cataphracts, the fat lady had definitely sung for the legions, reducing 30,000 of Romulus’s wolves draped in iron into a blood soaked wall of flesh and forgotten courage, turning the sun scorched desert into deaths playground. The air was full of the iron tinge of spent blood, and the carrions were to feast for weeks to come.
Crassus and the surviving legates of the army, knowing the day was well and truly lost, and with the tattered and exhausted remnants of the army near mutinous, agreed to a meeting of parley offered by the Parthian commander, a General Surena. However a scuffle ensued and Crassus was executed.
Next according to Plutarch:
‘Thereupon some of them went down and delivered themselves up, but the rest scattered during the night, and of these a very few made their escape the rest of them were hunted down by the Arabs, captured, and cut to pieces. In the whole campaign, twenty thousand are said to have been killed, and ten thousand to have been taken alive.’- Plutarch, Lives
Thus our story begins.
It all started in 1957 when a well respected yet gloriously eccentric Sinologist by the name of Homer H Dubs published a paper entitled: ‘A Roman City in Ancient China’. A subject he had been researching for 10 years. In the paper he stated that captured soldiers from the battle of Carrhae had been settled and used as mercenaries (and even formed a town!) in North Western China, in what is now the Gansu province. It is of little surprise that mystery lovers and some scholars have pounced on this extraordinary claim. Considering that Chinas first accepted direct contact in literary sources with the Roman Empire itself was an emissary during the Principate, under Marcus Aurelieus in 166 AD. It is very tantalising to think of the delicious notion of earlier and spectacular integration of westerners in China. I do have to admit also, that the circumstantial evidence is definitely compelling.
Let us explore the evidence….
Now, the Parthians’ usual practice for captured enemy soldiers was to indeed utilise them, to strip them of all their own military equipment and re-supply with indigenous weapons. The ancient sources such as Pliny seem to support this also, it is worth mentioning the Roman historian Horace claimed that the survivors were integrated in to the main Parthian army and married to women of the indigenous population. If we are to take this as evidence for our current subject, these soldiers most likely fate was to be moved to the far eastern fringes of the Parthian empire in Turkmenistan to be used as border guards against the Huns. It indeed makes sense that these soldiers be moved as far from their own borders as possible the Romans themselves did this with the auxiliaries they recruited.
In 20 BC during negotiations for the recovery of the standards lost at Carrhae between Augustus and the Parthians, it was stated that there were no prisoners to be given back as reparations also. This is the basis many theorists use to substantiate the idea of the Romans in China the Parthians no longer had the prisoners, it obviously backs up the theory to some extent of the Romans in China…..surely?
Not quite, let us pick apart this foundation idea. Firstly it is 20 BC, that is 33 years after Carrhae, and the average life expectancy of a male of the soldier class in the late republic was 45/50 (and that’s being optimistic even without battle exposure and other hazards of this type). So even if we assume the majority of soldiers was aged 17/30 at the time of the battle, that would place them in the age bracket of between 42 and 60 years old. Even taking into consideration that it is possible that some would live longer than others, the idea that it could be used to substantiate the theory just doesn’t stack up to real scrutiny. However, on the flip side of this there is indeed a chance of some of these men still being alive at the time of the diplomatic exchange.
Let us move on, there is a Chinese record, called ‘History of the former Han Dynasty’. In the first scene they tell the story of a territorial battle between the Huns and the Chinese in a place called ZhiZhi, identified today as Zhambal, Uzbekistan, in the year 36 BC (notice again the date). A general in command of the Chinese was a man named Chen Tang, and his account of the battle is where it all starts for Dubs and the very foundation of the whole theory. He stated that his warriors faced off against a unit of soldiers which numbered more than a hundred using a very strange formation, he described it as a ‘fish scale formation’ (You can see where this is going right. ) that he had never been witness to before. Now this is all he says about this formation, but it does strike an alarming similarity to the ‘testudo’ (Latin for tortoise), the famous formation used by the Romans throughout their military conquests until at the very least the 4 th Century AD.
He does make note of another feature of the Roman military too, a wooden palisade being placed outside the walls this according to Dubs was almost exclusively a Roman practice at this time. Dubs himself, when presented with the possibility that they could be Hunnish warriors completely dismisses this on the grounds that like all nomad and barbarian armies of this period were just that, barbarian. He maintained that cohesive and complicated battle manoeuvres and building works could only be obtained by constant drill and training, and the double palisade was most characteristically a standard Roman practice. A thing to note also is that the Huns, who in tactics and troop utilisation were very similar to the Parthians. Were composed largely of mounted archers and heavy shock cavalry, the heavy infantry units used usually composed largely of mercenaries or low born levies.
