The Lost Legion of Carrhae: Did a Roman Legion End Up in China?
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.
Top Image: A man in Liqian, China. There is debate whether his village was inhabited by Roman soldiers from the lost legion of Carrhae. Source: Johnathon Kos-Read/CC BY ND 2.0
By Caleb Strom
Freewalt, Jason, and Joseph Scalzo. "Rome and China: connections between two great ancient empires." J. Scalzo (ed.), The Roman Republic and Empire, HIST532 K001 Spi 14 (2014).
“A Roman Legion Lost in China” by Angelo Paratico. History of the Ancient World. Available at: https://www.historyoftheancientworld.com/2013/06/a-roman-legion-lost-in-china-2/
“How Did Crassus Die?” by N.S. Gill (2018). ThoughtCo. Available at: https://www.thoughtco.com/how-did-crassus-die-120886
“Digging for Romans in China” by Henry Chu (2000). Los Angeles Times. Available at: http://articles.latimes.com/2000/aug/24/news/mn-9483/3