The Shocking Legend of the Lost Legion: How Roman Legionaries Ended Up Fighting for the Chinese

If you were a Roman in the first century BC, you might be forgiven for assuming that yours was the greatest empire in the world. After all, Roman legions marched from the Middle East to Britain, crushing every enemy they encountered under their nailed boots. But the Chinese would still probably have had something to say about that claim. Under the Han dynasty, China was in the middle of a golden age, and the Emperor’s control reached from Korea to Central Asia. But at opposite sides of Eurasia, these great empires don’t seem to have had much direct contact with each other.

Many people have wondered what might have happened if the armies of China and Rome ever met in battle. Luckily for both sides, they never came to blows. Unless of course, you believe in the legend of the Lost Legion. As the story goes, a group of legionaries captured in battle was sent east by their captors. Eventually, they found themselves thousands of miles from home, guarding the border against the Huns and even fighting against the forces of Imperial China. But the story of how Roman soldiers might have ended up in China actually starts back in Rome, with a man named Marcus Licinius Crassus.

Reeanactors portraying Roman Legionaries, Wikimedia Commons.

Crassus was, by all accounts, the richest man in Rome. In fact, he may have been one of the richest men in history. Crassus made most of that wealth through conventional business ventures, but he had some less savory schemes. He famously trained 500 slaves into an organized fire brigade. These firemen would travel the city waiting for one of the thousands of rickety wooden buildings in Rome to catch fire. Crassus would then show up and offer to buy the building for almost nothing, otherwise, the owner could watch their home burn to the ground. Only when the owner agreed to sell would Crassus’s slaves put the fire out.

But the one thing Crassus really wanted was respect and admiration. However, in Rome, respect couldn’t be bought. It was only won at the point of a sword. So, Crassus did what all good Romans did and went looking for someone to conquer. The people he settled on were the Parthians. The Parthian Empire was a rich and powerful state located in modern-day Iran. They were frequently at war with Rome, but at the time Crassus declared his intention to attack them, they weren’t. The Roman Senators granted Crassus permission to attack, but many considered Crassus’s war illegal. And one Tribune even put a ritual curse on him as he left the city.

A bust of Crassus, Wikimedia Commons.

Obviously, this wasn’t a good start to a campaign. And there were a lot of reasons to think it wasn’t going to turn out well. Crassus had little real military experience, and he was also in his sixties and nearly deaf. But Crassus seems to have never encountered a problem he thought money couldn’t solve. And when he arrived in Syria, he began buying an army of mercenaries and Roman legionaries. After bringing his army in Armenia, the local king advised him to take a longer route to Parthia, avoiding the desert. But Crassus ignored this advice and led his men into the sands and towards one of the most crushing defeats in Roman history.