Could there be a possibility that some Romans knew that there was a country north east of India? Because as far as I know the Romans traded with Indians.

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    I don't understand the downvote, it is a valid question, and interesting. Jul 9, 2014 at 5:43
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    Some people here would downvote their own grandmother. Good question.
    – Ne Mo
    Mar 31, 2015 at 10:22
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    The Romans had silk FYI and they knew where it came from (roughly). Oct 24, 2015 at 22:21
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    Some days China was all Romans thought about.
    – Ricky
    Dec 10, 2015 at 22:24
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    I would guess some of the downvotes were based on "you could Google this"/"this question doesn't show research", but that's an objection that is literally true of all knowledge to some degree, a good stackexchange answer helps a lot with making knowledge findable+accessible to a wider audience, and ten years ago the answers to this question were probably much less readily findable online than today.
    – mtraceur
    Jan 30, 2023 at 9:05

3 Answers 3


The Han general Ban Chao (AD 32-102) reconquered the states in the Western Regions (the modern day Tarim Basin in Xinjiang) after pushing the Xiongnu out of the region. This included the kingdoms of Kashgar, Loulan, and Khotan, which were returned to Chinese control. He also sent his emissary Gan Ying even further in order to reach Rome (Daqin). Gan Ying perhaps made it as far as the Black Sea and Roman-era Syria, but turned back. He did however bring back reports of the Roman Empire, and there is evidence that subsequent Roman embassies to China took place.

The first diplomatic contact between China and the West occurred with the expansion of the Roman Empire in the Middle-East during the 2nd century, the Romans gained the capability to develop shipping and trade in the Indian Ocean. The first group of people claiming to be an embassy of the Romans to China is recorded in 166, sixty years after the expeditions to the west of the Chinese general Ban Chao. It came to Emperor Huan of Han China, "from Antun (Emperor Antoninus Pius), king of Daqin (Rome)". Although, as Antoninus Pius died in 161, leaving the empire to his adoptive son Marcus Aurelius (Antoninus), the convoy arrived in 166, and the both Emperor being "Antonius" the confusion arises about who sent the embassy. wikipedia

I started to deliver some of my trademark withering sarcasm, but it turns out I had to eat crow. I knew that the answer was "yes", and I assumed that a trivial google search would confirm my knowledge. It took 3 adjustments to the query and 3 pages of results before I found the above.

Here are some other sources (turns out my first search was grossly flawed)

  • 2
    Withering sarcasm? And I thought that was just normal SE-type behavior! Sigh. SE considered harmful.
    – andy256
    Jul 9, 2014 at 0:04
  • Of course, now the question when put in Google does in fact bring the answer as the first result, and it's not even this site! (This site is the second result though.) Jan 26, 2017 at 21:49

They did know.

Roman knowledge of China is attested in the Geographia, the work of the famous Claudius Ptolemy. Which is not to say, however, that the Romans knew much at all about the Han Empire (or vice versa, for that matter). Ptolemy's map of the Far East coastline is rather distorted:

enter image description here

In Chinese records, the Han Emperor first received Roman emissaries in 166 A.D. According to the Book of the Later Han:

【列傳·西域傳】 至桓帝延熹九年,大秦王安敦遣使自日南徼外獻象牙、犀角、玳瑁

[Chronicles of the Western Realms]: In the Ninth Year of Yanxi during the reign of the Huan Emperor, King "Antun" (Antoninus Pius? / Marcus Aurelius Antoninus?) of the Great Qin (Daqin) sent emissaries into Nhật Nam bearing gifts of ivory, rhino horns and tortoise shell.

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    FWIW, It's highly likely that non-governmental contacts are much older. There's some evidence for Chinese silk in Egypt earlier than 1000 BC and there was active trade in silks from at least the 1st c BCE. The difficulty of travel and limited benefits kept contacts to an anecdotal level. If later history is a guide, the different polities in between East and West were probably less than helpful as well since their position as middlemen was highly profitable... for example, a Chinese envoy reportedly turned back from Mesopotamia when told he was still two years from Rome by the Parthians.
    – theodox
    Jul 9, 2014 at 22:24

I hope no one will mind that some but not all of my comments below are repeated verbatim from a previous answer I gave to a related question on this site, as there is no particular reason to express them differently.

'The Periplus of the Erythraean Sea' [which roughly means, the Indian Ocean] written in ancient Greek but during Roman times, most likely 1st Century AD, translation available by internet search, is a practical account of trading ports and routes known to Greco-Roman merchants, what was bought and sold there, dangers 'en route' etc.

It contains quite a lot of information about trading to India and a little about Burma, but says no ships are known to have sailed further. It mentions 'a city called Thina' somewhere further inland from which silk is brought by traders. This is probably a garbled reference to China.

There are some relevant facts in a book I liked called ‘The Roman Empire and the Indian Ocean’ by Raoul McLaughlin. China is not on the Indian Ocean but the Romans would have sailed through it to get there.

As another answer mentions, Chinese record refers to a visit from a Roman embassy perhaps a century later in the 160s AD, possibly in the reign of Marcus Aurelius. However, the nature of the gifts they brought and the lack of follow-up missions suggested the Roman Empire was not as mighty as the Chinese had previously heard. However, there is no surviving Roman record of any such mission.

In his above book McLaughlin suggests that it probably did occur.

We know the Roman Emperors did exchange missions with quite distant rulers in places like India; it could e.g. make both rulers look more powerful (“See, people have come from the ends of the Earth to pay their respects to our mighty Caesar!”).

He attributes the lack of mention of any mission to China in surviving Roman records, as well as the relatively unimpressive gifts brought and lack of further visits, to the fact that the Roman Empire was otherwise seriously distracted from such exotic concerns around that time and its resources stretched by a devastating epidemic and barbarian invasion.

I am sure I have read of other, clearer references to China by ancient Greek or Roman authors, but do not recall which ones. My recollection is that they knew it was there and was a large, civilized country, but had little other hard information.

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