The Lost Roman Legion of Crassus

Marcus Licinius Crassus

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.




babur_of_indiaThere was the blood of conquerors in his veins.  On his mother’s side, he was descended from the great Genghis Khan.  On his father’s side, the man who took on the Mongols and founded his own empire, Timurlane.  It made sense that this young man would found an empire of his own.  However, he was born far from it.

Zahir al-Din Muhammad was born February 15, 1483 in the principality of Fergana, what is now Uzbekistan. Umar Shaykh Mīrzā,his father, was the ruler of Fergana, but died early when his young son was only eleven.  His death was reported as happening “”while tending pigeons in an ill-constructed dovecote that toppled into the ravine below the palace”.  This seems fishy, but there is no other mention of foul play.  His tribe was the Barlas, which had Mongol origin but members of the tribe considered themselves Turks in language and custom.  Thus young Zahir could claim both ethnicities.  Perhaps because of this, Zahir had a great obsession with conquering Samarkand.  At 15, he besieged Samarkand and held it for 100 days before he had to return to Fergana to put down rebellion.  In the end he lost Fergana to his brother and Samarkand to Muḥammad Shaybānī.  The loss of Samarkand is something he never got over.

Now the young man was living more like a bandit than a prince with a band of followers who attacked the fortified towns in the region and stole cattle and other goods.  Zahir describes in his diaries how he and his followers would place their ladders against the village walls under cover of darkness.  Sometimes they were spotted and had to ride away, but sometimes they got in and fought through the narrow lanes to take what they wanted.  Zahir was based out of Tashkent, which was ruled by his maternal uncle.  He later wrote of this time by saying, “During my stay in Tashkent, I endured much poverty and humiliation. No country, or hope of one!”  By 1504, he had seized the city of Kabul and made it his capital.  Somewhere during this time he acquired a nickname of Babur.  Many people believe this was because his Turco-Mongol army had a difficult time pronouncing his given name.  Babur is thought to have come from “babr”, the Persian word for tiger.  The cultural influence in Kabul was Persian, and Babur took to the poetry and lifestyle and eventually introduced this to India.

Kabul was located on the Khyber Pass and to the east through the pass was northern India.  At that time, northern India was ruled by a confederation of independent princes of the Rajput kings headed by Rana Sanga, ruler of the state of Mewar of Rajasthan.  He made his first raid into Punjab region in 1519.  The governor of the province, Dawlat Khan Lodī, resented his Rajput overlords and invited Babur in to fight them.  Babur did not need to be asked in twice, and invaded.  He ended up invading three times, but was unable to get a clear foothold.  As part of his manipulations in Punjab, the Sultan in charge there sent him the legendary kohinoor diamond. It was described as being worth half-day production costs of the world.  However, there was a curse on the diamond.  “He who owns this diamond will own the world, but will also know all its misfortunes. Only God, or a woman, can wear it with impunity.”  This diamond is now part of the British crown jewels.

In April 1526 at Panipat, Babur’s army of 12,000 defeated an army of the Rajput of 100,000 troops and 100 elephants.  Even though they were outnumbered, their use of cavalry tactics and new technology acquired from the Ottoman Turks-  artillery.  Three days after his victory, he occupied Delhi and took Agra a few weeks later.  

Rana Sanga thought Babur would leave like Timurlane before him, but Babur kept his army in the field despite the oppressive heat.  They were 800 miles from their home in Kabul and surrounded by enemies, but Babur describes in his diaries how he keep his followers in place with threats, scoldings, promises and appeals.  Rana Sanga eventually advanced with 100,0000 horses and 500 elephants.  However, Babur’s artillery won the day at the battle of Khanua, stampeding the elephants and breaking the cavalry.   

Before India was secure, Babur had to face an enemy behind him.  Another Sultan took Lucknow in the east while he was dealing with Rana Sanga.  He crossed the Ganges and retook Lucknow then had another great victory at Ghaghara.  Again the artillery won the day along with skillful handling of boats on the river.  By 1529, Babur’s empire was secure.  His empire included Central Asian territories, Kabul, the Punjab, Delhi, and other parts of North India as far south as Gwalior and as far east as the Bihar.  All of this would be passed on to his son, Humayun in what would become known as the Mughal Empire.  Mughal was a corruption of Mongol by later European visitors.

In 1530, Humayun became gravely ill, and was thought to be at death’s door.  Legend said Babur made a vow to God to exchange his life for his son.  He walked seven times around his son’s sickbed to seal the vow.  Humayan recovered and Babur died the same year.  Apart from being a military genius, Babur was a gifted poet and left a wealth of information in his memoirs, the Babur-nameh.  This has been translated into many languages and reveal him to be an cultured, witty man with an eye for beauty as well as conquest.


