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The Contacts Between Rome and China

by William Dalzell


Three great civilizations of the ancient world stand out in the minds of modern men: those of Rome, Greece, and China. Each in their time commanded far-reaching empires and trade routes. The cultures of Greece and Rome were not only in contact with one another, but actually overlapped. China, however, being far removed from the other two, never achieved as profound a cultural contact. Nevertheless, ties did exist between the Greco-Roman world and China. These ties were limited by a number of factors, including: the need for each civilization to explore closer to their homelands before going farther afield, the presence of another large culture and empire in between, the nature of Chinese culture, and the fact that each civilization was simply busy with other things.


During the fourth century BC, Alexander the Great of Macedon conquered the Achaemenid Empire, bringing Greek interests from the tiny polis to the jungles of the east. Hellenistic culture reached as far as the Indian subcontinent. However, geographical knowledge would not push much further east until the time of the Roman Empire. In 68 AD, the Roman author Pliny described the island Taprobane (Ceylon) and the Roman ambassadors who were sent there.[1] Details of this territory are expounded on in the Periplus Maris Erythraei, a map of the coast of the Northwestern Indian Ocean. The document describes in detail ports from the Red Sea to Ceylon. Most importantly, it mentions the land of This and the city of Thinae, far to the northeast of Taprobane, as the origin of the precious silk fabric.[2] Around the year 150 AD, Alexandrian geographer Claudius Ptolemy wrote his magnum opus, Geographia, a description of the known world. In this work, Ptolemy describes the far eastern land of Serice, home of the Seres, the silk people.[3] He even touches upon some of the nature of their culture. 


In the East, China, too, was expanding and exploring. In Northern China, the early Han dynasty made a treaty with the Xiongnu nomads of Mongolia, known as the Peace and Friendship accords. In exchange for peace, the Chinese sent goods and princesses to the nomads.[4] This tribute opened up trade routes to the north and the west, facilitating the movement of goods. Later during the Han dynasty, in the year 136 BC the emissary Chang Ch’ien was sent to explore the West and make alliances against the omnipresent northern nomads. After being captured by the nomads for a time, he eventually arrived in Bactria, where the Indo-Scythians had only recently conquered the Greeks. From this mission, the Chinese acquired the grapevine and alfalfa.[5] From the Chinese perspective, the next major contact with the Western world came nearly three hundred years later. In the year 166 AD, emissaries from An Tun King arrived in the capital of Luoyang from the far west, a place the Chinese called Ta T’sin. Coming by sea and suspected by the Chinese to be merchants, these so-called emissaries in fact came from far off Rome, ruled then by the Emperor Marcus Aurelius.[6]


In addition to official contact, trade occurred between the two cultures. Mostly, trading took place through intermediaries, with goods likely passing through many hands before reaching their final destination. According to historians, goods were, “carried long distances by being passed from community to community rather than being carried by long-distance travelers.”[7] The extent of this trade is seen in Seneca’s chastising of Roman women who don flimsy silk clothes, something he viewed as a growing problem in Rome. Furthermore, hoards and imitations of Roman coins are found in India, a stop on the sea route from China. Specie flowed east from Rome, stopping in India to purchase Chinese products.[8]


At first, contacts between East and West were stifled by the distance. Although the distance between the two areas was not impossible to traverse, as would later be proven, there were vast amounts of territory to be explored first. For both the Romans and the Chinese exploration, expansion, and knowledge of space were required to govern and control their vast empires. Exploration was primarily a tool to enable better government, not to be engaged in for the sake of abstract knowledge.[9] When such scientific exploration did occur, there were a multitude of areas for each civilization to choose from; Rome could and did explore Northern Europe, Britain, Africa, and the Atlantic Ocean; China traveled to parts of the northern steppes and the areas of Annam.


