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

Now it is time for us to delve ever deeper into the mystery and enter the murky world where science and legend may walk hand in hand once more. Welcome to the 2nd act of a lost Roman legion in China.


I may have left you wondering the significance of this seemingly innocuous place. Li-Jien is the very foundation of the whole theory, the building block that may spout a magnificent discovery coated in the marble of history changing impact…or just a great and ultimately sad story. There is a tiny village in the western Chinese province of Gansu, more than 200 miles from the nearest large city. A village called Liquan (also known as Zhelaizhai) Just outside that village are the ruins of a fortified settlement, this in itself is not unusual as there are many of these ruins to be found dotted along the Western corridor.

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However it is the name of this settlement that is truly striking. Li-Jien in Chinese is translated as the name given by the Chinese to the Egyptian city of Alexandria, and later a transliteration to generalise the entire Roman Empire.  However it is worth bearing in mind the name can also be attributed to the city of Petra in Chinese, or the simple translation of anywhere outside the known Chinese world to the West.  Still, why call a tiny settlement after a place of which the Chinese knew very little? Or at least what they did know was 2nd and 3rd hard accounts from traders etc.

The actual point in history when this settlement became to be known by the name cannot be pinned down with any certainty. However the first recorded mention of it was a Chinese cadastral text which listed all territories in China in the 6h Century AD (Similar to the Doomsday book undertaken by William I in 11th century England) in total 1,587 settlements were recorded.  There are three settlements listed which stand out, all of which are in Chinese Turkestan, called Kucha and Wen-siu, and the third? You guessed it, Li-Jien. Both Kucha and Wen-siu  are recorded as populated by non-Chinese immigrants. Li-Jien is recorded in the same way.

What do the locals think?

The local population of Liqian throw down a very startling claim. They claim to be direct descendants of the lost legion of Crassus. Indeed they do bare some very characteristic Caucasian features, such as green eyes, being much taller in stature than other Asian peoples and even blond hair! In the nearby town of Yongchang there stands the statue of a Roman legionary. There is even a bar called Caesars Karaoke Bar.  They stress very much an Italian connection. I feel compelled to disregard this outright, if they are of ‘Roman’ lineage, (especially the army) that covers a huge area indeed. Everybody within the boundaries of the Empire would have considered themselves ‘Roman’, from the heat of Africa to the frozen Alps. Very little of Roman citizens actually came from Italy, especially in regards to the army.

However, the army Crassus took with him to Parthia was largely recruited from the Italian mainland, with the auxiliary troops being mostly the Gaulish cavalry. So in this respect it is relatively mitigating.

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Also very strange is villagers worship and all round fascination with the bull. It’s well known the Romans worshiped and revered this animal as sacred and is very closely linked to the cult of Mithras which is of Persian origin, which classes this evidence as self contradictory, having a flip side that the cult originated in the East long before the Romans got wind of it could mean it had an effect in this area from other sources. Although the fact it was almost exclusively a cult for Roman soldiers is interesting, especially in the late Republic.

DNA Evidence?

In recent years the Chinese authorities have loosened their laws regarding genetic testing and blood tests have been given the eagerly anticipated green light. So in 2005 anthropologists from Lanzhou University took blood samples from 93 inhabitants of the village and town and found that 56% of them had traces of Caucasian origin, which is astounding.

However over enthusiasm cannot be a factor here, the village is situated very close to the course of the old silk road and that paves the way to theorise that of course there are grounds to believe that there could be unions of indigenous peoples and other peoples from around the ancient world, they cannot be linked categorically to the Romans in question. In addition, there were other eurasian groups that have settled in this region of China, most notably in this case the Tocharians and the Sakas. These groups are far more likely to be the cause of the genetic strain found at the site. However, the population is very small, and the DNA/population ratio is a staggering one. This in itself is very interesting, even if it is not related to the legionaries theory in China.

Archaeological evidence?

So is it just an entertaining romp full of circumstantial evidence and over-active imaginations?

In order to find out we need the concretion of evidence, the complicity of science to work as the glue that binds it all together, the rhythm to the blues if you will. One cannot stand without the other.  In the 1990’s the Chinese did conduct a brief archaeological investigation of the supposed site and found the remains of a fortified town that was very Roman in appearance, generally that it was square and symmetrical in appearance and design.

The finding of artefacts that can be attributed as Roman however proved allusive, with no small datable finds of this nature. In the west of the village there stands a wall in an S-shape, looking rather insignificant it is substantiated by archaeologists as part of the archaeological record. Near the wall stands a reproduction of a Roman pavilion built by the villagers to honour their assumed ancestry. Further excavation studies by Lanzhou University are in the pipeline to conclusively determine the presence of Western influence. Without datable evidence taken from previous investigations then then we still are forced to await with baited breath.

Due to the media pressure involved and the nature of such a big mystery there is the danger of it being a case of, “if one looks hard enough for something and really wants to believe it, one will see it.” A case in point is Heinrich Schliemann and his search for Troy.

I have touched upon the foundation of the base theory, the ‘fish scale’* formation and the palisade. Both exclusive practices of the Roman military right? Sadly no, the formation in question could be any number of things, to conclusively define it outright as a ‘testudo’ can at be best just be seen as a calculated guess. There was a little known man who campaigned in Central Asia three centuries earlier; you may have heard of him, his name was Alexander the Great. His Macedonian army’s phalanx formation used a very fish scale looking formation of overlapping their shields in a continuous line. Could this just be a residual tactic learned through centuries by the indigenous population? That is pure conjecture but it contains about as much evidence as the ‘testudo’ theory.  The palisade as Dubs insists is by no means exclusive to the Romans either. A palisade is simply a row of stakes joined together to form a shield from behind which artillery could be adequately shielded from return fire and slows the advance of the enemy.

The Huns at this time would indeed have at least known about it and utilised it. If there truly was a Roman influence on the camp that they were allegedly defending, surely the legionaries would utilise the one thing they really would be familiar and most practised with. The famous Roman marching camp. This consists of 3 ‘absolutes’ in Roman military doctrine, the ditch, the palisade, and the rampart. Why would a trained Roman legionary or even auxiliary that had had these basic 3 hammered into them since boot camp just negate the other two? Even if the soil was not suitable for the rampart and ditch, if this was the case the Romans had a back-up plan (they are the Romans after all). They would carry as part of their standard kit extra sacks and would fill these with sand or any other suitable material to form a rampart, however crude.

Why is this not mentioned? If the palisade is worthy of note I am sure the rampart of sacks or otherwise would absolutely be also. Even the marching camp as a base entity can’t be solely attributed to the Romans. The Romans were very adept at turning a good idea into a truly great idea. Ironically learning the tricks from the enemies they encountered. Even if it was the mercenary Romans that constructed the fortifications that were mentioned, the archaeological digs at the accepted site of battle can find little trace of the fortifications due to their temporary nature to substantiate the claim.

So I think it’s fair to assume we can negate these theories as evidence in the search for the Romans in China.

As I mentioned previously, the date of the battle between the Huns and the Chinese in which the Roman mercenaries may have fought was 36BC, that would put the soldiers in the age bracket of the early to late 50’s, but there are records everywhere that veterans of the army still had a bite just as bad as their bark even in their twilight years, so with this there is at least an outside chance. Just.

So now we have the evidence at hand, we need to wrap it into a package of conclusion, alas I do not have the space on this instalment. Please join me on our trip to the the 3rd and final part where we trowel back the literary evidence to sneak a peak at the possibilities and impossibilities below….

Because after all, archaeology is the soul of evolution.

Part 3 : 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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