Ancient Greece and Ancient China. Two societies
we consider to have been separated from one another through both their respective histories.
What if we told you that at one point, the Ancient Greeks and Chinese had interacted?
And that they fought a war? A war over horses, that led to the opening of the Silk Road?
To find out where this story begins, we need to go back 2300 years. As Alexander the Great conquered the lands
in Asia, he founded many walled cities across Asia, which came to be inhabited by his military
veterans. The furthest east of these cities was founded in the Ferghana Valley, modern
day Tajikistan, and named Alexandria Eschate, literally: Alexandria the Furthest.
This marked the beginning of a Greek presence in Central Asia that would last nearly 300
years, and result in some of the most fascinating cultural exchanges in human history. Indeed,
in 250 BC, 80 years after Alexander’s Diadochi divided up his empire among themselves after
his death, the Greeks of the East- known as the Greco-Bactrians, declared their independence
from the Seleucid dynasty of Anatolia, and formed the Greco-Bactrian Kingdom, with Alexandria
Eschate being its northernmost outpost. Now, we must jump ahead around 100 years and
go further east. China, ruled by the Han Dynasty, was one of the richest and most powerful Empires
of the world. However, they had problems to contend with. On the northern frontier of
the Han Empire resided the Xiongnu, a fierce confederacy of nomadic steppe-warrior peoples,
believed to be the predecessors of the mighty Huns. They have been a thorn in the side of
Han China for decades, raiding and pillaging their northern territories and taking many
captives, as well as exacting vast amounts of tribute.
As the Imperial Court shifted more and more in favour of total war with the Xiongnu, Emperor
Han Wudi realized that he would need allies in the war to come. He appointed a diplomat,
Zhang Qian, to the west. Zhang Qian’s travels would later become legendary to the Chinese.
They would come to see him as a national hero, a man who connected the west and the east.
Zhang Qian’s goal was to form an alliance with the Yuezhi, another nomadic pastoral
people who previously had been displaced by the Xiongnu from their previous homeland in
the modern-day Gansu Province in China to the Tarim Basin. However, Zhang Qian never
reached the Yuezhi, as he was captured by the Xiongnu and had spent ten years in captivity
among them. He was treated quite well, even marrying a Xiongnu woman and having a child
with her. After a decade in captivity, Zhang Qian escaped
his captivity. Even after all that time, he displayed a remarkable loyalty to the Han
Emperor, and continued westward to Ferghana and Bactria, to find the Yuezhi people to
forge an alliance with them. However, when he finally reached the Yuezhi territory, he
was effectively told that the Yuezhi have no desire to make war upon the Xiongnu, rendering
his 10 years in captivity and his entire mission pointless.
One would think that Zhang Qian’s expedition had been an abject failure, but there was
a silver lining. During his time in Ferghana searching for the Yuezhi, Qian came across
a city he called Erqin and noted several qualities about the people living there called the Dayuan,
or “Great Ionians”. The men had deep-set eyes, and thick, dark beards. They lived in
sophisticated city dwellings and were lovers of grape wine. He also visited the cities
in Bactria, where he was impressed by their complex urban lifestyle and shrewd skill in
trade and commerce. However, he noted that the Dayuan, are weak in martial prowess and
are afraid of fighting. Indeed, the people who Zhang Qian encountered
in Ferghana and Bactria were the descendants of the Greek settlers transplanted into the
region by Alexander the Great, over 200 years earlier, but by 130 BC, the golden age of
the Greeks in Asia has declined. While their cities endure, they have been conquered by
the very same Yuezhi people Zhang Qian wished to forge an alliance with, and now live under
the suzerainty of their nomadic hordes, paying them tribute.
Zhang Qian noted that the peoples of Alexandria Eschate possess great “heavenly” horses.
These mounts had powerful crests, short, stocky legs and round barrels. They possessed remarkable
endurance and made ideal warhorses. They were even said to “sweat blood”, although this
was likely a product of blood-sucking parasites in their mane that caused blood to mix with
sweat when the horses were worked. The prodigal diplomat finally returned to
the Imperial Court in Chang’an in 125 BC. Although he had failed to make any alliances,
he returned with detailed information about the civilizations on the edge of the known
Chinese world, including the Greeks in Alexandria Eschate, and the heavenly horses they possessed.
