Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Crassus' Lost Legions Target of New Chinese Study Center

Researchers at the new Italian Studies Centre at Lanzhou University, in Gansu province, China plan to excavate areas around Liqian, a small village on the fringes of the Gobi Desert in north-western China where DNA tests conducted in 2007 have shown 56 per cent of the residents are Caucasian in origin, to determine if the residents are, in fact, descendants of some of the Roman legionaries who escaped the battle of Carrhae in 53 BCE.
Bust of Marcus Licinius Crassus located in the...Image via Wikipedia
Roman Triumvir Marcus Licinius Crassus
The genetic tests have lent weight to the theory that Roman legionaries settled in the area in the first century BC after fleeing a battle. The clash took place in 53BC between an army led by Marcus Crassus, a Roman general, and a larger force of Parthians, from what is now Iran, bringing to an abrupt halt the Roman Empire's eastwards expansion.

Thousands of Romans were slaughtered and Crassus beheaded, but some were said to have fled east.  They supposedly fought as mercenaries in a war between the Huns and the Chinese in 36BC - Chinese chroniclers referred to the capture of a "fish-scale formation" of troops, a possible reference to the "tortoise" phalanx formation perfected by legionaries. The theory was first put forward in the 1950s by Homer Dubs, a professor of Chinese history at Oxford University. But some experts believe the villagers could be descended from the armies of Huns that marauded through Central Asia, which included soldiers of Caucasian origin. - Montreal Gazette

In his paper, A Roman City in Ancient China, Oxford sinologist Homer H.Dubs pointed out that Li-qian was one of only three cities out of 1,587 cities chronicled in the cadastral register in A.D. 5 that was identified with a foreign name.  He went on to suggest that the name was a transliteration of an ancient name used to represent the Roman Empire.  He also found a statement in the History of the Later Han Dynasty as well as several other historical documents that “the country of Ta-ts'in is also called Li-chien.” 

Ta-ts'in was the name for the Roman Empire as late as the middle ages and as early as A.D. 166 when the merchant claiming a diplomatic connection to Marcus Aurelius arrived in the Han Court. - The Origins of Roman Li-chien

Dubs also used references to the fate of the remnants of Crassus' troops made by Pliny and Horace to explain how Romans could have arrived so far east during this time.

According to Pliny, the captives were marched 1,500 miles to Margiana to guard the eastern border of the Parthian Empire, probably to construct fortifications at Merv. Horace speculated that the captives were integrated into the Parthian army and intermarried with the indigenous women where they were settled. Apart from the brief mentions of the fate of Crassus' remaining army by Pliny and Horace, there is no archaeological evidence to corroborate the claims. Assuming that the two historians are correct, it is also impossible to know how many of the legionaries survived the long march, but since they were battle-hardened veterans and undoubtedly very tough men, it would be conceivable that at least some of the ten thousand survived the journey. The Origins of Roman Li-chien

The ruins of an ancient Chinese watchtower fro...Image via Wikipedia
The ruins of an ancient Chinese watchtower from the
Han Dynasty (202 BC - 220 AD)
Dubs then thinks he picks up their trail again when he finds references to a battle that occurred about 500 miles from Margiana with details he believed indicated a peculiar foreign, distinctly non-Hun (the opposing side in the conflict) influence.  In addition to reports of "a fish-scale formation" mentioned earlier, he finds the description of a Roman-style battlement

“...outside the earthen wall was a double palisade of wood. From behind the palisade [people] shot and killed many of those outside [the city]. So those outside brought out firewood and set fire to the wooden wall.”

Trajans Column Detail Depicting Testudo Format...Image by mharrsch via Flickr
A Roman Testudo formation depicted
on Trajan's column in Rome, Italy.
Dubs dismssed the thought that these strategies could have been deployed by the Hun since they relied heavily on mounted archers saying "“nomads and barbarians, like Gauls, rushed into battle in a confused mass. A well-patterned array in battle can be achieved only by men long trained as professional soldiers.”

But Dubs did speculate that the "fish-scale formation" could have been the Chinese description of a Greek phalanx.  At this point, classicist W. W. Tarn joined the fray saying, "“I don't see how it is possible at that date for it (the fish-scale formation) to have anything to do with either the Macedonian phalanx or the Greek hoplite phalanx. It would have implied that the memory of the phalanx had lasted in Sogdiana for a century. . . Any idea of the Greek phalanx seems to be quite impossible. The Macedonian phalanx carried small round shields. Men bearing them could hardly have crowded closely enough together to appear 'arrayed like fish-scales.'”

Trajans Column Detail Depicting Scene From the...Image by mharrsch via Flickr
Romans constructing wooden palisades
depicted on Trajan's column in Rome, Italy
As for the double wooden palisade, Dubs said that he “cannot remember ever having met, either in literature or archaeology, with any Greek town that had a palisade outside the wall. The rule of one wall and a ditch outside (or in a great fortress even three ditches) seems to have been absolute.” Dubs adds that “the 'double palisade of wood' seen in Sogdiana by the Chinese was then a standard feature in Roman fortifications, so that Jzh-jzh [the defending Hun warlord] undoubtedly had Roman engineering assistance in building his town.”

