Liqian: The Chinese town founded by Roman legionnaires

Liqian town founded by Roman legionnairesCreative Commons License Liqian Ancient City, Yongchang, Gansu by J-in-uk

Three months ago, I started to learn a bit more about China’s ancient history as a part of writing the article on travelling to the Henan Province, as I sometimes do. At one point, I started to branch out and ended up reading articles about other things: first of all on the Silk Road, and from there, Sino-Roman relations and in the end, I ended up finding a curious article on a lost little town called Liqian.

Today’s article discusses this little town, where history is mixed with legends as well as political and economical interests, something which happens all the time in the middle kingdom.

What is Liqian?

Liqian (骊靬), currently known as Zhelaizhai (者來寨), is a small rural town in the Gansu province on the edge of the Gobi Desert. Liqian is located at more than 300 km from Lanzhou, the capital, and more than 60 km from the closest city, which is called Jinchang (金昌市).

This lost town in western China became famous thanks to a theory formulated in the ’40s by the Chinese history professor at the University of Oxford, Homer H. Dubs, who attributed a Roman origin to it.

Roman origin theory

Before explaining Professor Dubs’ theory/story, I would like to briefly present its main actors:

The Romans: I don’t think they need to be presented.

The Chinese: of the Han dynasty: Do I need to say anything more?

The Parthians: Also known as the ancient Persians, they formed a powerful empire that bordered on the Roman Empire and Han China, and because of this, controlled the Silk Road.

The Xiongnu: A confederation of nomadic tribes known in the west as the Huns, which extended across all of northern China including Mongolia, Manchuria, the south of Siberia and part of the Chinese provinces of Xinjiang and Gansu.

This is how the story goes (my version):

Around the year 58 B.C. the richest man in Rome, Marcus Licinius Crassus, who formed part of the Roman triumvirate with the no less illustrious Gaius Julius Caesar and Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus, decided to start a war, without the authorization of the senate, against the annoying Parthians who were making a killing on the trade on the Silk Road. In other words, Crassus wanted to kill the intermediary.

Crassus launched a powerful army of around 50,000 men towards Mesopotamia. What Crassus didn’t expect was that the Parthians had an army of horseback archers which was very effective against the Roman legions. The result of the war was a massacre and one of the most humiliating defeats of Rome. The Parthians killed 20,000 Roman soldiers, including Crassus and his son, and captured 10,000 more in what is called the Battle of Carrhae.

The destiny of the 10,000 legionnaires who were taken prisoner remains a mystery, and because of this, they are called the Lost Legion. Nonetheless, it is believed that they were sent to protect the eastern border of the Parthian Empire (in what is now Turkmenistan).

The Lost Legion, which had been enslaved and forced to protect a border that was very far from home, had the luck to be captured once again by the Xiongnu who disputed the region with the Parthians and were enlisted into the ranks of the powerful Hun army.

This is how, according to Dubs, the Lost Legion reappeared twenty years later (in the year 36 B.C.) in the Battle of Zhizhi between the Chinese and the Xiongnu in what is now the Gansu province. Chinese chronicles talk of the capture of strange soldiers, long-time veterans who fought perfectly organized into a “fish-scale formation” which Dubs thinks is a reference to the testudo (or tortoise) formation typical of Roman legions. The foreign soldiers captured by the Chinese were deported and settled in someplace near the current town of Liqian.

This is how the poor legionnaires, after being beaten and captured by the Parthians, relocated to the other end of the world, recaptured and recruited by the Xiongnu and captured for the third time by the Chinese, decided to dedicate themselves to something else and founded the town of Liqian.

Lost legionCreative Commons License Silk Road #7 by Jonathan Kos-Read

What the theory is based on

Dubs’ theory is based on, aside from both Chinese and Roman chronicles, the particular physiognomy of some of the inhabitants of this small town (like the person in the photo), who at times present Caucasian characteristics such as green eyes, pointed noses, raised superciliary arches or blonde hair (you can do a Google search for “Liqian people” to see more examples). In addition, Dubs believed that the name “Liqian” could be the transliteration in Chinese of “legio” (legion). Liqian was precisely the name that the Chinese used in this era to designate the unknown Romans who bought many of their luxury products.

In addition, Chinese archeologists tried to back up Dubs’ theory, after finding around one hundred skeletons, some of which had heights greater than 1.80 which dated to over 2,000 years ago.

Is the theory true?

Many recent studies have been dedicated to trying to demonstrate that this theory is false. In fact, recent genetic studies seem to rule out the hypothesis of a Roman origin.

Furthermore, it is not strange that Caucasian characteristics appear in the population in this region, as the Silk Road favored interracial marriages, but even more important is the fact that the original population of the region (much older than the Romans and the Han dynasty), is known to have been nomads with Caucasian characteristics, as indicated by the Tarim Mummies. The fact that no objects of Roman origin have been found to date also detracts from the legitimacy of the theory.

Personally, I think that it is an elegant theory which has given the inhabitants of Liqian something to be proud of;  take a look at these photos. Apart from this, it has created an economic development in the area, attracting some lost tourists. Therefore, where’s the harm in declaring Liqian the town founded by the Roman Lost Legion?

Do you want to know more?

Besides the links you can find in the article, you might be interested in reading the historical novel Empire of Dragons written by the Italian author Valerio Massimo Manfredi which is inspired by these hypothetical historical facts.

In addition, the author Ben Kane, in the second part of his trilogy The Forgotten Legion called The Silver Eagle, makes references to these poor legionnaires lost in China.

