Part 3 : A lost Roman legion….in China?

Defeated men yet still potent in their violent majesty, taken at the battle of Carrahe in 53BC and marched by exotic dragons dripping with silk into the soft and dangerous mirage.

And as with so many over the millennia, their souls destined to be lost amongst those of the remembered. But as we have seen before, maybe this isn’t quite true.

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Destined to never fight under the eagles again, was their destiny in fact to fight their way across the orient to emerge as settlers in an alien world?  Using the holy trinity of time detection: archaeology, literary and oral histories, we will again delve into the chasm of the unknown and attempt to drag out some semblance of truth and fact.  So, if you are sitting comfortably, then I shall begin….

So many names, so little time….

We begin again with the village in the tiny western Chinese province of Gansu, which is today called Zhelai. A place where the tradition of Roman lineage go hand in hand with the inhabitants’ daily lives and have provided these people with one of the great things any small component of a great cultural machine can have, a great story of individuality and a unique traditionalist value.

So much so in fact, the Chinese government called it a national historic monument. Li-Chien is the oldest and most controversial name most commonly associated with the story due to it’s startling connotations. Using his background in Sinology, Homer H Dubbs claimed the name ‘Li-Chien’ was used by the Ancient Chinese to describe the dominant power in the West, in this case, the Roman empire. Taken on the basis that the word is already a transliteration of the Chinese for Alexandria in Egypt.

In the book ‘China and The Roman Orient’ by F. Hirth the author states the name as ‘Li-K’an’ and takes this name as a representation of Petra in Jordan(1), with whom the Chinese at this time would have known a lot more about due to simple geography. And therein lies the problem, Sinology and principally the study of the language of Ancient Chinese and it’s translations to Latin, Greek et all still to this day provide eminent authorities on the subjects with gross disagreement. The crucial fact is that Dubbs himself, lest we forget that he was a respected Sinologist, gave the name to mean the whole of the Roman Empire through the transliteration of Alexandria. The Roman’s never conquered the East per se, Alexandria is probably the closest Ancient China would have come to tangible links with Rome herself in the late Republic and after the subsequent development of the ‘silk road’. It is, on Dubbs’ part, incredibly calculated circumspection, but a fair conclusion with the evidence available.

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Is there more literary evidence to link the name to Rome?

Funny you should ask that because yes there is, Li-Jien continues to be found in texts, in A History Of The Later Han Dynasty, it is written within those pages something intriguing. It is stated ”the country of Ta-ts’in is also Li Jien”. Ta-ts’in was the name used for the Roman Empire in the middle ages and was also the name used when the aforementioned merchant arrived from Marcus Aurelius’s court in 166 AD (2) As we have now established that the two names are inexorably linked, and they represent the same entity geographically and politically to the Chinese. Could this be further evidence of Roman links? Dubbs certainly thought so.

In the Cadastral text written in 5 AD, which incidentally is 56 years after Carrahe. 1,587 cities were recorded, and of these 1,587 only three were listed as inhabited by foreigners. These three were all in the same area of China. In this case Chinese Turkestan. Their names were listed as Kench, Wen-su, and Li-Jien (3) Furthermore, in 9 AD, the settlement of ‘Li-Jien’ was renamed by Wang Mang. A Confucian emperor of China. Wang Mang adopted the practice of changing names of settlements to names that are more descriptive of it’s population. In accordance with this, Li-Jien was changed to Jie-Lu. This is where it gets interesting, because this name can be translated as ”caitliffs captured storming a city”…… (4)

In the previous instalment the subject of how the possible Roman mercenaries were taken by the Chinese at the battle of ZhiZhi in 35 BC was touched upon. The strange ‘fishscale’ formation being made worthy of note by the Chinese general. Now, this battle was a territorial squabble between the Huns and the Chinese and crucially, it was fought over a settlement. Could these soldiers that were then hired by the Chinese be the ”caitliffs captured storming a city”? Furthermore, are they the Romans we are looking for? Being further bolstered with the knowledge that Li-Jien was inhabited by foreigners it does, albeit loosely, tie in.

