Daqin: The Roman Empire in the Ancient Chinese Sources

Through a careful examination of the accounts of Daqin (大秦) – presumably the Roman Empire – and Fulin (拂菻) – Byzantinum –, we can depict a picture of how the Chinese imagined another ancient empire far away in the West.

The Chinese annals not only give information on and the interpretation of the name of that mysterious country but also add details about its geography, administration, economy – including agriculture, domesticated animals and products –, trade and the envoys sent by Daqin (大秦) people. Such a description could be remarkable on its own but the accounts also emphasise the similarities between the two great empires that might have originated in their same cultural level.


Five classical Chinese sources, namely the Hou Han shu (後漢書), the Wei lüe (魏略), the Jin shu (晉書), the Wei shu (魏書), and the Song shu (宋書), provide us more or less information about the Roman Empire. As compared to the description of Daqin (大秦), probably the Roman Empire in the Chinese records, with the Roman auctors’ descriptions of the Eastern part of the Empire, we can discover a large number of similarities.

Starting the analysis of the Daqin accounts, we have five sources compiled during the 2nd–6th c. C.E. Two of them referred to the period between the 3rd–5th c. C.E. and typically these contemporary sources are the most detailed.

The Hou Han shu

The Hou Han shu was compiled by Fan Ye (范曄), who lived between 398 and 445 during the reign of the Liu-Song Dynasty (劉宋朝). In his work juan (卷) 86 and 88, the chapter of
Xi yu zhuan (西域傳), contains several pieces of information about the Romans. There are numerous descriptions of the countries from Khotan to the Roman Empire in the division of the westernmost world, altogether 22 realms.

During the investigation of the text it should be considered, that in the 7th c. some new commentaries were added to the original work, and although it was printed during the reign of the Song Dynasty, there are many other copies.

The Wei lüe

The Wei lüe was compiled by the historian Yu Huan (魚豢) before the year 297 C.E. The division on the western countries contains the records of Daqin. Although the original version of his work is lost, the San guo zhi (三國志), which summarised the history of the Wei, Shu and Wu Dynasties (魏朝,蜀朝,吳朝), is quoted in the geographical accounts.

In the surviving work Yu Huan does not refer to the sources of his information, but presumably he never left the boundaries of China. Hence he had only second hand data from the earlier histories and the descriptions of travellers and merchants.

The Jin shu

The third important history is the Jin shu, compiled during the 7th c. Although the information on Daqin refers to the interval between 265 and 419 C.E., it is more reticent than the Hou Han shu and the Wei lüe. The compiler of the Jin shu was Fang Xuanling
(房玄齡), who lived between 549 and 618 and was followed by Fang Qiao (房喬).

The Wei shu

The history of the Northern Wei Dynasty (北魏朝), the Wei shu refers to the period between 386 and 556, still in many ways it uses the statements of the Hou Han shu and the Wei lüe. The compiler was Wei Shou (魏收), the annalist in the court of the Northern Qi Dynasty, who lived between 506 and 572. As his family name suggests, he was a descendant of the former Wei House.

The Song shu

The fifth Chinese record of Daqin, the Song shu was compiled by Shen Yue (沈約), the historian of the Liang Dynasty (梁朝) during the 6th c. Like the Jin shu, the Song shu also includes only little information on the Romans, and refers to the period between 420 and 478.

As parts of the standard histories, the above works were compiled by the officers of the Historiography Bureau based on the materials collected during the previous dynasties. Furthermore the different groups of chapters were formed to satisfy various purposes and to show a different point of view.

The information on Barbarians and other foreign nations is usually in the Liezhuan (列傳), the section of memoirs, and in the monographs called Zhi (志). Since, in many cases, alternative sources were lacking, the compilers used archaic data from the archives of former dynasties or based themselves on earlier sources by means of the scissors-and-paste method. Moreover, these standard histories were not always devoid of historical mistakes and misunderstandings.

The meaning of the term Daqin 

The common feature of the Chinese histories displayed above is that they use the term Daqin to denote a great empire in the west.