A second reason for limited contact stems from similar principles as the first: both the Romans and the Chinese were busy and did not have the time to pursue such endeavors. China had to face the barbarians to the north, who were not particularly careful in following the Peace and Friendship accords.[10] The Roman Empire, as earlier mentioned, was busy expending her energies in Northern Europe, subjugating Britain and exploring the Atlantic coast. Furthermore, they experienced only a handful of peaceful decades in its long history and was often at war. Often, the Romans were at war with the Parthian or Sassanid Empires to the east, another reason for limited contact.


A further reason for the limited contact between Rome and China is the existence of another powerful empire and civilization between them, that of Persia. The Persians controlled the both the Silk Road and the naval routes, in effect a middle-man for all goods coming to or from China. The Romans were almost perpetually at war with this power. The Chinese had experienced a more peaceful relationship with them, receiving refugees from the nobility when the Sassanid Empire was overthrown by Islamic invaders. China later fought the same Arabs in the eighth century. With the conquest of the middle east by the Mongols in the 1259 AD, contact between Europe and China boomed.


The final and perhaps most important reason for limited contact is the fundamentally insular nature of Chinese civilization. China was the ‘Middle Kingdom,’ the center of the world. The ancient Chinese felt themselves to be the only civilized people and, accordingly, felt that it was not their job to go to the barbarians, but the barbarians job to go to them.[11] The Roman geographer Ptolemy accurately described this aspect of the Chinese culture, saying that they, “eschew the contact of mankind; and, though ready to engage in trade, wait for it to come to them instead of seeking it.”[12] Despite this, they still felt that Rome was important enough to be called Ta T’sin, Great T’sin, denoting that “the people were as civilized as the Chinese themselves (T’sin) but taller in stature, and thus ‘great’.”[13]


Greece, Rome, and China are considered three of the greatest civilizations of the ancient world. However, the Greco-Roman lands and the Chinese lands were greatly distant. The amounts of other space between to explore limited the civilizations early on. Once this space was explored, the Persian culture and empire lay between, simultaneously operating as a middleman and stifling direct contact. Beyond these issues, the respective empires were each incredibly busy, often at war with various barbarians. Finally, Chinese culture itself was locked in a mindset that prohibited exploration and contact with foreign powers. Despite these problems, a number of important contacts were made between the cultures, from the grapevines acquired on the plains of Bactria to the silks purchased in India.


Fitzgerald, C. P. The Chinese View of Their Place in the World. London: Oxford University Press, 1964.

Garnsey, Peter, and Richard Saller. The Roman Empire: Economy, Society and Culture. Berkely: University of California Press, 1987.

Gosch, Stephen, and Peter Stearns. Premodern Travel in World History. New York: Routledge, 2008.

Lattimore, Owen, and Eleanor Lattimore. Silks, Spices and Empire. New York: Dell, 1971.

Mirsky, Jeannette. The Great Chinese Travelers. Chicago: The University Of Chicago Press, 1974.

Nicolet, Claude. Space, Geography, and Politics in the Early Roman Empire. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1991.

Tozer, H. F. . History of Ancient Geography. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1935.


[1] H. F. Tozer, History of Ancient Geography. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1935), 272.
[2] Ibid, 281.
[3] Ibid, 352
[4] Stephen Gosch and Peter Stearns, Premodern Travel in World History. (New York: Routledge, 2008), 55.
[5] Jeannette Mirsky, The Great Chinese Travelers. (Chicago: The University Of Chicago Press, 1974), 13.
[6] C. P. Fitzgerald, The Chinese View of Their Place in the World. (London: Oxford University Press, 1964), 9.
[7] Gosch and Stearns, Premodern Travel in World History, 56.
[8] Peter Garnsey and Richard Saller, The Roman Empire: Economy, Society and Culture. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987), 47.
[9] Claude Nicolet, Space, Geography, and Politics in the Early Roman Empire. (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1991), 2.
[10] Gosch and Stearns, Premodern Travel in World History, 55.
[11] C. P. Fitzgerald, The Chinese View of Their Place in the World, 1.
[12] Owen Lattimore and Eleanor Lattimore, Silks, Spices and Empire. (New York: Dell, 1971), 12.
[13] C. P. Fitzgerald, The Chinese View of Their Place in the World, 9.