Ancient Rome and Han Dynasty China: two enormously powerful empires sitting on opposite ends of the Eurasian landmass, linked only tenuously by the trade of Chinese silk, Roman glass and the odd possibly diplomatic mission. The two never had any meaningful contact, if consensus in the academic community is to be believed, and there was certainly never any interbreeding between people from the two empires.
You might be surprised, then, if you ever visited the small Gansu town of Liqian, to find faux-Roman architecture and a bunch of locals dressed up as Roman legionaries engaged in mock battle. You might be more surprised to find out that the inhabitants of this otherwise unremarkable town believe that they are descended from Roman soldiers.
Tall tale or historical fact? We present, ladies and gents, the strange tale of Liqian.
The First Triumvirate
If you’ve ever seen the (largely excellent) HBO/BBC series Rome, which is basically a proto-Game-of-Thrones full of scheming and off-screen battles, then you’ve probably heard of the First Triumvirate that ruled Rome shortly before Julius Caesar’s rise to power. The members of the Triumvirate were the aforementioned Julius Caesar (no introduction necessary); Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus, or Pompey the Great (spoiler alert: not so great once Caesar got done with him) and Marcus Licinius Crassus, rich guy and the man most relevant to our tale.
Whilst Caesar and Pompey were known as brilliant military strategists, Crassus was more of the money man, nicknamed ‘the richest man in Rome’. At some stage Crassus took a look at his co-Triumvirs, assumed that he could do with money what they’d done with tactical genius, and decided to wage a campaign against the Parthian Empire, which controlled what is now modern-day Iran and Turkey.
The Battle of Carrhae, 53 BC
Long story short: bankers are great at ripping people off, but not so good at impromptu military campaigns. Crassus was defeated by the Parthians at the battle of Carrhae, and proving that some things never go out of fashion in the Middle East, was subsequently beheaded. His death was probably a catalyst in Caesar and Pompey’s escalating squabbles and the eventual rise of the former to his position as Emperor of Rome, but that’s another story.
As mentioned, Crassus was the man with his hand on the purse strings, and where Caesar and Pompey relied upon appeals to patriotism and massive personal charisma to swell their ranks, Crassus simply bought folk. A great deal of his army was made up of mercenaries, and it was one such mercenary legion that found themselves on the losing end of the Battle of Carrhae.
20,000 Romans Died at Carrhae and 10,000 more prisoners of war were taken. These prisoners were moved to Merv, present-day Turkmenistan.
The Battle of Zhizhi, 36 BC
Flash forward 17 years later, to the Han Dynasty’s western frontier. Though there hasn’t been an HBO series made about it yet, Han Chinese were also pretty good at scheming, and none more so than deputy governor of the region, Chen Tang. For whatever reason, Chen Tang had a real issue with the nomadic Xiongnu people (basically proto-Mongolians) who lived north and west of the region. He tried on multiple occasions to get his boss, Gan Yanshou, to sign off on kicking the shit out of said people. Gan Yanshou, less bloodthirsty than his subordinate, declined to do so.
Gan Yanshou fell sick, alas, and Chen Tang did what any scheming dick would do: forged an edict in his boss’ name, assembled 40,000 troops and attacked a nearby Xiongnu fort (why a nomadic people had a fort is another story).
The Chinese massacred the Xiongnu, who fought pretty bravely (even the queen and concubines took up bows to defend the fort) but ultimately got wiped out.
Why is this relevant to our story? Because some historical sources indicate that foreign soldiers fought against the Han during the battle – foreign soldiers that used a formation the Chinese called a ‘fish scale’ formation. This sounds an awful lot like the Roman testudo – the classic ‘tortoise’ shield formation used to protect against arrows.
It’s been speculated that these foreign soldiers were captured (again) and resettled (again) in the Chinese town of Liqian. Which brings us to…
The very name of the Gansu town of Liqian has led to some entertaining armchair etymology. Some claim it’s a sinicisation of the Latin term legio, meaning legion. Others say it’s a corruption of the ancient Chinese term for the Roman Empire, Daqin. Whatever the truth, rumour has it this is where the lost Roman legion ended up, and where their descendants live today. But what proof, if any, is there?
Did Ancient Romans settle in China?
There are the people themselves – unusually pale-skinned for Han Chinese, and many of them sporting green eyes, not exactly a common trait in China. There’s also the fact that a 2005 DNA study found that 56% of the locals had Caucasoid DNA. And last but not least, they have Roman legionaries fighting in their goddamn main square.
But let’s hold up a minute. We love a rousing historical implausibility as much as anyone, but it’s worth noting that academic consensus is against the idea that Roman legionaries settled a Chinese town.
For one, there is a complete lack of archaeological evidence to support the idea – no Roman swords, shields, helmets, cups or coins have been found in the area. It could be argued that mercenaries twice captured and twice forcibly resettled may have had very little remaining in the way of belongings, of course, but wiser men and women than we state that this constitutes an argument against the idea.
But what about the pale-skinned, green-eyed locals? Surely they point to evidence of Caucasians settling in the area?
They surely do, but again, party-pooping historians have pointed out that Han China had contact with more than one Caucasian group, including Russia and several Central Asian tribes. The presence of pale skin and green eyes indicates nothing more than that frontier China was a bit more cosmopolitan than Beijing.
Nobody ever let anything as pesky as facts get in the way of a cool story, though, and the Chinese are never a people to let a good tourism opportunity pass them by. That’s why Liqian today has become popular with tourists seeking a look at the ‘Chinese Romans’, and why you can stay in a Roman-themed hotel and watch definite actual descendants of legionaries stage battles in the town square.