In describing a Chinese embassy to the Roman Emperor Augustus, the historian Florus stated rather plainly that the visitors were “people of another world than ours.” Though he was writing many years (and emperors) after the event, Florus’ assessment of the visitors was an apt summation of the relationship between Han China and Ancient Rome: they were two very different worlds.
Octavian, aka Emperor Augustus
Located at opposite ends of Eurasia, they couldn’t get much further apart (without crossing oceans) and dividing them further still were another two empires: the Parthians and the Kurshans. Yet despite such obstacles, these two behemoths of ancient human society did manage to make contact.
Official communication was brief and sporadic. Chinese exploration of the “western regions” was begun by the imperial envoy Zhang Qian in the 2nd century BCE, which eventually led to the Chinese embassy that Florus recorded. In 97 CE Ban Chao, general of the western regions, sent another envoy, but the mission failed.
It wasn’t a one-sided effort. Rome made its fair share of attempts to learn more of the mysterious empire to the east. In 166 CE, an envoy sent by Emperor Antoninus (though no one knows which Antoninus – helpfully there were two in a row) arrived in China, the first of several, according to Chinese historians.
And there may well have been more, but identifying them is rather problematic. The Romans referred to the Chinese as “Seres”, but unfortunately they used the same term to describe a number of other eastern peoples. As such, figuring out whether the sources actually refer to a Chinese person is, at times, impossible.
China was no better. From the outset, their perceptions of the Roman Empire were influenced heavily by their mythological assumptions of the west. Such misunderstanding can be seen in their name for Rome: Da Qin (Great Qin, after the founding dynasty of the Chinese Empire). They thought of Rome as a “counter-China” at the other end of the world, like a reflection themselves. The reality would no doubt have shocked them.
Emperor Ming Hongwu
Further Roman embassies are recorded to have arrived in China over the following centuries. Even after the imperial capital moved from Rome to Constantinople (modern day Istanbul) in 330 CE (creating what we now call the Byzantine Empire) there remained some contact between the two. As far forward in history as 1371 CE, the newly enthroned Emperor Ming Hongwu sent his Manifesto of Ascension to the Byzantine Emperor, informing the Romans of China’s latest dynastic conflicts and letting them know that he had come out on top.
Too far apart to pose a mutual threat, the rulers of Rome and China instead displayed an almost childlike curiosity toward each other. It is a rare thing in history, for two war-like peoples to take a genuine interest in one another, without an ulterior motive. Of course, while official contact was made only for curiosity’s sake, the merchant classes of both societies had other ideas.
In his “Natural History”, the Roman philosopher Pliny the Elder wrote, somewhat moodily, that “By the lowest reckoning, India, Seres and the Arabian peninsula take from our Empire hundreds of millions of sesterces every year: that is how much our luxuries and women cost us.” He was referring, largely, to silk. From the 1st century BCE the Romans were crazy for the stuff, and with so much Latin coin to be had, the Chinese (amongst others) were happy to feed their obsession. So popular was the fabric that the Roman Senate tried to legislate against it, both on economic and moral grounds. Silk clothing was so light and transparent that, as Pliny the Elder gleefully recorded, it could both “cover a woman [and] at the same moment reveal her naked charms.” Perhaps he thought the price was worth paying after all?
In exchange, the West exported high-quality Roman glass, along with gold-embroidered rugs, gold-colored cloth and sea silk, a material made from the hairs of Mediterranean shellfish. They also traded asbestos cloth, known for its fire-resistant qualities (though not its tendency to cause cancer, unfortunately).
As lucrative as such trade was, it did not constitute a direct connection between the two empires. The abovementioned Parthians and Kurshans still held the land in between, jealously guarding their profitable role as trade intermediaries. Nonetheless, the exchange of goods represented an important, if modest, blending of cultures.
Religion too, as it has a habit of doing, found its way across the geographical expanse. Following the Byzantine Empire’s gradual adoption of Christianity from the 4th century CE onward, numerous Orthodox Christian sects (or heresies, if you asked the Emperor) sprung up. One such was the Nestorian Church, which arrived in China in 635 CE. Having escaped the clutches of one Emperor, the Nestorians did remarkably well in the East, until another emperor (the Chinese one, this time) ordered them wiped out.
The distance between Rome and China was vast, and between were the less-than-friendly empires of Parthia and Kurshan (click to enlarge)
The Nestorians’ experience was typical of the overall Romano-Chinese relationship, which could be described as “almost, but not quite.” However, an upcoming documentary by New Century Media has the potential to alter this perception. The documentary aims to explore the Xinjiang deserts in search of the lost civilization of Quici. Supposedly, hidden within the region’s “Thousand-Buddha Caves” are remnants of this society, which they claim combined elements of Greco-Roman, Persian, Indian and Han Chinese cultures. A bold statement, but if it holds true, it could radically alter modern understandings of the relationship between ancient Rome and China.
But until then, you’ll have to be content with knowing that these two magnificent civilizations developed largely independent of each other. Each had their own social order, their own gods, their own forms of government, and so despite the envoys and trade agreements they shared, they had little lasting effect on one another.
And unless some monumental historical discovery is made in the future, we will probably never know which one of them would have won in a fight.
Don’t pretend you weren’t thinking about it. You know you were.
My money’s on Rome, but that’s just me.
Craving another historical Clash of Cultures? One where some actual fighting happened? Try the Battle of Talas – medieval Islam vs Tang China!
And for even more war, find out what happened when a Vietnamese woman led an army of 80,000 against Han China.