The first allusion to this state is in juan 86 of the Hou Han shu. According to the text in the year 120 the king of the Shan (撣) Empire sent an embassy to the Han (漢 ) Court. He offered musicians and magicians from a country called Daqin which is the west of the sea (海西). Moreover, the Wei lüe already mentioned jugglery as a major feature of the Daqin people.

The Hou Han shu, as the Wei lüe and the Jin shu gives a so-called explanation for using the term Daqin: the people of this state are tall and open-hearted just like the Chinese, although they wear hu (胡) clothes. The Wei shu also emphasises that the Daqin people are honest and tall and their carriages and flags are like the Chinese ones, which is why the foreign nations gave the name Daqin.

Describing Daqin 

Besides the explanation of the name Daqin all of the five Chinese sources describe the geography of this westernmost state. According to them Daqin is located at Haixi (海西), i.e. west of the sea. Furthermore the Wei lüe also indicates that it is west of Anxi (安息), Tiaozhi and the Great sea (大海).

Besides these data the Hou Han shu gives more details. 3400 li (里) west of Anxi there is the kingdom of Aman (阿蠻). 3600 li west of Aman one reaches Sibin (斯賓), from here one must turn south and cross a river, and travel 960 li southwest to the kingdom of
Yuluo (于羅). This is the extreme west frontier of Anxi, where one should proceed southwards by sea and then reach Daqin.

The Hou Han shu, the Wei lüe, the Jin shu and the Wei shu all say that the territory of
Daqin is several thousand li in all directions and has more than four hundred smaller cities. Furthermore there are numerous vassal states belonging to it. The Wei lüe even adds the list and the location of these kingdoms, namely Zesan (澤散), Lüfen (驢分), Qielan (且蘭), Xiandu (賢督) Sifu (汜復) and Yuluo, and also says that there are many others.

The capital of Daqin

The histories also give information about the capital of Daqin. According to the Wei lüe it lies at the mouth of a river, while the Jin shu adds the extension of the city as over a hundred li. Expanding these descriptions, the Wei shu adds that the name of the capital is Andu (安都). Moreover, the royal city is divided into five smaller cities and the source also adds the dimensions of them.

According to the Hou Han shu there are five palaces in the capital, ten li from each other. The Wei lüe repeats this information and also says that there is an office of archives. While the Jin shu does not give more details, the Wei shu reports in a different way: the residence of the king is in the middle of the city and there are eight high offices to rule over the four cities. And in the royal city there is also an office which rules the four cities.


There are some details about the administration in the Hou Han shu: each day the king goes to the palaces to hear the cases, and he visits all of them within five days.

A man with a bag follows the royal carriage and every time when somebody has a matter to be reconsidered by the king, he throws an application into the bag. After the king has returned to the palace, he examines the contents of the bag, and decides whether the claims are legal or not. In every palace there is a department of archives and there are thirty-six generals to discuss the matters of the state.

The king of Daqin is not a permanent ruler, but chosen for his merits. When an unexpected calamity occurs in the country, such as the ordinary storms of wind and rain, the king is replaced by another, without feeling angry about this. The Wei lüe emphasises that the previous king does not dare to show anger. It also adds that the king judges the cases from early in the morning till late in the night and the next day he goes to another palace. It takes five days to visit all of the palaces. He also consults the public matters with the thirty-six generals. If one of the generals does not take part in the consultation, he closes the meeting.

The Jin shu only repeats the previous data, however, the Wei shu adds more details. Every time when the necessities of the state demand this or any of the four regions has a matter to discuss, the king calls for the officials of the four cities. After the king has ratified their decision, it is put into effect. Every third year the king goes out and mingles with the public. If anyone has a matter to decide, the king judges. In minor cases he will censure, but in important cases will replace the responsible officer.

Comparing the account with the cityscape of Rome, there are some essential differences. Under Augustus’ reorganisation Rome was divided into fourteen instead of the former four city regions, although the Aurelian Wall did not include the whole area of the XIV Regions, namely Regio VII and V, as well as I. Moreover, if the capital of  Daqin refers to the City of Rome, the king would only have authority over the City, which is more likely a praefectus urbi, not the emperor of a state. So far as the term wang indicates the ruler of the Roman Empire, it is still uncertain which augustus it could be.

