By AD 160, the Chinese and Roman Empires were at their political and economic epoch, but devastating events were imminent. Chinese records reveal that the first direct engagement between representatives of the Roman regime and the Han Empire occurred at this time. However, the incident is not mentioned in Roman accounts probably because it took place at a period of extreme crisis for both ancient regimes.
The Han Empire was as large as its Roman counterpart with more than 50 million subjects and a similar sized domain. However, the Han military had a core professional army comprised of less than 40,000 permanent soldiers. Professional Roman troops fought with javelins and short-swords, while Chinese infantry had superior missile technology and carried sophisticated multi-shot crossbows with steel-tipped bolts. Frontline Chinese troops were equipped with spear-pointed halberds and the infantry were supported by substantial cavalry forces including allied steppe horsemen. The Han regime had access to an enormous reserve of peasant manpower that could be levied and trained as soldiers. Ancient documents recovered from the frontier region of Yinwan describe weaponry stored in the central state-armoury. On one occasion there were 23 million items of military equipment in the armoury, including 500,000 cross-bows and over 11 million crossbow bolts. The Chinese could therefore conduct wars on an enormous scale if the situation demanded.
The Romans became aware of the Chinese Empire from the reports of merchants and ambassadors who had contacts in Central Asia. The export of Mediterranean bullion to pay for Han silks made China an important issue for the Roman regime. The silk routes were also supplying the Parthians with high-grade steel that could produce superior lances, armour, and arrows. Plutarch describes Parthian arrows made from oriental steel as ‘strange missiles that can pierce through every obstacle’ and mailed steel armour as ‘protection that cannot be penetrated’. Chinese manufacturers could mass-produce this metal, but Roman workshops remained unfamiliar with the techniques. Juvenal mentions the Chinese in his satires, considering this to be one of the important topics being debated at the time. He ridiculed Roman women who involved themselves in politics by interrupting generals to ask ‘what are the intentions of the Chinese?’
In early AD 161 the Emperor Antoninus Pius died and was succeeded by Marcus Aurelius. That autumn the Parthian Empire challenged Roman interests in the east by invading the client kingdom of Armenia and installing their own candidate on the throne. The Roman governor of Cappadocia mobilised an army to confront the Parthians, but this expeditionary force was massacred near the frontier. After fifty years of peace and security, Persia and Rome once again prepared for full-scale war.
In summer AD 165 Marcus Aurelius sent envoys east aboard a Roman merchant ship with instructions to make direct contact with the Chinese Empire. This was not the first time that the Roman government had used merchants and trade ships to facilitate their distant diplomatic interests. A fragmentary inscription records how in AD 18 the imperial commander Germanicus used businessmen from the Syrian frontier-city of Palmyra to deliver a message to King Orabzes, who ruled the small Gulf Kingdom of Mesene. The Palymrenes had trade interests in Mesene, so they were able to deliver messages to the kingdom concerning Roman interests in Persia that could undermine Parthian rule.4 When Rome and Parthia went to war over Armenia in AD 58, the imperial commander Corbulo received diplomats from the secessionist realm of Hyrcania which lay on the eastern shores of the Caspian Sea. Corbulo realised that these allies would be intercepted by hostile Parthian forces if they attempted to return to their homelands via Iran. He therefore placed them aboard a Roman ship bound for northwest India and the diplomats returned to their homeland via the Indus Region. Tacitus explains, ‘Corbulo gave them an escort and conducted them down to the shores of the Red Sea and, by avoiding Parthian territory, they returned safely to their native lands’. Whatever the route taken, the incident confirms that Roman Red Sea ships could be used to deliver envoys and messages to distant eastern regimes in order to undermine Parthian interests in Central Asia. This possibly explains the Roman voyage to China made in AD 165.
The crew that set out in AD 165 had to spend that winter in an Indian port before continuing around the Malay Peninsula to reach Vietnam in the summer of AD 166. Meanwhile the co-emperor Lucius Verus arrived in Syria to reclaim Armenia and prepare a full-scale attack on the Parthian Empire. The Romans possibly planned to conquer Persia and this explains why they sought new allies in the distant east, including China.
