Third-century China got around the ancient world. They even made it to the Roman Empire, and wrote down their thoughts on these strange foreigners in the Weilüe, a third-century C.E.account of the interactions between the two nations. Here’s what China had to say about their imperial neighbors!
From a translation by the University of Washington’s John E. Hill:
This country (the Roman Empire) has more than four hundred smaller cities and towns. It extends several thousand li in all directions. The king has his capital (that is, the city of Rome) close to the mouth of a river (the Tiber). The outer walls of the city are made of stone.
This region has pine trees, cypress, sophora, catalpa, bamboo, reeds, poplars, willows, parasol trees, and all sorts of plants. The people cultivate the five grains [traditionally: rice, glutinous and non-glutinous millet, wheat and beans], and they raise horses, mules, donkeys, camels and silkworms. (They have) a tradition of amazing conjuring. They can produce fire from their mouths, bind and then free themselves, and juggle twelve balls with extraordinary skill.
The ruler of this country is not permanent. When disasters result from unusual phenomena, they unceremoniously replace him, installing a virtuous man as king, and release the old king, who does not dare show resentment.
The common people are tall and virtuous like the Chinese, but wear hu (‘Western’) clothes. They say they originally came from China, but left it.
They have always wanted to communicate with China but, Anxi (Parthia), jealous of their profits, would not allow them to pass (through to China).
As a Latin and Classics nerd, I’m weirdly gratified for the ancient Chinese to give them such a good review. Here’s a description of some of Rome’s trade goods:
This country produces fine linen. They make gold and silver coins. One gold coin is equal to ten silver coins.
They have fine brocaded cloth that is said to be made from the down of ‘water-sheep’. It is called Haixi (‘Egyptian’) cloth. This country produces the six domestic animals, which are all said to come from the water.
It is said that they not only use sheep’s wool, but also bark from trees, or the silk from wild cocoons, to make brocade, mats, pile rugs, woven cloth and curtains, all of them of good quality, and with brighter colours than those made in the countries of Haidong (“East of the Sea”).
Furthermore, they regularly make a profit by obtaining Chinese silk, unravelling it, and making fine hu (‘Western’) silk damasks. That is why this country trades with Anxi (Parthia) across the middle of the sea. The seawater is bitter and unable to be drunk, which is why it is rare for those who try to make contact to reach China.
And here’s even the directions how to get there:
The kingdom of Da Qin (Rome) is also called Lijian. It is west of Anxi (Parthia) and Tiaozhi (Characene and Susiana), and west of the Great Sea.
From the city of Angu (Gerrha), on the frontier of Anxi (Parthia), you take a boat and cut directly across to Haixi (‘West of the Sea’ = Egypt). With favourable winds it takes two months; if the winds are slow, perhaps a year; if there is no wind, perhaps three years.
The country (that you reach) is west of the sea (haixi), which is why it is called Haixi (literally: ‘West of the Sea’ = Egypt). There is a river (the Nile) flowing out of the west of this country, and then there is another great sea (the Mediterranean). The city of (Wu) Chisan (Alexandria) is in Haixi (Egypt).
From below this country you go north to reach the city of Wudan (Tanis?). You (then) head southwest and cross a river (the Sebannitus branch of the Nile?) by boat, which takes a day. You head southwest again, and again cross a river (the Canopis branch of the Nile?) by boat, which takes another day. There are, in all, three major cities [that you come to].
Now, if you leave the city of Angu (Gerrha) by the overland route, you go north to Haibei (‘North of the Sea’ – the lands between Babylonia and Jordan), then west to Haixi (Egypt), then turn south to go through the city of Wuchisan (Alexandria). After crossing a river, which takes a day by boat, you circle around the coast (to the region of Apollonia, the port of Cyrene). (From there, i.e. the region of Apollonia) six days is generally enough to cross the (second) great sea (the Mediterranean) to reach that country (Da Qin = Rome).
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