Did the Romans Know About China?


Despite their lack of modern means of transportation, the Romans traveled to and even conquered much of the world. They eventually made it all the way to Asia, but did they know about China specifically, and did they ever visit there?

The Romans knew about China, which they referred to as either Serica or Sinae. (They called the Chinese people “Seres.”) They knew about the Asian country through trading on the Silk Road. The two empires likely had very little direct contact with one another, however.

This article will further explore the connection between Rome and China, including when the two empires met, what each knew about the other, and their overall relations. Those interested in learning more about the ancient world will likely find it pretty interesting.

Also see Did the Romans Declare War on Neptune? to learn more.

China map
When did the Romans meet the Chinese people? See below

When Did the Romans Meet the Chinese People?

The Romans first met the Chinese in 166 A.D., when Emperor Marcus Aurelius sent an envoy to China from the Persian Gulf. Individual citizens – primarily traders and nomads – may have come in contact with the Chinese before this time, but 166 was the first documented meeting between the two.

Other rulers had attempted meetings between the two cultures before, but none had been successful. For example, in 97 A.D., a general of the Han dynasty, Pan (sometimes called Ban) Chao, decided the Chinese should visit Rome. [1]

The envoy traveled a long way, but they turned back once they learned that making it to Rome would take another few years. As far as scholars know, this was China’s first attempt to reach the Roman Empire.

Furthermore, even though he never made it to Rome, General Pan Chao returned to China, telling stories about the wealthy Roman Empire. Although it’s unclear what he reported back to China or how much of it was true, it certainly heightened interest in the Romans and likely accounts for the increased trade between the two nations. 

It would still be several decades before anyone from the nations actually met, though.
There was one Roman historian named Florus who insisted that the Chinese sent an ambassador to visit Emperor Augustus sometime before the year 14 A.D., but neither scholars nor historians have proven this to be true. [2]

Also see Did the Romans Have Pasta? to learn more.

old Chinese map
What did Rome and China know about each other? See below

What Did Rome and China Know About Each Other?

The Romans and Chinese knew little about one another other than the trade goods each side brought to the other. They also had a general idea of where each empire was geographically in relation to the other.

The Romans knew the Chinese – or Seres – were famous for their silk production. In fact, one of their names for China, “Serica,” meant “the land of silk.” Most of the indirect contact between China and Rome came through trade on the Silk Road, so it makes sense that that’s what the Romans knew about Chinese people. 

The Romans’ other name for China was “Sinae,” which meant “the land of Sin/Qin.” This name shows that the Romans also had some knowledge of the first ruling dynasty of China, the Qin dynasty. 

However, the two cultures had little, conceivably no, direct contact with one another until 166 A.D., and the subsequent contact didn’t happen until more than 50 years later, so they didn’t know much about each other. Mostly, their interactions were limited strictly to traded goods, which included the following:

  • Silk from China
  • Glassware from Rome
  • Silverware from Rome
  • Glass beads from Rome
  • Cloth from both

There is also evidence to suggest that the Chinese accepted Roman coins as currency. [3] It’s possible that Roman traders met Chinese traders on these expeditions along the Silk Road, but it’s unlikely. 

The more probable scenario has the two nations trading with the Parthians and Kushans. Then, the Parthians and Kushans traded with the other nation. (i.e., The Kushans purchased or bartered for Roman glassware. Then, they brought that glassware to the Chinese and gave it in exchange for silk, which they then took back and traded to the Romans for coin, more glass, or something else.)

The Romans probably realized that China was a powerful, advanced nation, and the Chinese likely felt the same way about the Romans. However, both empires were so far away from the other that neither of them felt threatened enough to try to do anything about or put any safeguards in place against the other.

Also see Did the Romans Have a Flag? to learn more.

Roman Empire map
Did Rome and China get along? See below

Did Rome and China Get Along?

Rome and China got along fine because neither had much direct contact with the other. They got along the way people in California get along with people in New York. Both sides knew the other was there and that they were a powerful nation, but they were too far apart to worry about a conflict.

Indirect trade between China and Rome remained strong until the Roman Empire began to collapse, and the few meetings between Roman and Chinese dignitaries were peaceable. 

As J. Thorley notes in The Silk Trade between China and the Roman Empire at Its Height, ‘Circa’ A. D. 90-130, “For a period of about forty years in the late first and early second century A.D. the silk route was almost consistently peaceful along the whole of its length from North China to Rome, and conditions for trade were altogether more favorable than they ever had been before.” [4]

Interestingly though, scholars believe that the Silk Road eventually played a small part in the downfall of Rome. But that wasn’t because of any ill will or strategic planning by the Chinese. Instead, travelers along the Silk Road brought new diseases to Rome that killed thousands of people. 

Additionally, the Romans’ love of silk drove them to pay exorbitant prices for it to their detriment. While neither of these issues would have been enough to cause the downfall of ancient Rome on their own, when combined with other, much more significant factors, they helped bring about the end of the wealthy and powerful Roman Empire.

Conclusion

The Romans knew about China and vice versa. However, there was minimal direct contact between the two empires during most of their relationship.

Also see Did the Romans Like Julius Caesar? to learn more.

References:
[1] Source
[2] Source
[3] Source
[4] Source

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