A Tale of Silk and Faraway Lands: Did the Romans Meet the Chinese?

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 A Tale of Silk and Faraway Lands: Did the Romans Meet the Chinese?

A Tale of Silk and Faraway Lands: Did the Romans Meet the Chinese?

Although located on opposite ends of the globe, ancient Rome and China were remarkably similar in their stature, as both commanded respect from the weaker kingdoms enveloped in their spheres of influence through the twin forces of military might and diplomatic astuteness. Yet outside of their geographical bases, in the mysterious and seemingly endless exterior of the ancient world that commenced on the other side of their frontiers, their impact was often dampened down into an indirect form of influence, disseminated down the winding webs of the perennial Silk Road trading routes, so named after its most famous product.

A mural showing women dressed in traditional Hanfu silk robes, from the Dahuting Tomb of the late Eastern Han Dynasty (25–220 AD), located in Zhengzhou, Henan province, China (Public Domain)

A mural showing women dressed in traditional Hanfu silk robes, from the Dahuting Tomb of the late Eastern Han Dynasty (25–220 AD), located in Zhengzhou, Henan province, China (Public Domain)

Up until the middle of the first millennium AD, ancient Rome was obsessed with Chinese silk. The superior quality and comfort of silk garments, much better than Roman cloth, imbibed in Roman commentators a fascination for the ‘Seres’, as the Chinese were known, who inhabited a mystical realm somewhere east. Equally, the exquisite glass vessels of the ‘Da-Qin’, as the Romans were called, which made their way to ancient China through immeasurable stretches of land and numerous intermediaries, peaked the curiosity of Chinese scholars who became captivated by the peculiar Ta Ts’in and their home in the farthest western reaches of the known world. From the first century BC onwards, it was silk, trade, and the usual military and political considerations that motivated both kingdoms to find out more about each other, despite the vast distances.


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