Roman coins in China

Plenty of ancient Chinese sources have been proved keeping rich accounts of the Roman Empire and its close relationship with ancient China, and the frequent activities of envoys, caravans, religious missions and wars on the Silk Road promoted the accomplishment of the mutual communication between the two great civilizations. According to Chinese sources, the official mutual relationship of the Roman Empire and ancient China probably started from the 2nd century CE, reached its peak during the 7th century – 8th century, and declined after that. The last record of an envoy from the Eastern Roman Empire comes from the period of 1403–1424. From the archaeological perspective, the discovery of Roman coins in China proves the credibility of the ancient Chinese records, and in addition provides much more valuable information for further research on the Sino – Roman relation.

sc Roman solidus

The earliest recorded discovery of the Roman coins in China was published in 1885. It is said that 16 Roman coins from the reign of Tiberius to the reign of Gallienus were found in the Shanxi Province of China. However, in consideration of the place of the discovery and the details of the coins, the great Chinese archaeologist Xia Nai thought that they were possible to be a collection brought to China by some foreigner in modern times, not the result of the ancient communication. After that, a Roman coin, which was an imitation to the solidus of the Constantine V (741–775), was discovered through excavation and published in 1897. This event is generally regarded as the beginning of the discovery of Roman coins in China. Later on, at the beginning of the 20th century, with the arrivals of the Western explorers Sven Hedin, Aurel Stein etc., more Roman coins and their imitations were discovered through archaeological excavations. After large-scale Chinese-organized excavations of the 1950s, the number of the unearthed Roman coins increased quickly. According to the data from researches, there had been around 100 Roman coins and their imitations found in China until 2005, 97 of which had been published.

According to the published data, nearly all Roman coins discovered in China came from the Eastern Roman Empire. The materials of the coins found include gold, silver and bronze. Among them are two coins of silver and one coin of bronze, the rest are solidi
and their imitations which are of gold. A ma-jority of Roman coins have been unearthed through archaeological excavation;only a few coins are kept in museums or are in the hands of private collectors, which makes it impossible to pursue the exact information of their discovery.

On the basis of their types, the Roman coins can be classified into three categories: the real Roman solidi with clear inscription weighing 4,4–4,54 gr. minted in Constantinople; the imitations of solidi; the bracteates with single-side minted, unclear pictures and unclear inscriptions.

Examining the Roman coins found in the excavations of China, the scholar Lin Ying found that they were buried from around the middle of the 6th century to the middle of the 8th century.

Another scholar Luo Feng found that the difference between the minting time and the burying time is from 20–30 years to about 170 years.

These analyses allow to conclude that most Roman coins came to China during the period from the 5th century to the 8th century. These results are consistent with ancient Chinese sources on the relation between the Roman Empire and ancient China, and strengthen the view that a close relationship existed between the two empires between the 7th century and the 8th century.

The routes by which Roman coins coming to China is one of the key issues to the research of the Roman coins discovered in China. The correct solution of this question will shed more light on the Sino-Roman relation in trade, religion, and culture.

It can be sure that the Roman coins discovered in China have close relation with the Silk Road.

The Silk Road was a vast network consisting of different routes for transportation and communication on the Eurasian Steppe. It ran from China, crossed Central Asia, and finally arrived at the eastern bank of the Mediterranean Sea. Numerous diplomats, businessmen, and priests from the countries on the Eurasian Steppe were active on these routes and undertook missions of exchange of political information, products, culture, and religions from both sides of the steppe. During the Chinese Sui Dynasty (581–618) an official named Pei Ju was assigned the task of exploring the Western Regions of China. Showing great experience and practice, he wrote a three-volume book titled The Pictorial Description of West Regions about the geography of the Western Regions, in which he recorded three routes from China to the West. Having compared the writings of Western historians and other texts of ancient China, scholars agree that these were the main routes of the Silk Road, which connected the west part and the east part of the Eurasian Steppe, namely, connecting the Roman world, Persian (Arabic) world, and China. Accordingly, it is generally agreed that most Roman coins came to China by the following three routes: the steppe route, the land route and the South Sea route.


The steppe route had a long history of communication between the Westand the East. Its western part passed through the Black Sea, the Caspian Sea, and along the northern bank of the Aral Sea, and then connected with the route in Central Asia. It is the northern route of Pei Ju’s writings. Numerous caravans taking this route became the vehicle of the interaction on the Eurasian Steppe. During the 6th century – 7th century, Central Asia was occupied by the Turkic Khaganate. Under its rule, there existed an active and prosperous communication and the Sogdians were the most important businessmen in this period.

