The article “When Roman “Barbarians” Met the Asian Enlightenment” was first published by The Strange Continent.com. A portion of that article has been printed below which has been edited. Commentaries have also been inserted for reference. Kindly note that the article printed below features a number of additional images and accompanying captions that do not appear in the original article in The Strange Continent.
Consistent with this topic, a lecture entitled “Civilizational Contacts between Ancient Iran and Europe during the Classical Era“ will be offered by Kaveh Farrokh at the University of British Columbia, Department of Asian Studies Alireza Ahmadian Lectures in Persian and Iranian Studies (November 29, 2019, 6:30-8:30, Room 120, CK Choi Building) … for further details kindly click the image below …
This week, the BBC announced the discovery of two “ethnically Chinese” skeletons at an ancient Roman burial site in England. Who were they? What drove them to the far end of the world? We don’t know, yet.
But for once, an article’s clickbait headline may not be exaggerating. If the genetic identity of these skeletons can be confirmed, it could indeed “rewrite Roman history” — or at least, a whole lot of long-held assumptions about who was in contact with whom in the days of the Roman Empire.
Oh, we’ve known for a long time the ancient Romans were aware of China’s existence — in fact, Chinese silk was such a drain on the Roman economy that the senate tried to outlaw it in the year 14 CE. And the Chinese emperors of the Han dynasty were certainly aware of Rome — they called it Da Qin and repeatedly tried to reach it with envoys and missionaries.
No one disputes the fact that these two cultures had centuries of indirect contact, via trade routes through India and Persia. Roman coins have been found as far east as Japan where Persians were teaching mathematics to the locals.
Sassanian influences upon Japanese arts: the case of the metalwork plate of Shapur II hunting lions (Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg – Inv. S-253) and motif-parallels in Japanese textile arts (Source: Fall 2014 course on the Silk Route at the University of British Columbia).
DNA evidence seems to suggest that Europeans settled on the western fringes of China as early as the 200s BCE.
COMMENT BY Kavehfarrokh.com: The sentence “Europeans settled on the western fringes of China as early as the 200s BCE” is somewhat misleading. First, there are common Indo-European ancestors for the Europeans, Indians and Iranians. The peoples the writer is referring to may have been variously proto-Iranian or Tocharian – the dress found among their mummies in Urumchi for example bear striking resemblance to the later attire of the Medes, Achaemenids, Scythians, Sarmatians, Parthians and Sassanians. Second, these settlements in northwest China appear to have taken place earlier before the reign of the Medes and the succeeding Medo-Achaemenids.
What’s much less clear, though, is whether Chinese or Roman diplomats ever managed to achieve direct contact on each others’ native soil.
Until these Chinese skeletons were unearthed in England — at the far-western end of the Roman Empire, no less — no one had ever found any proof that a single Chinese envoy ever made it to Rome; or that a Roman envoy reached China. Which would mean…Romans were largely locked out of the civilized world. But wait… wasn’t Rome “the civilized world?”
That’s certainly what most of us (in the West, anyway) are taught in school. Back in my school days, I was taught a fair amount about Rome, a tiny bit about China, even less about Persia, and nothing at all about the Kushans, or the Axumites, or any of the other powerful empires that controlled large chunks of the globe — and often helped shape the cultures and fortunes of European nations. Maybe you can relate.
The truth is, though, that Rome’s Asian contemporaries completely dwarfed Rome in many respects: heritage, population density, cultural diversity, technology, architecture, medicine, philosophy, poetry… I could go on, but you get the idea. During the Roman period, the Asian continent was by far the wealthiest, most advanced, most culturally diverse place on earth. Imperial Rome was a dim backwater by comparison.
Ever since I’ve learned that fact, it’s always made me sad to think of the Romans being largely cut off from the main action on the world stage.
If researchers can verify the ancestry of these skeletons in England, maybe Rome wasn’t quite as cut off as we always believed. It’s an exciting thought. But it doesn’t change the fact that, on the whole, contact between Rome and the East — and thus, between Eastern and Western cultural legacies — was mostly indirect, mediated by third (and often fourth and fifth) parties.
Who were these vast empires of Asia? What was it like to live in them? Where did they come from, and what legacies did they leave?
I’m glad you asked. Let’s take a journey to the East.
Before we begin our tale, we first need to briefly set our stage, and make sure all our actors are on their marks.
In the 200s to 400s CE (the range of dates during which the owners of those Chinese skeletons made their way to Roman Britain) the map looked something like this:
I say “something like this” because a lot was going on during those centuries:
- Rome’s legions were fighting fiercely for control of Gaul (modern France and Germany), Britain, Egypt, and various parts of the Balkans; while a succession of (often unfairly maligned) emperors scrambled to hold Rome together through an endless series of famines, wars with the East, coups d’état, refugee crises, and revolts.
- The steppe horsemen known as the Parthians lost control of Persia, which entered a great classical age under the Sassanian dynasty.
- The Han dynasty lost its grip on China, which split into three powerful warring kingdoms.
- Vast tracts of southern Asia were changing hands among a dozen or more competing empires, each with its own rich culture.
Since we don’t know exactly when those Chinese travelers (whoever they were) left China and arrived in Roman Britain, it’s hard to say exactly what kind of “China” they left, what kind of “Rome” they arrived in, or what kind of “Persia” — or what other empires, exactly — they had to pass through.
With that in mind, let’s spend some time in a few of those Asian empires, and get to know their people a little better.
The Sassanians could trace their cultural ancestry all the way back to the primordial mists of recorded history, to the dawn of civilization itself.