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A Third Century Chinese Account of the Roman Empire

Last Updated on 2023/12/29

Roman life is described in translations of The Weilue, a 3rd-century Chinese historical text.

Mutual knowledge between the Chinese and Roman empires was very limited. Only a few attempts at direct communication are witnessed in the documents. In order to preserve control over the lucrative silk trade, intermediate empires such as the Parthians and the Kushans prevented direct contact between the two empires.

The historian Florus recounted the arrival of various envoys to the court of the first Roman Emperor Augustus (r. 27 BC – 14 AD), including the “Seres” (possibly the Chinese):

Even the rest of the nations of the world which were not subject to the imperial sway were sensible of its grandeur, and looked with reverence to the Roman people, the great conqueror of nations. Thus even Scythians and Sarmatians sent envoys to seek the friendship of Rome. Nay, the Seres came likewise, and the Indians who dwelt beneath the vertical sun, bringing presents of precious stones and pearls and elephants, but thinking all of less moment than the vastness of the journey which they had undertaken, and which they said had occupied four years. In truth it needed but to look at their complexion to see that they were people of another world than ours.” (Florus, as quoted in Yule (1915))

The Chinese commander Ban Chao attempted to send his emissary Gan Ying to Rome in AD 97, but the Parthians forbade him to cross the Persian Gulf. Ancient Chinese historians told of several alleged Roman embassies in China. The first known came in 166 AD, presumably from the Roman emperor Antoninus Pius or his adopted son Marcus Aurelius. Others are said to have arrived between AD 226 and 284, with a notable gap to the first Byzantine embassy in AD 643.

Related article: In the Footsteps of Maes Titianus: A Roman Merchant’s Tale on the Silk Road

Weilue: The People of the West

The Weilüe (魏 略), or “Short History of Wei”, is a Chinese historical text written by Yu Huan between 239 and 265. Yu Huan was an officer in the state of Cao Wei (220-265) during the period of the Three Kingdoms (220-280). Although he was not a historian, he was highly regarded by Chinese academics. The original content of the book has been lost, but the chapters on the Xirong have been cited by Pei Songzhi, as an annotation to volume 30 of the Chronicles of the Three Kingdoms (三國 志), the official historical text of the Three Kingdoms period, which collects the chronicles of the rival states, Wei KingdomShu Kingdom, and the Wu Kingdom of the Three Kingdoms in a single text, and served as a model for historical novels such as The Romance of the Three Kingdoms of the 14th Century, first published in 429. The Weilüe contains material new, unique, and generally reliable, mostly from the late 2nd and early 3rd centuries. Most of the new information contained in the volume appears to come from the Eastern Han Dynasty before China was largely cut off from the West by civil wars and unrest along its borders during the late 2nd century.

Yu Huan, who never left China, does not mention in his text the sources from which he received the information. However, land communications with the West apparently continued uninterrupted even after the fall of the Eastern Han dynasty.

Yu Huan collected a great deal of information on Western countries including Parthia, India, and the Roman Empire, and on the various routes to reach these exotic destinations.

Some information was already known before Yu Huan, and can also be found in some sections of the Records of the Grand Historian (史記, Shiji by Sima Qian), the History of the Former Han (Hanshu, 汉书, initiated by Ban Biao, continued from son Ban Gu and terminated by Biao’s youngest daughter Ban Zhao), and the Book of Later Han (Hou Hanshu, 後 漢書, compiled by Fan Ye).

The book describes the routes to the Roman Empire. It is possible that some, if not all of the information contained come from reports by foreign sailors and travelers. One such document that may have been available to Yu Huan is detailed in the Book of Liang by a Roman merchant who arrived in Jiaozhi near modern-day Hanoi in 226 and was sent to the court of Eastern Wu Emperor Sun Quan, who asked him for a report on his native country and its people.

Yu Huan included a brief description of “Zesan”, a vassal state of the Roman Empire, identified by some as Trebizond in modern-day Turkey and by historian John E. Hill with Azania, corresponding to the southeastern coast of Africa.

The complete translation with the translation notes by John E. Hill (September 2004) of the volume in English can be found by following this link

Below, are the most significant passages describing a peripheral part of the Roman Empire through the eyes of a third-century Chinese intellectual.

