A Roman Legion Lost in China.

The battle of Carrhae[1] ended fifty-three years before the birth of Jesus Christ, on the last day of May. It was a shameful disaster for the Roman army: seven legions with the strength of 45,000 men were humiliated and routed by 10,000 Parthian archers.


Marcus Licinius Crassus


The commanding officer of the unfortunate expedition was Marcus Licinius Crassus, a sixty-two-year-old tribune eager for glory and wealth, even though he was already the richest man in Rome. He organized the campaign – perhaps also because he envied the military successes of Pompey and Caesar, and foolishly thought his amateur dramatics might equal their professionalism. His only triumph had been achieved with Pompey’s help: the bloody suppression of Spartacus and his slaves. He had insufficient experience to embark on a large-scale operation himself; thus, Rome’s Republican government were loathe to let him depart with such a sizeable army, especially since there was no real emergency in the east. During the heated public debate about the excursion, a tribunus plebis named Ateius argued vehemently in opposition. Plutarch wrote that, when Ateius realised that his efforts were in vain and that he would not receive enough supporting votes, he theatrically lit a brazier and, while throwing grains of incense onto the flames, started to curse Crassus and evoke the infernal gods. Judging from the name and the behaviour of this man, we can guess that he was of Etruscan descent! To strengthen his own case, Crassus had enlisted the support of Pompey and Caesar, who saw an opportunity to free themselves of a powerful competitor.

When the Senate granted approval, Crassus assembled metropolitan legions in Rome, marched to Campania and then to Brindisi, where he met with other legions summoned from Calabria. The troops embarked despite of stormy seas – an early indication of his ineptitude. Not all the ships reached the other shore.

Crassus had the blind goddess Fortune on his side during his youth: he emerged unscathed from the civil wars, and though he was implicated in the Catiline conspiracy he suffered no consequences. He also settled the debts of a spendthrift Caesar whilst being tightfisted himself and with his family.

But as he aged he became a sort of blunderer, making numerous and serious mistakes, some of them mentioned by the historians who have written in detail about his last expedition. For instance, in a speech to his soldiers he proclaimed that he would destroy a bridge ‘so that none of you would be able to return’ but when he noticed the expressions of dismay amongst his soldiers, Crassus quickly corrected himself by explaining that he had been referring to the enemy. At one point he ordered the distribution of lentils and salt to the troops, oblivious that this was a meal offered at funerals. And when he dropped on the floor the entrails of a sacrificial animal placed in his hands by a haruspex (a soothsayer) Crassus cried: “Fear not; despite my age, the hilt of my sword will not slip from my hand!” On the day of the battle Crassus wore a black tunic, instead of the purple colour de rigour for Roman generals, and even though he quickly returned to his tent to change, he left his officers speechless.

Moreover Crassus refused to listen to his veterans advisors in favour of marching on the coast and avoiding the desert to reach the Parthian capital. Rather, he trusted the Arab, Arimanes, and his 6,000 horsemen, who had secretly sided with the Parthians and abandoned the Romans shortly after engaging in the battle.

Crassus ordered his soldiers to organize themselves in square formations, shielded on all sides without and packed like sardines within. It caged them, and they were slaughtered by the Parthian’s arrows, shot from their reflex bows with recurved edges. These bows doubled the propulsion power, enabling them to shoot at a distance of up to 400 metres. This kind of bow was a Mongol invention further perfected by the Chinese in the seventeenth century, when their arrows became capable of reaching a distance of up to 600 metres.

Seeing the grave danger, Crassus’ son, Publius, attempted a sally with a thousand Gallic cavalrymen, but he and half of them were slain, the remainder taken prisoners. The head of Publius was put on a spear and shown to the Romans and to his father. On this tragic occasion we can see the only glimpse of Roman greatness in Crassus who momentarily ceased to act like an old fool and told to his soldiers to keep up the fight. The death of his son, he said, was his private injury, not theirs.

At nightfall, Crassus agreed to negotiate with the enemy; however, it was a trap. He was killed and his head was also cut off. 20,000 Romans died that day; 10,000 were taken prisoner, and the remainder managed to escape back to Italy.

