In 53 B.C., the Parthians routed Roman Triumvir Marcus Licinius Crassus in battle. The Romans experienced a devastating defeat at Carrhae. Crassus’ arrogance cost him his life and his entire force. Some of the survivors may have ended up in China. Rumors continue to persist about Crassus’ “lost legion.” Evidence for Roman survivors in China is circumstantial, but the legend is compelling nonetheless.
Crassus formed an alliance with Julius Caesar and Pompey the Great. The three split the Roman Republic between them. Afterward, Crassus moved eastward to find fortune, glory, and destroy the Parthian Empire. He felt inadequate on the field of battle compared Caesar and Pompey. Once in theater, the triumvir decided to march his force through the desert as opposed to a safer coastal route. His veterans objected preferring the safety of the coast. Crassus overruled them in favor of Arab guides.
The guides led the Romans into a trap. When the Parthians appeared, the Arabs scattered, and Crassus mistakenly ordered his troops into a square. As a result of his strategy, the Parthians cut the Romans to pieces. At the end of the day, he agreed to a cease fire to discuss terms. The duplicitous Parthians beheaded Crassus and took 10,000 prisoners. A small number of Romans escaped to Italy and reported the disaster. Romans mourned the 20,000 dead and vowed to help the 10,000 POWs.
Internal Roman politics and civil wars precluded full redress until 20 B.C. Augustus demanded the Parthians account for the soldiers and return the captured eagles and standards. Augustus secured the eagles and standards, but the prisoners vanished. The Parthians claimed they had no knowledge of them. Traditionally, they sold prisoners eastward into slavery. It is likely the Romans ended up slaves.
In 36 B.C., the Chinese made interesting observations at a city located in modern Uzbekistan. Chinese forces captured white soldiers using a “fish-scale formation” at the Battle of Zhizhi. Some feel this might be a reference to the Roman “tortoise” used to create a tank-like shield formation. After being taken captive, the impressed Han decided to emancipate the soldiers and mustered them into the Chinese army.
Modern researchers have attempted to determine if these soldiers were the lost legion. Roman coins have been found at the city, but this is not conclusive evidence. The money could have found its way to the city via trade. However, archaeologists found Roman style fortifications. Additionally, the modern population demonstrates European physical characteristics. The theory suffered a setback in 2007 when DNA evidence demonstrated no genetic link between the modern population and the Romans. So, if the Romans did make their way to Uzbekistan, they did not leave a genetic trail. Overall, it remains possible that the lost legion ended up in the area. Unfortunately, there may be no way to prove it.
Marcus Licinius Crassus’ arrogance and desire for glory overruled common sense. His trust in local Arabs over his own veterans cost 20,000 dead and 10,000 prisoners. The prisoners may have escaped slavery to join the Han Dynasty to the east. The genetic evidence indicates they did not, but the physical artifacts do not rule it out.