Section 11 – Da Qin (Roman territory/Rome)

The kingdom of Da Qin (Rome) is also called Lijian. It is west of Anxi (Parthia) and Tiaozhi (Characene and Susiana), and west of the Great Sea.

From the city of Angu (Gerrha), on the frontier of Anxi (Parthia), you take a boat and cut directly across to Haixi (‘West of the Sea’ = Egypt). With favourable winds it takes two months; if the winds are slow, perhaps a year; if there is no wind, perhaps three years.

The country (that you reach) is west of the sea (haixi), which is why it is called Haixi (literally: ‘West of the Sea’ = Egypt). There is a river (the Nile) flowing out of the west of this country, and then there is another great sea (the Mediterranean). The city of (Wu) Chisan (Alexandria)7 is in Haixi (Egypt).

From below this country you go north to reach the city of Wudan (Tanis?). You (then) head southwest and cross a river (the Sebannitus branch of the Nile?) by boat, which takes a day. You head southwest again, and again cross a river (the Canopis branch of the Nile?) by boat, which takes another day. There are, in all, three major cities [that you come to].

Now, if you leave the city of Angu (Gerrha) by the overland route, you go north to Haibei (‘North of the Sea’ – the lands between Babylonia and Jordan), then west to Haixi (Egypt), then turn south to go through the city of Wuchisan (Alexandria). After crossing a river, which takes a day by boat, you circle around the coast (to the region of Apollonia, the port of Cyrene). (From there, i.e. the region of Apollonia) six days is generally enough to cross the (second) great sea (the Mediterranean) to reach that country (Da Qin = Rome).

This country (the Roman Empire) has more than four hundred smaller cities and towns. It extends several thousand li in all directions. The king has his capital (that is, the city of Rome) close to the mouth of a river (the Tiber). The outer walls of the city are made of stone.

This region has pine trees, cypress, sophora, catalpa, bamboo, reeds, poplars, willows, parasol trees, and all sorts of plants. The people cultivate the five grains [traditionally: rice, glutinous and non-glutinous millet, wheat and beans], and they raise horses, mules, donkeys, camels and silkworms. (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.

The ruler of this country is not permanent. When disasters result from unusual phenomena, they unceremoniously replace him, installing a virtuous man as king, and release the old king, who does not dare show resentment.

The common people are tall and virtuous like the Chinese, but wear hu (‘Western’) clothes. They say they originally came from China, but left it.

They have always wanted to communicate with China but, Anxi (Parthia), jealous of their profits, would not allow them to pass (through to China).

The common people can write in hu (‘Western’) script. They have multi-storeyed public buildings and private; (they fly) flags, beat drums, (and travel in) small carriages with white roofs, and have a postal service with relay sheds and postal stations, like in the Middle Kingdom (China).

From Anxi (Parthia) you go around Haibei (‘North of the Sea’ – the lands between Babylonia and Jordan) to reach this country.

The people (of these countries) are connected to each other. Every 10 li (4.2 km) there is a ting (relay shed or changing place), and every 30 li (12.5 km) there is a zhi (postal station). There are no bandits or thieves, but there are fierce tigers and lions that kill those travelling on the route. If you are not in a group, you cannot get through.

This country (Rome) has installed dozens of minor kings. The king’s administrative capital (Rome) is more than 100 li (42 km) around. There is an official Department of Archives.

The king has five palaces at 10 li (4.2 km) intervals. He goes out at daybreak to one of the palaces and deals with matters until sunset and then spends the night there. The next day he goes to another palace and, in five days makes a complete tour. They have appointed thirty-six leaders who discuss events frequently. If one leader does not show up, there is no discussion. When the king goes out for a walk, he always orders a man to follow him holding a leather bag. Anyone who has something to say throws his or her petition into the bag. When he returns to the palace, he examines them and determines which are reasonable.

They use glass to make the pillars and table utensils in the palaces. They manufacture bows and arrows.

They divide the various branch principalities of their territory into small countries such as that of the king of Zesan (Azania?), the king of Lüfen (Leucos Limen), the king of Qielan (Wadi Sirhan), the king of Xiandu (Leukê Komê), the king of Sifu (Petra), (and that of) the king of Yuluo (Karak). There are so many other small kingdoms it is impossible to give details on each one.

Section 12 – Products of Da Qin (Roman territory)

This country produces fine linen. They make gold and silver coins. One gold coin is equal to ten silver coins.

