Monday, 23 November 2009

Rome and China

(c) Daily TelegraphScholars are sometimes tempted to step outside their area of expertise. This is almost always ill-advised.

I recently attended a public lecture by a figure of international standing. The scholar in question (let's call him Professor X to avoid undue embarrassment) was asked a question about Sino-Roman relations.

This is a perennial chestnut that ranks alongside the Disappearance of the Ninth Legion as a source of public misinformation. Scholars are advised to tread warily.

Nevertheless, rather than admit professional ignorance, Professor X treated us to his antediluvian view of Chinese history, misleading his audience (an unforgivable crime) and exposing his incompetence to any who, like this emperor, happen to know a little about the subject.

Two elements of Professor X's reply stuck in my mind. First, he recommended that his interlocutor purchase a copy of Sir Mortimer Wheeler's Rome Beyond the Imperial Frontiers, a book which is over 50 years old and was already out-of-date when the first reviews appeared. This was a poor suggestion.

Second, he sagely advised his interlocutor, in tones designed to instill professional confidence, that an embassy from Han China had indeed arrived in Rome during the reign of Antoninus Pius, your very own blogger. This, likewise, was a poor suggestion.

Did China know that Rome existed?

The evidence is tricky enough for Sinologists, so what chance does our Romano-British Professor X stand? The best approach would simply have been to present the different threads of evidence and allow common sense to prevail.

It is often stated that ancient Chinese texts refer to the Roman empire. Unfortunately, it's not quite that simple. The texts in question refer to Da-Qin (or Ta-Ch'in), literally "Greater China". Where is this Greater China?

The same ancient texts relate that Da-Qin was also known as Li-jian (or Li-kan, or Lixuan). But Sinologists agree that Li-jian was the Chinese word for Hyrcania (a northern province of the Parthian empire corresponding roughly to present-day Turkmenistan). Not Rome.

This simply serves to illustrate that Chinese writers had only a very vague notion of the west. Their limited repertoire included T'iao-chih (or Tiaozhi), a placename reckoned to represent Seleucia, which lay to the west of Anxi, thought (on no clear authority) to represent Parthia, both of which lay on the great sea (maybe the Persian Gulf, maybe the Indian Ocean, maybe neither).

Did Rome know that China existed?

The eminent Cambridge Sinologist Michael Loewe wisely warns that "identification of Ta-Ch'in and Rome should properly been seen as an abstraction". No Indian, far less Chinese, visitors had ever set foot in the eternal city. So why did Professor X assure us, quite confidently, that the emperor Antoninus Pius had received Chinese visitors?

It would have been a great enough stretch for Chinese authorities to obtain knowledge of India. (See the map, above, borrowed from The Daily Telegraph, which demonstrates the enormous distances involved. And mis-spells Parthia.) In fact, Chinese memories of a "Greater China" in the west may preserve echoes of Alexander's empire rather than the Roman empire. A second century BC king of the Punjab, on meeting a Buddhist philosopher, is said to have remarked that he hailed from "Greater China", and specifically from Alisan, thought by Sinologists to represent the Egyptian city of Alexandria.

A Chinese text known as the Hou-Hanshou records that, in AD 97, Gan Ying "looked upon the Western Sea". If this was the Persian Gulf, he was far-travelled indeed. The mariners on the coast evidently dissuaded the Chinese traveller from proceeding any further on account of the distances and dangers involved. They clearly had only the vaguest notion of the west.

That would have been the end of the matter, except that an embassy sent by "King Andun of Greater China" to the Han court in AD 166 has been explained as a reference to the emperor Marcus Aurelius, on the grounds that Andun sounds like Antoninus!

We really shouldn't dabble in areas beyond our competence!

* See also: No Romans in China

Friday, 13 November 2009

Antonine Wall muddle

Management PlanA week or so ago, the BBC News web site carried a report entitled "No new money for Antonine Wall".

Scottish Culture Minister Mike Russell is quoted as saying, "There has been no additional funding allocated to date and each of the organisations is contributing expertise or funding to the planning."

Additional funding? Why do we need additional funding? Is this over and above the funding already pledged in the Antonine Wall Management Plan? Action 26 (on p. 66 of the Plan) promises that Historic Scotland and the RCAHMS "will maintain their enhanced level of financial support for the projects relating to the Antonine Wall". Of course, maybe this financial support applies only to selected projects. (Or to none.) Have we been duped by rhetoric?

But Action 26 also reassures us that "Scottish Ministers recognise that ... the Scottish Executive, through Historic Scotland, will need to continue its commitment to making a dedicated investment in the Antonine Wall". But then, I suppose there is a technical difference between recognising that there's a need for financial support, and actually coughing up that financial support.

Raising the Profile

So what exactly does Mr Russell's statement actually mean? He is quoted as continuing, "However, once the action plan is agreed, the projects to deliver a rolling programme of improvement will seek funding and this is likely to come from a variety of sources, not just the public purse."

Once the action plan is agreed? The official Antonine Wall Management Plan makes no mention of an additional action plan. Isn't the Management Plan enough? Do we need another plan to be agreed? (And agreed by whom?)

Falkirk East Labour MP Cathy Peattie, through whose constituency the Wall runs, is quoted as responding: "It's good to hear that there's an action plan but I would like to see some additional funding being allocated to promote and enhance the awareness of the Antonine Wall." She isn't the only one. Action 28 (on p. 66-67 of the Plan) states quite categorically that "Awareness and understanding of the archaeological, historical and other values of the Antonine Wall and of the significance of its potential value as a World Heritage Site will be improved."

But there's another get-out clause. "This can be undertaken", the Plan continues, "through publications of all types, the media, museums, on site interpretation and so on." So really, as long as one of these is implemented (say, a new guide book), the Scottish Government's pledge will have been fulfilled.

I hope that Ms Peattie is not holding her breath waiting for the raised profile that the Antonine Wall deserves. It may be a long time coming.

Thursday, 5 November 2009

Back To The Wall

Kinneil Fortlet (c) The SkinnyAfter winning recognition as a World Heritage Site over a year ago, the Antonine Wall seemed to slip back into obscurity. So it was nice to see a story about the wall this week in The Skinny, a Scottish culture and listings web site.

In the article, Keir Roper-Caldbeck cycles along "Scotland's most engimatic (sic!) World Heritage Site", painting a wonderfully evocative picture of the countryside across the Central Belt, the author's "back yard".

Armed with a guidebook (unnamed) and map (similarly unnamed), he travels from Old Kilpatrick in the west, through Duntocher and Bearsden, to the picturesque site of Bar Hill. Continuing east, he passes through Croy and Bonnybridge, "munching a desultory [so hot that it leapt about?!] sausage roll", and pays a visit to the "surprisingly small" fort of Rough Castle, before rushing past Watling Lodge and concluding his tour at Carriden.

He has been misled into thinking that the wall was manned by legionaries. Not a serious fault. But what a pity he didn't visit Kinneil (pictured above), the site of a fortlet laid out with timber posts to aid the visitor's imagination. And if the sections exposed in New Kilpatrick cemetery were the author's "first trace of the wall", he must have skimped on his visit to Duntocher, where a smaller section of the stone base can still be seen. Perhaps his (unnamed) guidebook let him down.