This shameful setback was partially redressed by Marcus Antonius a few years later and a diplomatic solution with the Parthians was reached under Augustus in 20 BC with a peace treaty that allowed for the retrieval of lost insignia, including the return of the eagles and the banners of the seven Roman legions. When Augustus sought also the return of prisoners from 53 BC the Parthians maintained that there were none to repatriate. Their practice had always been to shift prisoners caught in the West to Turkmenistan in the East. By so doing they aimed to secure their loyalty against their worst enemies – the Huns – and this is probably what happened to the unfortunate 10,000 legionnaires captured during Crassus’s battle. The Roman historian Plinius also upheld this theory, which stood until 1955, when an American Sinologist, Homer Hasenpflug Dubs, gave a speech during a conference in London, titled, “A Roman City in Ancient China”.

Dubs had found that in the annals of the Han dynasty there is record of the capture of a Hun city by the Chinese army in 36 BC named Zhizhi, now known as Dzhambul, located close to Tashkent, in Uzbekistan. Dubs was deeply impressed by the fact that the Chinese recorded the discovery of palisades of tree trunks, and that the enemy had used a previously unseen battle formation, namely a testudo of selected warriors forming a cover of overlapping shields in front of their bodies in the first row and over the heads in the following rows. [2]


The Roman Textudo
The Roman Testudo


The Chinese were so struck by the military skills of the opposing warriors that they moved them, after enlisting, further East, to a place that by imperial decree was named Li-Jien (which sounds in Chinese as the word “legion” and is the name the Chinese called Rome) in Gansu province. It was uncommon for Chinese to name their cities after barbarian names: the only two other known cases, Kucha and Wen-Siu, occurred where large colonies of foreigners had settled. The legionnaires numbered 145, and formed a garrison protecting the inhabitants of Li-Jien from Tibetan raids.

Dubs claimed to have identified Li-Jien as the place now known as Zhelaizhai, near Lanzhou. Subsequent archaeological expeditions made by Chinese, Australians and Americans appear to support the choice of this Chinese city even though the smoking gun, which may finally solve the mystery, has yet to be found.

During excavations in 1993 fortifications were unearthed, as well as a type of trunk fixed with stakes, possibly dating back to the time of the arrival of the legionnaires. The ‘trunk’ was a kind of hoist used by the Romans to build fortifications but unknown in China. It is now on display in the Lanzhou Museum.

The physical features of those living in Lanzhou, in some cases, also give some credence to Dubs’s theory. A certain Sung Guorong, for instance, stands at the unusual height of 1.82 metres, is blond and with an aquiline nose and big blue eyes, and loudly proclaims that he is Roman, not Chinese. He also claims that there are at least 100 others  in the area with similar features.

Certainly among the legionnaires there were some German as well as Gaul auxiliaries. Perhaps one of Mr Song’s ancestors was one of those 500 horsemen captured during Publius Crassus’s tragic sally. Lanzhou University has conducted DNA tests on the population of Zhelaizhai and their findings show that 46 per cent of them have genetic sequences similar to Europeans’.

Future research conducted using the Y chromosome (which is subject to little variation as it is transmitted directly from father to son) will shed more light on this mystery, and will help gather more precise information about European kinship ties.

Apart from this genetic evidence, Roman coins and pottery have also been unearthed in Zhelaizhai, as well as a helmet bearing the engraving in Chinese characters: One of the Prisoners. However, Zhelaizhai is located along the Silk Road, where such discoveries are found frequently. Similar artefacts have been found in distant places such as Vietnam and Korea.

One of Zhelaizhai’s specific characteristics, worth mentioning, is the passion for bulls and bullfighting, which continues to this day, and which is not shared by neighbouring areas. Local authorities, wishing to capitalize on the tourist potential offered by this link, have built a pavilion with Roman marble statues to attract visitors.