The land route is the traditional Silk Road. It was the main and most popular communication line on the Eurasian Steppe since the 2nd century BCE. It shares the eastern part of the Silk Road (inside of China) with the steppe route. Its western part went through the land of the Persians, along the southern bank of the Caspian Sea, through the area of Transoxiana, the Plateau of Pamir, and then the Western Regions of China. On this route, due to frequent diplomatic, religious, business and military contacts between the Eastern Roman Empire and Persia, many Roman coins came to the hands of Persians, and then through Persians came to China by similar ways. The most important businessmen on the Silk Road, the Sogdians also played an important role on this route.

The third route is the South Sea route. It started from the harbors of South China, went on through the Southern Sea of China, the Indian Ocean, until it finally ended in the West. Western sources have certified that the Roman businessmen were active in the Indian Ocean and traded in South Asia; ancient Chinese sources also mention the appearance of Roman businessmen in Southeast Asia, the route from China to the Roman Empire by sea, and also the Roman envoys and businessmen were recorded coming to China through this route. However, at present, while some Roman coins were discovered in Thailand, no coin has been discovered in South China.

Roman coins, especially during the time of the Eastern Roman Empire, were widely circulated in Europe and the Near East, and were called the dollar of the Middle Ages. The sources from the Eastern Roman Empire left strong evidence supporting this view. Cosmas Indicopleustes mentioned in his The Christian Topography that the people from Greek and Roman world traveled all the way to China (Tzinitza) to make profit by trading in silk. He points out that all nations accepted Roman coins which made trade possible from one end of the earth to the other.

A Chinese source also records an interesting fact that happened inChina in times of Cosmas Indicopleustes. The Chinese official historical book Sui Shu-Shihuo Zhi
recorded in the period of Bei Zhou (557–580) that “in the prefectures of Hexi region (in the west part of China), gold and silver coins from the Western Regions were accepted, and the government did not prohibit this activity.”

According to historical records, the Chinese government did not mint gold and silver coins during that period; besides, the Hexi region is located on the main route of the Silk Road, and various foreigners always lived here or passed through here; furthermore, plenty of Sasanian coins were found in China and certified as currency circulating in the Northwest of China. Therefore, in view of the above evidence, the supporters of the theory of circulation believe that the aforementioned gold coins were Roman, whereas the silver ones were Sasanian.

The majority of Roman coins discovered in China shows wear and tear, a characteristic which points to circulation; and some other texts and ancient Turfan documents also support the function of the circulation of gold coins which should be of Roman origin.

Another view of Roman coins’ function is related to the funerals. According to archaeological reports, many Roman coins were found in graves through archaeological excavation. It is noticed that “these coins were found in the mouth, grasped by hands or on the eyes of the dead. This phenomenon is not limited to Turpan, or Xinjiang, but also in Ningxia, Shan’xi, Hebei, and He’nan.”

It is commonly accepted that Roman coins also functioned as ornaments and collectibles in ancient China. It is found that most Roman coins discovered in China have punched holes or rings, and some were also found next to the head of the corpses in the graves. Therefore, a majority of scholars agree that the coins were used as ornaments. On the basis of this view, the function of the Roman coins as collectibles is also put forward.

The imitation of foreign coinage was not a new phenomenon, but prevailed in history. Generally, the imitations were made for trading purposes. Due to the “dollar” status of the Roman coins in the Middle Ages, various kinds of their imitation were made, for instance by the Aksumite and by the Arabs. The analysis of published information concerning 97 Roman solidi and their imitations found in China led to the conclusion that 43 are imitations. In accordance with the reports, most of the imitations found in China are minted roughly, and the handicraft is not good.

The discussions of the imitations mainly focus on their functions and the people who minted them. Through the archaeological reports, it is discovered that most of the imitations were found in Turpan of Xinjiang and the graves of Sogdians who lived in the inland China. In consideration of the Sogdians’ role on the Silk Road and their precedent imitation of Persian coins, it is mostly agreed that the Sogdians imitated Roman coins for business purposes.

(Source: “Roman coins discovered in China and their research”, by Qiang Li)

simrSogdian copy of a byzantine gold piece

Research-Selection for NovoScriptorium: Philaretus Homerides

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