Marcus Aurelius and a mysterious embassy to China

International relations between the West and the Far East date back much further than usually thought and were originally much more benign than modern encounters.

Written by Joshua R. Hall on

The ancient world was much more connected than is often thought. Scholars such as Cyprian Broodbank have shown us how the “global” world of the Mediterranean formed.Show C. Broodbank, The Making of the Middle Sea: A History of the Mediterranean from the Beginning to the Emergence of the Classical World (2013).

Regularly overlooked, however, these connections extended to the east via different trade routes, such as the overland route through Asia commonly referred to as the “Silk Road”. But in the second century AD, the seaborne route, which connected the Mediterranean world to India and beyond through the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean, was perhaps more important.

Fortuitously, the Periplous of the Erythrean Sea, or Circumnavigation of the Red Sea, which describes this route, has survived.Show An English translation is available online. It was probably written in the first or second century AD. This document describes the journey from the Red Sea to India, mentioning the goods which came from each area, as well as the ports-of-call throughout the journey.

Archaeological finds throughout India corroborate the existence of this trade, even if modern scholars have problematized the nature of those involved.

The Romans in China?

It was through this well-established sea lane that an embassy from the court of Marcus Aurelius (r. AD 161-180) was sent to the Han emperor of China, Huan-ti (漢桓帝) (r. AD 146-168).

Or so we are led to believe by a passage in the eighty-eighth chapter of the Hou Hanshu (后汉书), known in English as the Book of the Later Han. This is a fifth-century AD compiled history which addresses the period of the Eastern Han Dynasty (AD 6-189).Show An English translation of the relevant sections (88.11-12) is available.

Although it was assembled considerably later than the events discussed in this article, it was done so using various historical sources and documents from earlier periods. In the twelfth section of the eighty-eighth chapter, we hear that “in the ninth yanxi year [AD 166], during the reign of Emperor Huan, the king of Da Qin (the Roman Empire), Andun (Marcus Aurelius Antoninus), sent envoys from beyond the frontiers through Rinan (Commandery on the central Vietnamese coast).”Show All of the translations used here are taken from John Hill’s translation (cited above). I cannot even pretend to be able to read Chinese, so I have left the text as-is.

This has been a controversial notice since antiquity. The entry in the Hou Hanshu continues: “the tribute brought was neither precious nor rare, raising suspicion that the accounts [of the ‘envoys’] might be exaggerated.” The goods in question were: ivory tusks, rhinoceros horn, and turtle shells. These were things that could be easily acquired on the journey from Egypt to China and are mentioned as being available in the Periplous.

Most modern scholars, such as Anthony Birley, doubt that this was a “proper” embassy from Marcus Aurelius to the Chinese court, and assert that they were rather “freelance traders, probably from Alexandria, who had acquired their gifts on their journey, rather than official envoys.”Show A. Birley, Marcus Aurelius: A Biography (revised edition, 2000), pp. 144-145. Most other scholars share this view, e.g. W. Ball, Rome in the East: The Transformation of an Empire (2000), p. 135; G. K .Young, Rome’s Eastern Trade: International Commerce and Imperial Policy 31 BC-AD 305 (2001), pp. 29 and 223 n. 47.

Others completely ignore it, and, disappointingly, it does not receive any mention at all in the Blackwell companion to Marcus Aurelius.Show M. van Ackeren (ed.), A Companion to Marcus Aurelius (2012).

Evaluating the evidence

It is unfortunate that such an important event, the first embassy between a Western power and China, is so readily dismissed.

We must first assess the subjective quality of the goods presented, as this has been the primary source of criticism.

Although the doubt found in the Hou Hanshu (above) is often taken for granted as belonging to the original text from which it was compiled, it is not beyond question that this was the judgment of a later historian, possibly Fan Ye (范晔) or one of the other compilers of the collection in the fifth century.Show F. Hirth, China and the Roman Orient: Researches Into Their Ancient and Mediæval Relations as Represented in Old Chinese Records (1885), pp. 176-177, believed that most of the text of this section of the Hou Hanshu, including the note about the quality of the tribute, came from daily records kept by clerks of the Chinese court.

This is an important distinction to make, as if the original historical record did not question the legitimacy of the ambassadors then modern historians would probably not have approached it with such skepticism. If we do not found our perception of the embassy and its gifts on this notice, we are free to explore other possible explanations.

