During the Age of Antiquity, the Roman Empire was the dominant power in the Mediterranean, being wealthy with a strong military force.
On the other side of the world in China, there was the equally rich, powerful and even more populous Han Empire.
Did these two great empires ever interact with each other?
Although the distance between the two empires was vast, China and Rome knew of each other and they formed the extreme ends of the Eurasian trade network.
Evidence of this can be found in Roman glass and other materials that have been uncovered in Chinese tombs.
Chinese silk was not found in Roman tombs, but silk is biodegradable and would have rotted away after hundreds of years.
Besides commerce, some political contact was made between the empires in the form of envoys.
Chinese records tell of a visit from the Roman Empire
Han court records tell of the arrival of ambassadors from Da Qin, the Chinese name for the Roman Empire, sent by the Emperor An Dun.
An Dun is theorised to be Roman Emperor Antonius Pius who ruled from 138AD to 161AD.
Roman traders very possibly extended their travels to Southeast Asia, as evidenced by the Vietnamese archaeological site of Oc-Eo revealing Roman coins and trade goods.
Funnily enough, the Han court seemed interested in learning more about what lay west of its borders and concentrated their efforts on this.
In 97AD, an ambassador named Gan Ying was sent westward to find out more about the Roman Empire.
He unfortunately never made it to Rome, stopping when he reached what he called the “western sea”.
This can refer to the Mediterranean, the Black Sea or the Persian Gulf. He wanted to cross the sea, but was told by sailors in Parthia (modern-day Iran) that it took months, possibly years, to reach Rome with a strong possibility of death.
The Parthians never told him, perhaps deliberately, that they and the Romans shared a land border in the west. Gan would have taken a few weeks at most to cross into Roman territory.
However, he did record what he was told about the Roman Empire, writing on its vastness and the vassal states subservient to the Roman Emperor.
“The walls of the towns are made of stone,” he wrote. “They have established postal relays at intervals, which are all plastered and whitewashed. There are Pines and Cypresses, as well as plants of all kinds.”
While Chinese records on Rome were not entirely accurate, they did get some facts correct.
Gan wrote how Roman kings were appointed by their people based on merit, and described the Romans as tall and honest, praising their mineral wealth.
Both the empires made different types of silk
He also wrote of the Roman perfume and sea silk industry, a different form of silk from the Chinese version as it was made with filaments from clam shells.
He also noted that the Romans were interested in sending ambassadors to China but their route was blocked by the Parthians.
The Parthians were profiting from being middlemen in the lucrative silk trade and knew that direct contact between Rome and China would destroy their income.
Centuries later, during the Three Kingdoms period in China, another historical text discussed the Roman Empire.
Yu Huan, an official serving the Kingdom of Wei, never left the country but he did speak to traders and compiled the information in a book called the “Weilue”, or A Brief History of Wei.
“The men there cut their hair; they wear embroidered clothing in the shape of a gown that leaves the right arm bare.”
The Roman Senate is referenced in a line that states, “They have appointed thirty-six leaders who discuss events frequently.”
Quite comically, right after describing the Romans’ crops and livestock, Yu writes excitedly on a rather peculiar subject.
“They have a tradition of amazing conjuring. They can produce fire from their mouths, bind and then free themselves, and juggle twelve balls with extraordinary skill.”
On their part, Roman writers note a distant land called Serica, most likely referring to northern China and its people, called the Seres.
The Roman Empire records a visit from Chinese private traders
A delegation of Seres is on record as having paid tribute to the first Roman Emperor Augustus.
Chinese records don’t suggest any diplomatic envoys sent by the Han Emperor, so it’s likely that this delegation consisted of private merchants.
Pliny the Elder, Roman author and historian, wrote about China in his magnum opus, “Naturalis Historia”.
Unsurprisingly, he starts off with the lucrative Chinese silk trade before commenting on Roman women’s demand for the expensive cloth.
“So manifold is the labour and so distant are the regions which are ransacked to supply a dress for our ladies to display their charms in public.”
Calling the Chinese “of inoffensive manner”, he claims that the Chinese were an isolated people who welcomed foreign merchants to purchase their wares.
Contact between the two empires was severed during the chaos that followed the collapse of the Han Empire.
By the time China was reunited centuries later, the Roman Empire was gone, so contact was re-established with the Byzantines of the Eastern Roman Empire.