The Roman envoys who reached the Chinese outpost at Rinan were immediately dispatched under guard to the inland Han capital Luoyang along with part of their trade cargo. The journey to Luoyang was more than a thousand miles, but Chinese highways were double the size of most Roman roads and had a central lane reserved for official carriages and dispatch riders. State-run stables and way-stations were located at regular intervals to provide government agents with fresh horses, rest and provisions. But even with these advantages, the journey would have taken several weeks of fast-paced and relentless travel. The effort was justified since the Chinese had been trying to make contact with the Roman Empire since about AD 70, but their efforts were blocked by the Parthians. Chinese intelligence suggested that the Roman Empire (Da Qin) was a powerful political regime that matched the population, resources and military capacity of the Han Empire. This was an opportunity for the ancient world’s two largest powers to form significant political and economic contacts.
At Luoyang the Roman delegates were granted an audience with the Han Emperor Huan and summoned to the inner court. They were asked a list of stock questions to confirm the scale and character of the Roman regime. Chinese reports claim the delegates represented ‘Antun’ which must be the Emperor Marcus Aurelius Antoninus and his co-ruler Lucius Verus. The delegates told the Chinese that the Roman regime had been trying to send representatives to China, but their efforts had been prevented by the Parthians who wanted to maintain control over the highly profitable silk route traffic in oriental fabrics. Perhaps the delegates were on a fact-finding mission since they did not mention that the Roman army was preparing to invade Persia.
All responses given by the delegates were recorded in the Han court records along with comments made by senior members of the Chinese government. A few of these details were copied into a later historical work called the Hou Hanshu (The Later Han Histories) which offers a brief account of the distant west, including some facts known about Da Qin (Rome). This includes the surviving information about the meeting between the Han court and the Antun delegates.
It was usual practice for embassies to offer costly diplomatic gifts to foreign rulers as tokens of respect and measures of prestige. However, the Antun delegates had no high-value offerings for the Han court and no costly Roman merchandise to present as gifts. In place of imperial gifts they offered the Han Emperor some of the cargo samples that had been removed from their ship at Rinan to be conveyed to the palace at Luoyang. These items were a collection of relatively ordinary eastern goods and Han officials were disappointed because they had expected to receive Roman jewellery, objects fashioned from delicate red coral and exquisite western fabrics dyed vibrant colours. The Hou Hanshu records: ‘Antun the ruler of Da Qin, sent envoys from beyond the frontiers to reach us through Rinan. They offered elephant tusks, rhinoceros horn, and turtle-shell. This was the very first time there was communication [between our countries].’
All foreign accounts suggested that Rome was immensely prosperous, so the lack of suitable diplomatic gifts was noted in the Han court records as being unusual. After receiving valuable gifts from the Han Emperor, the Romans delegates were escorted back to Rinan and their waiting ship. The delegates probably spent the summer of AD 168 in India with their return to Egypt planned for November of that year. Based on these schedules the Chinese expected to receive further contacts from the Romans in AD 170, but no one came, not even Roman merchants seeking lucrative new trade prospects.
Chinese officials looked for explanations in the court records and drew attention to the gifts offered by the Antun delegates. The Hou Hanshu reports ‘the tribute they brought was neither precious nor rare, raising suspicion that the accounts of Rome might be exaggerated’. In 1885 a German scholar named Friedrich Hirth translated this passage and assumed that the Chinese were ‘suspicious’ about the delegates. He suggested that the delegates were fraudulent merchants, but the Chinese government had protocols for identifying and dealing with foreigners and the passage in the Hou Hanshu suggests the diplomats were genuine. An accurate reading of the ancient text suggests that when the Romans presented meagre gifts, the Chinese were suspicious of earlier reports describing the wealth and power of Rome. These doubts gained credibility when no further diplomats or merchants arrived from this distant western Empire. The Chinese did not realise that the Roman Empire was suffering from an unprecedented crisis and could no longer exploit the opportunities offered by distant exchanges.