The emperors of the Western Roman Empire were often away from Rome, while the description of the Wei shu suggests that the royal duties mostly kept them in the capital. The rulers of the Eastern Roman Empire were principally resident in Constantinople, although if the term wang refers to the augustus of the Eastern Empire, Daqin du could not indicate Rome but Constantinople. Besides, the meaning of the five regions/cities and the consultative officers controlling them is still unclear. It might refer to the comitatus
or rather the consistorium, at the same time the contribution of these bodies scarcely suits the records of the chronicle. It cannot be excluded that the four cities refer to the territorial villages of Antioch, although there is only scanty information on their administration and locality.

It is presumable that the capital of Daqin in the Wei shu might not be equal with Rome, but the descriptions of the other histories such as the Hou Han shu, the Wei lüe and the Jin shu could point to the City.

However, the passages of the above works about replacing the previous king whenever calamities come unexpectedly and named a more meritorious one might be comparable to the elevation of the optimus princeps. On this basis the duty of the new emperor is, by using the divina providentia, to find the most eligible successor. The resignation of the king might be due to a powerful governor, who by replacing him could attain a higher stage in his cursus honorum. However, the fact of replacement might also mean a utopistic interpretation of the rapid succession of Roman emperors during the 3rd c.

It is possible that the thirty-six generals refer to the growing importance of the city council. According to the Antiochicus the structure of the city was founded upon the council as the tree on its roots. These curiales gave advice and appointed men to act the duties of the governor.

According to the Hou Han shu the thirty-six generals were responsible for the affairs of a whole state, not only a city. As such, this could also refer to the provincial assembly of Syria composed by the delegates of the seventeen cities.

Libanius also mentioned the eighteen tribes of Antioch, nevertheless their appointment and role in the administration are still not clarified. At any rate they presumably elected their own officers, who had to report to the governor.

A possible reason why the Wei shu did not mention the thirty-six generals, although they could also have played a significant role in the 4th c. administration of Antioch, might be the reduction of the city magistrates’ power since the second half of the 4th c. Hence the source might not have deemed them important enough to allude to them. The assumption that the term wang might have referred to a provincial governor could be proved by the selected passages of Libanius about the authority of the governor, who could even refuse to obey the emperor and not publish his edicts.

Thus the Chinese chronicles might have believed that a provincial governor is the king of Daqin. Moreover it is also Libanius who mentioned that the governor could work with the jurisdiction and taxation during the whole night until the morning, just as the Wei lüe said. In Libanius’ works there is information about the duties of the governors: they had to listen to acclamations, sometimes demonstrations, and complaints. The latter usually took place in a public area such as the theatre. Starting from this it cannot be excluded that the Chinese histories mistakenly identified the public buildings of Antioch as the five palaces of Daqin.

Moreover, in special cases, some of these public facilities could be used for a palatium. Just as Dio Cassius noted in connection with the earthquake in 115 C.E. According to the annalist Trajan had to leave his palace through the windows and live in the hippodrom for a few days. Although the Romans often ascribed special meaning to natural phenomena, it is worthy of note that unexpected storms coming from the Mons Silpius and other disasters were quite common in the region of Antioch.

If we accepted that the term Daqin du refers to Antioch, it would be easy to identify Daqin as the Roman Orient or the province Syria. However, it is more likely that the Chinese did not have enough information about the exact extension and the political system of the Roman Empire. Moreover, it is also possible that, as J. E. Hill suggested, the term Daqin referred to different things depending on the context. Hence it cannot be excluded that it was a greater unit than the Roman Orient but they did not know its precise extension.

Lifestyle in Daqin

The Hou Han shu and the Wei lüe give other details of the lifestyle in Daqin. According to them the people of Daqin have walled cities, they have a relay (亭) every 10 li and a postal station (置) every 30 li like the Chinese. They travel by small carriages covered with a white canopy accompanied by beating drums and waving flags. The Wei lüe and the Jin shu also add that they understand the hu writing and have multi-storeyed public and private buildings.

The relays and postal stations in the sources could be compared to the Roman mutationes and mansiones. The Chinese tings (亭) mentioned in our sources were originally built only for official use but occasionally private travellers could also rent them for a certain amount of money. A similar system was in use in the Roman Empire where an evectio or a diploma was necessary to lease the stations, while the official use was free.