Sources available on request


timurlane-1After the death of Genghis Khan, the Mongol Empire had fragmented into separate khanates as his descendants squabbled amongst themselves.  The empire he built was too big for any of them to rule, so it was split into pieces and divided between them.  The northwestern portion was called Golden Horde, and by 1336 the majority of it was ruled by Sultan Mohammed Oz Beg.  His domain ran from Moscow to the Aral Sea and his capital was Sarai.

Also in 1336, a son was born to a Turco-Mongol tribal leader of the Barlas in Transoxiana.  Transoxiana is located at the edge of the mountains just south of the beautiful city of Samarkand.   This is in modern day Uzbekistan.  The boy was called Timur.  Timur’s father was one of the first tribesmen to convert to Islam, and so the young boy grew up reading the Qur’an and educated in the ways of Sunni Islam.   He earned the nickname “the lame”, or Timurlane, after being shot in the thigh early in life.  Stories vary as to whether this was sustained participating in local rebellions or after being caught by a farmer for stealing sheep.  When Timur was 10 years old, there was a rebellion against the Mongol leader in Transoxiana and a man named Kazgan became emir.  There was a period of anarchy for several years as the battles were fought to bring the area back into Mongol control.  Mongol armies marched into Transoxiana in 1360 and 1361, and Timur acted like a good tame prince and submitted to the new Mongol governor, Ilyas Khodja, becoming a minister within his government.  They didn’t realize who they were dealing with.

Unbeknownst to the Mongols, Timur made an alliance with Hussein, the grandson of the Kazgan, who originally freed Transoxiana in Timur’s youth.  Together they fought the Mongols winning victories in 1364, but ultimately being defeated in 1365 at the Battle of the Mud.  They withdrew to consolidate power.  It wasn’t always a happy partnership as neither of them seemed to like each other very much, but it was successful in that they were able to eventually drive the Mongols from Transoxiana.  An Islamic uprising in Samarkand and a plague affecting the Mongol’s horses helped matters immensely.  With the common enemy of the Mongol’s retreating, Hussein and Timur’s partnership was deteriorating rapidly as both of the were jockeying for supremacy over Transoxiana.  Timur spent his time charming the local emirs, princes and merchants as well as a man from Mecca who claimed to be a descendent of the Prophet Muhammad.  It came to open warfare when Timur’s wife died as she was also Hussein’s sister.  Without the ties of family between them, the two clashed.  Hussein was captured at the siege of Balkh in 1370 and executed, leaving Timur the undisputed master of Transoxiana.  He set up his capital at Samarkand, and began consolidating his power.  Anyone who had been loyal to Hussein, including most of the inhabitants of the city of Balkh, were bound in chains and beheaded.

Samarkand was improved and beautified as Timur’s favorite and capital city.  New walls were built which were surrounded by a deep moat.  The marketplace was enlarged and beautiful gardens and palaces were built.  Soon Samarkand was the envy of even Cairo and Baghdad.  Leaving a nominal king behind in Samarkand to rule, Timur took his army out for a test drive.  The make up was similar to the Mongols, however, there were more foot soldiers.  The army took great pride in Timur and his warrior prowess.  Their loyalty was to their commander, not their state.  They moved east and took on his old enemies, the Mongols.  In 1381, they turned west and moved through Iraq, Asia Minor and Syria.  Their atrocities were legendary.  Even Timur’s own court historian didn’t try to pretty it up.  For example, at Sabzawar, Timur had a tower built out of live men and cemented together with bricks and mortar.  Populations were massacred as a matter of course and minarets were made of decapitated heads.  Not a nice guy.  By 1385 all of Persia was under his control.

Then he moved north into what is now Georgia and Armenia.  He wrapped himself in the mantle of a warrior for Islam as he claimed these kingdoms were attacking caravans on their way to Mecca.  The Christians there were slaughtered.  The Mongols attacked him there again, but he pushed them back to Moscow.  By 1392, things were pretty much settled and Timur was itching for another fight.  He after putting down more rebellion in Persia and Georgia and practiced a scorched earth policy by destroying entire towns.  Then he turned his greedy eyes to India.

Claiming the Muslim rulers there were being too tolerant of their Hindu neighbors, Timur attacked.  He destroyed the Islamic kingdom centered around Delhi and bragged about getting further into India than Alexander the Great or Genghis Khan.  Then he turned westward again, leaving the Indian builders and artisans he took from Delhi in Samarkand, Timur headed to Syria.  He took on the Mameluks and occupied Damascus.  During the looting of Damascus, a fire started that burned for three days.  Damascus took years to recover.  He was getting too close to the Ottoman Turks, who engaged them in battle in 1402 at Angora, today’s Ankara.  Timur crushed them.  Moving on to Smyrna, he demanded the Christian crusader knights there convert to Islam.  When they did not he conquered the city and had the entire population killed.  Their heads were built into a pyramid.

