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[Articles & News] The Lost Legion of Carrhae: Did a Roman Legion End Up in China?

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Post time: 13-9-2020 11:48:24
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Rome and China are two majorcivilizations that shaped the cultures within their sphere of influence. Theyare also cultures that appear to have been mostly isolated from each other. Forthis reason, any contact between the cultures has fascinated historians eversince Western scholars began to study China and Chinese scholars began to studythe West. This includes stories like that of the lost legion of Carrhae, whosemembers may have ended up in Liqian, China.
The Legend of theLost Legion of Carrhae
The legend begins in 53 BC with theBattle of Carrhae between the Roman general Marcus Licinius Crassusand the Parthian general Surena. Carrhae is a location near the modern-daySyrian-Turkish border. In antiquity, it was near the fringes of the RomanEmpire in the west and the Parthian Empire in the east.
Crassus was already one of thewealthiest men in the Roman republic, but he had a desire to access the wealthof Parthia, so he convinced the Senate to let him lead 42,000 Roman soldiersinto the battlefield against the Parthians. In the battle, Crassus and his armysuffered a humiliating defeat at the hands ofSurena and his 10,000 archers. Crassus attempted to negotiate a truce but waskilled in the process. According to legend, liquid gold was poured down histhroat as a punishment for his greed. He was also allegedly beheaded, and hisbody was desecrated.
Of the surviving Romansoldiers, 10,000 of them were captured alive by the Parthians. Accordingto some accounts, they were relocated to the eastern border of the ParthianEmpire. It is believed that they were most likely sent to what is nowTurkmenistan. It was a Parthian custom to send prisoners of war captured in thewest to the far east to secure their loyalty against their eastern rivals, theHuns.
17years later, in 36 BC, on the western border of the Han Chinese Empire, thebattle of Zhizhi was fought between the Chinese and the Huns , a classical enemy of China. The Chineseannals record mercenaries fighting on the side of the Huns who used a “fishscale” formation. The fish scale formation impressed the Chinese and theyinvited the soldiers to come back to China and become part of the border guardin the modern Gansu province. A city and county were also made for them whichwere named Li-Jien or Liqian.
The Lost Legion of Carrhae andthe Mysterious Army
TheChinese description of the fish scale formation used by the mercenary soldiersbears a vague resemblance to the testudo formation practiced by Roman legions. Thishas led to the popular theory that these mysterious soldiers were in factexiled Roman legionnaires from the Battle of Carrhae who had hired themselvesout as mercenaries for the Huns.
Thisidea was first suggested by the historian Homer Dubs. Dubs argued that some ofthe soldiers in exile gave up trying to go back to Rome and hired themselvesout as mercenaries for local warlords in the region. Some of these former Romansoldiers may have found themselves working for the Huns in their war againstthe Chinese.
Proponentsof this theory have searched for Liqian and believe that they have found it. Zhelaizhai is a modern village near Lanzhou. What is interesting aboutthe town is that the people living there have traits such as brown hair andblue eyes, which contrast with the appearance of most of the surroundingpeople. Additionally, a helmet was reportedly found with Chinese characterswritten on it saying, “one of the surrendered.” Two other artifacts of interestare a Roman style water pot, and a trunk of wood with stakes similar to thoseused by the Romans to construct forts. The appearance of the villagers and thediscovery of unusual artifacts has led many believers in the legend to identifyZhelaizhai with Liqian. Because the legend has been popularized, the town hasused it to attract tourists, even going as far as to construct Roman stylebuildings and statues.


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