It is also interesting to compare the Roman images of raedae with the Chinese descriptions, e.g. the stone relief of a carriage in the village of Maria Saal (figure below), used for long-distance travel.


In the Jin shu there are also some details of the buildings: their walls were covered with opaque glass (琉璃), pillars were made of crystal (水精) and the king’s residence of coral (珊瑚). However, there is still no consensus on the exact meaning of the terms above. Liuli (琉璃) refers to both opaque glass and glass-like glaze, and shuijing (水精) could mean crystal stone and crystal glass, too.

It is likely, as F. Hirth pointed out, that the histories used these terms for the ornaments and covers of buildings, not for their exact materials. In this case they might be comparable with the various Roman building materials such as the polychrome stuccos and wall mosaics especially used in the eastern part of the Empire (figure below).



The Hou Han shu, the Wei lüe and the Wei shu also describe Daqin as a densely populated area, where people live close to each other. Moreover, the locals are tall and virtuous, resemble the Chinese and wear embroidered/hu clothes. They shave their hair/beard and, as the Wei lüe adds, can use magic. Such details of Daqin people could refer to their appearance or more likely to their intrinsic properties and civilisation. The Chinese may well have claimed that the Daqin people originally came from China because they might have heard this from various foreign peoples who with this formulation may have wanted to emphasise that the Roman Empire was on the same cultural level as the Chinese.

The Wei lüe also adds details on the handcraft of the Daqin people when writes that they make bows and arrows. Although there is no similar information in the other sources, it might be an interesting parallel with the famous Syrian archers during the Roman period.

There is also an allusion in the histories to the public safety in Daqin. According to the Hou Han shu and the Wei lüe there are no bandits but fierce tigers and lions who threaten travellers. These passages might fit the eastern regions of the Roman Empire. Although especially during the 4th c. various affrays between thieves and travellers were more common in the area of Antioch, the antique sources emphasise the safety of the main routes. Moreover, wild animals such as tigers and lions were common in the mountains around Antioch so much so that the authors write about their role in amphitheatric games and other spectaculars. Hence it is possible that these beasts were more dangerous to the travellers than the bandits, just as the Chinese chronicles stated.

There is also an interesting passage in the Hou Han shu on the honest and reliable traders of Daqin. This might be comparable with the Roman Empire, too, where trading was strictly controlled by the cursus publicus, comites commerciorum and praefecti annonae.

The Economy of Daqin

Agriculture and domesticated animals

The Hou Han shu, the Wei lüe and the Wei shu all give information about the agriculture of Daqin. According to these records the region has many different types of trees, such as pine trees, cypresses, willows, bamboos and so on. Moreover, the inhabitants plant grain, breed horses, mules, camels, donkeys and silkworms.

These passages might be parallel with the flora of the Roman Orient. For instance the cypress was so common in the territory of Antioch that its exploitation was regulated by law.

The Roman Near-East, especially the agriculture of province Syria could be compared to the descriptions of the Chinese sources. Pliny the Elder informs us that Syria could provide Egypt with wheat when it suffered from hunger.

There they grew wheat, rice, millet, hemp and many other kinds of grain. Besides the cypress, some other famous trees were the Syrian sumach, acacia and the laurel, but spruce, fir and plane were quite rare. However, pines were not curiosity in Asia Minor, especially the timber of Mount Ida.

In Syria the breeding of horses, donkeys, mules and camels was important. Apamea and Arabia were famous for their horses, Babylonia for its mules, Petra and the region of  Gaugamela for their camels. Moreover, Libanius characterised Antioch as a famous centre of pasture and breeding.

Besides these pieces of information, the passage on silkworm breeding is still a disputed point of research, although the antique auctors mentioned silkworms held by Romans. Pliny the Elder gave a detailed report of silkworm raising on the island of Cos. So it could not be excluded that as the Hou Han shu, the Wei lüe, so the Wei shu write about the so-called Assyrian silk in Pliny’s text. But wild silk and the Chinese Bombyx Mori were presumably not equal, so they could not be confused. Although the Romans knew that the silk in Cos was made by silkworms, perhaps it was not evident for them that the special Chinese silk was made by cocoons, too.

