So it is said . . . Two thousand years ago, a band of Roman soldiers were among the lone survivors of a devastating battle against the Parthians. The battle itself is a matter of historical record: the Roman army, led by Marcus Licinius Crassus (part of the First Triumvirate along with Julius Caesar and Pompey), was defeated by a Parthian army at Carrhae, now Haran, Turkey, in 53 B. C. E. Records suggest that 5500 of 6000 Romans fell to the Central Asian cavalry and archers. Roman documents state that the survivors were taken into slavery by the victors, and some were released in a treaty thirty years later.

Now, in the Han Dynasty records, we find some fascinating entries. A border patrol from China encountered a strange small army that used unusual tactics, including a "fishscale" linked-shield defense (the famous testudo?) and had fortifications including a double ring of sharpened stakes. Both tactics, military historians suggest, were then unique to the Romans.

This group surrendered to the Chinese, and settled in a village that within a few decades acquired the name Liqian, the ancient Chinese name for Rome. (China traded with Rome frequently--where do you think the Romans got all that decadent silk, eh?)

Many villagers in today's town of Zhelaizhai will tell you that they are the descendants of Romans. Physical evidence such as lighter hair and eyes may be meaningless, though, as Turks and other foreigners sometimes have been introduced into the Chinese gene pool. But cultural and archaeological findings over the last few years are harder to argue with, such as Roman-style fortifications discovered surrounding the Liqian village site, bronze medals that seem to indicate the Emperor gave amnesty to some foreign soliders from Liqian, and still-surviving local traditions that seem to be related to Etruscan-inspired Roman bull-dancing and bull-sacrifices.

It all reminds me of the Jerry Pournelle sf novel, The Janissaries. How must these Romans have felt, lost in China, but alive and not fated to be slaves? Did they learn the language? did they fall in love? What a strange fate for these men of Rome--and the Han Chinese of Zhelaizhai.

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