A Lost Roman Legion In Ancient China?

A couple Sunday’s ago I was flipping through the channels on my TV, looking for something interesting. Once again the Discovery Channel came through in spades.

I caught about 45 minutes of a documentary about evidence of an ancient Roman battalion setting up a city in ancient China. It boggled my mind to think about such a possibility.

The story in a nutshell involves a Roman legion captured by the Parthians in 53 BC, at the battle of Carrhae. The Parthians routed the Romans and captured 10,000 hoplites in the battle. In 20 BC, the emperor Augustus signed a peace treaty with the Parthians and the emblems and insignia of the captured legions were returned to Rome, but the Parthians maintained that there were no prisoners to repatriate. The fate of those Romans remained a mystery.

Parthians routinely transferred enemies from one end of their empire to the other, using them as mercenaries against implacable foes. Far from home, the soldiers were redeployed against the Huns in Turkmenistan. The Roman historian Plinius suggests this was the fate of the lost legion.

A tantalizing correlation to Plinius was hypothesized in 1955 by the historian Homer Dubs. He discovered in the annals of the Han dynasty an account of the capture of a city near Tashkent the Chinese called Zhizhi in 36 BC. The Chinese found it remarkable that a city in the desert was protected by a double wooden palisade of stout tree trunks, and the stiff defense provided by the garrison of this frontier city. Especially notable was a formation the defenders created at the city gates, which the Chinese described as a fishscale. Dubs inferred that the fishscale formation referred to the testudo, the interlocking shields of a Roman phalanx, covering the bodies of the front row of soldiers and over the heads of the succeeding rows of men. In addition, wooden palisades were a standard practice for Roman castra, but unknown to either the Parthians or the residents of Bactria where the siege took place.

The fighting prowess of these warriors impressed the Chinese mightily; after taking the city of Zhizhi they enlisted these men in the Chinese army and brought them further east. By imperial decree these men founded a city name Li-Jien (the Chinese name for imperial Rome). Dubs identified Li-Jien as the village of Zhelaizhai, on the Silk Road not far from Lanzhou. Excavations at the site uncovered Roman pottery and coins, hoists of a Roman design, and the skeletons unusually tall and long limbed for ancient Chinese. The modern population of Zhelaizhai supposedly exhibits Caucasian traits – though the fellows featured in the Discovery program looked like Han Chinese to me, despite their protestations of Roman heritage. However, the city lies along the Silk Road, a continental byway for migrations for two millennia, so it is certainly probable that there was a fair degree of mixing of populations.

So was the ancient garrison of Li-Jien the remnants of a Roman legion captured in Turkey? The evidence is far from conclusive, but the idea certainly captures the imagination. A Roman legion encamped along the Silk Road, literally on the other side of the world from the Mediterranean Sea. It certainly captivated the local residents, who built a Roman pavilion and hope to capture some tourist dollars on this classical link.

The Silk Road