Natural resources and other products

All of the five sources give an introduction of the products in Daqin, moreover the Wei lüe adds an extra product list.

Metals, precious stones, gems and other materials

The most detailed list of metals, gems and precious materials in Daqin is offered by the Wei lüe, naming thirty-four items opposed to the fourteen mentioned in the Hou Han shu. By reporting seven items, the Jin shu only gives an essence of the previous lists, while the Wei shu transmits four, the Song shu three pieces of these precious materials.


The Hou Han shu, the Wei lüe and the Jin shu all emphasise the importance of gold (金) in their product list. Moreover, the first two sources also mention silver (銀) and give the exchange rate of gold and silver money.

According to J. E. Hill the 1:10 gold-silver exchange rate in the Hou Han shu and the Wei lüe is very close to Pliny’s 1:11 ratio, although as D. Rathbone stated, the ratio of 1:12 might have been most significant from Augustus’ time to Diocletian.

Copper (銅), iron (鐵), lead (錫) and tin (鉛) only appear in the Wei lüe product list.

J. E. Hill emphasised that China produced all these metals and had no need to import them. However, there is no mention in the sources that Daqin had exported all these products, to China or anywhere else. Moreover, as J. Ferguson showed, the possible trade between Rome and China was conducted by middlemen, so the existence of Roman objects in China should not be expected as evident. The Wei lüe also mentions southern gold (南金), however, its identification is quite problematic. According to J. E. Hill southern gold might refer to bronze.


There are many different kinds of pearls named in all of the five sources, emphasising their whiteness and brightness. Besides moonlight pearls (明月珠), genuine white pearls (真白珠), snake (蛇珠) or simply shining (夜光珠) pearls, as well as mother-of-pearl (車渠) also appear in the Wei lüe. Moreover, by simultaneously using different names of pearls, the Wei lüe actually refers to various types of pearls.

Pliny the Elder deals with the pearls from the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean, Arabia and
Persia, moreover he emphasises the brightness of the pearls from the Mare Rubrum. He stated that mother-of-pearl was most precious after diamonds and writes about white stones too, such as the ceraunia.

Jades, gems and other minerals

In the Chinese chronicles there are also some allusions to the different jades in various colours. The Hou Han shu, the Wei shu and the Jin shu both mention the luminous jade (夜光璧), moreover, the Hou Han shu also adds the bluish green gems (青碧).

The Wei lüe is much more detailed than the other histories. There are nine different gems listed, however, their translation is quite problematic. The identification of
cihuang (雌黃) as orpiment and of xionghuang (雄黃) as realgar is generally accepted by the translators. Furthermore, the chronicles, just as the Hou Han shu, also mention amber (虎珀).

A detailed description of the different gems and minerals is offered by Pliny the Elder, who in connection with the eastern provinces emphasised the Syrian amber, cinnabar and alabaster, the amethyst of Egypt, Galatia, Petra, and Armenia– which has a special type close to the crystals in colour– and other gems from the Syrian and Assyrian region. He also writes about the agate in Cyprus, Phyrgia, Lesbos, Rhodus and mentions the greenish topaz from the region of the Mare Rubrum. Connected to the Persian jasper he remarks its sky-blue colour and also adds that the Phyrgian is purple, while the Cappadocian is azure purple.

Both the Hou Han shu and the Wei lüe mentioned the liuli which in the latter one occurs in ten colours: red, white, black, green, yellow, bluish-green, dark blue, light blue, fiery red and purple. The term is often translated as opaque, not transparent glass, although it might refer to a glass-like gemstone.

Through the interpretation of term liuli the description of Daqin buildings in the Jin shu could also be noteworthy. The walls made from liuli might refer to a glass-like glaze which could be comparable with the various Roman building decoration techniques, such as polychrome stuccos and wall mosaics. Naturally it is still possible that in other passages the term liuli referred to glass or a glass-like gemstone.

Roman glass production was significant, especially in the Roman Orient as proved by Pliny the Elder and the Roman glass sherds found in the People’s Republic of China.

