The ancient Romans were well-known for their immense knowledge and influence in the western world. But did they ever come into contact with or have knowledge of the distant lands of China?
It is believed that the Romans had limited knowledge about China. In this article, we’ll explore the evidence to answer whether or not the Romans had any significant knowledge or contact with China.
Let’s get started.
Table of Contents
Did the Romans Know About China?
The answer to this question is complex and requires looking at the history of both Ancient Rome and ancient China. Generally speaking, it is thought that the Romans were aware of China’s existence but had limited knowledge about its geography, culture, and people.
One of these traders, Zhang Qian, journeyed to Central Asia in 139 BCE and encountered representatives from several Greek-speaking kingdoms that were part of the Roman Empire. It is likely that some of this information was passed back to Rome, giving them at least a basic knowledge of the existence of China.
However, there is no direct evidence that any Roman citizen ever physically traveled to China during antiquity.
This means that their knowledge about the country was likely limited and would have been based on hearsay or second-hand accounts. It is also possible that some Chinese goods made their way to Rome through the Silk Road trade route, providing a further source of information.
Ultimately, it is clear that the Romans were aware of China’s existence and had some knowledge about its geography and culture, but their understanding was likely limited by their lack of direct contact with the country. It is only in modern times that we have been able to gain a more comprehensive understanding of China and its history. (1)
Were the Romans Connected With China?
It has been suggested that the Roman Empire may have acquired some knowledge of Chinese culture through trade and exploration.
For example, there is evidence to suggest that Chinese silk was imported into Rome as early as the 2nd century BC. Some historians believe that the Romans might have encountered traders from China during their travels in Asia Minor.
However, there is no concrete evidence that any direct contact was ever made between Rome and China. In fact, it was not until after the fall of the Roman Empire in 476 AD that trade between the Chinese and Europeans began to increase significantly. (2)
The earliest recorded contact made between China and Europe was in 1276 AD when Italian merchants arrived in Beijing.
Furthermore, there is no evidence that any Roman accounts or writings mention anything about China, suggesting that they didn’t know of its existence or had no knowledge of its culture.
Therefore, it is highly unlikely that the Romans had any knowledge of China during their time. It was only after the fall of their empire that contact between Europe and China began to increase, leading to a greater understanding of each other’s cultures.
Romans and Silk
Despite the lack of direct contact between Rome and China, there is evidence to suggest that some knowledge of Chinese culture was acquired through trade. In particular, it appears that Roman merchants were familiar with Chinese silk, as evidenced by its presence in Roman artwork and literature.
For example, the Roman poet Ovid mentions a fabric called ‘ses’ in his poem Ars Amatoria.
This fabric is thought to be Chinese silk, which was imported into Rome through trade with the East. In addition, a fresco from the Roman town of Ostia Antica depicts a woman wearing a garment made of Chinese silk. (3)
It appears that Romans were aware of and familiar with Chinese silk, but it is unlikely that they had any knowledge of where it originated from. It was only after the fall of the Roman Empire that contact between Europe and China increased, allowing for a greater understanding of each other’s cultures.
Overall, while there may have been some awareness of Chinese culture in Rome, direct contact between the two civilizations never occurred during antiquity. It was only in modern times that we have been able to gain a comprehensive understanding of China and its history.
Did the Ancient Chinese and Romans Ever Actually Meet?
Here are a few examples of direct contact between the Romans and China:
- In the year 166 A.D, Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius despatched an embassy to China from the Persian Gulf to make initial contact with the Chinese people.
- The travels of the Chinese Buddhist monk, Faxian, to Rome in 400CE gave Romans some knowledge about China.
- In 166 CE, a Roman embassy was sent to China by the Han Dynasty, and records of their visit have been preserved in Chinese history books.
- In 36 CE, Emperor Tiberius sent a large Roman expeditionary force to explore the world, which may have reached as far east as China.
- Trade between Rome and China took place via the Silk Road, whereby items such as silk and spices were exchanged for precious metals and gems.
- Roman coins have been found in archaeological sites in China, indicating there was some level of economic exchange between the two civilizations.
- Roman traders are thought to have reached as far east as Korea, and it is possible that they traveled further east into China.
- There were also reports of white-haired people from the west who may have been Romans, though this has never been confirmed.
- Roman writers such as Pliny the Elder and Ptolemy wrote about China, though they were basing their knowledge on second-hand accounts.
Though the article’s main objective was to figure out if Romans knew about China, it delved into so much more. The importance of cross-cultural interaction and trade can not be understated.
Through examining objects like the silk trade, we get a glimpse into ancient civilizations and how interconnected the two empires were. Who knows what other secrets lie waiting to be discovered?
Thanks for reading!