This information would later prove invaluable to the Han Chinese. Zhang Qian’s accounts
would be the first major documented interaction between Chinese civilization and a European
culture. In 104 BC, Emperor Wu of Han had sent envoys
to Alexandria Eschate, looking to buy a large number of Ferghana horses, however we are
unsure of what happened next. Perhaps the envoy demanded tribute in the name of the
Han or, maybe, the amount of horses he was asking for was simply too high, and at too
low a price. In any case, the offended Greeks killed the envoy.
When the news of this reached the Emperor, he was furious and decided that if he cannot
receive the heavenly horses through payment or tribute, he will take them by force. A
force of 20,000 Han infantry, and 6000 cavalry was levied to invade Alexandria Eschate, and
general Li Guangli was to command it. Li Guangli had led his army through the treacherous
Taklamakan desert to reach Ferghana. Within the desert was the Tarim Basin, home to a
network of oasis city-states governed by the Tocharian peoples. Li Guangli attempted to
gain supplies and resources from these cities, but they refused. Ultimately, he ended up
in multiple petty conflicts with the Tocharians, losing a good chunk of his men.
By the time the Han Chinese army reached Alexandria Eschate, only a fraction of their original
force remained. The Greeks, of course, refused to capitulate. Without the means to break
through the city walls, Li Guangli was forced to withdraw back to China.
When Guangli informed the Emperor of the difficulties they had in the desert, Wu of Han responded
tripling the amount of men given to his general. Li Guangli had set out across the Taklamakan
again with 60,000 soldiers, and 100,000 Oxen. This time, due to the sheer numbers of the
Chinese army the Tocharian cities cooperated and offered supplies. Still Guangli had managed
to lose nearly half of his army to exposure in the harsh deserts.
Nevertheless, with 30,000 troops, he reached the walls of Alexandria Eschate once more
and prepared for a siege. Actual accounts of the battle itself are fairly
sparse. We know that the Greeks put up an initial fight, being able to hold off the
Chinese army for 40 days, before they broke through the outer wall of Alexandria. We don’t
know by what means the Chinese penetrated the city walls, although we can make an educated
guess based on the siege engines, we know the Han Dynasty used. It is likely that the
heavy use of the overlook assault cart, battering rams, and sheer force of numbers allowed the
Chinese to hammer their way in. In response to this the nobles within the
city, fearing for their lives, assassinated their king, and delivered his head to Li Guangli,
as well as offering as many horses as the Chinese would like, as a tribute. Li Guangli
established a new puppet king in Dayuan, placing the Greeks of the city firmly under Chinese
influence. Thus ended the short, yet pivotal war of the Heavenly Horses.
On the Chinese march homeward, many of the same Tocharian city-states capitulated to
the Han, awed by their victory in Alexandria Eschate. Chinese military garrisons would
be established within their walls, and the entire Tarim Basin region would eventually
become consolidated into Han China’s Protectorate of the West.
Li Guangli returned to the Han court victorious, and with 3,000 “Heavenly” Ferghana horses
to show for it. The War of the Heavenly Horses, and all the events that led up to it, are
incredibly pivotal moments in history, especially given how little they are talked about. It
banishes the misconception that the Ancient Greek and Ancient Chinese civilizations never
interacted with one another, and opens up a whole new field of fascinating cultural
interaction between very different people groups.
More importantly, this critical interaction between the Greeks and Chinese 2,000 years
ago was likely the seminal event that opened up the silk road. China’s expedition to
Alexandria Eschate led to them establishing their control across Central Asia. This connected
the Eastern and Western worlds, and made trade from Europe to China all the more possible.
The Silk Road would play a crucial role in the spread of religion, culture and commerce
across continents for centuries to come. Greek culture in the East would eventually
be assimilated out of existence, but not before it made its mark upon the cultures of the
region, although not in the ways one might expect. Many Greeks in India, Bactria and
Ferghana converted to Buddhism. The Greeks contributed their own philosophies and culture
towards the faith. Due to the Greek cult of form, it is said that the first anthropomorphic
sculpture of the Buddha himself was done by the Greeks, where before, he had only been
represented by his symbols such as a Bodhi Tree.
It is even believed that the Greek philosophies had a major impact in the development of a
new sect of Buddhism- Mahayana Buddhism. It would eventually spread into China, Korea
and Japan through the trade and interaction of the Silk Road, of which the Greeks had
an active presence on. As for China, they eventually won their war
against the Xiongnu in AD91. The Heavenly Horses they claimed from the Greeks became
symbols of wealth and power, depicted prominent in prestige art as late as the Tang Dynasty,
600 years later. Thanks for watching our video on the interaction
between the Ancient Greeks and the Chinese, including the war of the Heavenly Horses.
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