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A Roman Emperor in Second-Century China? July 16, 2010

Author: Beach Combing | in : Ancient , trackback








Classicists and Sinologists (experts on all things Chinese) spent much energy in the nineteenth and early twentieth century demonstrating that there had been contacts between the two greatest Empires of antiquity, the Chinese and the Roman. They succeeded to their own satisfaction and even came up with ‘evidence’ for a Roman town in China and Chinese ambassadors in Europe! But recent studies have been more circumspect, given the two thousand miles of militarised Parthia that stood between these super-states.

Beachcombing would love nothing better than to have a swanky Romulus walking through downtown Peking a couple of centuries after Christ. And so he offers here some of the best evidence available. In the fifth century, Fan Ye, the author of the Book of the Later Han recorded, using sources from the second century, the following story relating to a mysterious land in the west.

The country of Ta-ts’in is also called Lichien (Li-kin) and, as being situated on the western part of the sea, Hai-hsi-kiio, (i. e. ‘country of the western part of the sea’ ). Its territory amounts to several thousand li; it contains over four hundred cities, and of dependent states there are several times ten. The defences of cities are made of stone. The postal stations and milestones on the roads are covered with plaster. There are pine and cypress trees and all kinds of other trees and plants. The people are much bent on agriculture and practice the planting of trees and the rearing of silk-worms. They cut the hair of their heads, wear embroidered clothing, and drive in small carriages covered with white canopies; when going in or out they beat drums, and hoist flags, banners, and pennants. The precincts of the walled cities in which they live measure over a hundred li in circumference. In the city there are five palaces, ten li distant from each other. In the palace buildings they use crystal to make pillars; vessels used in taking meals are also made. The king goes to one palace a day to hear cases. After five days he has completed his round. As a rule, they let a man with a bag follow the king’s carriage. Those who have some matter to submit, throw a petition into the bag. When the king arrives at the palace he examines into the rights and wrongs of the matter. The official documents are under the control of thirty-six chiang (generals?) who conjointly discuss government affairs. Their kings are not permanent rulers, but they appoint men of merit. When a severe calamity visits the country, or untimely rain-storms, the king is deposed and replaced by another. The one relieved from his duties submits to his degradation without a murmur.  The inhabitants of that country are tall and well-proportioned, somewhat like the Chinese, whence they are called Ta-ts’in [see below for an explanation]. The country contains much gold, silver, and rare precious stones, especially the ‘jewel that shines at night’, the ‘moonshine pearl’, the hsieh-chi-hsi, corals, amber, glass, lang-kan (a kind of coral), chu-tan (cinnabar?), green jadestone (ching-pi), gold-embroidered rugs and thin silk-cloth of various colors. They make gold-colored cloth and asbestos cloth. They further have ‘fine cloth’, also called Shui-yang-ts’ui, (i.e. down of the water-sheep); it is made from the cocoons of wild silk-worms. They collect all kinds of fragrant substances, the juice of which they boil into su-ho (storax). All the rare gems of other foreign countries come from there. They make coins of gold and silver. Ten units of silver are worth one of gold. They traffic by sea with An-hsi (Parthia) and Tien-chu (India), the profit of which trade is ten-fold. They are honest in their transactions and there are no double prices. Cereals are always cheap. The budget is based on a well-filled treasury. When the embassies of neighbouring countries come to their frontier, they are driven by post to the capital, and on arrival, are presented with golden money.

Could this be the Roman Empire? Certainly there are correspondences including the coins of gold and silver, not to mention coral and trade with India and Persia. But there are also elements that have nothing to do with the Roman Empire that Beachcombing knows and periodically pretends to love. King’s who resign after natural disasters, silkworms in the second century and, most laughably, honest merchants!

Fan Ye continues:

Their kings always desired to send embassies to China, but the An-hsi (Parthians) wished to carry on trade with them in Chinese silks, and it is for this reason that they were cut off from communication. This lasted till the ninth year of the Yen-hsi period during the emperor Huan-ti’s reign (= A. D. 166) when the king of Ta-ts’in, An-tun sent an embassy who, from the frontier of Jih-nan (Anam) offered ivory, rhinoceros horns, and tortoise shell. From that time dates the (direct) intercourse with this country.

This is the passage that has really gotten classicists jumping up and down in their padded library seats. And there seems to be good reason. In AD 166 the Roman Emperor was none other than Marcus Aurelius Antoninus, that sounds suspiciously like An-tun… It looks very much then as if a Roman ambassador or a Roman merchant with the chutzpah to pass himself off as an ambassador has arrived at the Chinese royal court and opened official relations about a century and a half after Christ’s death.

Or does it? Beachcombing hates to break up the party but here are some reasons for not taking this account too seriously.

(i) Marcus Aurelius Antoninus (Emperor 161-180) ruled only the western half of the Empire until 169. We might expect to hear then of, the unjustly berated, Lucius Verus, the Eastern Emperor in 166.

(ii) Beachcombing’s knowledge of Chinese writing is, as academics would put it, ‘modest’ (i.e. he has no knowledge). But he would be very suspicious of a syllable of Latin floating into Chinese characters without a big muscled sinologist to back him up. From his readings he gathers that Sinologists are a bit wary of An-tun.

(iii) Ivory, Rhinoceros horn and turtle shell just don’t sound very Roman.

(iv) Ta-ts’in (also written ‘Daquin’) was used by the Chinese to refer to different western regions and even a western utopia of legend.

(v) Given all these problems it might be rude to remind the reader that the Book of the Later Han was written in the fifth century, three centuries after the embassy, using sources of uncertain quality, as the author admits in this very passage.

Beachcombing would bet his best bag of marbles that sometime between the second century BC and the fifth century AD a Chinese citizen walked through Rome or that a Roman citizen bowed before the Chinese Emperor. But he wouldn’t like his tenured position to depend on proving any such thing and if he did have a go he certainly wouldn’t use this passage.

Perhaps what we have here is a Chinese Prester John, coming from an Atlantis in the west: note that Ta-ts’in means literally ‘Greater China’. And though Beachcombing knows it is unwise to sally into languages about which he knows nothing, he wonders whether An-tun can be explained by the traditional name for the capital of Ta-ts’in, An-tu (possibly Antioch, but meaning literally ‘town of peace’)

Isn’t it lovely when a venerable, ancient, much loved piece of evidence turns to dust in your hands?

Any help from Chinese readers would be gratefully received: drbeachcombingATyahooDOTcom


Vincent Leung and Alan Baumler from the wonderful Frog-in-the-Well put some reading Beachcombing’s way – he needs a bit of time though to get through it… Vincent also wrote that ‘My very cursory impression is that most scholars, Sinologists here and historians in Mainland China, simply accept the identification of “Ta-ts’in” as Roman Empire.’ If this identification is correct then certainly much of Beachcombing’s scepticism dissolves. Many thanks to Vincent and Alan.