Friday, October 5, 2007

Descendants of Crassus' Army in China

In preparing for my upcoming trip to Italy next week I was trying to clean out my email inbox and came across a message from a friend in England with a link to a fascinating article about Roman descendants in China:

Telegraph.co.uk: "Residents of a remote Chinese village are hoping that DNA tests will prove one of history's most unlikely legends — that they are descended from Roman legionaries lost in antiquity.

Cai Junnian, Roman descendants found in China?
Villager Cai Junnian with his green eyes and ruddy complexion

Scientists have taken blood samples from 93 people living in and around Liqian, a settlement in north-western China on the fringes of the Gobi desert, more than 200 miles from the nearest city.

They are seeking an explanation for the unusual number of local people with western characteristics — green eyes, big noses, and even blonde hair — mixed with traditional Chinese features.

"I really think we are descended from the Romans," said Song Guorong, 48, who with his wavy hair, six-foot frame and strikingly long, hooked nose stands out from his short, round-faced office colleagues.

"There are the residents with these special features, and then there are also historical records about the existence of these people long ago," he said.

Studies claiming that Liqian has Roman ancestry have greatly excited the impoverished county in which it is situated. The village is now overlooked by a pillared portico, in the hope of attracting tourists. A statue at the entrance of the nearby county town, Yongchang, shows a Roman legionary standing next to a Confucian scholar and a Muslim woman, as a symbol of racial harmony.

Even entrepreneurs have caught on: in "Imperial City Entertainment Street" there is a Caesar Karaoke bar.


Rome to China map, Roman descendants found in China?

The town's link with Rome was first suggested by a professor of Chinese history at Oxford in the 1950s. Homer Dubs pulled together stories from the official histories, which said that Liqian was founded by soldiers captured in a war between the Chinese and the Huns in 36BC, and the legend of the missing army of Marcus Crassus, a Roman general.

In 53BC Crassus was defeated disastrously and beheaded by the Parthians, a tribe occupying what is now Iran, putting an end to Rome's eastward expansion.

But stories persisted that 145 Romans were taken captive and wandered the region for years. Prof Dubs theorised that they made their way as a mercenary troop eastwards, which was how a troop "with a fish-scale formation" came to be captured by the Chinese 17 years later.

He said the "fish-scale formation" was a reference to the Roman "tortoise", a phalanx protected by shields on all sides and from above. Gu Jianming, who lives near Liqian, said it had come as a surprise to be told he might be descended from a European imperial army. But then the birth of his daughter was also a surprise. Gu Meina, now six, was born with a shock of blonde hair. "We shaved it off a month after she was born but it just grew back the same colour," he said. "At school they call her 'yellow hair'. Before we were told about the Romans, we had no idea about this. We are poor and have no family temple, so we don't know about our ancestors."



Another resident, Cai Junnian, 38, said his ruddy skin and green eyes meant he was now nicknamed Cai Luoma, or Cai the Roman, by friends. He has become a local celebrity, and was recently flown to the Italian consulate in Shanghai to meet his supposed relatives. The professor's hypothesis took almost 40 years to reach China. During Chairman Mao's rule, ideas of foreign ancestry were not ideologically welcome and the story was suppressed.

Mr Cai said his great-grandfather told him that there were Roman tombs in the Qilian mountains a day and a half's walk away, but he had never connected them to the unusual appearance he inherited from his father. "People thought I had a skin problem," he said."


I tried to find a followup article but came up empty handed. I would be interested to know the results of the DNA tests. The theory is certainly plausible. I found this reference to 1st century BCE contacts between the Chinese (Seres) and Rome:

"The Roman historian Florus describes the visit of numerous envoys, included Seres (Chinese), to the first Roman Emperor Augustus, who reigned between 27 BCE and 14 CE:
"Even the rest of the nations of the world which were not subject to the imperial sway were sensible of its grandeur, and looked with reverence to the Roman people, the great conqueror of nations. Thus even Scythians and Sarmatians sent envoys to seek the friendship of Rome. Nay, the Seres came likewise, and the Indians who dwelt beneath the vertical sun, bringing presents of precious stones and pearls and elephants, but thinking all of less moment than the vastness of the journey which they had undertaken, and which they said had occupied four years. In truth it needed but to look at their complexion to see that they were people of another world than ours." ("Cathey and the way thither", Henry Yule).

In 97 CE the Chinese general Ban Chao went as far west as the Caspian Sea with 70,000 men and established direct military contacts with the Parthian Empire, also dispatching an envoy to Rome in the person of Gan Ying.

Several Roman embassies to China soon followed from 166 CE, and are officially recorded in Chinese historical chronicles."

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