Many other noted scholars embraced Dubs theory but other were skeptical, pointing out that it was far more likely the mercernaries engaged in the battle were trained by Roman troops elsewhere in Asia or by people who had acquired knowledge of Greek tactics when conquered centuries before by troops of Alexander the Great.  Others point out that the double palisades were not unique to Roman-style fortifications in that time period or even earlier stating:

"Thucydides mentions the use of a double palisade by the Peloponnesians in their siege of
Plataea in the late fifth century B.C.47 In 365 B.C., the Arcadians used the same tactic in the
siege of the Spartan-garrisoned town of Cromnus." - The Origins of Roman Li-chien

Chinese scholar Ying-shih YĆ¼ challenged the suggestion that Roman survivors of the battle would have been allowed to form a hsien, the standard Chinese province-district administrative system of the Han dynasty, because they were too few if the "Roman" survivors of the battle were only 145, a segment of prisoners identified individually as captured fighting men in Han accounts.

Hopefully, Chinese archaeologists will be able to settle the controversy if they can uncover some tangible Roman artifacts like coins or remnants of equipment. 

I have only briefly summarized some of the more important points raised in the paper The Origins of Roman Li-chien, published by Ethan Gruber of the University of Virginia in 2007.  I found it a fascinating read, especially the section on the events leading up to the battle between the Hun and Chinese in Sogdiana and encourage you to review the whole work.
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Thursday, November 18, 2010

The evils of religious zealotry theme of film "Agora"

AgoraI finally saw the film "Agora" a few weeks ago and, although it was very well acted, found it rather disturbing.  I was, of course, already aware of the history behind the murder of fourth century Greek philosopher/astronomer/mathematician Hypatia (although she was actually pulled from her chariot and literally ripped to pieces by the Christians rather than stoned).

Yet even she fell a victim to the political jealousy which at that time prevailed. For as she had frequent interviews with Orestes, it was calumniously reported among the Christian populace, that it was she who prevented Orestes from being reconciled to the bishop. Some of them therefore, hurried away by a fierce and bigoted zeal, whose ringleader was a reader named Peter, waylaid her returning home, and dragging her from her carriage, they took her to the church called Caesareum, where they completely stripped her, and then murdered her by scraping her skin off with tiles and bits of shell. After tearing her body in pieces, they took her mangled limbs to a place called Cinaron, and there burnt them ." - Socrates Scholasticus

But to see how the religious fervor of the period bred such brutality was hard to watch.  The Christians were definitely shown in a terrible light but the worshipers of Serapis and the Jews were portrayed as not much better.  In fact, at one point I wasn't sure who was butchering who - I think it turned out to be the Jews ambushing and stoning the Christians in retaliation for similar Christian atrocities.  Of course the Christians' glee as they destroyed centuries of knowledge in the Great Library made me shudder too, knowing that the Church elite would soon use the people's ignorance to enslave them in a repressive feudal system developed during the coming Dark and Middle Ages.

Other scenes that bothered me included one scene where you hear the Christians raptly listening to a recitation of the sermon on the mount.."Blessed are the merciful for they shall obtain mercy.."  when they have demonstrated they don't have a merciful bone in their bodies.  They are in what I think are the remains of the Great Library and the words echo hollowly in the huge cavernous chamber.  I couldn't help but think that the words echoed just as hollowly in their souls.   I also found the "feeding the poor" scene rather distasteful.  The Christian rabble rouser that took the bread from Hypatia's slave  seemed to have no concern for the family the bread was intended to feed or the consequences to the slave for returning to his master's household without it.  Furthermore, it was no act of piety to hand out bread that was not his own. Instead, he seemed to relish the political "appearance" of distributing bread to the poor as modern politicians do when they are attempting to win a voter's support.  Then when Hypatia's slave takes the remains of the bread and begins to give it out, the recipients at first take the bread tentatively then seem to wolfishly snatch it from him without gratitude or consideration for the other unfortunates around them.  Compassion is conspicuously absent.

The Christians used one of Paul's diatribes against women as the rationale for attacking Hypatia. Of course Paul, himself, may not have even realized that his writings, including his own cultural prejudices, would be presented later as the word of God.

The filmmakers didn't make Hypatia out to be some kind of saint either.  Whenever she got flustered she would bad mouth slaves - the result of her ethnocentric Greek upbringing no doubt.    I just finished reading "The Golden Mean", a novel about Aristotle and Alexander the Great (my review), and it was hard to fathom how really intelligent people like Aristotle and Hypatia could consider themselves so superior to other people simply because life's circumstances resulted in someone being born into another culture or conquered and enslaved.

Anyway, I felt the film did a good job of making the case that religious zealotry (regardless of which religion it is) is the root of all evil.


Agora   Hypatia of Alexandria (Revealing Antiquity , No 8)   Hypatia of Alexandria: Mathematician and Martyr   Of Numbers And Stars: The Story of Hypatia   LADY PHILOSOPHER: The Story of Hypatia
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