Other precious products, not identified materials

Both the Hou Han shu and the Wei lüe mention the red coral (珊瑚) and the langgan (琅玕) which, besides the identification as whitish chalcedony suggested by J. E.Hill, possibly meant a sort of coral. In the Roman Empire corals from Arabia and the Mare Rubrum were exported and a coral workshop in Magnesia was famous, although coral did not have real value for the Romans.

The Chinese annals also listed ivory (象牙), large cowries (大貝), tortoise shell (玳瑁) and there are some products which are still difficult to identify. Such is the case of the haiji rhinoceros (駭雞犀) in the Hou Han shu the Wei lüe and the Jin shu, while the Song shu only mentions rhinoceros (犀). É. Cavannes believed the term rhinoceros might refer to a mineral stone with magical features which could affray chicken when mixed with rice. According to D. D. Leslie and K. H. J. Gardiner this special product rather meant simply the horn of rhinoceros. The idea of fighting cocks and rhinoceros seems more likely since, as Pliny also cited, the cocks mainly from Rhodus and Tangara were famous for their violent nature and their combats.

The term white horses with red manes (白馬硃髦 and 白馬朱鬣) occurs only in the list of the Wei lüe and the Wei shu.

The Wei lüe also mentions the kingfisher feathers (翠爵羽翮), which is named in the Song shu, too.

There are some more special animals mentioned in the Wei lüe, such as the black bears (玄熊), or the more problematic shenkui (神龜). In this case the latter might refer to the sea turtles or the tortoise shell.

The Periplus also mentions the rhinoceros horn from the African area and the tortoise shell from the region of the Mare Rubrumamong its trade products. Horses from Syria and Arabia were mentioned above and Pliny the Elder also adds some ideas connected to the bears such as the Spanish belief of using the bears’ brain as a magical poison or their fat as medicine. He also mentions Numidian bears, although their African origin is still doubtful.

According to D. D. Leslie and K. H. J. Gardiner the poison-avoiding rats (辟毒鼠) in the Wei lüe might refer to weasels, while in E. H. Schafer’s and J. E. Hill’s opinion the term could be identified as mongooses. Moreover, E. H. Schafer also mentions the Persian mongooses sent to the Chinese Empire. There is an interesting allusion to weasels mentioned by Pliny, which were fed on rue when fighting with serpents for the mice. It is also Pliny who says that the Gallic weasel could be useful as an antidote for the sting of asp and another kind is an enemy of the serpents.

Although some of the Daqin products in our Chinese sources are still problematic to identify it is worthwhile to emphasise the passages by Pliny connected to the most precious materials in the Roman world, which are close to the lists of the Chinese histories.


It is also the Wei lüe which gives the most detailed list of the various textiles and clothes of Daqin mentioning twenty-one products. The Hou Han shu names only six kinds of material, five of them also occur in the Wei lüe. Furthermore, both sources mention raw materials of animal origin used for threads, however, the Wei lüe is again more detailed.

The Hou Han shu describes fine threads made from the hair of water-sheep (水羊毳), which according to the source is in fact from the cocoons of wild silkworms (野蠶繭). Extending this information on the hair of water-sheep – the fine brocade made from this is called Haixi cloth (海西布) –, the Wei lüe also mentions the co-coons of wild silkworms and the bark of trees (木皮). The similar feature of the two passages is the description of the water-sheep cloth as a fine, veil-like textile (細布).


The Hou Han shu, the Wei lüe, the Jin shu, and the Song shu all mention the so-called ‘fire-washed cloth’ (火浣布/火布). Researchers agree that it might refer to the fireproof textile called asbestos in the Natural History. However, even Pliny is vague whether the asbestos could be identified as a kind of textile or a mineral.

The gold threaded carpets and embroideries (金縷繡/織成金縷罽/刺金縷繡及積錦縷罽) were mentioned by the Hou Han shu, the Wei lüe and the Jin shu, while in the Hou Han shu and the Wei lüe there is also information on the gold painted tapestry (黃金塗/金塗布). The latter also mentions the gold woven jiangde canopies (絳地金織帳). These textiles in the Chinese sources might be comparable with the Attalicae vestes and the Attalica aulaea woven with gold which were famous among the Romans. Pliny the Elder also writes of their special value.