In Chen Tang’s official report to the emperor he states that approximately 1,518 men were killed, had taken alive 145 men and 1000 men surrendered. Could those 145 men be the Roman mercenaries?
It is a very strange fact that the 145 were considered separate from the 1000 who surrendered. Maybe because the 145 just changed paymaster? It does make sense that this is how mercenaries would act in this situation, a transition from one employer to the next, who cares where the money is coming from? Dubs certainly sees it that way he defines the 145 men as the ‘just over a hundred men’ that were using the ‘fish scale’ formation. I am inclined to admit also that this evidence can easily be linked with each other and it does make perfect sense that the Chinese victors would be happy to acquire these men, due to their formidable tactics they used. According to Dubbs, these soldiers were then moved to a frontier town, the name of this town was Li-Jien.
In the next installment we will attempt to shed some light on the secrets of that little town in China…..
Has A Lost Roman Legion Been Found In China?
Lost Roman legions are all the rage at the movies lately. Neil Marshall was first out the gate with Centurion this year, a really fun and bloody adventure tale about what happened to the fabled Ninth Legion, who disappeared in the wilds of Britain. Kevin MacDonald has a movie about that same legion coming out next year generically called The Eagle (it was originally titled The Eagle of the Ninth, which is much better), the film is set a generation later as a son of a Ninth Legion soldier searches for that group’s missing Eagle emblem.
But the Ninth Legion wasn’t the only lost legion out there. And now DNA tests may have found one of the most legendarily lost groups of Roman soldiers - in China.
You might know Marcus Crassus from Spartacus, but he wasn’t just Kirk Douglas’ enemy. He also was in command of one of ancient Rome’s most devastating defeats - the Battle of Carrhae. Crassus’ Roman forces got royally fucked up by the Parthians they were trying to conquer (Parthia was located in what is now northeastern Iran). It seems the Parthian archers were all that and a bag of chips, and they would ride up on the Romans, raining arrows of death, and then ride away still raining arrows of death. They could shoot equally well forwards or backwards.
40,000 Romans got killed in that battle, and Crassus, pressured into a parley with the Parthians by his mutinous troops, got betrayed and was beheaded. 10,000 Romans were captured and from that day forward disappeared from the official history books.
But there have been stories and legends about them. The accepted wisdom at the time was that the Parthians took the prisoners and moved them to their eastern front, where they were put into battle against the Huns. That was certainly the thesis extended by Roman historian Plinius.
And here’s where it gets interesting. Rumors have it that some of those Romans became mercenaries, fighting for the highest bidder. The Chinese took a Hun city almost 20 years later, and were very impressed with some warriors they saw in action there. Chinese histories tell of warriors who used a ‘fish scale formation,’ which sounds like it could very well be the overlapping shield testudo formation that the Romans perfected and that made them such a fierce fighting force.
The Chinese took these warriors and moved them even farther east, settling them in a town that was named Li-Jien (which sounds, in Chinese, like the word legion), where they repulsed Tibetan attacks. Recent excavations in an area near where archeologists think Li-Jien was (it’s now lost) unearthed a kind of hoist that Romans used in building fortifications which was unknown to the Chinese. That trunk is now on display at the Lanzhou museum.
Which brings us to the modern day. The archeologists who found that artifact were surprised by the looks of the locals. According to China Daily:
DNA testing has shown that some villagers have as much as 56% Caucasian ancestry.
Before we get ahead of ourselves, let’s keep in mind that this village is along the famed Silk Road, the center of trade traffic between East and West in ancient times. There are a lot of ways that the people of Liqian, on the edge of the Gobi Desert, could have gotten some white in their veins. And the make-up of a Roman legion - it could have contained people from all over the vast Empire, including Germans (whom the locals, with their light hair and eyes, seem to resemble the most) - makes it tough to be sure that the Caucasian DNA came from the legion or from a traveling trader.
That said, it’s unlikely that Romans ever officially got anywhere near the Gobi Desert. The Han Empire was aware of the Romans, and there was some minor contact but it was all done through third party intermediaries (the Parthians, in fact!). No official Roman boot trod that far into Chinese territory.
But maybe! It’s kind of cool to think of the slow seepage of ancient empires into one another. And the idea of a hardy band of Roman legionnaires - the stories have their final number as less than 200 - fighting in strange and exotic lands and finding themselves settling down there - makes for an excellent and thrilling story. Now that’s a lost legion film I’d like to see. I could finally get a film where a guy in a Roman helmet fights a kung fu master.