Both Roman centurions and Japanese samurai are iconic stereotypes of fierce, historical warriors. Is it possible that these two soldiers could have ever met? Did the Roman Empire even know about the existence of Japan?
The Romans didn’t know about Japan. Most Europeans didn’t learn about Japan until the 14th century after the publication of Marco Polo’s travelog. The Roman Empire fell almost a thousand years prior, around 400 A.D.
The Romans did have some knowledge about Asia, but not about Japan. This article will take a closer look at the Romans’ relations with different Asian people groups. It will also explore the Romans’ relationship with the East and the Western world and how they eventually came to learn about Japan.
Also see Did the Romans Have Corn? to learn more.
Did the Romans Go to Japan?
In the mid-2010s, archeologists discovered ancient Roman coins in the ruins of a Japanese castle.  These coins date back to the 4th century, while the castle was built about a thousand years later and abandoned in 1700. The coins do, however, raise the question of whether the Romans ever traveled as far as Japan.
As far as historians can tell, the Romans never went to Japan. The Roman coins probably got to the castle through Japan’s trade with China or other Asian countries. The Roman coins might have belonged to someone’s personal collection of coins. They’re not proof that the Romans set foot in Japan.
The Roman coins weren’t the only coins at the archeological site. There were also some Ottoman coins from the 1600s. It’s far more likely that the coins were part of someone’s collection or used as currency by a trader from China. Aside from this currency, there’s no archeological evidence anywhere in Japan to support the Romans traveling there.
Also see Did the Romans Have Iron? to learn more.
What Asian People Groups Did the Romans Know About?
The Roman Empire included a territory called “Asia.” However, the Romans knew very little about the people currently thought of as Asians. The Roman province of Asia is now the southwest part of Turkey. Though Eastern Turkey is part of the Asian continent, the area the Romans called “Asia” is part of modern Europe.
The Romans knew about the Chinese, Indians, and Middle Easterners. All three of these people groups engaged in trade with the Roman Empire. The Romans typically traded wool, gold, and silver in exchange for luxury goods, such as spices and textiles.
The Romans knew about China because of its silk. The trade route between the Romans and China is known as the “Silk Road” due to the high volume of silk exported along it. The Romans themselves rarely traveled as far as China for silk, though. Silk was bought and sold multiple times along the Silk Road, traveling little by little until it reached the Roman Empire.
The Romans traded with India for:
- Exotic animals
- Several fruits
The animals, including rhinoceroses and elephants, were used for circus shows. Trade with the Middle East arrived along the Incense Route, named for the large amounts of frankincense and myrrh imported to Rome along it.  The Romans also traded with the Middle East for textiles, spices, and precious stones.
Also see Did the Romans Have Steel Swords? to learn more.
How Far East Did the Roman Empire Explore?
The Romans may not have explored as far as Japan, but they did travel to some parts of Asia. Roman trade routes led to China, India, the Middle East, and other regions in West Asia. Though the Roman Empire mainly consisted of European countries, the Romans knew and traded with several Asia countries.
The Roman Empire extended to “Asia” in the east, consisting of modern-day Western Turkey. They also conquered or explored parts of the Middle East, and they had significant trade with India and China.
Many countries in the Middle East and West Asia were part of the Roman Empire, or at least areas of them were. The eastern side of the Roman Empire consisted of the region the Romans called “Asia,” or parts of modern-day Turkey. The Roman Empire also included Armenia, Iran, Syria, and Israel, among other countries.
The Romans’ trade routes extended through much of continental Asia. According to the Metropolitan Museum, trade routes from the Greco-Roman city of Antioch led to Ecbatana, an ancient Iranian city, Mongolia, and Bactria, a region in Asia that covers modern-day Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. Sea routes brought trade from the Middle East, including the city of Petra in Jordan.
Also see Did the Romans Know About China? to learn more.
When Did the Mediterranean World Know About Japan?
Japan was a fairly reclusive nation for much of its history, due in large part to being an island. Japan also had a long period of isolationism from the 17th to the mid-19th centuries. Even though some Europeans knew about Japan before this isolationist period, few Westerners traveled to Japan until the 1800s.
The Mediterranean and the rest of Western Europe learned about the existence of Japan around the 14th century after Marco Polo’s journeys were publicized. However, very few Europeans traveled to Japan until several centuries later.
Marco Polo traveled all around the world, including to China, India, Iran, Afghanistan, and several oceanic countries in southeast Asia. He wrote about his travels in Il Milione, or The Travels of Marco Polo, which was published in 1300.  Through this book, people throughout Italy and beyond learned about many unfamiliar Asian countries, including Japan.
Marco Polo didn’t actually travel to Japan, though. Instead, the explorer’s digressions about Japan are based on stories from people he met during his travels, not his personal experiences. His travels took him almost as far east as Japan, but he wasn’t far enough north to visit the island nation.
Europeans didn’t set foot in Japan until the mid-1500s, when some men from Portugal traveled to the island. Several Portuguese and Spanish missionaries traveled to Japan during the 16th century, spreading Christianity and making Japan more widely known to the European public.
The Romans didn’t know about Japan, but they were aware of several other Asian countries. Europe only learned about Japan sometime in the 14th century.