In a town set toward the Southernmost part of Yongchang County, in the Northwestern Province of Gansu in China, it is said that the inhabitants are the descendants of a long-lost Roman Legion.
The town of Liqian is four and a half thousand miles from Rome, which, at a soldier’s pace would have been the equivalent of a year’s marching.
While it might seem extraordinary that there was almost no direct contact between the Roman and Chinese Empires, it can be explained in economic terms.
The main trade route, the Silk Road, was dominated by the Parthians and the Kushans who were both protective of their profitable roles as intermediaries. But the existence of these profits did not escape the attention of some of Rome’s more acquisitive Generals.
The Roman Empire was very successful in its time. It was the longest-running European political structure in history. The empire took its language and customs with it wherever it went, from the Scottish foothills to the Persian deserts.
There is written and archaeological evidence that the Romans used mercenaries from the Iraqi region to patrol Hadrian’s wall.
However, things were not always so good between the Romans and the various monarchs that ruled the Persian Empire. Back in 53 BCE, Roman soldiers were involved in a disastrous battle with the Iraqi Parthians at Carrhae, in Southeast Turkey.
The Roman Army was led by General Marcus Crassus, the wealthiest man in Rome. It was a vain bid to extend the reach of the empire deeper into the east and take control of Silk Road trade.
However, after suffering terrible losses at the hands of the Parthian’s legendary mounted bowmen, the General was threatened with mutiny if he did not agree to truce negotiations.
Unfortunately, at the meeting with the Parthian general Surena, Crassus lost his temper and violence ensued.
Crassus and his generals were killed along with nearly 20,000 troops. Legend has it that Surena poured molten gold down Crassus’s throat to quench his enemy’s greed.
Crassus’s Quaestor, Gaius Longinus, led 10,000 surviving soldiers back into Syria where he governed for two years, successfully defending the territory against subsequent Parthian attacks.
The Euphrates river was then established as the de-facto boundary between the two powers, and this border remained in place for centuries.
Stories tell that more than 10,000 Roman legionaries were captured by the Parthians and deported to the Eastern frontier in Turkmenistan, where they are supposed to have settled and married into the local population.
The city, Alexandria Margiana (Merw in Turkmen), was situated on the Silk Road, and it accepted merchants, travelers, and soldiers of fortune all the way from Rome to China.
This is where the mystery begins. 17 years after the battle of Carrhae there was another military encounter: the battle of Zhizhi.
The encounter was a conflict between the Chinese and the Xiongnu at which, according to Chinese chroniclers, mercenary soldiers used a “fish scale” formation.
The battle was fought in Kazakhstan, most likely at Taraz on the Talas river, which would make it the most westerly action fought by the Chinese Han army.
In the 1940s, an Oxford professor of Chinese History, Homer H. Dubs, put forward the theory that the “fish scale” formation witnessed by the Chinese was, in fact, the Roman testudo, or “tortoise” formation.
The town called Liqian was settled following this battle by prisoners of war who were granted land by the victorious Chinese General, Chen Tang. It was Dubs’s assertion that these captives were a lost Roman legion, survivors of Carrhae, and later of Zhizhi.
Joining the dots between the two battles is not so hard. It may well be that Roman military know-how could travel the Silk Road as easily as items of trade.
A battle-hardened band of soldiers might be tempted to sell their expertise to a chieftain with Imperial ambitions like Chanyu Zhizhi.
But there are problems with this story. By 36 BCE, the youngest men in General Crassus’s armies would have been nearing their forties, the oldest well into their fifties and past their prime.
It might be that throwing their lot in with an ambitious warlord would have been their last chance for a shot at glory and an opportunity to buy passage back to retirement in their Roman homelands.
However, if that was the goal, then their gods had surely forgotten them, as Liqian is twice the distance from Rome.
So far, there has been no archaeological evidence to support the theory, although it has been argued that for a legion almost 20 years in exile, by the time they reached Gansu province, they would be bringing with them very little that was Roman.
What supporters of the theory claim as evidence are the DNA legacies that allegedly remain.
Local man Cai Junnian, or “Cai the Roman” to his friends, claims his great-grandfather knew of Roman tombs in the Qilian mountains a day and a half’s hike from Liqian.
Junnian has distinctive green eyes and a ruddy complexion at odds with traditional Chinese features. He has become a local celebrity and has even flown to Shanghai to visit the Italian consulate to meet his “relatives.”
In order to prove a link, scientists have been taking DNA samples from residents and have shown that, in some cases, Caucasian markers account for some 53% of the DNA profile.
Resident Gu Meina was born with a shock of blonde hair. Her father, Gu Jianming, said, “At school they call her ‘yellow hair.’ Before we were told about the Romans, we had no idea about this. We are poor and have no family temple, so we don’t know about our ancestors.”
However, Professor Xie Xiaodong, a geneticist from Lanzhou University, is skeptical. “Even if they are descendants of the Roman Empire, it doesn’t mean they are necessarily from the Roman army,” he said. “The Empire covered a large area. Many soldiers were recruited locally, so anything is possible.”
Scholars in Italy are also treating the studies with caution. Anthropologist Maurizio Bettini of Siena University told La Repubblica:
“…one would need to find items… that were typical of Roman Legionnaires. Without proof of this kind, the story of the lost legions is just a legend.”
The story didn’t reach Liqian until relatively recently. Mao’s China was suspicious of anything that might undermine the racial sovereignty of the Chinese Han, and the events of Tiananmen Square also closed down discussions.
Today, however, things are very different.
In “Imperial City Entertainment Street” there is now a “Caesar Karaoke” bar. Locals also perform Roman “reenactments,” and the town now has its own concrete Roman portico at the entrance to its main street.
Recently there has been a minor influx of tourists from Italy, so even if the legion from Carrhae never made it to Liqian, there are at least a few Romans there now.