Marcus Licinius Crassus was one of the richest men in the Roman World and part of the First Triumvirate with notables such as Pompeius Magnus and Julius Caesar. He had made his money through picking up the property of those killed in Sulla’s proscriptions at firesale prices. Indeed, he was accused of adding the name of a particularly rich man just so he could pick up his property at bargain basement prices. Combine that through slave trafficking and silver mines, gave Crassus a fortune estimated by Pliny at 200 million sestertii, or about 8.5 billion in today’s dollars. If his name sounds familiar, you may have heard in the old movie “Spartacus” about the slave rebellion led by the slave of the same name. Crassus eventually had it put down in 71 BCE, although Pompey took a lot of the credit. By the time of the First Triumvirate in 59 BCE, Crassus was in his sixties and hard of hearing, but still craving military glory. As governor of Syria, he could see first hand the riches of Partia over the Euphrates. Taking down this rich empire would resolve two of his needs- glory and more money.
Except that it all went wrong. The initial omens were horrible- Crassus dropped the entrails of a sacrificial animal as he was handing it to the haruspex, he wore a black on the day of the battle instead of purple, he ordered a meal of lentils and salt completely oblivious to the fact this was a traditional funeral meal. More practically, Crassus refused to listen to his veteran advisors, listening only an ally who had unbeknownst to him had already turned his coat. Predictably, Crassus’ legions were conquered at the Battle of Carrhae in 53 BCE by Parthian force of lesser number. When Crassus men demanded he parley, there was a fight at the meeting point that left Crassus dead. Legend had it the Parthians beheaded him and used his severed head as a prop in a performance of the Euripides’ tragedy The Bacchae. They also said they poured molten gold in his mouth to represent his greed. That was that for Crassus. 20,000 Romans died in the battle. But what happened to the men who survived?
The ones who escaped, headed back to Italy. However, there were 10,000 legionnaires captured as prisoner by the Parthians. In 20 BCE, peace was negotiated with the Parthians by Augustus, and as part of the treaty he requested the prisoners from the Battle of Carrhae. The Parthians claimed there weren’t any left. Where did they go? According to historians, Parthian practice was to shift prisoners to the East to defend their borders This theory is upheld by reports by Roman historian Plinius. In that case, they may accepted their lot in life and fought and died as mercenaries. However, in 1955 Homer Hasenpflug Dubs set out a theory that these men survived and founded a city in China. His speech entitled, “A Roman City in Ancient China” outlined reports from the Han dynasty that sound much like a Roman legion.
The chronicles found by Dub describe the capture of a Mongol city by the Chinese army under Chen Tang in 36 BCE named Zhizhi in modern day Kazakhstan. Zhizhi had a palisade of tree trunks and the warriors defending the city used a “fish scale formation” the Chinese had never seen. Their description matches that of a testudo, in which soldiers form a cover of overlapping shields in front of their bodies in the first row and over the heads of the additional rows. Although the eventually lost the town, the Chinese were so impressed with the defenders they gave them land for another town guarding the border between China and Tibet. The named the place Li-Jien, which was pronounced “legion”. This became known as the village of Liquan in modern times.
Is it true? No one knows for sure. Many historians believe this theory is nothing but conjecture. There is 17 year gap between the Parthians taking the Roman prisoners and the appearance of the brave warriors using the testudo at Zhizhi. It is plausible that the remaining legionnaires may have been sold to the Mongols as mercenaries or captured. DNA samples from villagers in Liquan have shown over 50% of them have Caucasian ancestry. This includes green and blue eyes, increased average height and Roman noses. Contact between the Roman Empire and the Chinese Empire did happen, albeit indirectly, through the Silk Road, which Liquan is near. Without direct evidence we will never know, but the possibility is tantalizing.