Lost Roman legions are all the rage at the movies lately. Neil Marshall was first out the gate with Centurion this year, a really fun and bloody adventure tale about what happened to the fabled Ninth Legion, who disappeared in the wilds of Britain. Kevin MacDonald has a movie about that same legion coming out next year; generically called The Eagle (it was originally titled The Eagle of the Ninth, which is much better), the film is set a generation later as a son of a Ninth Legion soldier searches for that group’s missing Eagle emblem.
But the Ninth Legion wasn’t the only lost legion out there. And now DNA tests may have found one of the most legendarily lost groups of Roman soldiers - in China.
You might know Marcus Crassus from Spartacus, but he wasn’t just Kirk Douglas’ enemy. He also was in command of one of ancient Rome’s most devastating defeats - the Battle of Carrhae. Crassus’ Roman forces got royally fucked up by the Parthians they were trying to conquer (Parthia was located in what is now northeastern Iran). It seems the Parthian archers were all that and a bag of chips, and they would ride up on the Romans, raining arrows of death, and then ride away still raining arrows of death. They could shoot equally well forwards or backwards.
40,000 Romans got killed in that battle, and Crassus, pressured into a parley with the Parthians by his mutinous troops, got betrayed and was beheaded. 10,000 Romans were captured and from that day forward disappeared from the official history books.
But there have been stories and legends about them. The accepted wisdom at the time was that the Parthians took the prisoners and moved them to their eastern front, where they were put into battle against the Huns. That was certainly the thesis extended by Roman historian Plinius.
And here’s where it gets interesting. Rumors have it that some of those Romans became mercenaries, fighting for the highest bidder. The Chinese took a Hun city almost 20 years later, and were very impressed with some warriors they saw in action there. Chinese histories tell of warriors who used a ‘fish scale formation,’ which sounds like it could very well be the overlapping shield testudo formation that the Romans perfected and that made them such a fierce fighting force.
The Chinese took these warriors and moved them even farther east, settling them in a town that was named Li-Jien (which sounds, in Chinese, like the word legion), where they repulsed Tibetan attacks. Recent excavations in an area near where archeologists think Li-Jien was (it’s now lost) unearthed a kind of hoist that Romans used in building fortifications which was unknown to the Chinese. That trunk is now on display at the Lanzhou museum.
Which brings us to the modern day. The archeologists who found that artifact were surprised by the looks of the locals. According to China Daily:
They were even more astonished to find Western-looking people with green, deep-set eyes, long hooked noses and blond hair.Though the villagers said they had never traveled outside the county, they worshipped bulls and their favorite game was similar to the ancient Romans’ bull-fighting dance.
DNA testing has shown that some villagers have as much as 56% Caucasian ancestry.
Before we get ahead of ourselves, let’s keep in mind that this village is along the famed Silk Road, the center of trade traffic between East and West in ancient times. There are a lot of ways that the people of Liqian, on the edge of the Gobi Desert, could have gotten some white in their veins. And the make-up of a Roman legion - it could have contained people from all over the vast Empire, including Germans (whom the locals, with their light hair and eyes, seem to resemble the most) - makes it tough to be sure that the Caucasian DNA came from the legion or from a traveling trader.
That said, it’s unlikely that Romans ever officially got anywhere near the Gobi Desert. The Han Empire was aware of the Romans, and there was some minor contact but it was all done through third party intermediaries (the Parthians, in fact!). No official Roman boot trod that far into Chinese territory.
But maybe! It’s kind of cool to think of the slow seepage of ancient empires into one another. And the idea of a hardy band of Roman legionnaires - the stories have their final number as less than 200 - fighting in strange and exotic lands and finding themselves settling down there - makes for an excellent and thrilling story. Now that’s a lost legion film I’d like to see. I could finally get a film where a guy in a Roman helmet fights a kung fu master.