Timur returned to Samarkand and began planning a new expedition into China.  Luckily for China, he died in 1405 enroute with the army.  At Samarkand, Timur was embalmed and buried in an ebony casket.  Like Genghis Khan before him, Timur’s sons could not hold his empire and squabbled amongst themselves.  By the end of the century the empire was fractured and gone.


Sources available on request

Genghis Khan in Khwarizm-  The Flail of God

mongolsiegeBy 1218, Genghis Khan had united the Mongols and together they had conquered northern China.  The had expanded westward as well by conquering Kara-Khitai and were collecting tribute from Korea.  They first encountered the Empire of Khorezm, which extended from the Aral Sea to the Persian Gulf in one direction and from Iraq to India in the other.  The Empire was led by the Shah Ala ad-Din Mohammed II. He also had designs of China, and was miffed the Mongols had gotten their first.

As the way of things, envoys met and exchanged expensive gifts.  The Mongols sent   jade, ivory, gold, cloaks of rare white camel wool to Samarkand, the Shah’s capital.  Representatives were received and treated cordially on both sides.  A Mongol entourage arrived in Kunya Urgench in 1218 and discussed the possibility of trade.  All of this seemed positive, however, when a Mongol trade caravan of 450 men was sent into Utrar things did not go well.  Governor Inalchek sent word back to the Shah he suspected the caravan was full of spies.  The Shah agreed and the the caravan was killed all but a single man and their goods were added to the city coffers.  This did not go over well with Genghis Khan, who reportedly wept tears of anger over the incident.  Ambassadors were swiftly dispatched to demand recompense and that Governor Inalchek be handed over for punishment.  The Shah killed one ambassadors and sent the other two back after setting their beards on fire.  Genghis Khan lost his mind because as one historian put it, “Mongols believed in the absolute inviolability of ambassadors.”  The Shah just poked the bear.  

After building an army for a year, Genghis Khan raised a force of more than 200,000 troops with local prisoners forced to march before them as a human shield.  First stop, Utrar.  Despite fierce resistance where defenders threw naphtha—probably a stubborn-burning mixture of sulfur, niter, and petroleum- and the very bricks down at the conquerors, the city was overpowered.  The hapless Governor Inalcheck was brought alive to the Khan who poured molten gold down his throat and into his ears.  Ouch.  In the meantime, the Shah had divided his forces and deployed them in different cities.  Each division would act on its own authority.  Every one of the Shah’s military advisors, including his son Jalladin Menguberdi, thought this was a terrible idea.  Indeed, the Shah’s refusal to mount a united defense doomed his Empire to conquest.

Then Bukhara, where the central mosque was destroyed.  He declared to them, “I am the Flail of God. If you had not committed great sins, God would not have sent a punishment like me upon you.”  He then had the cases for the Koran were used as horses’ mangers.  The libraries with their centuries of knowledge were reduced to ash.  Upwards of three hundred thousand people were killed that day.   Women were raped and enslaved with their children, riches were despoiled while the Khan drank fermented mare’s milk and listened to music.  Anyone with a useful profession, an artisan or builder, was sent to the capital in Mongolia.  Those that lived were allowed to escape to tell their tale of horror to the other cities in the region.  To teach them the wrath of the Mongols was a very real and terrible thing.  The next city of Kunya Urgench was supposedly wiped off the map for its rebellion.  Legend says the Mongols dammed the Oxus River for three centuries causing it to flow into the Caspian Sea instead of the Aral over the smoking ruins of Kunya Urgench.

Next stop, Samarkand.  The people of Samarkand weren’t dumb and opened the gates to the Mongols.  Those who did not surrender went to the large wooden mosque for Friday prayers.  The  Mongols burned it over their heads.  They continued on through the rest of the Muslim cities along the Silk Road bringing fire and destruction.  Those who surrendered weren’t safe.  In Balkh they were massacred anyway, “divided up according to the usual custom into hundreds and thousands to be put to the sword.”  In Nishapur, it was said they even killed the animals.

The Shah, needless to say, was terrified and high tailed it.  He was able to stay one step ahead of the Mogols as his son Jalladin continued to fight.  The Shah made it to the town of Astara, where he put on a disguise of beggar’s rags and escaped to a small island in the Caspian Sea.  There he died naming his son as his heir.  However, the Empire of Khorezm never recovered.


