China and Rome were the two great economic superpowers of the Ancient World. Yet their empires were separated by thousands of miles of inhospitable terrain, dramatically reducing the opportunities for direct communication. Raoul McLaughlin investigates what exactly the Romans and Chinese knew about the existence of each other and examines evidence for early contacts.
During the early Roman period the powerful Parthian kingdom (247 BC-AD 220) controlled the territories of Iraq and Iran and blocked further Roman expansion into the Middle East. In 53 BC a Roman invasion force led by Crassus was surrounded on the desert plain of Carrhae by a much smaller army of mounted Parthians. The Iranian horsemen massacred the legionaries with volleys of arrows fired from powerful long-range bows. When the Parthians advanced they unfurled gleaming coloured banners of a strange, gauze-like fabric that billowed in the breeze. This was the Romans' first sight of Chinese silk.
The empires of Han China (206 BC-AD 220) and Rome together ruled over half the world's ancient population. Their empires had sophisticated governments, commanded formidable armies and controlled vast territories. Each had the force to dominate smaller states on its frontiers and become a superpower of the ancient world. As the civilizations of Rome and China possessed unique resources and developed distinctive expertise, successful communication between the two empires would have dramatically changed the direction of world history.
Yet vast distances, inhospitable landscapes and the Parthian empire separated them and many smaller kingdoms discouraged contact for political and mercantile reasons. It was therefore 'foreign' peoples who trafficked exotic goods between the two, conducting these trade exchanges across long and arduous routes over the great expanse of inner Asia. Goods travelled between Rome and China from the late first century BC, but the empires remained only vaguely aware of each other's existence.
The surviving Classical sources suggest that the Romans knew very little about the ancient Chinese. Most of what they knew came in the form of rumours gathered on distant trade ventures. As far as we are aware, they never realized that on the edge of Asia there was a vast state equivalent in scale and sophistication to their own. Nevertheless, there are intriguing references to the peoples of the Far East whence came silk. In particular there were the Seres, 'Silk People', who the Romans believed harvested silk from forests somewhere in a distant territory on the outer edge of Asia. Classical scholars have previously taken the Seres to be the Han Chinese. The Roman emperor Augustus (r. 27 BC-AD 14) is said to have received delegates from these Seres. According to the Roman historian Florus writing in the time of Hadrian (AD 117-138):
... the Scythians and the Sarmatians sent ambassadors seeking
friendship; the Seres too and the Indians, who live immediately
beneath the sun.
But the ancient Chinese histories contain no record of diplomatic contact during the Augustan era. Also, the Romans placed the Seres at the edge of the known world and their knowledge of Asia did not extend as far as China. During the reign of Augustus, the Roman geographer Strabo reported that the Asian continent ended just beyond the Ganges where the eastern coast turned northward to join with 'Scythia' on the Russian Steppe.
So who were the Seres of the Roman accounts? Horace and other Latin writers talk about their skill in archery and horsemanship, but the most detailed and intriguing description comes from Pliny the Elder writing in the 70s AD.
The Seres themselves are of more than normal size: their hair is
golden-red, their eyes are blue, the sound of their voices rough,
and they exchange no words with merchants. …