They have fine brocaded cloth that is said to be made from the down of ‘water-sheep’. It is called Haixi (‘Egyptian’) cloth. This country produces the six domestic animals, which are all said to come from the water.

It is said that they not only use sheep’s wool, but also bark from trees, or the silk from wild cocoons, to make brocade, mats, pile rugs, woven cloth and curtains, all of them of good quality, and with brighter colours than those made in the countries of Haidong (“East of the Sea”).

Furthermore, they regularly make a profit by obtaining Chinese silk, unravelling it, and making fine hu (‘Western’) silk damasks. That is why this country trades with Anxi (Parthia) across the middle of the sea. The seawater is bitter and unable to be drunk, which is why it is rare for those who try to make contact to reach China.

The mountains (of this country) produce nine-coloured jewels (fluorite) of inferior quality. They change colour on different occasions from blue-green to red, yellow, white, black, green, purple, fiery red, and dark blue. Nowadays nine-coloured stones of the same type are found in the Yiwu Shan (a mountain range east of Hami).

In the third Yangjia year (CE 134), the king of Shule (Kashgar), Chen Pan [who had been made a hostage at the court of the Kushan emperor, for some period between 114 and 120, and was later placed on the throne of Kashgar by the Kushans], offered a blue (or green) gem and a golden girdle from Haixi (Egypt).

Moreover, the Xiyu Jiutu (‘Ancient Sketch of the Western Regions’) now says that both Jibin (Kapisha-Gandhāra) and Tiaozhi (Characene and Susiana) produce precious stones approaching the quality of jade.

Product List

Note: The translator has added the numbering in brackets for the convenience of the reader in checking the notes on the various items. For information on any of the items mentioned in the list, please click on the blue superscript No. 12 after “Product List” above, and then scroll down the page of notes until you come to the number you are looking for. For instance, if you want to check the notes on tin, scroll down until you reach note number 12.12 (6).

Da Qin (the Roman Empire) has plenty of:

(1) gold

(2) silver

(3) copper

(4) iron

(5) lead

(6) tin

(7) ‘divine tortoises’ – tortoises used for divination

(8) white horses with red manes

(9) fighting cocks

(10) rhinoceroses

(11) sea turtle shell

(12) black bears

(13) ‘red hornless (or immature) dragons’ (which produced the famous “dragons’ blood” resin)

(14) ‘poison-avoiding rats’ = mongooses

(15) large cowries

(16) mother-of-pearl

(17) carnelian

(18) ‘southern gold’

(19) kingfisher feathers

(20) ivory

(21) coloured veined jade

(22) ‘bright moon’ pearls

(23) luminescent ‘pearls’ or pearl-like jewels (probably large diamonds)

(24) genuine white pearls

(25) yellow amber

(26) (red) coral

(27) ten varieties of glass: red, white, black, green, yellow, blue-green, dark blue, light blue, fiery red, purple

(28) a magnificent jade

(29) white carnelian?

(30) rock crystal or transparent glass

(31) various semi-precious gems

(32) realgar

(33) orpiment

(34) nephrite

(35) multicoloured jade or gemstone

(36) ten sorts of wool rugs: yellow, white, black, green, purple, fiery red, deep red, dark blue, golden yellow, light blue and back to yellow

(37) finely patterned multicoloured wool carpets

(38) nine colours of multicoloured lower quality wool carpets (kilims rather than knotted carpets?)

(39) gold threaded embroidery

(40) polychrome (warp twill) fine silk or chiffon

(41) woven gold cloth

(42) purple chi cloth

(43) falu cloth

(44) purple chiqu cloth

(45) asbestos cloth

(46) fine silk gauze cloth

(47) shot silk, ‘clinging cloth’ or ‘cloth with swirling patterns’?

(48) dudai cloth

(49) cotton-wool cloth?

(50) multicoloured tao cloth

(51) crimson curtains woven with gold

(52) multicoloured ‘spiral curtains’?

(53) yiwei

(54) myrrh

(55) storax

(56) diti

(57) rosemary

(58) probably dhūṇa – an incense made from the resin of the Indian Sal tree.

(59) bai fuzi – lit. ‘white aconite’ – but it is not clear what plant this refers to here. See notes.

