VOL. 20 May ISSUE YEAR 2019

Off the Beaten Track

in Vol. 20 - May Issue - Year 2019
Two Worlds Apart
The Roman, Parthian, Indian and Chinese Han Empires

The Roman, Parthian, Indian and Chinese Han Empires

The foreign visitors were kept waiting five days before being admitted to the presence of the Emperor. As instructed, they approached the throne on their knees and with bent heads. In silence, they laid their gifts out on the floor for all the court to see. The only noise to be heard in the Throne Room was the buzzing of the cicadas coming through the open windows.


About two thousand years ago, two great empires on opposite sides of the world were at the height of their power and glory. In the Far East, the Han Dynasty dominated vast parts of present-day China and Vietnam and sent military expeditions westwards towards Central Asia, while in the West the Roman Empire ruled most of Europe and the Mediterranean Basin, gradually inching its way towards the Near East. Each side was only vaguely aware of the other’s existence, but both were eager to know more and to explore the possibility of establishing direct trade relations and even some form of military cooperation in the face of common enemies. This is the story of attempts made to bridge the gap between these two great powers.
The exchange of goods between East and West passed through Indian, Arabian and Middle East traders. Even before the establishment of the Silk Road, camel caravans and merchant ships regularly plied the great distances of deserts and seas. Goods changed hands several times before reaching their final destinations, causing prices to skyrocket as each trader added his profit margin. The Chinese eagerly snapped up all the Roman glassware, silverware and Mediterranean Sea coral they could get, whereas the most prized Chinese export was silk, which became so popular with rich Roman matrons that the Senate had to issue a decree limiting its import, as too much gold was flowing out of state coffers. After the conquest of Egypt in 30 BC, the Romans cut out some of the middlemen, but still had to pass through Parthian traders for Chinese commodities.
Although it’s not clear whether these visitors were merchants or actual diplomats, the Roman historian Florus recorded the presence of Seres envoys at the court of Augustus, who reigned from 27 BC to 14 AD. Seres means “people of the silk” and it was the name given by the ancient Greeks and Romans to the Chinese (hence the word sericulture = production of silk).
The Book of the Later Han, a history of the Han Dynasty, records an attempt made by General Ban Chao to send an envoy, Gan Ying, to Rome in the year 97 AD. Gan reached as far as Mesopotamia, then under the Parthian Empire. When the Parthians learned Gan’s intended final destination, they realized that this would have led to direct trade relations between China and Rome, cutting out Parthia from the lucrative silk business. Consequently the Parthians told Gan that crossing the Mediterranean was very dangerous and could take up to two years, when in fact the route was no more dangerous than any other sea crossing and took a matter of days and not years. Discouraged, Gan returned to China, but not before gathering a wealth of information on Rome from numerous secondary sources, mostly sailors he encountered in ports during his return journey. Gan gave an extremely positive description of the Roman Empire, its cities, territories, people, rulers and way of life, thus heightening the Chinese court’s desire to establish direct relations.
The Parthians also thwarted numerous attempts by the Romans to travel to China. However, with the expansion of their empire in the Middle East in the second century AD, the Romans were able to sail their ships across the Indian Ocean. The Book of the Later Han records the arrival of a Roman ambassadorial mission at the court of the Emperor Huan in the year 166 AD, stating that it was the first time there had been direct contact between the two countries. The visitors brought gifts and were received with great interest by the Chinese.
Other Chinese chronicles, such as the Weilüe and the Book of Liang, record the arrival of a Roman merchant in 226 AD. The Chinese ruler Sun Quan asked the merchant to provide a detailed report on his native country and its people and accepted the merchant’s request to return to Rome with a Chinese officer, who unfortunately died along the way. The Weilüe and the Book of Liang also document the presence of Roman merchants in present-day Cambodia and Vietnam. Remains of Roman artifacts have been found in numerous archeological digs in Vietnam, Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia.

By Giovanni Gregorat, Contributing Editor MFN