Did thousands of Roman soldiers end up in China? The Lost Legions of Carrhae

[I came across this interesting article which claims that Roman soldiers who had fought the Parthians and been defeated might have been moved ever eastward by their captors and they may have eventually settled in China and had intermarried with the Chinese and that there might be some DNA evidence to support this.

There is no question that “white DNA” has found its way into other races due to various forms of captivity and even abduction. I have wondered for example how much European DNA found its way into the Middle East and Egypt.

Here’s the article about the Romans. Its food for thought. Jan]

Testudo formation, could easilly be known by the Chinese as a fish scale formation. (Neil Carey / Flickr / CC BY-SA 2.0)

The Romans in the first century BCE were perhaps the most growing empires around. Though the civil wars of Caesar and Pompey, and Octavian and Marc Antony dominated the scene a lot more happened around them. In 53 BCE a Roman army under Marcus Licinius Crassus, vanquisher of Spartacus and richest man in Rome, attempted to extend Roman power into Parthia, modern day Iran. He got as far as modern day Harran in southeast Turkey before he was met by a Parthian army under Surena.

Crassus was a little too cocky and pushed forward, thinking victory would be easy against these inferior barbarians. He was sadly mistaken as the Parthians were an efficient semi-professional army with the most elite horse archers the world had ever seen at the time. In a slaughter known as the battle of Carrhae the Romans lost nearly their entire army and Crassus was killed. The remaining 10,000 or so Roman legionaries were captured.

The Parthians had a standard practice of employing captured soldiers as border guards. By transferring the 10,000 legionaries to the eastern boarders they prevented any realistic chance of escape for the Romans who likely would have simply accepted their new lot in life. Record of the soldiers vanish for about 17 years when the battle of Zhizhi was fought as a Chinese army under Chen Tang assaulted a border town known today as Taraz, located in Kazakhstan near the border of Kyrgyzstan. Chinese historians note that the defenders held their shields in a “fish scale” pattern. The fight for the town was intense but the Chinese prevailed. The Chinese, under the Han Dynasty at this point, were near the height of their power; this battle represented their greatest Westward expansion and their victory was achieved in part because many of the locals defected to the Chinese out of fear.

The Chinese were so impressed by these foreign warriors that they put them into another border town, this time guarding the border between China and Tibet as Tibetan raids were not uncommon around this time. Anywhere from 100 to 1,000 or more soldiers established themselves in this town that was known by the Chinese as Liqian/Li-Jien, which is pronounced as “legion”. These men were known to use tools such as tree trunk counterweight construction devices, and to reinforce the area into a square fort, a common site in the Mediterranean but quite rare in Asia.

The victorious Surena

It seems these Romans lived peacefully in Liqian, and 2,000 years later we have DNA evidence that over 50% of the villagers in modern day Liqian have Caucasian ancestry including green and blue eyes, increased average height and other distinguishing characteristics such as distinctly Roman noses. The people in the small village are aware of and proud of their ancestry, celebrating the Romans and showing a fond interest in bulls, a heavily worshiped animal of Roman legions.

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The long journey of the Roman legion(s) lost at Carrhae, a distance of over 3,000 miles (5,000 kilometers) and nearly 5,000 miles from Rome itself. By Talessman CC BY 3.0

A great many modern historians absolutely dismiss the story of the legionaries in China as more of a fairytale than truth, though some prominent historians still argue that this sequence of events is quite possible and even the most probable of theories. Just because it is a hard to believe tale does not at all make it untrue. In every reference from the Asian sources the foreigners appear to be none other than the 10,000 legionaries captured at Carrhae. The only gap in knowledge is that the Romans transferred from Parthian control to Mongol control as the Mongols held the town at the battle of Zhizhi. It seems that either the Romans were captured and transported again, or more likely that they were sold as mercenaries.

Parthian horseman. notice a drawn bow while the horse is mid jump; Parthians were experts at horse archery. Jean Chardin By Jean Chardin – CC BY-SA 3.0

Their “fish scale” formation at the battle is almost certainly the well-known Testudo formation, and the professional practice points to seasoned soldiers. These Romans would have had just each other for company through these many years so it’s understandable to think they had outstanding discipline and kept up their training, which would lead to them having such an impressive showing at Zhizhi that the Chinese used them to guard their own territory.

