In 53 BC, a humiliating defeat for a Roman army set off a chain of events that may have led to the furthest eastward expansion of the Roman Empire’s military and cultural influence.
The Battle of Carrhae, located in eastern Turkey, was comprised on 10,000 Parthian archers against seven Roman Legions led by Marcus Licinius Crassus. For those who follow history closely, Crassus’ claim to fame was defeating Spartacus’ rebellion in 71 BC.
Although Crassus’ bloody victory over Spartacus was celebrated throughout Rome, his military leadership was questioned by many. His inexperience became apparent the day he led 45,000 Roman soldiers into battle against the very prepared and mobile Parthian cavalry in Carrhae, now known today as Harran, Turkey.
Crassus’ blunder was positioning his soldiers in a tight square during the battle. This mistake allowed the mobile Parthians to decimate the army with their Persian reflex bows. These reflex bows, used extensively by the Mongols and Chinese, increased the distance and penetrating strikes of the arrows to 400 meters. By nightfall, the battle was all but over. Crassus’ son was beheaded, and 20,000 Romans were killed. While negotiating a cease of battle, Crassus was captured and also beheaded. Approximately 15,000 Romans managed to escape and 10,000 Romans were captured as prisoners.
The fate of the 10,000 captured Legionnaires remained a mystery. In 20 BC, negotiations, under Augustus’ leadership between the Parthians and Marcus Antonius, regarding the return of these soldiers only compounded the mystery. The Parthians stated there were no prisoners to repatriate.
What is known is that Parthian prisoners captured in the west were usually moved eastward into Turkmenistan to use against possible Hun invaders. This is what most scholars believed occurred to the captured Roman army. What is also known is that during the Han Dynasty, Chinese records indicate the capture of Zhizhi, known today as Zhambul, Uzbekistan in 36 BC. Chen Tang, one of the Chinese generals who fought the Huns in that battle, recorded battling soldiers in a fish scale formation that was never before seen. This tactic, of tightly squared formations, utilized shields for the first row to cover their body and the following rows to cover their heads was known as the Testudo (Tortoise Shell), used by Roman Legions throughout the empire.
The Chinese victors were so impressed by the remaining 145 enemy soldiers at Zhizhi, that they moved them further east to the newly named outpost of Liqian (Li-chien) in Gansu province to enlist their help in the defense of Tibetan raids. It doesn’t take much imagination to find the similarity of the name Legion and Liqian. Additionally, a map of China’s Han Empire available during this same period showed a county named Liqian. According to Fan Ye’s 5th century “Hou Han Shu”, Liqian was named after a foreign country. Liqian is what the Chinese called the Roman Empire.
Archaeologists now believe Liqian is located in present day Zhelaizhai, China.
Further archaeological digs in Zhelaizhai unearthed a trunk with stakes, used commonly by the Romans to build fortifications, but unheard of in China. Roman coins and pottery were also unearthed. The ancient town wall of Zhelaizhai was also lined with tree trunks, a uniquely Roman practice. At least one Roman helmet with Chinese lettering was also found, however, this cannot be the smoking gun since Zhelaizhai is located near a well established trade route and these items could have originated from trade.
In 2003, 99 tombs dating from the Han Dynasty were found containing skeletons of very tall people facing westward. This was not the common burial practice of the Chinese and the lengths of these bodies were much taller than the Chinese at the time. Zhelaizhai is also the only place in China where the inhabitants have western features and interests. Approximately 46% of the inhabitants have genetic sequences similar to Europeans. Their physical features range from aquiline noses, blond hair, blue eyes and measuring over 1.82 meters. Residents take pride in the fact that they may be descendants of Roman warriors. Some have even proclaimed to be Roman and have changed their last names to reflect that. The inhabitants also have a passion for bulls, not shared by other neighboring towns.
The only way to truly know if there were roots laid by a Roman legion in China is to conduct a thorough DNA analysis. Efforts are currently underway to do just that. Xie Xiaodong, a life sciences researcher and Ma Runlin, a Beijing bio-chemist are hoping to confirm a genetic link between villagers from Zhelaizhai and the ancient Romans via separate studies. Since Rome was at the height of its power during the battle of Carrhae, a genetic database of European, western, central and east Asians is necessary as Rome enlisted soldiers from various ethnicities.