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Ancient Rome & China: Five Examples of their Relationship Posted by on Feb 26, 2015 in Roman culture

In honor of Chinese New Year or Lunar New Year (February 19th), I wanted to write a post on the relations between Ancient Rome and China. I did not want to examine the minute details for the expert scholar, but rather provide a survey or summary of my research for anyone that was curious about the two empires and their communication.

CHINA AND ROME

In classical sources, the problem of identifying references to ancient China is tied to the interpretation of the Latin term “Seres,” whose meaning could refer to a number of Asian people in a wide arc from India over Central Asia to China. In Chinese records, the Roman Empire came to be known as “Da Qin”, Great Qin, apparently thought to be a sort of counter-China at the other end of the world. For ancient China, the Roman Empire would have been a great ally in trade and commerce, but at the same time would be a difficult acceptance due to Chinese mythological notions about the far west.

The trade relations between Rome and the East, including China, according to the 1st century BC navigation guide Periplus of the Erythraean Sea. Courtesy of George Tsiagalakis / CC-BY-SA-4 licence

The trade relations between Rome and the East, including China, according to the 1st century BC navigation guide Periplus of the Erythraean Sea. Courtesy of George Tsiagalakis / CC-BY-SA-4 licence

1. SILKS

Maenad in silk dress, Naples National Museum.. Courtesy of Wikicommons.

Maenad in silk dress, Naples National Museum.. Courtesy of Wikicommons.

Trade with the Roman Empire, confirmed by the Roman craze for silk, started in the 1st century BCE.

Pliny the Elder wrote about the large value of the trade between Rome and Eastern countries:

“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.”

—Pliny the Elder, Natural History 12.84.
2. ASTRONOMY
    Caesar’s Comet also known as Comet Caesar and the Great Comet of 44 BC was perhaps the most famous comet of antiquity. The seven-day visitation in July was taken by Romans as a sign of the deification of the recently dead dictator, Julius Caesar (100–44 BC).
Coin minted by Augustus (c. 19–18 BC); Obverse: CAESAR AVGVSTVS, laureate head right/Reverse: DIVVS IVLIV[S], with comet (star) of eight rays, tail upward. Courtesy of Classical Numismatic Group, Inc. and Wikicommons

Coin minted by Augustus (c. 19–18 BC); Obverse: CAESAR AVGVSTVS, laureate head right/Reverse: DIVVS IVLIV[S], with comet (star) of eight rays, tail upward. Courtesy of Classical Numismatic Group, Inc. and Wikicommons

    In China, the comet was also seen but a few months before. Both civilizations took the comet as a sign or omen to mean something more (as were most astronomical events). However for historians and scientists alike, the comet’s recording was done more mathematical and was more heavily written on in China than in Rome. You can read more on this here.
3. DIPLOMATS & ENVOYS
The Roman historian Florus describes the visit of numerous envoys including the “Seres” to the Roman Emperor Augustus:

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.

A later “Seres” envoy by the name of Gan Ying gave an account of what he thought of the small part of empire he saw:
The Chinese impression of the Daqin people, from the Ming Dynasty encyclopedia Sancai Tuhui. Courtesy of Wikicommons. [Daqin was the Chinese word for Roman Empire.]

The Chinese impression of the Daqin people, from the Ming Dynasty encyclopedia Sancai Tuhui. Courtesy of Wikicommons. [Daqin was the Chinese word for Roman Empire.]

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.4.
5. GLASS TRADE
Roman glass from the 2nd century CE. Courtesy of Wikicommons.

Roman glass from the 2nd century CE. Courtesy of Wikicommons.

High-quality glass from Roman manufactures in Alexandria and Syria was exported to many parts of Asia, including Han China. Further Roman luxury items which were greatly esteemed by the Chinese were gold-embroidered rugs and gold-coloured cloth
Lastly, although it does not relate to China- I found it rather interesting. “A glass dish unearthed from a burial mound here is the first of its kind confirmed to have come to Japan from the Roman Empire.” Can you even imagine the trade route and years it took for that glass dish to make from the Roman Empire to Japan?!? You can read the entire article here.
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About the Author: Brittany Britanniae

Hello There! Please feel free to ask me anything about Latin Grammar, Syntax, or the Ancient World.