Monday, 16 May 2016

Roman Views of the Chinese in Antiquity

Roman Views of the Chinese in Antiquity

André Bueno1

Rio de Janeiro State University

Abstract: How did the ancient Romans view the Chinese? In this short essay I briefly analyze Roman imaginings of the “Seres,” as the Romans of the ancient Mediterranean world called the natives of China. During the Roman Empire, in the first to third centuries AD, intense commercial and cultural contacts were maintained between East and West through the Silk Road. It is a portrait of the Chinese as they were seen in the Western world that I build here. 

In the field of classical studies, there is recently new interest in the relationship of the West and the Far East in antiquity. Obviously this field is vast, yet it has been little and sporadically explored. India and China represent two challenging civilizations, each with its own historical models, and therefore the study of their older historical periods requires a certain degree of specialized knowledge. But there is a good amount of Greco-Roman documentation of observations of these cultures that allows us to reconstruct the imagery regarding them that existed in the Mediterranean world.
In this discussion I seek to collect and analyze fragments of literature and history concerning the Chinese that survive in the Classic Greco-Roman documentation, during the first to the third centuries AD, when a Eurasian axis formed along the Silk Road. This axis joined the four great empires of the time — Rome, Parthia, Kushan, and China — in an extensive commercial and cultural network, responsible for the formation of a rich and fertile exchange. Writings conveying the Roman imaginary about China reveal that the ancient world was much wider and more open than we usually believe, offering an interaction among societies to which most experts in classical studies pay insufficient attention.

1) André Bueno is Adjunct Professor, Department of Ancient History, Rio de Janeiro State University (Universidade do Estado do Rio de Janeiro), Brazil. E-mail:

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