The Roman Empire and the Han Dynasty (206 BC. BC. Bis220 n. Chr.) were on the rise and largest display of power and expansion approximately at the same period. The most western and eastern great powers of the Eurasian continent knew each other about their existence, although the mutual ideas rather blurred and often were almost mystical nature.

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In China, the Roman Empire as “Daqin” (Great Qin) was known and seen as a kind of counter-China at the other end of the world. In Rome China was designated as “Seres”, but this turns out to be ambiguous, since the Latin name “Seres” can relate a number of Asian nations (India, Central Asia and China). Only around 150 AD on the world map of Ptolemy (* 100, † after 160) “Sina” (China) can be seen at the extreme right, beyond the island of “Taprobane” (Sri Lanka) and the “Aurea Chersonesus” (Southeast Asian peninsula).

In 97 AD Ban Chao crossed with an army of 70,000 men in a campaign against the Xiongnu that attacked the trade route, which is now known as the Silk Road, the Tianshan and the Pamirs. The westernmost point he reached, was the former Greek polis Antioch Margiana (Merv), close to the Parthian Empire. From here he sent allegedly an envoy named Gan Ying to Daqin (Rome). He reached Mesopotamia and wanted to sail through the Black Sea to Rome. Although only about 2 months from Rome and 2 days away from Roman territory, he was held by the onward journey by savvy Parthian merchants who claimed that Rome was still two years away to travel. Discouraged Gan Ying broke from his trip and returned 98 AD back home. However, he left a detailed report:

“Its territory extends for several thousands of li [a li during the Han equaled 415.8 metres]. They have established postal relays at intervals, which are all plastered and whitewashed. There are pines and cypresses, as well as trees and plants of all kinds. It has more than four hundred walled towns. There are several tens of smaller dependent kingdoms. The walls of the towns are made of stone. Their kings are not permanent. They select and appoint the most worthy man. If there are unexpected calamities in the kingdom, such as frequent extraordinary winds or rains, he is unceremoniously rejected and replaced. The one who has been dismissed quietly accepts his demotion, and is not angry. The people of this country are honest. They resemble the Chinese, and that is why the country is called Da Qin (The “Great” Qin) … The soil produced lots of gold, silver, and rare jewels, including the jewel which shines at night … they sew embroidered tissues with gold threads to form tapestries and damask of many colours, and make a gold-painted cloth, and a “cloth washed-in-the-fire” (asbestos).” (Hou Hanshu)

While Chinese notations report of several alleged official Roman legations nothing can be found in Roman sources of official diplomatic missions to China. It seems more likely that these “ambassadors” were enterprising (maybe even Syrian?) traders who hoped of a higher profit while being Lordly Emissary of Rome.

On the other hand, the Roman historian Florus reported from visits of numerous embassies, including Serer (perhaps Chinese ?, see also the possibility of misinterpretation of the term “Serer” above) during the reign of the first Roman emperor Augustus ( 27 BC to 14 AD):

“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, Epitomae II, 34)

Reliable mutual knowledge of both – now divided – empires can be detected only in late antiquity. Byzantine sources called the northern Chinese kingdom of the Wei Dynasty (emerged from the nomadic tribe of Tabgatsch) “Taugast”. Byzantium with its capital Constantinople appear on the Nestorian Stele of Xi’an as “Fulin”, while the main sasanian residence Ctesiphon is now called Daqin.

Although there was never official contacts between the two empires, since the 1st century AD already existed indirect trade relations. Chinese silk was as much sought after as expensive in Rome and was, much to the chagrin moral zealous Roman senators and writers, worn by women who could afford it, on the streets of Rome. Pliny the elder complained about the high cost of the silk imports:

“By the lowest reckoning, India, Seres and the Arabian peninsula take from our Empire 100 millions of sesterces every year: that is how much our luxuries and women cost us.“ (Plinius der Ältere, Naturalis Historia XII, 84)

The Roman Senate adopted (albeit with little success) several edicts to prohibit the wearing of silk from the above-mentioned economic and moral reasons. Silk dresses were viewed as decadent and immoral:

“I can see clothes of silk, if materials that do not hide the body, nor even one’s decency, can be called clothes … Wretched flocks of maids labour so that the adulteress may be visible through her thin dress, so that her husband has no more acquaintance than any outsider or foreigner with his wife’s body.” (Seneca, de beneficiis 7, 9)

Similarly to Seneca the contemporary Petronius let his newly rich Trimalchio describe the new Silk Fashion:

“Rome’s Castle bursts in wide maw of luxury. […] Is it respectable for a wife to wear a touch of dress, a cheaper whores type green-lacewing-costume?” (Petronius, Satyricon 55, 6)[9]

and:

“The all familiar pleasures provoked no longer […] one vied in the earth shaft for the sought of shimmering treasures and purple snails in the sea. Marble came from Numidia here, there silk from China […].” (Petronius, Satyricon 119, 7f. u. 10f.)

In China, imports from the Roman eastern provinces were highly valued as a luxury item.
High quality glass from Roman factories in Alexandria and Syria has been exported to many places in Asia, including to Han China. More Roman luxuries that were highly valued by Chinese customers, were gold embroidered carpets and gold-colored fabrics, asbestos fabrics and fine linen, a fabric of the silky hair of certain mussels living in the Mediterranean Sea.

Probably in the 1st century AD a shipping route opened from the Roman-controlled ports in Egypt and Nabataea on the northeast coast of the Red Sea via ports on the coasts of India and Sri Lanka to the Chinese-controlled Jiaozhi (in today’s Vietnam, near Hanoi). In the former coastal town Oc Eo in the Mekong Delta hundreds of Roman coins were discovered in the 1940s. Oc Eo could also be identical to the harbor “Kattigara” mentioned by Claudius Ptolemy.

These indirect contacts between Rome and Han China are hard to imagine without the mediating role of the steppe dwellers. It is not surprising that both, Chinese and Roman luxuries, were found throughout the steppes between Rome and China and were widespread and with a lot of stopover found their ways into the respective empires. So many peoples and regions also benefited of the steppe belt, which acted as a middleman, from indirect Roman Chinese business contacts and therefore it is not surprising that the Parthian traders had no interest in direct contacts between the great powers and sent Gan Ying (see above) home.

The steppe belt, which extends from northwest China to the Hungarian plain over more than 6,000 km, is characterized by a more or less uniform scenic situation without appreciable geographical barriers. So an exchange of people and ideas was already existed in the late Neolithic period and the beginning of the Bronze Age on the east-west routes (which was to become the Silk Road later), in both directions. Finds of more than 3,000 year old mummies with Caucasians facial features in the desert sands of the Taklamakan in western China attest this in an impressive manner.

So today it is suspected by some researchers that the mass migration (Völkerwanderung) caused by the movements of European nations and the invasion of the Huns, found their offense finally in the aggressive expansion policy of the Han Dynasty and the expulsion of the nomadic tribes (Xiongnu, Yuezhi and other) in the west and northwest China. In the forced migration of these tribes to the west more people were displaced or swept to ultimately emerge at the gates of the Roman Empire as a multiethnic blend of Huns and initiate its incipient end. Whether the Xiongnu can be equated with the Huns (notice the onomatopoeic similarity), can not be proven by the current state of research.