Descendants of Alexander the Great's army fought in ancient China, historian finds

A recent article is examining the possibility that a contingent of soldiers from the Mediterranean fought at the Battle of Talas River in 36 BC, but instead of being Roman forces, new research suggests they may have been descendants of the armies of Alexander the Great.

Christopher A. Matthew’s proposes this idea in his article, “Greek Hoplite in an Ancient Chinese Siege”, which appears in the latest issue of Journal of Asian History. It re-examines a theory put forward more than 70 years ago by Homer H. Dubs, in which the historian believed that Roman legionaries were serving as mercenaries in a city besieged by Han Chinese nearly 2,000 miles to the east of Roman territory. When the city fell, these men were captured and take east and eventually settled in a town on the fringes to the Han Empire.

Historians have since been debating this possibility, which is based on surviving Chinese accounts of an event that happened in 36 BC. In that year, Ch’en T’ang, a military official in the western frontier provinces of the Han Empire, set out with an army on a 1000-mile journey to the east to confront a Hsiung-nu warlord named Chih-chih. This warlord had founded a city on the Talas River, in what is now Kyrgyzstan, and was threatening the disrupt trade along the lucrative Silk Road. When Ch’en T’ang arrived at the city, the accounts said he observed:

[…] more than a hundred foot-soldiers, who had come to the gate in a “fish-scale” formation, [who] were practicing military drill.

After intense fighting, Chih-chih was killed and beheaded, and the city fell. Chinese accounts state that 145 men were “captured” while more than 1,000 “surrendered” and that these men were taken by Ch’en T’ang back to China, where they were settled in a town named Li-chien, which a generation later was renamed Chieh-lu (which can be translated as “prisoners captured in the taking of the city”).

A major component to Dubs theory was that ‘fish-scale formation’ being used by these troops corresponded to testudo formation used by Roman soldiers. Furthermore, the word Li-chien, which was first used for the town where the defeated soldiers were settled, can mean Rome in Chinese.

Matthew, a lecturer at Australian Catholic University and a leading authority on ancient Greek warfare, believes that the ‘fish-scale formation’ corresponds with how Greek hoplites fought. He writes:

It is only the large aspis carried by the classical Greek hoplite that can be used to create a formation which resembles the overlapping scales of a fish. When standing in a close-order formation of 45 cm per man, a shield with an average diameter of 90 cm (as the aspis possessed) will sufficiently extend to either side of the space that each man occupies, and so effectively overlap with those on either side. When the right edge of the aspis is presented forward and then pulled back on top of the shield carried by the man to the right, this creates a strong, interlocked, shield-wall. The uniform manner in which the shields interlock strongly resembles the overlapping scales of a fish.

Matthew goes on to suggest that the soldiers using Greek hoplite tactics may have been descendants of soldiers that served Alexander the Great as he campaigned in Asia between the years 330 BC and 328 BC. During his campaigns in Asia, Alexander settled several garrisons, which he named Alexandria (as he did with the more famous city in Egypt). Matthew adds, “it is reasonably safe to conclude that the descendants of many of the mercenary garrisons and settlements which Alexander had established in the area would have also continued the Greco-Macedonian style of life, including their methods of warfare.”

The idea that the soldiers of Alexander the Great’s armies remained in Asia is not new. Matthew points to oral traditions among the Kalash, a people living in northern Pakistan. One of their legends state:

Long, long ago, before the days of Islam, Sikander e Aazem came to India. The two horned one whom you British people call Alexander the Great. He conquered the world, and was a very great man, brave and dauntless and generous to his followers. When he left to go back to Greece, some of his men did not wish to go back with him but preferred to stay here. Their leader was a general called Shalakash. With some of his officers and men, he came to these valleys and settled here and took local women, and here they stayed. We, the Kalash […] are the descendants of their children. Still some of our words are the same as theirs, our music and our dances too; we worship the same gods. This is why we believe the Greeks are our first ancestors.

Another piece of evidence that supports Matthew’s theory is that while the word Li-chien does refer to Rome or Roman, it also can mean Alexandria. The historian concludes:

The true identity of the men in the strange formation before the walls of the city on the Talas River in 36 BC may never be fully established due to the limited source data that is available to researchers. Historians examining this strangely fascinating chapter of history can only deal in probabilities rather than absolutes. With the multiple interpretive possibilities that the name Li-chien could refer to either an “Alexandria” or to “Rome” or to some region of the Roman Empire or merely to some region of the non-Chinese west (which would include the regions of Sogdiana), the origins of these men cannot be ascertained with any certainty and the preference for one location over the other will ultimately come down to a matter of personal interpretation of the sources on this aspect.

“Greek Hoplite in an Ancient Chinese Siege” can be found in Volume 45 Issue 1/2 (2011) of Journal of Asian History, which is published by Harrassowitz Verlag.

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