Chinese Romans?

Some Old Soldiers Can Never Go Home

Bordering the Gobi desert in China is the small village of Zhelaizhai. The residents claim they are descended from a Roman legion defeated by the Parthians two thousand years before. Not only is there physical evidence that they may be right, but recent DNA testing backs up their claims.

There are several legends of large military units having disappeared. The lost fleet of Alexander (See: AR #96, “Alexander’s Lost Fleet”), The Ninth Spanish Legion in AD 117, disappearing beyond Hadrian’s Wall in Northern Scotland, and more recently a German artillery unit in the last months of World War II. That unit actually turned up on February 25, 1957, when scuba divers, searching for a lost student, got quite the surprise. On the bottom of frigid Devil’s Lake in Czechoslovakia, they discovered an entire German artillery unit, soldiers in combat uniform, some sitting in trucks, several horses, and cannons. It is believed they had attempted to cross the frozen lake retreating from the Russians. The heavy weight of their unit cracked the ice sending the unit underwater. The bodies of men and horses stayed intact for twelve years in the frigid waters.

The case of the Zhelaizhai Romans is even stranger. The story starts in Rome.

Marcus Licinius Crassus was born into an aristocratic and wealthy cialis is too expensive family. His father fought for the Roman dictator Licius Sulla who rewarded him with the ability to buy cheaply the confiscated property of the dispossessed nobles. But Crassus was greedy. After acquiring hundreds of homes testosterone online pharmacy at cheap prices by nefarious means, he would rent them out at high prices. Next he bought the state’s mines, again at cheap prices. He may have had more wealth than the state. But he wanted more.

He wanted his own Asian province. He bought enough votes to become a consul and, then, the title of governor of Syria. North and East of Roman Syria was a new threat to the expanding Roman Empire. What were once the remains of the Alexandrian conquest was quickly becoming a province of a new nomadic enemy.

The Parthians originated as the Parni emerging from Central Asia and creating a new political entity in the highlands of Iran and Mesopotamia. They inherited a political structure created by the Seleucids of Alexander. They had no laws of their own but adopted Greek law and even language.

They spread throughout Asia centering their strength in a territory roughly corresponding to the modern Iranian province of Khurasan southeast of Caspian Sea. The Parthian people, however, had an even wider expanse of territory stretching into Sinkiang in western China. For years australian online pharmacy they were semi-nomadic peoples who notably defeated all enemies, including the Greeks. What they did not take from the Greeks was a government. They were a loose confederacy of nobles and vassal states dominated by warlords.

Nomads of Asia’s steppes never had the population that the sedentary states held. They did, however, pose a serious threat to the security of the larger sedentary populations. The strength of the nomad was in unsurpassed skills as horsemen and fighters. Horses they held in huge numbers, and these herds were not available to the city populations. They were mobile and used the horses in battle like they used them in hunting. Hunting was how they learned to do battle against their enemies.

Even though their government was not centralized, they proved able to raise huge armies and a famous cavalry.


Rome Meets Its Match

Rome had faced two enemies in its eastward expansion, the Armenians and the Parthians. The benefactor of Crassus, Sulla was the first Roman to lead troops against the Parthians. While he accomplished little in battle, he became the first to act as ambassador and meet with them. He diplomatically outmaneuvered the Parthian ambassador Orobazus, who would be executed for his failure. Perhaps Crassus thought he, too, could outmaneuver the Parthians in battle.

The richest man in Rome wanted more than riches so he outfitted a huge army at his own expense and marched against the Parthians.

Crassus in his greed had vastly underestimated the ability of the Parthian empire. In 53 BC, he headed to Carrhae with 45,000 men. Carrhae is now known as Harran, in canada pharmacy online review modern Turkey. There were 10,000 Parthians on the battlefield. They were experienced soldiers, archers and cavalry. Hardened in battle it did not matter that they were outnumbered almost five to one by the Romans. It would end up as the worst disaster on the battlefield Rome had ever suffered.

Crassus ordered his men to form tight phalanxes called tortoises. Against other tribes these would be successful in advancing against the enemy while protecting the Romans themselves from arrows and spears. They had however, no experience in fighting the Asian Parthians. The Parthian light cavalry were clad in loose tunics and trousers. Parthian archers carried superior bows to decimate their enemy from a distance. They usually used their bows in skirmishes where their speed and accuracy brought small fast victories. The Romans, however, made themselves sitting ducks. The Persian reflex bow could be deadly from 150 yards, so they circled the Romans on horseback and killed them as fast as they could string their arrows. Once the Romans were softened up, the Clibinarius, heavily armored with chain mail and helmets stationed behind the archers, moved in for the kill. By nightfall 20,000 men of the Roman Army were dead. Fifteen thousand of the survivors would flee while negotiations took place.

A Parthian noble, Suren, was responsible for the victory and would meet with Crassus. Crassus proved as bad at negotiating as he was in battle. First, his son was beheaded and then Crassus himself was beheaded as well. The man who desired all the gold in the world met a karmic fate. His captor poured molten gold into his mouth. His head was sent to play the part of Pentheus in a performance of Euripides’ Bacchae at the Parthian court.