The varicoloured damask (雜色綾) occurs in the list of the Hou Han shu and the Wei lüe. Furthermore, in the latter sources there are some unique materials not mentioned by other annals, such as the ten-coloured – yellow, white, black, green, violet, red, purple-red, purple, golden-yellow and misty-yellow – wool rug (黃白黑綠紫紅絳紺金黃縹留黃十種氍毹), the multicoloured wool serge (五色九色首下毾), the multicoloured carpet (五色毾), the feichi cloth (緋持布), the falu cloth (發陸布), the feichiju cloth (緋持渠布), the aluode cloth (阿羅得布), the baze cloth (巴則布), the dudai cloth (度代布), the wensu cloth (溫宿布), the multicoloured tao cloth (五色桃布) and the varicoloured dou baldachin (五色鬥帳). Moreover, the Wei lüe also emphasises the good quality of these textile products.

Although the identification of these Daqin textiles is problematic, the variety of the production could be compared to the ’cloth-industry’ in the Roman Orient.

Perfumes and herbs

The various perfumes, herbs and spices make up the third category of the Daqin products.

Only the Hou Han shu and the Wei lüe contain information, although the former names one, the latter eleven of these materials. Both sources mention the storax (蘇合) which, according to the Hou Han shu , was a boiled mixture of different fragrances. The Wei lüe
displays ten more items, such as the yiwei (一微 ), muer (木二), diti (狄提 ), mimi (迷迷), douna (兜納), white aconite (白附子), frankincense (薰陸), turmeric? (鬱金), rue oil? (芸膠) and altogether twelve different species of aromatic plants (薰草木十二種香).

The various perfumes and herbs listed above could also be compared with the similar products from the eastern part of the Roman Empire.

Trade and envoys 

During the description of the Daqin economy, the Hou Han shu and the Jin shu emphasise the importance of sea trade. They traded with Anxi and Tianzhu (天竺 ) and its profit is tenfold or, according to the Jin shu, a hundredfold.

According to F. Hirth these exaggerated details came from the merchants arriving to China in 166, with the purpose of increasing their own profit. However, the eastern trade of the Roman Empire had a remarkable income at this time.

It is also F. Hirth who links another passage of the Hou Han shu, repeated by the Jin shu, to the same merchants, namely that the foreign envoys were provided with gold coins after arriving to the borders of Daqin.

Although these details might only mean a trick of Daqin merchants illustrating the generosity of their country, it is worthy of note that the foreign currency of the travellers and envoys arriving to the borders of the Roman Empire were often changed for coins accepted by Romans, which might have been misunderstood by the Chinese. Moreover, as I. Ecsedy added, the Chinese emperor often raised his own prestige by sending official envoys to welcome the merchants and embassies. Therefore, such a statement of the annals might be a reflection of the Chinese traditions.

Communication with Daqin

The first attempt of contact – the Gan Ying (甘英) envoy

It is again the Hou Han shu which gives information about the first attempt to communicate with Daqin. In 97 C.E. Protector-General Ban Chao (班超) sent Gan Ying to
Daqin. He reached Tiaozhi but the sailors from the western frontier of Anxi warned him not to cross the sea. The other annals roughly repeat the record of the Hou Han shu; although the Song shu only gives a short explanation for the absence of diplomatic relations between Daqin and China.

Although it is problematic to outline the exact route of Gan Ying’s voyage, at any rate it is more than likely that he got further than any of the previous travellers.

Delegation from Daqin – the Andun embassy

Besides Gan Ying’s voyage there is another embassy mentioned in the Hou Han shu which was sent by Romans. Although the king of Daqin always wished to send envoys to China, the Parthian merchants, in order not to lose their profit, cut the Romans off from communication. For this reason it was only in the ninth year of the Yanxi period, during the reign of emperor Huan (至桓帝延熹九年) that Andun, the king of Daqin sent envoys from beyond the border of Rinan (日南) and offered ivory, rhinoceros horn and tortoise shell.

The Wei lüe only gives a short summary about this first record of direct communication between the two great empires. Considering the contents of the list provided by the Hou Han shu there are no special products, which might lead to the assumption that the earlier annals were exaggerating in their descriptions.