Archaeological Data

I feel that the presence of solid archaeological evidence swaying to either end of the spectrum would provide us with a definitive answer as to the presence of Roman legionnaires cum colonists in the Gansu province. Sadly, a completely impartial  investigation does not seem to be appearing on the horizon at any point in the near future. However in 2003 near Yongchang (the city nearest Li-Jien), the excavations were being done for a prospected new gas pipeline, and lo and behold a group of tombs were duly discovered. And in one of these tombs archaeologists found a skeleton measuring 1.8 metres (5 feet 9) tall. Immediately cries of ‘Roman’! were heard screeching across the steppes. And these were answered with a big ‘I’m afraid not’.

The leader of the excavations and director of Gansu province archaeological unit stated implicitly that these tombs were dated to the Eastern Han Dynasty, which range from 20-240 AD. I feel compelled to challenge this also, 1.8m was much too tall for an average Roman, if we take into account the majority of the legions were still recruited from Italy, as they mostly were in the late Republic. Then we can fairly summarise with the knowledge that an average Roman was between 5ft 2” and 5ft 6”, not a massive jump in height admittedly, but still far from a conclusive hypothesis. Of the other relatively small excavations undertaken actually on the proposed site there is very little. An Italian team has been allowed to dig the site in a very limited capacity, of the finds recovered were the fragmented remains of a helmet. This helmet is believed to have an inscription upon it, this inscription read: ‘An Chao’. Which apparently is a representation of the word: ‘Prisoner’.(5) There is still no news on the proposed forthcoming excavations to be conducted at the site.

The Problem with it is….

The arguments against this theory are unequivocal, the general consensus is that Dubbs had based his entire theory on evidence that is wholly circumstantial and indirect. Certainly, the literary evidence is wonderfully compelling, and Dubbs makes it into a logical hypothesis. The biggest problem that is thrown up is simple, there is no scientific evidence by way of archaeological investigation. In addition to this but by no means less significant, the very basis of the theory: Li-Jien itself. The name ‘Li-Jien’ and it’s translations is still hotly contested today and we are nowhere closer to a definitive translation. The best translation we can hope for at the moment is just anywhere to the west of China. There is certainly a foreign influence in Li-Jien, that of course means that the residents can indeed be ‘Roman’, meaning anywhere from the Eastern fringe of the empire. But the theory of Crassus’ lost legion sadly has been found wanting.

What Dubbs also negates to mention is Han China’s policy in this era in regards to the integration of foreigners into society. ‘A little over a hundred men’ that Dubbs uses to corroborate his theory is nowhere near enough to be allowed to form any settlement with their own indigenous social structure. The Han Chinese system for the integration of foreign captives or people who have sworn fealty to the Han Chinese realm was to form a sort of colony for them, and would rename this colony a ‘hsien’. This specifically involved the naming of the settlement in question. And there is no evidence at all to show that Li-Jien has ever been anything otherwise than a ‘hsien’.(6) The DNA evidence that has been presented can be seen as far from explanatory in regards to a ‘Roman’ connection, and the literary evidence presented is interesting and thought provoking, yet completely inconclusive.

To conclude…

Until further archaeological surveys are done on the site, there will always be the light at the end of the tunnel for the dear residents of Li-Jien today. They have built the entire fabric of their identity on this legend, and are prepared to believe it until their last breath. I personally think that is a wonderful and heart-warming thought. We, as a race have smashed our way through the centuries and made giant leaps for mankind with technology and making the world smaller with nothing but the deftness of our touch on a screen.

That little town in China has stood on the shoulders of 21st century giant, and they have stood proud and firm, and that single fact makes them more Roman than any other with a beating heart. Because they have what sadly is dying in our modern, and progressively less unique world. They have the traditionalist values of ancestry. They are a very small part of a huge cultural machine, yet they stem the tide of today with nothing but the simple spoken word. And whether it is found to be true or otherwise, they will tell this story to their children, and so on, until our memories and conclusions are but dust in the sands of time.

Written by Paddy Lambert

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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