The Chinese were aware of the existence of a large Western empire and sent a legation in the year 97 AD, headed by Kan Ying. This legation arrived in Mesopotamia but, prior to continuing on to Rome, were misled by the Parthians into believing the journey would take two years of sailing. The Parthians had no interest in having their two main customers meet, as this would have cut them out of a lucrative trade.[3]

The naïve Kan Yin trusted the Parthians and decided to return to China empty handed.

Marcus Aurelius in 166 AD sent an official delegation of Romans to the Chinese capital of Luoyang and their arrival is recorded in the dynastic annals; however, the Chinese did not respond favourably to the Roman overtures, perhaps because of the occurrence in 184 AD of the peasant rebellion known as the Yellow Turbans, which caused a frightful civil war and the fall of the Han dynasty, which had ruled over China for four centuries.

(This article was published in a Hong Kong magazine on February 2003. Since than my story went viral on the web. I was contacted by an historian from Turkey asking if I knew more, because it seems that traditionally it was from Zheilazhai that begun the march West of the Turkish nation, or better say the Ashina clan within the Turkish nation..)

This article was published for the first time in Fabruary 2003.

[1] Carrhae, now known as Harran, is located on Turkey’s oriental border.


[2] These facts are reported in the biography of Chen Tang, one of the victorious Chinese generals, written by the historian Ban Gu (32 – 92).


[3] It is well known that Caesar spent a considerable amount of gold for bespoke-tailored togas made of silk, and that he gave Servilia, his mistress and mother of Brutus, a costly pearl from the South Seas. He was a trendsetter…



19 commenti su “A Roman Legion Lost in China.”

  1. There are no solid evidences that a band of Roman soldiers established a settlement in western region of China. In the Han Dynasty text, the infantry soldiers of the Huns or Xiongnus were in a ‘fish-scale’ formation where Dubs interpreted as the famed Roman testudo formation. Also genetic tests have uncovered that the inhabitants of Zhelaizhai have Caucasian genetic markers which do not proved of European ancestry. Iranian or Middle-Eastern peoples also have Caucasian genetic markers. Zhelaizhai is located on the famed Silk Route and these Iranian or Middle-Eastern travelers could have easily traveled and settled there and intermarried with local Han Chinese population. Solid evidence like Roman Legionary equipments will never be found as the supposed Roman soldiers that Han Chinese soldiers encountered were not even be equipped with them during battle. Soldiers were immediately disarmed once captured or surrendered. If these Roman POWs were integrated into Parthian military to guard the eastern borders against the Huns, they would be issued Parthian military equipment. During the battle with Han Chinese soldiers, these supposed Romans were either in Parthian or Hun military equipment. It is these military equipment that the Han Chinese confiscated from the prisoners. These supposed Romans would be equipped with Han Chinese military equipment where they were stationed by the Han Chinese to guard its western borders. Archaeologists have uncovered a stone relief in Central Asia bearing the name of a Roman Legionnaire and his unit. If similar evidence or at least Latin inscriptions from the First Century BC are discovered , that could provide a strong evidence that a band of Roman soldiers did appeared in China.

  2. Not a Roman legion, but a Greek legion could have been in Antiquity in China, when Alexander the Great conquered the world, as it is stated. Some oriental writers say that Alexander has even been in China, and he left one legion of Greeks there. This is not wat western sources related.

  3. “These bows doubled the propulsion power, enabling them to shoot at a distance of up to 400 metres – a distance further than bullets fired by Kalashnikov rifles. ”

    Dude, you obviously don’t know anything about Kalashnikov rifles. Just take this sentence out. It adds nothing and makes it seem like you don’t know what you are talking about.

  4. Hi, Joe

    Thank you for your comment. Do you know how far a Reflex Box can throw an arrow? 400 – 600 mt.
    An Ak47 has an effective range of 150/250 mt.
    “Sent via CSL BlackBerry.”

  5. The effective range of an AK is *not* the maximum range that its bullet can travel. The effective range is the range where an infantry man can engage an enemy and reliably hit his target. The maximum range it can travel is much further. I’m also willing to bet that the Parthians never engaged the Romans from 400m. Most of the power of their bows would have been lost. I get that you are stressing the power of the Parthian bows (which was indeed great) but I respectfully suggest that you look again at your AK comparison. It takes the shine off an otherwise excellent article.