The remaining 10,000 Romans became prisoners of war and were brought east. Rome wished to ransom the prisoners but was told there were none who survived. The Parthian’s captives were then moved into position to serve as a buffer between their own lands and the Huns. It is not certain that this is what happened, but seventeen years after the capture, the captive Roman army is believed to have fought in another major battle in what is now Uzbekistan. At this time they were fighting against the Chinese. Chen Tang recorded that they fought in tight, square-shaped formations, protected by their shields held by the outside men, and by shields held overhead by the men in the square. Only the Romans had used this tortoise-like tactic.

This time, the Chinese were victorious but still impressed by the bravery of the Romans. The Roman soldiers who were again captives were spared death to become again mercenaries. The Chinese brought them further east to help fight against Tibetan raids. Again they would serve as an army for those who defeated them in battle. The Roman warriors were then settled in their own town, called Liqian, in the Gansu Province. The word Liqian to the Chinese meant Rome, possibly derived from the word for a Roman fighting unit—Legion. viagra24 online pharmacy Most likely, their numbers were greatly reduced, to possibly fewer than 200 men who survived the constant warfare.


Roman Survival

Nearly two thousand years later, the Romans, more accurately, their descendants are still there. About half of the residents of Zhelaizhai have European facial characteristics including aquiline noses, blond hair, and blue eyes. In general, they are taller than their Chinese neighbors. Xie Xiaodong, a life-sciences researcher, and Ma Runlin, a Chinese biochemist, are at work to confirm links between the modern villagers and ancient Romans. In other DNA tests, it was recorded that as many as 67% have genetic links to Caucasians. Their DNA also contained mid-Asian and other European elements as well.

In 1955, Oxford’s China expert Homer Dubs would proclaim the Roman’s role in becoming mercenaries for the Chinese. He devoted three years to the painstaking task of translating a book called the Han Shu. In that work, he found evidence of the Roman fighting style and the use of palisades of wooden stakes. He was a highly respected historian and educator. His China Seminar continues to be taught today long after his 1969 death. A Chinese scholar, Guan Yuquan, spent twenty years writing his own book and confirming Dubs’ theory. He would add to the evidence with information from documents that survived from AD 9.

More recently, Australian adventurer David Harris entered China with little money, little knowledge of the language, and the mistrust of the Chinese bureaucrats. He not only overcame the obstacles, made new friends, and found a soul mate, but also his adventure led to China’s declaring the area a national monument. In addition to the ancient literature and legends, more substantive information is coming to light.

Archaeologists are adding to the evidence. Digs at Zhelaizhai have turned up an ancient wall to the town made in the Roman fashion using tree trunks. (This wall made up of palisades is now being reconstructed,) Roman coins and pottery have been unearthed and so has a Roman helmet decorated with Chinese lettering. The Chinese characters spell, zhao an, meaning “one of the surrendered.”

In 2003, nearly 100 tombs dating to the Han Dynasty (206 BC–AD 220) were opened. The skeletons were of taller people, and they were laid facing west, not in the typical Chinese fashion. This serves as evidence that the surviving mercenaries not only stayed in China, but also were allowed to marry Chinese women and to foster heirs.

After all, the soldiers, diminished in number and possibly by age, may not have had the means or the energy to return. They were 4000 miles away from their home in an area separated by mountains, desert, and Asian steppes, as well as hostile tribes

Residents take much pride in their Roman ancestors and some have even taken Roman names. Zhelaizhai and neighboring Yongchang have decided that despite those who disagree with the evidence, their town’s history might become a tourist destination if they play their cards right. Tourists have been rare in these parts and limited to the adventurous few that want to trace the Silk Road that brought Italian merchant Marco Polo east. Now, in this remote village high on dusty pastures near the Qilian Mountains, it is oddly the Communist Party that is building a new headquarters complete with a classic Roman portico. Both the party chief and his deputy believe they are among the Roman descendants. Both Zhang Jianxin and Song Guorong have the aquiline Roman nose, which is not a Chinese characteristic. Song’s curly hair also distinguishes him from the straight-haired Chinese.

A museum is in the works, although the government cannot raise the money to get locals to sell the pots, helmets, and ancient coins they have dug up. A business street with Roman themes is under construction. The county did raise funds for a Roman-style pavilion.

Not all historians are convinced. The North Silk Road passed through this territory, and traders, many from Italy, may have stopped there and married into Chinese families. This extension of the Silk Road was a track-way even in prehistoric times. It extended from Xi’an, the capital of the Shaanxi province and a city with a 3100-year history, to Parthia, Bactria, and Persia (Iran). It was accessed even by traders from Venice and Rome. Centuries of traffic along Asia’s trade routes might have provided the opportunity for European-Asian marriages. The large percentage of European DNA in one particular village does indicate that there may be more than a handful of cultural exchanges at work.

It appears that some revisions to history are needed. In 1993, Jia Xiaotian became the local party chief and began the process. It was a bold act in light of China’s not-so-liberal policies. Jia had three statues erected. One was a typical representative of the ethnic Han population, which makes up the majority in the area. The second was a Moslem woman of the Hui people, in order to include the minority people. The third was a Roman man along with a plaque mentioning the Roman contribution to social progress and economic prosperity. That contribution may actually be a forward-looking statement—as the greatest benefit of the ancient Romans may be in the attraction of modern-day tourists and their money.

By Steven Sora