The modern descendants of the Romans are decent evidence of the Roman’s presence but two other theories are possible. The town of Liqian was near the multicultural Silk Road, therefore the Caucasian DNA could be from travelers along the road. The other possibility is that the soldiers at the battle and settlers of the Chinese town were actually descendants of Alexander the Great’s army, though this seems even more unlikely as the events are multiple generations removed from Alexander’s campaigns and the army at Zhizhi was clearly fighting in a professional and western way.

The only remaining evidence needed to authenticate the story would be Roman coins or other artifacts at Liqian. If the story is true, it is an amazing story of tragic loss followed by strict adherence to professional soldiery. By the time they settled in Liqian these soldiers would be in their forties and fifties and looking forward to retirement. Based off of the DNA of their descendants it does seem like they weren’t subject to many Tibetan raids, or perhaps they were put to the test again and finally held their own ground.

By William McLaughlin for War History Online

Source: https://www.warhistoryonline.com/ancient-history/romans-china-lostlegions-carrhae-m.html

One thought on “Did thousands of Roman soldiers end up in China? The Lost Legions of Carrhae

  • 25th April 2019 at 2:42 pm
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    Two points about this interesting, if historically dubious theory;

    Firstly, the chances that captured Roman troops would name a town they may have been given to settle and/or build as “legion” sounds ludicrous, contra the culture of Romans and every other Mediterranean people. They may however have named it for their home country, in which case Liquian/Li-Jien may = Lucania.
    Here a short excerpt from my file on Roman armies of the 50s BC :

    In 55 BC the Gang of Three had decided that each of them should control 10 legions in the following year, and for the next five years. It follows that Crassus enlisted 6 fresh legions in Italy (c.30,000/700) and counted the Gabinian Syrian army of four legions to make up his ten legions – including the one left at Alexandreia – and launched the expedition of 53 with his six fresh legions (55 A->F Licinian) and the Pompeian A.
    By chance we know that many of Crassus’ new troops (probably four of the six full legions) were recruited in Lucania, where the Licinii Crassi were hereditary patrons;

    Pliny HN II, 147:
    it is recorded that it rained iron in Lucania the year before Marcus Crassus was killed by the Parthians and, together with him, the Lucanian soldiers of whom there was a large number serving in the army. The appearance of the iron that rained down was like sponges ; the augurs prophesied wounds from above.

    Secondly, Surena (the Greek form, properly Suren in Iranian) was not a personal name but a title of military and political leadership, similar to Karen among the Arsakids (= Greek Karanos). Coin evidence suggests that the hereditary personal name of the Suren who commanded the armies of Orodes II and his son Frahates IV was usually Tanlis. They were certainly not Parthians and probably not Arsakids.
    Arsakid/Parthian political history suffered from great internal war turmoil in the period 91-mid 60s BC, and we know for sure that the dynasty which emerged victorious, that of the Arsakid cadet line of Sanatruk, succeeded chiefly because of his alliance with the Saka steppe nation called Sacaraucae. It is extremely likely that the army which the Suren of 53 BC led to victory over Crassus at Carrhae was not even generally Parthian but belonged to one of the two great Saka nomadic nations which had inhabited the Syr-Darya frontier with the Persian and later Makedonian empires from time immemorial. The other, even greater and more important than Sacaraucae were the Asiani (Iranian Ashiyan), elements of whom migrated into Gansu on the NW frontiers of China. Chinese records refer to the Sinacized eastern elements of the Ashiyan as Wusun (which is more or less an attempt to transcribe Ashiyan), and to the western tribes roving the regions between Lake Balkash and the Syr Darya as the kingdom of Kangju Land.
    In any case the key role of the Wusun along the Silk Road connecting China and the Syrian coast is the context in which to interpret and possibly explain the movement of Roman prisoners of war eastward along that great trading route. The Wusun had a political institution with the same function AND NAME as the Roman census, but even more eerily one of their second century BC kings had a personal mythology of being reared in the wilderness by attentive wolves and birds which is pretty close to the story of Romulus and Remus.
    After the native royal line of the Indo-European culture (and language) Yuezhi/Tocharians inhabiting southern Bactria died out around 70 BC it was supplanted by a succession of Wusun (Sino-Iranian culture) kings, which the Roman text of Pompeius Trogus expressed as “Asiani kings of Tochari”. The first of these was Vonones, a name which later appears among the Parthian Arsakids, but much later and presumably by transfer through marriage ties with the Wusun dynasty ruling in Bactria, and indeed on both sides of the Hindu Kush

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