A recently-translated ancient Chinese text sheds light on international relations in the 3rd century AD. A Roman delegation, sent by Marcus Aurelius, reached the Chinese court in 166, followed by several others over the next century. The court official Yu Huan, writing in the 3rd century, spoke with some of the Romans on these later expeditions, and recorded a fair account:
This country (the Roman Empire) has more than four hundred smaller cities and towns. It extends several thousand li in all directions. The king has his capital (that is, the city of Rome) close to the mouth of a river (the Tiber). The outer walls of the city are made of stone.
…The ruler of this country is not permanent. When disasters result from unusual phenomena, they unceremoniously replace him, installing a virtuous man as king, and release the old king, who does not dare show resentment.
The common people are tall and virtuous like the Chinese, but wear hu (‘Western’) clothes. They say they originally came from China, but left it.
They have always wanted to communicate with China but, Anxi (Parthia), jealous of their profits, would not allow them to pass (through to China).
The text goes on to describe the agriculture and arts of the Roman Empire. The tone is one of real curiosity, carrying the hope of further contact. Unfortunately, burgeoning relations were not to be. China was suffering the wars of the Three Kingdoms period, which largely cut it off from external contact. In Rome, the 3rd century was one ongoing disaster. Neither court seemed willing or able to sustain such distant contact in light of more pressing problems.
Beyond the attitudes Yu Huan’s text suggests, it is interesting for its accuracy. The geographical descriptions are true in the general and the particular (note: the li, at the time of writing, was about a quarter-mile). More interesting still was the description of the political system. By the 3rd century, emperors were being deposed on a regular basis, and attempts at establishing dynasties were not successful. In the realm of foreign relations, the 2nd and 3rd centuries saw near-continuous war between Persia and Rome. Jealous of profits the Persian emperors might be in peacetime; in wartime, they would not even let Roman merchants enter their territory.
These sharp, compact descriptions imply Yu Huan spoke at great length directly with the Romans of the delegation, who themselves were educated enough to give a broad and detailed description of their homeland. These were clearly not the second- or third-hand accounts from travelers who had never set foot in the lands they described.
Even the confused allusion to Rome’s Chinese origins makes sense. Roman legend held that their city was founded by refugees from Troy, located in the contemporary Roman province of Asia. The name “Asia” was much older, however, and had previously referred to all the lands east of the Bosphorus. If the Romans claimed they ultimately came from Asia, and also thought of China as being in Asia, then the assertion of Rome’s Chinese origins would simply be a mistaken inference.
The fascinating implication is that those Romans in China saw the geographical continent of Asia as one contiguous bloc, as would their modern successors. Perhaps this was a natural extension of Roman geography’s crude tri-partition of the world into Europe, Asia, and Africa. However, the same sailors and merchants who made it to China would have also perforce had extensive contact with Indians, and probably Persians. Both these peoples had knowledge of land routes between their countries and China, perhaps suggesting to their Roman contemporaries that Asia was in fact one giant landmass.
The slimness of this Chinese account, and the absence of any such mention in Roman chronicles, reminds us how narrow our knowledge of the ancient world really is. What other such fascinating episodes occurred which left no record in the annals of the time? How much did the Romans and Chinese know about the world around them, without writing it down? Events like the embassy to China might have made little impression on either empire, but reveal tantalizing details about the world of that time.