Elaborations on the note, as found for instance in the fourteenth century AD encyclopedic historian, Mă Duānlín (马端临), indicate that this may have indeed been a later addition. In this text, we hear specifically that “their tribute contained no precious stones whatever, which fact makes us suspect that the messengers kept them back” (330.36).Show The translation is that of Hirth, China and the Roman Orient…, p. 82. The slightly earlier thirteenth century AD work on barbarian nations, the Zhu Fan Zhi (诸蕃志), written by Zhao Rugua (赵汝适), only said that “as their presents contained no other precious matters and curiosities, it may be suspected that the ambassadors kept them back” (line 21 in Hirth’s translation).

It is thus best to treat the complaints that the embassy lacked valuable tribute with a skeptical eye.Show It is worth noting a discrepancy between the translations of Hirth and Hill. In the former, we hear as translation E33, that “the list of their tribute contained no jewels whatever, which fact throws doubt on the tradition.” Contrast this with the text of the latter, which reads: “the tribute brought was neither precious nor rare, raising suspicion that the accounts [of the ‘envoys’] might be exaggerated.” I cannot read Chinese, thus I have to rely on these translations. There is no reason given in Hill’s translation for this difference, though as his is more recent and has received comments from many scholars (see his introduction), I trust it.

Alternatives have been proposed. Henry Yule suggested that the envoys had “lost their original presents by shipwreck or robbery, and had substituted in the east such trumpery as they were told the Chinese set a value upon.”Show H. Yule, Cathay and the way thither: being a collection of medieval notices of China (1915), p. 52. Notwithstanding this hypothesis, he still believed that these men were not actually sent from the court of Marcus Aurelius, but rather that they were Syrian merchants.Show Yule, id. pp. 52-53.

So too was Mortimer Wheeler misled by the notice in the Chinese annals, concluding that “the comparative poverty of the tribute does in fact suggest the opportunism of some private merchant rather than a considered Imperial mission.”Show M. Wheeler, Rome Beyond the Imperial Frontiers (1954), p. 206. As has been noted above, almost all modern scholars have followed suit.

Why did the Romans go to China?

Acknowledging that the supposedly paltry tribute is not good enough reason to dismiss the legitimacy of the embassy, the next problem is why were the envoys in China. Unfortunately, the Hou Hanshu does not tell us what was discussed by the ambassadors and the emperor which would have helped us to understand this incident.

For those historians who believe that the ambassadors were actually merchants, the explanation is quite easy: they wanted to further their trade connections with the Chinese. Most authors do not discuss the motives in detail.Show See, for instance, Ball, Rome in the East…, p. 135, who simply says that the envoy “was probably a Syrian-or Palmyrene-and is thought to have been a private merchant rather than an official representative of Marcus Aurelius.”

Hirth, however, went into rather great detail in his explanation. For him, Marcus Aurelius’ Parthian War (AD 161-166) created a “commercial crisis” as the trade links between Syrian merchants, Parthian middle-men, and Chinese goods had been cutoff. He goes on to ask the rhetorical question “what was, under the circumstances, more natural than that a mercantile mission should be sent through the Indian Ocean and the China Sea to open up direct communication with the Chinese themselves?”Show Hirth, China and the Roman Orient…, p. 175.

There are two easily reasoned negative responses to this question.

The first is that there is no reason to think that merchants who usually traded with Parthians would decide on such a drastic decision when the war between Rome and Parthia was dying down by the time the embassy was probably sent. According to the Hou Hanshu, it arrived to the court in October of 166, which means that they could have left Egypt at the usual time in July, caught the monsoon winds (the Hippalus winds), and reached India in forty days (Pliny, Natural History 6.26). From here they would have had to travel by sea to the Malay peninsula, whence they probably went overland toward the east. Under ideal conditions, they should have been able to reach Luoyang, Huan-ti’s capital which sat at the intersection of the Luo and Yi rivers, by October.

The second negative response to Hirth’s rhetorical question is that there was no reason to go to China in the first place. Trade between India, Indochina, and China was already intense in the second century AD. In fact, regular trade probably dates back to the fifth century BC, if not earlier.Show One of the stories in the Jatakas (stories related to the various lives of the Buddha) tells us about a prince who commissioned a merchant ship to carry his trade goods to Suvaṇṇabhūmi, the “Golden Land.” While this is a semi-mythic place, it could have meant the region we know as Indochina; cf. H. P. Ray, The Winds of Change: Buddhism and the Maritime Links of Early South Asia (1994), p. 36.