That’s all for today! I hope you liked this story!

18 thoughts on “Liqian: The Chinese town founded by Roman legionnaires”

  1. My old lecturer in Chinese politics told me forty years ago that Chinese manuscripts refer to their encounter with Roman troops in Testudo formation, which they polished off with crossbows. I’ve also seen a compelling documentary on the impact which Roman sculpture exerted on Chinese statues during this period. I think Dean above rather over eggs the case for scepticism concerning Ligian. Speculation only persists in a vacume and the truth may yet be established one way or another.

    1. Very interesting and compelling write up. Trojan war and Troy was a Myth till the city was found. Quite possibly more research in future will solve the mystry of this town too.

  2. when talking about the Roman armies or legions to be precises, one should take note that not all the soldiers are of Roman origin. There have been many cases where Rome would incorporated foreigners or those that lived under Roman rule to join the ranks in the Roman armies. This also take into logic the vast territories the Roman had conquered what less to guard them from enemies to retake. So to say that just because their Romans they got to be blonde or had Caucasian appearances would be a false assumption.

    Just take the example of the Roman armies that took part in the siege then destroy Jerusalem in ancient time, where made of conscripts of neighboring nations such as the Assyrians and the Persians. This are all recorded by the Roman historian Titus Flavius Josephus.

  3. I learned a great deal here. Thanks to all. There seems to be plausible evidence for a Roman origin and the information in one of the responses was quite helpful in lending archeological support to that postulate.
    It isn’t often there is such a productive chat after a “light” article. I enjoyed the debate and it spurred some thoughts about politics and its effect on the interpretation of data, history, and culture.
    Thank you, everyone.

  4. “Where’s the harm in declaring Liqian the town founded by the Roman Lost Legion?”

    The harm is in the obfuscation and destruction of real history, in the promotion of a mindset that marginalizes careful evidence-based analysis and evaluation of a theory in favor of whatever sensational claim is trending at the time, or that the hearer would prefer to believe.

    The ultimate conclusion of this kind of thinking is that no theory is better than any other; that anything at all might be true, and can be believed; and that any “experts” who disagree are just authoritarians trying to force you into believing what they tell you, for their own selfish reasons.

    In other words, fantasy and paranoia in equal mixture, with no anchor to any kind of objective truth, and indeed a non-to-firm grasp on the entire notion of “truth” in general.

    If that sounds overly harsh, one only has to spend a little while browsing YouTube to see just how commonplace this kind of mindset has become since the internet gave every random loon with a crazy theory a soapbox to proclaim it from.

    Meanwhile, those of us who care about *actual* facts want to know that whenever we’re taught that such-and-such happened in the past, it’s very likely to be correct because trained historians, archaeologists, scientists, and other genuine experts have painstaking collected all relevant evidence, sifted and analyzed it, matched it against all competing theories, and formed a most-likely conclusion on that basis.

    We can’t ever be sure that everything we think we know is true, but we nonetheless owe it to ourselves and to future generations to defend with alacrity the vital conception that there *is* real truth out there to be found, but it can be approached only through hard work and careful, skeptical analysis. It might not be as interesting, comfortable, or sensational as what we’d prefer to hear. But in the long run, being confident that it’s *TRUE* is far more rewarding and important.

    1. Wow Dean, you have a point but I think you just stamped on the love of history and the awe that goes with it in this thread.
      How objective is the well tendancy for the victors have written the history of the world – how objective is that…!
      Lastly if you know so much about history then tell us with your carefully factually researched methodologies, who killed the two Princes in the Tower and why….?

  5. In 1993, Chinese archaeologists found the remains of a Roman style castrum (fortress) outside of Liqian (Li-Jien) village in Yongchang county in the Chinese province of Gansu. Chinese people don’t build Roman style fortresses, unless Roman soldiers direct them to, because building Roman style fortresses isn’t part of Chinese culture but it is part of Roman culture to build Roman style fortresses. Also, the Li-Jien villagers practice aspects of ancient Roman culture to this day, such as bull worship and what appears to be bull fighting, like in Spain and the Spanish Latin American countries. Ancient Roman culture doesn’t get to China by chance because it isn’t part of Chinese culture to practice Roman culture, unless Romans made it to China in the first place. In my opinion, the “debate” is over the fact that the Chinese want to portray themselves as a pure race because they don’t like Westerners to this day and also because they don’t want to admit and accept that Western Europeans got into the Chinese gene pool over 2,000 years ago. In my opinion, as far as the scholars outside of China go, they only go by their historical construct they learned while in college and can’t admit they might be wrong because they would lose money, endorsements, and also because they are arrogantly egotistical and don’t want to be humiliated, and finally, they only look at the map and say it is impossible because of their disbelief.

    1. Hi Jeffrey, this topic is controversial and I am not expert enough to tell you which theory is more plausible or less. It is true that Chinese archaeology is commonly too much influenced by political interest. Anyway, could you please give some references about what you expose?

    2. If Liqian was really found by the Romans, with logic used by Chinese nowadays, shouldn’t the Chinese give it back to Italy? Just curious.

  6. I’m fairly certain the Triumvirate was formed ion 58 BC NOT 58 AD. It’s also widely held that the Battle of Carrhae was in 53 BC.

    1. You’re right, thank you, we’ll fix the typo. The mistake was due to translation. Dates are correct in the original version of the article, which was written in Spanish : )

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