Surena, capo delle forze partiche. Museo Nazionale dell'Iran, Aytakin 2005


Marco Licinio Crasso, the 61-year-old Roman consul, who became immensely wealthy by virtue of his fortunate political life, wanted to close his military career with a great victory, conquering the empire of the Parthians.

Crasso defeated the Samnites during the “Civil War” in 82 BC. He was the glorious commander of the right side of the army defending Rome. He defeated the preponderant Samnite troops at “Porta Collina” by allowing Silla to counterattack and defeat enemy army. Then Crasso commanded the legions who invaded Samnium, avenging for the defeat and subsequent humiliation of the “Caudine Forks” suffered by the Roman legions in 321 BC.

Marco Licinio Crasso had also intervened with his legions in the Third Servant War of 71 BC against Spartacus, the gladiator slave who had managed to put together a fearsome army, holding the Roman legions at bay for a long time. The Roman legions led by Crasso defeated men led by Spartacus in the battle fought near the Sele River. Sixty thousand rebels were massacred on the battlefield. Six thousand rebels were caught. During the return journey to Rome, Crasso crucified all the prisoners leaving the bodies hanging on the poles erected at the sides of the Appia Street as a warning to others who wanted to emulate the rebellious gladiator’s gesture.

In the 53 BC Crasso decided to organize an expedition against the Parthians, the ancient inhabitants of southern Turkey, Iraq, Iran and West India, wanting to join the empire even that huge territory. He built an army recruiting men across the peninsula. The tribune of the people, Ateio Capitone, was an interpreter of the discomfort of those who had been forcibly engaged among the humbleest sections of the people of Urbe. He opposed the military expedition organized by Crasso. The tribune, however, did not find a favorable response in the Senate. The legions left for Turkey, stopping in Naples and Brindisi, where they embarked on numerous “naves onerariae”. These were cargo ships which were also used for troop transport. They were flanked by military triremes, who were escort to the convoy. The sea was not clement, some storms encountered in the Ionian Sea caused the sinking of some ships. The convoy landed on the western coast of Turkey, disembarking about 45,000 men, joined in twelve legions, each consisting of 3,800 men with heavy infantry equipment.

The strength expressed by his legions led Crasso to underestimate the value of his enemy. This levity had him do some serious errors, such as to head directing his goal, Seleucia, one of the most important cities of the Parthyan Empire. Target openly declared to the ambassador of the enemies.

Knowing the targets and the journey of the enemy troops, the generals of the Parthians had the opportunity to choose the place of the clash. The battle fired at the border between Turkey and Syria, near the city of Carre (now Harran). The Romans found themselves confronted for the first time with a weapon unknown to them, the reflex, or rather retroflected, bow that was supplied to enemy archers’ detachment. That bow, which was built with Mongolian and Chinese techniques, was able to shoot arrows with incredible power, four times more than traditional bows. Parthyan army archers were able to hit the enemy already 400 meters away.

A rain of arrows fell on Roman soldiers. The hollow square, a typical battle formation that was protected by aligned shields, turned out to be inadequate. Though in a small percentage, the arrows that were able to go beyond the shields and hit the soldiers were so many to decimate heavily the legion men. Even Publius, the son of Crasso, who had come to the aid of infantry in trouble with his thousand knights, was overwhelmed by enemy arrows. They were all killed. Publio Crasso’s head was launched among the Roman troops.

Marco Licinio Crasso, suffering for the pain of the death of his son and aware of the imminent defeat, retired to his tent, leaving the command to his generals. The dead men among the legionaries were several thousand. The roman surrender, accepted by Surema, commander of the enemies, turned out to be a trap. Crasso was killed and decapitated. At the end of the battle, about 15,000 Roman soldiers were prisoners.

After 33 years, the legions of Marco Antonio succeeded in the unsuccessful attempt of Crasso, defeating the Parthians. At the stipulation of the peace treaty Rome asked for the return of its soldiers who had been detained in 53BC. Only a few tens of them were returned to the Romans. Parthian authorities had lost the traces of the other 15,000 of them.

The Parthians used the prisoners of war for what they knew best, fighting. They were sent to guard the distant borders of the empire. Plinio reports that about 10,000 Roman soldiers caught in Carre were sent to the border with Mongolia to counter the Hun hordes trying to penetrate the territories under Parthian dominion.

In 1955, an American historian, Homer Hasenpflug Dubs, discovered that Bau Gau, a Chinese historian who lived in the 1st century AD, in his Han dynasty history says that the city of Zhizhi, located on the border with Mongolia, was conquered by the Chinese. That city, which today is identified in the present Dzhambul in Uzbekistan, had defensive systems similar to those used by the Roman army, unknown in the Chinese military tradition. In addition, the defenders of the city used in the battle against the invaders the typical hollow square formation of the Roman legions. The prisoners of that battle, about 200, were transferred to a town called Lijian, which meant “legion” or “Roman Empire”. That village is identified with today’s city of Zheilaizhai. Lijian city traces have been found on ancient topographic maps dating back to the 20 BC, the year of Marco Antonio’s victory over the Parties.

This story is even more surprising as a Turkish historian reminded that the Turkish clan Ashina, one of the founding peoples of the Turkish nation, came from the town of Zheilaizhai. It can therefore assume a return to the West of a part of the descendants of the legionaries dispersed in China, driven by the nostalgia of the world that their fathers had left against their will.

There were many European and Chinese historians who deepened the research of American Dubs. Excavations around the Chinese site drove to the discovery of fortifications made of wooden stakes which formed palings, like the defensive system of the Roman castrum, but China’s passive defense systems provided the double wall, built in stone and filled with earth. There were also Western features in many Zheilaizhai inhabitants: blond hair, western noses, unusual height for the Chinese. Another peculiarity of this people was the tradition of bullfighting, which was expressed by the sacrifice of oxen and bulls on some occasions, present among the Romans but completely unknown to the Chinese.

Studies of the origins of people of that city were hindered by the authorities of the China because of the reluctance that Mao Tze Tung had to recognize foreign influences on the Chinese people. Recently, DNA research has been carried out by several inhabitants of the city, finding a high percentage of Caucasian genomes.

If the story is confirmed by further research it would confirm that the links and exchanges between China and Europe were thirteen centuries before Marco Polo’s journey, although the Romans still maintained relations with far China through exchanges that took place via the oriental peoples under their dominion. Rome imported woven fabrics of silk, produced exclusively in that distant country, which were used by wealthy patrician families.

Today, the inhabitants of Zheilaizhai try to exploit their alleged Roman origin. They have built a pavilion of resemblance to ancient Roman temples, with the reproduction of statues of ancient Rome and a marble bas-relief that recalls the history of the lost legion and the likely western descent of the inhabitants of the town.

(Image at the top: Surena, capo delle forze partiche. Museo Nazionale dell’Iran, Aytakin 2005)