Likewise, trade between the Mediterranean world, via Egypt and the Indian Ocean, and the subcontinent was flourishing by the time of the embassy. Would the supposedly distraught merchants of Syria, or wherever, really need to travel all the way to China themselves or could they not have simply arranged for the importation of inventory through the already well-established channels? This is a question which is more difficult to answer than Hirth’s.

We are now faced with answering the question of why Marcus Aurelius and his government would want to send an embassy to what Hirth describes as “a distant continent which could be in none but commercial connection with the western world.”Show Hirth, China and the Roman Orient…, p. 175.

The answer probably does lie in the Parthian War. Although Cassius’ campaigns in AD 165 led to great successes, such as the capture of Seleucia and Ctesiphon, the war continued into 166. These campaigns were directed further east than those earlier in the conflict.Show Birley, Marcus Aurelius…, p. 144. It is clear that the war was meant to break the Parthian Empire.

Why would not Marcus Aurelius, or someone within his government, think there to be merit in making contact with a people whom they probably knew to be acquainted with, and practicing trade with, the Parthians? It would make sense that they would have tried to bring the Chinese, known to the Romans by various names, to their side of the conflict.

While it would be too much to claim that this embassy was meant to bring them into the war itself, sending a few men to the east would not have been a burden to Rome and very much worth the effort in order to explore a possible new alliance.

No mention in Roman sources

This leads to, perhaps, one of the unstated reasons that most western historians have doubted the legitimacy of this embassy: it is not mentioned in the Roman sources. Birley states this bluntly at the end of the paragraph he dedicates to it as if it was enough to dismiss the evidence of the Hou Hanshu without further discussion.Show Birley, Marcus Aurelius…, p. 145.

This fact, however, should not matter to us. Most events of the ancient world, even Imperial Rome, have been lost to time. There would have been no reason for the historians of the period to mention what very well could have been a failed mission.

We also should not presume that every political action of Marcus Aurelius’ government was officially recorded, or that all of what was recorded was accessible to historians. While we hear of the embassy reaching the court of Huan-ti, perhaps the reason we do not find it in the Roman sources is that it never returned home. The route there was fraught with pirates, so much so that Pliny noted voyages to India had “companies of archers on board, because the seas are very greatly infested by pirates.”Show Pliny, Natural History 6.26; the translation is that of Wheeler, Rome Beyond…, p. 154.

These, or countless other causes, could have prevented the ambassadors from returning to Roman territory.

Additionally, AD 166 was a time of unrest in China, caused by dissident university students. Emperor Huan-ti may not have been well positioned to form any kind of alliance with a foreign power.Show Hirth, China and the Roman Orient…, p. 178, goes to far in suggesting that an alliance with China against Parthia would not have been sought because “the Chinese under Huan-ti were scarcely able to keep their western frontier in order, not to speak of the Hsiung-nu nation, their great and powerful enemy.” It is extremely improbable that the Romans would have had any idea of these difficulties, aside from the hearsay of merchants, which would have been third or fourth hand by the time they reached the Mediterranean. While it is possible that the presence of the envoys was fabricated as propaganda in support of the emperor, the supposedly paltry tribute is evidence that the reception of the embassy at the court was genuine.

Closing thoughts

So what should we think of the Roman embassy to China in AD 166? There is no reason to think that the tribute brought is enough evidence to completely dismiss it. Merchants would not have had good reason to make the journey, although “reason” may not be enough to have deterred them.

But the person who would have had the most to gain from opening up relations with the mysterious Seres (Chinese) was Marcus Aurelius Antoninus, precisely the person mentioned as sending the embassy in the Hou Hanshu. While probably not a mission meant to forge a decisive alliance, the lack of a further formal relationship between the two powers is also not evidence to say that these envoys were simply enterprising merchants.

Even though the war with Parthia was coming to an end, the pressure mounting on the northern borders would have been reason enough for Marcus Aurelius to seek any and all new friends in case the Parthians renewed the hostilities while his armies were occupied with the barbarians in Europe.

Equally, the absence of the embassy from Roman historians is not a good reason to dismiss the Hou Hanshu. Any such conclusion is more reflective of Western biases than anything else. While it is likely that we will never have a definitive answer to whether or not this embassy was official or an independent group, the consensus amongst western historians that it was not sent by Marcus Aurelius or his government causes most readers of ancient history to remain in the dark about what would otherwise be considered one of the more interesting events of the 160s AD.