Hellenes and Romans in Ancient China (240 BC – 1398 AD)

Hellenes and Romans in Ancient China (240 BC – 1398 AD) 

By Lucas Christopoulos

Sino-Platonic Papers, 230 (August, 2012)

17th century map of China, by Johan Nieuhof (1618-1672)

Introduction: Following the death of Alexander the Great, a large number of his soldiers were forced to remain in the Asian fortified cities of Bactria and northwest India in order to control the occupied territories. These new colonies of the East appealed to migrants, many of them artists or mercenaries from Greece, during the reign of Alexander’s successor, Seleucos. Many of the children that issued from the mixed marriages of Greeks and locals belonged to a Hellenized aristocracy that came to rule Bactria and northwest India for, in some places, the next three hundred years. Soon after Seleucos had made an alliance with Chandragupta Maurya, the king of India, the Kshatriya, the warrior caste of India, had come to consider the Greeks as entirely members of their own clan. After the reign of Chandragupta’s grandson Ashoka, the first Buddhist king of India, this alliance was reflected in Gandhara with the development of a Greco-Buddhist culture.

The independent kingdom of Bactria claimed by Diodotes gave rise to a distinctive culture that mixed Persian, Indian and Greek elements, and its later expansion eastward eventually had a great impact on the Chinese world. The Greco-Bactrians and their Hellenized Scythian troops reached China through the Tarim Basin and established colonies in its southern portion, along the northern range of the Himalayas. The eastern part of the Roman Empire then took the relay, thronged with travelers, embassies and traders reaching China through Sri Lanka, the Kushana Empire and India, following the Spice Road from Roman Egypt. After the advent of Christianity, Byzantium developed close relations with Tang dynasty China in its turn, mostly with Syrian monks acting as intermediaries between the two empires.


In this article I have assembled elements from historical texts, archaeological discoveries and research from other scholars in order to establish the links between these civilizations. Few archaeological discoveries have been made in China, and the lack of information on that side makes this research difficult. The ancient Roman and Greek historical sources are also insignificant concerning this particular cultural exchange in East Asia. Modern Western scholars do not have many tools to investigate the subject seriously, and they are very cautious when it comes to Chinese national history. The subject can hurt national sensibilities, because it is situated at the crossroads of major ancient civilisations, and some might regard investigating the interactions in that area as taboo. But if we can pass over this psychological barrier, disregarding particular ethnicities and considering mankind’s history as global, then it is possible to make fascinating deductions concerning what happened along the Silk Road in Xinjiang.

I found only a few pieces of this particular historical puzzle; other needed pieces are still missing or may themselves raise further questions. I do not intend to try to draw definitive conclusions to these unresolved problems, but I do suggest that we need to assemble all the pieces that we have in order to have a clearer view. That is the premise of this essay. I hope that future archaeological discoveries and exchanges with other scholars will help to clarify this signal part of human history, one that links two ancient and greatly influential civilizations — Greece and China.

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