  6. OK, folks, you won. I put the AK47 away.

    AK47 effective firing range is 440 yd in semi-auto and 330 yd in full auto.

    Thank you for commenting.

  7. in the history of the Han Dynasty showed that the in this time have had a army with a bg shield fighting
    against the Army of Hans. These people fighted for the Hunen(XionNu).
    this would be the lost Army from Romish Legion.

  8. but in 2012, a documantary book was published in Taiwan. this book describe the history of the 3th son of Julius Cäsar. in the year 37 before Chistus, Cäsar sended his Son with 100thausand Legeon to China. it took one year and 2 month from Rom to Boundary of China. and in the further 2 years, he and his army suffered a difficault

    Julius Cäsar didnt die in Rom, he died in also in the west China,

  9. “and foolishly thought his amateur dramatics might equal their professionalism.”

    His amateur dramatics? Their professionalism? Pompeius is perhaps the most overrated commander of the Roman Republic. And there was nothing amateur about Crassus. He served with distinction in the Sullan/Marian Civil War and defeated a Spartacus who had bested several other Roman commanders. Crassus was a good commander who was unprepared for the Parthian way of fighting, which the Romans had never faced before. It is also worth noting that the Parthians received an unexpected extra shipment of arrows or they would not have been able to maintain their assault, which very likely would have turned into a Roman victory.

    “His only triumph had been achieved with Pompey’s help: the bloody suppression of Spartacus and his slaves.”

    Absolute nonsense. Pompeius had nothing to do with the suppression of the slave revolt. Spartacus was already dead by the time Pompeius came back from Spain and his army scattered to the winds. The slaves whom Crassus crucified were slaves he had defeated. Pompeius came and rounded up a small group of stragglers looking to get out of Italy and then tried to take credit for ending the slave revolt. No one in Rome was fooled by this.

    “He had insufficient experience to embark on a large-scale operation himself;”

    Crassus had plenty of military experience. He raised his own legion in Spain and then fought with them in the Civil War. He commanded Sulla’s right wing at the Battle of the Colline gate where his forces won the day, and he defeated Spartacus, who had bested several other Roman military commanders. He had more experience than Pompeius had when Pompeius went to Hispania. He had more experience than Caesar had when Caesar went to Gallia. He had more experience than Scipio Africanus had when Africanus went to Hispania.

    Crassus got his but kicked by an army he was unprepared to fight. This does not mean he was inexperienced, was an amateur or was a poor commander.

    “To strengthen his own case, Crassus had enlisted the support of Pompey and Caesar, who saw an opportunity to free themselves of a powerful competitor.”

    Horse feathers. You’re just speculating, and not very plausibly. The death of Crassus went badly for Caesar and Pompey, whose alliance was weakened without Crassus balancing them out. Crassus attacking Parthia was opposed more because of what it would likely do FOR Crassus, whose defeat was not foreseen.

    Crassus was an evil man and an opportunist. Much of his wealth was got in the vilest way, by theft and murder during the Sullan proscriptions. But he was not an incompetent, amateur, inexperienced commander.

    You have almost no idea what you are talking about. Do not write about Roman history again.

  10. Thank you to Angelo Paratico for a great, level piece pulling much of the information together. I read a few articles on this today.

    I hope Matthew Alexander is ok.

    Matthew has also missed a very important point. That when talking about useful range of a Kalashnikov it includes only the range of near horizontal travel. This is much less than the maximum length of the projectile path. For a rifle to be effective at 400m it might need to have a maximum projectile range of over 1000 m.

    Whereas the horsemen were aiming at 45,000 men. That’s a big ballpark. And their arc was useful to the longest possible projectile path. Any angle of arrival was useful. So with a projectile range of 400m, the bows were lethal at 400m.

    And the higher angle can be just as difficult to defend depending on the situation. You don’t want to be looking up when it’s raining arrows.

  11. you say the captured legion was to help the Chinese against the HUNS? captured legion -53bc, Hunnic empire 430AD. so your magical lost legion lived for 500 years or are you writing lies ?


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