Part 1 : A lost Roman legion….in China?

Before the age of the Emperors, when the Republic of Rome was beginning to show the cracks of exploitation and exceedingly unable to feed from it’s bosom the power hungry hyenas that were laughing at the gates.

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?

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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.

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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 4th 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…..

  • ·What does the archaeological record tell us?
  • ·What does the local population think of the theory?
  • ·What are the hard, absolute facts?

Part 2 : A lost Roman legion….in China?

Header Image Credit : Hans Splinter

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Paddy Lambert
Paddy Lambert
Paddy Lambert is a student of archaeology and a regular contributor to Heritage Daily. Paddy has excavated sites within the UK and France where he supervises and teaches archaeology to the general public as part of an outreach project to raise awareness of the discipline.

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