Sources available on request

Kamikaze and the Aborted Mongol Invasions of Japan

Legend holds that the kamikaze, or "divine wind," prevented the Mongolian invasion of Japan in 1281, as depicted in this 19th-century piece by artist Issho Yada.
Legend holds that the kamikaze, or “divine wind,” prevented the Mongolian invasion of Japan in 1281, as depicted in this 19th-century piece by artist Issho Yada.

In Simon Schama’s History of Britain, he makes the comment that the weather bats for England.  Apparently the weather has that same deal with Japan.  The word “kamikaze” brings visions of suicide pilots from World War II, but the word actually means “divine wind”.  In this case, the kamikaze defended the Japanese islands from invasion fleets.

In the 13th century, the Mongols had swept through Asia and had finished bringing Goryeo, or Korea, into the empire.  Kublai Khan had become the first emperor of the Yuan (or Mongol) dynasty of China.  Now he cast his hungry eyes towards Japan.  At this time, Japan was ruled by the Shogunate Regents of Hōjō clan.  In 1266, Kublai Khan sent emissaries to Japan offering to make Japan a vasal state of the Mongol empire….or else.  This threat did not go over the first time it was made or the second in 1268 and the emissaries went home empty handed.  Later emissaries sent between 1269 and 1272 were not allowed to even land.  These slights to the the great Khagan could not go unanswered.

A mass construction began on the Korean coast, and a fleet of 300 large vessels and 400-500 smaller crafts set sail for Japan.  On the ships were 15,000 mongol and Chinese soldiers and 8,000 Korean soldiers.  In the autumn of 1274, this fleet set sail and lay at anchor in Hakata Bay, Kyushu Japan.  This was only a short distance from Dazaifu, the capital of Kyushu province.  All of North Kyushu had been mobilized, but the Japanese commanders were having difficulty controlling such a large group of troops as even pitched battles were often decided by single combat.  The Mongols were very experienced with moving a strategically moving a large force.  They also had superior weapons such as the short composite bows that the Mongols were famous for, with poisoned arrows, fire arrows, bow-launched arrows with small rocket engines attached and gunpowder-packed exploding arrows and grenades with ceramic shells thrown by slings to terrify the enemy’s horses.  It looked to be easy pickings for the Mongols.  However, around nightfall a typhoon hit Hakata Bay.  The storm was so fierce the Mongol captains suggested the troops who landed reboard the ships to avoid being stuck on Japanese soil.  By daybreak, the ships that had not gone out to sea had been destroyed.  Some estimates put this figure at close to 200 ships.  It is estimated that 13,000 troops drowned.  The remaining Mongol soldiers were dispatched by Japanese soldiers who boarded the ships left afloat in the cover of darkness.  The remaining fleet limped home to Korea.

The Mongols were not ones to give up easily.  Just because the first invasion failed, that did not mean a second one would.  They began rebuilding and an even larger fleet of 900 ships containing 40,000 troops set sail in the spring of 1281.  In coordination with the 900 ships from Korea, the Yuans in China were sending 100,000 troops in 3,500 ships from southern China.  The two massive fleets were to converge on the same place as before-  Hakata Bay, Kyushu Japan.  This time, the Japanese were ready for them and had built two meter high walls around all of the beaches.  The Mongol fleet stayed afloat for months trying to find a place they could land, when finally they were prepared to fight on August 15, 1281.  And in what must have been a cosmic joke, another typhoon hit Hakata Bay for two straight days wrecking the Mongol fleet.  Many of the ships from China were flat bottomed river going vessels, which were difficult to sail on the high seas let alone in a typhoon.  They capsized at a high rate.  Contemporary Japanese accounts say over 4,000 ships were sunk and 80% of the troops were either drowned or killed by samurai patrolling the beaches.  After this, the Mongols seemed to learn their lesson and did not try to attack Japan again.

There were lasting effects to these two attempts, however.  One was the development of the Japanese katana in the 13th and 14th century.  Prior to the invasion, Japanese swords were long and thin.  When attacking the Mongols, these types of swords got stuck in the thick leather armor worn by the troops and broke off.  Blacksmiths reevaluated this design and made the new katana’s shorter and thicker.  This also reinforced the myth of a “kamakaze” to defend the Japanese nation.  Japanese legend attributed the Kamikaze to Raijin, the god of lightning, thunder and storms.  Some legends say the Emperor had the ability to call up the Kamakaze.  This legend was invoked in World War II to refer to the suicide pilots who deliberately crashed their planes into enemy targets.  

These were considered legends, but in 2011 divers found remains of a ship the sunken Mongol fleet off coast of Japan near Nagasaki.  Ultrasound equipment located the well-preserved wreck 3 feet below the seabed.  It is the first ship from this period found with an intact hull.


Sources available on request