It is likely that the name Andun was a transcription of Antoninus which might refer to Marcus Aurelius. However, as M. G. Raschke pointed out, Lucius Verus, the co-emperor of Marcus Aurelius could also be a possible identification. D. D.Leslie and K. H. J. Gardiner emphasised that Marcus Aurelius was more charismatic than Lucius Verus. On the other hand they suggested that the passage might refer to Antoninus Pius.

Nevertheless it is unlikely that it was an official delegation personally founded by the Roman emperor. The members of the Andun embassy were presumably merchants, who with the purpose of increasing their own profit stated that they were a delegation sent by the emperor. It is more likely to have been a commercial action, as F. Hirth suggested, because of the Roman-Parthian war. The Roman military advance and the capture of
Seleucia and Ctesiphon in 165 C.E. might have initiated such an envoy.

As the Chinese annals also recorded, the Parthians wanted to monopolise the trade and cut the communication between Daqin and China. Moreover, the series of wars could cause a commercial crisis amongst the Syrian cities and their merchants which might have resulted in a demand to fasten the Sino-Roman relations.

According to the annals the Andun mission was the first direct communication between Rome and China. However, as É. Chavannes pointed out, the sea route must have been known earlier because of the jugglers from Daqin arriving with the Shan embassy in 120 C.E. It is worthy of note that this delegation, which presumably arrived from the Burmese region, was established by the Shan king, not by the Romans. So the presence of
Daqin people in the Han Court could not count as a contact between the empires.

Other embassies connected to Daqin

Besides the Roman delegation in 166 there are some other envoys in the chronicles connected to Daqin. Although the envoy in 120 sent by the Shan king could not mean a direct intercourse, the Roman jugglers arriving with the Shans also occurred later in the sources: the Wei lüe mentions the magicians as a main feature of Daqin.

According to the Jin shu during the reign of emperor Wu, Daqin and Linyi (林邑) sent envoys to the Chinese court. Linyi might be located somewhere in South Asia and the route of the Daqin embassy was the same as in 166.

There is another record of an embassy in the Wei lüe. In the third year of Yangjia (陽嘉三年時), in 133 C.E., envoys came from Shule (疏勒) and offered bluish stone (青石) and golden belt (金帶) from Haixi. They presumably arrived from Kashgar and, as D. D. Leslie and K. H. J. suggested, offered lapis lazuli. The Shule delegation is also mentioned in the Hou Han shu but there is no allusion to Haixi or Daqin.

There are two different types of routes in the Chinese histories: by land and by sea. One of the land routes was presumably used by Gan Ying and the Andun embassy travelling by sea.

In connection with land routes the Hou Han shu describes a way from the western frontier of Anxi through Haibei and Haixi to Daqin. Another account supposes a sea route known by the Hou Han shu: it stated that the western coast of Tianzhu communicates with Daqin and the precious things from Daqin can be found there. The Wei lüe adds more details that were summarised in the Wei shu: the maritime route leads through the seven commanderies of Jiaozhi (交趾) which communicate with yi (夷) tribes. A waterway is also mentioned leading to Yongchang (永昌) in Yizhou (益州), from where curiosities come. It is also stated that in earlier times only the sea route was known and that there was no information about the overland way.


Whether Daqin referred to the whole empire or only a part of it – or in my opinion the whole Empire but with information only about the eastern provinces –, according to the Chinese sources it was an enormous, sometimes utopistic empire which produced several curiosities and luxurious products. The archaeological finds might support these descriptions. Besides the textiles from the desert area, various textiles, precious glass and metal products from the eastern coast of People’s Republicof China could fit the descriptions of the annals. These luxurious finds, mostly unearthed from the burials of the most influential members of Chinese aristocracy, together with the more-or-less complex description of Daqin in the texts could be an evidence for the Sino-Roman relations, regardless of whether middlemen contributed to it.

(Source: “The Roman Empire according to the Ancient Chinese Sources”, by Krisztina Hoppál)


Research-Selection for NovoScriptorium: Anastasius Philoponus

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Blog at WordPress.com.

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: