By Raoul McLaughlin.
Archaeologists suggest two skeletons excavated at a Roman cemetery in Southwark, London have Far Eastern features (Daily Mail, The Times)
– ‘it is not easy to get to this Thina (China); for rarely do people come from it and they are only a few’ (Periplus of the Erythraean Sea, 64)
It is not the remit of historians to doubt or dismiss the scientific methods used by archaeologists. Historians have a responsibly to provide a source-based context to explain or elucidate archaeological finds and results. So, how might people with East Asian ancestry have reached Roman Britain? Here is one possibility…
Ancient Silk Routes led south of the Caspian Sea through Persia and the Parthian Empire. The Parthians maintained caravan stations across their realm, they did not permit foreign merchants from Rome or China to travel across Iran and profit from direct commercial contacts. A text from the Han Empire called the Hou Hanshu explains that ‘Anxi (Parthia), wishes to control the trade in multi-coloured Chinese silks and so blocks the route to prevent [the Romans] getting through’ (Hou Hanshu, 88.12).
There was an alternative route for commerce that allowed traders to bypass the Parthian Empire by travelling through the steppe-lands that lay north of the Caspian Sea. These grasslands were occupied by a mounted pastoral people that the Romans called the Sarmatians.
The Sarmatians were divided into several factions with the most easterly group known to the Romans as the Alani, Aorsi or Alanorsi. During the first century AD the Alani were subject to the Kangju who were a steppe people occupying the urbanised territory of Sogdia in Central Asia (Tajikistan and Uzbekistan).
Sarmatian rider depicted on a stone relief (Crimea)
The people of this area traded with China and sent caravans from their capital Samarkand through Fergana and the Tarim Basin to reach Chinese cities in the Gansu Corridor. The Kangju also formed marriage alliances with the Kushan (Yuezhi), a Far Eastern nation who had fled their homelands near the Gansu Corridor to settle in Bactria (Afghanistan) and conquer the Indus region. Kangju territory in Sogdia was therefore a thoroughfare for the movement of people from distant regions and diverse ethnic groups.
The Roman Geographer Strabo explains that ‘the Aorsi (Alani) rule over much of the Caspian coast and they receive Indian and Babylonian merchandise on camels’ (Strabo, 11.5.8). A Chinese text called the Weilue confirms their position as intermediaries and describes how the ‘Alanliao’, ‘on the west have a border with Da Qin (the Roman Empire); to the southeast they border the Kangju’ (Weilue, 25). This western frontier was the Black Sea coast with the client kingdom of Crimea subject to Roman rule.
Sarmatians pursued by Roman cavalry (Trajan’s Column, Rome)
There was a network of ancient Greek city-ports along this coast which exported grain, shipbuilding materials and steppe products through the Black Sea to the Aegean and the wider Mediterranean world. Links with the Far East are confirmed by the discovery of a second century Sarmatian tombstone in the Crimea. A relief on this monument depicts two Sarmatian horsemen and next to this image some ancient traveller has scratched a message in Chinese reading, ‘On Riders – Two Horses’ (Staviskij, (1995) p.192).
Bone plaque depicting armoured Kangju in combat with eastern rivals (Orlat, Uzbekistan)
During the second century AD another Sarmatian faction known as the Iazyges pushed westwards into Central Europe and threatened the Danube frontiers of the Roman Empire. As part of the peace settlement agreed by the Emperor Marcus Aurelius in AD 175, the Iazyges offered 8,000 warrior horsemen to serve in the Imperial army. About 5,500 of these mounted recruits were sent to the island-province of Britain to ensure that they could not easily mutiny and simply ride back to their steppe homelands (Dio Cassius, 72.16).
This mass transfer of steppe warriors into the military is just one explanation how people with eastern features and foreign ancestry could have been buried in the cemeteries of Roman London.
R. McLaughlin, The Roman Empire and the Silk Routes: The Ancient World Economy and the Empires of Parthia, Central Asia and Han China (Pen & Sword, 2016).
R. McLaughlin, The Roman Empire and the Oasis Kingdoms (forthcoming).
Raoul McLaughlin is a member of CANI (Classical Association of Northern Ireland) and the CAI (Classical Association of Ireland)