Erythrean Sea Trade: The Origin of Rome's Contact with China

Joshua Hall, Western Oregon University


It is a common view that direct contact between the Western world (meaning the world of Western Europe) and that of the Chinese did not occur before the fourteenth century AD. The exploits of Marco Polo, and other explorers of his day, have overshadowed the feats accomplished in the classical world. However, a little known account, given in the Hou-han-shu [The Annals of the Later Han Dynasty], records that in AD 166 a Roman embassy reached the imperial Chinese court. Western scholars have cast doubt over this account, few outright denying its accuracy, while others dismiss the importance of the embassy. In light of modern scholarship on ancient south-east Asia, however, this paper will establish the legitimacy of the embassy by examining the trade between the Roman Empire and the East. This paper seeks to examine Chinese records within the historical frame of Indo-Roman trade with a view to establish its legitimacy and explain the purpose of the embassy and ascertain the route it travelled.