(60) frankincense

(61) turmeric, saffron or tulips

(62) rue oil

(63) Oriental lovage – Lysimachia foenum-graecum Hance

Altogether (they have) twelve types of aromatic plants.

Section 13 – The Sea Route to Da Qin (Roman territory)

As well as the overland route from Da Qin (Roman territory) through Haibei (‘North of the Sea’ – the lands between Egypt and Parthia), one can also follow the sea south along the seven commanderies of Jiaozhi (stretching down the north Vietnamese coast), which are in contact with foreign countries. Nearby (or ‘North’) is a waterway (the Red River) which leads to Yongchang in Yizhou (a commandery in present-day southern Yunnan). That’s why rare items come from Yongchang.

In early times only the maritime routes (to Da Qin) were discussed because they didn’t know there were overland routes.

Section 14 – Roman Dependencies

Now, (the Roman Empire) can be summed up as follows: the number of people and families cannot be given in detail. It is the biggest country west of the Bai Congling (‘White Pamir Mountains’). They have installed numerous minor kings so only the bigger dependencies are noted here:

Section 15 – The Kingdom of Zesan (Azania)

The king of Zesan (Azania) is subject to Da Qin (Rome). His seat of government is in the middle of the sea. To the north you reach Lüfen (Leukê Komê). It can take half a year to cross the water, but with fast winds it takes a month.

(Zesan) is in close communication with Angu city (Gerrha) in Anxi (Parthia). You can (also) travel (from Zesan) southwest to the capital of Da Qin (Rome), but the number of li is not known.

Section 16 – The Kingdom of Lüfen = Leukê Komê or modern Al Wajh

The king of Lüfen (Leukê Komê) is subject to Da Qin (Rome). It is 2,000 li (832 km) from his residence to (the nearest) major city (= Daphnae) of Da Qin (the Roman Empire).

From the city of Lüfen (Leukê Komê) going west to Da Qin (alongside the Butic Canal), you cross over the sea by an ‘elevated bridge’ 230 li (96 km) long;3 then you take the sea route southwest, travelling around the sea (coast), and then head west (to reach Da Qin).

Section 17 – The Kingdom of Qielan (Wadi Sirhan)

The king of Qielan (Wadi Sirhan) is subject to Da Qin (Rome). From the kingdom of Sitao (Istakhr, Stakhr) you go south, cross a river (the Rūd-i Kor), then head west 3,000 li (1,247 km) to go to Qielan (Wadi Sirhan). The route leaves south of the river (the Rūd-i Kor), only then do you head west.

From Qielan (Wadi Sirhan) you again travel west 600 li (250 km) to the kingdom of Sifu (Petra). The Southern Route joins (this east-west route) at Sifu (Petra). Also, (a route) goes southwest to the kingdom of Xiandu (‘Aynūnah).

Due south from Qielan (Wadi Sirhan) and Sifu (Petra) is Jishi (‘Rock Piles’). To the south of Jishi (‘Rock Piles’) there is a big sea (the Red Sea) which produces coral and pearls.

North of Qielan (Wadi Sirhan), Sifu (Petra), Sibin (Susa) and Aman (Ariana) there is a mountain range (the Taurus mountains)11 running east to west.

East of both Da Qin (Roman territories) and Haixi (= Egypt) there is a mountain range (the Jibāl ash Sharāh Range or Mount Seir) running north to south.

Section 18 – The Kingdom of Xiandu (‘Aynūnah = Leukos Limên)

The king of Xiandu (‘Aynūnah = Leukos Limên) is subject to Da Qin (Rome). From his residence it is 600 li (250 km) northeast to Sifu (Petra).

Section 19 – The Kingdom of Sifu (Petra)

The king of Sifu (Petra) is subject to Da Qin (Rome). From his residence northeast to Yuluo (Karak), you go 340 li (141 km), and cross over a sea (mistake for ‘river’ = the Wadi al-Ḥesa).

Section 20 – The Kingdom of Yuluo (Karak)

Yuluo (Karak) is subject to of Da Qin (Rome). The seat of government is northeast of Sifu (Petra) across a river (the Wadi al-Ḥesa). From Yuluo (Karak) you go northeast, and again cross over a river (River Arnon).

Featured image: Great Hunt mosaic depicts the capture and transportation of animals, Villa del Casale
Sources: Wikipedia 1, 2

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