The Greco-Chinese War Over the Heavenly Horses


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.
We are planning more videos like that, so make sure you are subscribed to our channel
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100 Responses

  1. Kings and Generals

    December 6, 2018 2:39 am

    Clickbait title: Chinese demanded the Greeks to give up their ponies, the Greeks said Molon Labe (, what happened next will blow your mind!

  2. Tolis Mortadelas

    July 16, 2019 8:28 am

    How I imagine Indian bystanders:
    -Hey, who is fighting over there?
    -Some dudes from 4000km to the west are fighting with some dudes from 3500km to the east.
    -Stupid foreigners, it is like us fighting the English!

  3. Akli Mi

    July 16, 2019 2:27 pm

    So many people lost even before war? Just by travelling? That is just plain stupid… care more, thin more about the people serving under you, rulers. Is injustice and stupidity the only thing this world has to offer?

  4. Abcern Α

    July 17, 2019 11:37 pm

    Cum on that's not the first interaction. All civilisations derived from the Greeks do some research

  5. Mike Mike

    July 18, 2019 11:57 pm

    Alexander the Great 🇬🇷🇬🇷🇬🇷🇬🇷🇬🇷🇬🇷🇬🇷🇬🇷🇬🇷🇬🇷🇬🇷🇬🇷

  6. Ironvale

    July 19, 2019 2:29 am

    Greeks at that time are idiots, han is the strongest empire in the world during that time, not even romans could beat them easily, and they killed the envoy

  7. 右炎

    July 19, 2019 7:34 am


  8. Vinn Regi

    July 19, 2019 12:57 pm

    I wonder if the breed of "heavenly horses" can be tracked down to a modern horse breed in China, or if they have assimilated completely.

  9. Redtide

    July 19, 2019 3:38 pm

    stop the bullshit. there is no ancient greeks. Greece is a name given to them in the 18th century and there is no ancient greek empire. All medieval creations from catholic church.

  10. Truth prevails

    July 19, 2019 9:25 pm

  11. Ryder Steel

    July 20, 2019 3:44 am

    Imagine what would have happened had the Chinese butted heads with the Hellenistic/Alexandrian Empire, though.

  12. Super Neutron Star

    July 21, 2019 4:22 pm

    11:30 It is even believed Greek philosophers invented Buddhism entirely. It is also believed that Greek philosophers invented the Indian-arabic numerals. It is even believed Buddha was a Greek in disguise.

  13. 杨一鸣

    July 21, 2019 7:01 pm

    这个视频是典型的西方史观,1.张骞在匈奴被俘是受到了良好的待遇?你怕是没学过历史吧 2.不管什么原因,你不想贸易,杀了汉朝使臣,那你还不欠揍?打你是肯定的,而作者却一笔带过。 当年成吉思汗,打花剌子模的时候也是因为狗王莫赫默杀了成吉思汗的使臣,尔若战,便战。懂吗?

  14. 杨一鸣

    July 21, 2019 7:05 pm

    顺便说一句,在我们中国史观里,从来不存在蒙古帝国这个概念,蒙古部族是中华帝国的一部分,成吉思汗也是发源于现在中国的内蒙古自治区。,他是中国人。translate my words to English

  15. Jim Yang

    July 22, 2019 5:02 am

    The Han Dynasty’s expedition to Dawan was two times, the first 40,000 troops and the second 60,000 troops. Less than 10,000 people came back alive, and the remaining 90,000 died on the expedition. Most of them were hungry or sick on the road. The composition of the army is mainly the criminals and gangs of Chang'an City, as well as the barbarian cavalry attached to the Han Dynasty. The second expedition, the Han Dynasty also used 180,000 militia to do flank shielding and logistics support to ensure success.

  16. fadly A. Rahman

    July 24, 2019 2:30 am

    Most likely the envoy pocketed the money the Emperor entrusted to them to buy the horses, and then demand the horses as tribute instead. This way they get the money and also fulfilled their mission.

  17. helloCREEP

    July 24, 2019 5:45 am

    China was so bad-ass back then, now it's filled with skinny dog eating Communist beardless cucks

  18. MrPhonebreaker

    July 24, 2019 6:22 am

    Does this reminded you of 300s? Kill the ambassador and got an entire Empire raining down on your country.

  19. Morgan Hope Lang

    July 25, 2019 12:58 am

    Fun Fact: Emperor Wu Ti's obsession for acquiring the "heavenly horses" wasn't only for warfare and/or commercial transport goals; it was believed that the meat of "heavenly horses" could give the consumer eternal life.
    All because the man could not consider waiting to die and become a Kuei-Jin through the Second Breath. ^o^

  20. hritvik bhat

    July 25, 2019 11:22 am

    you are wrong about greek influencing mahayana buddhism,rather it was the other way around.
    Alexander the great was himself attracted to the criticism of greek philosophy by an indian philosoher called Kalanus

  21. ناصر ً赵

    July 25, 2019 10:13 pm


  22. Xaris Xeros

    July 27, 2019 11:13 am

    Just for your information : fossilized Bombyx mori, i.e. silkworms, have been found in the port of Thera island destroyed by the massive volcanic eruption which geology calculates down to 1725-1625 BC. This proves n mid-Bronze age Greeks were already trading with the Chinese somehow, if not direct, then maybe via trade-stations in South Asia. Archaologists are still with their finger in their ass over this and it is not their biggest issue since in the same port they found also Lasioderma serricone, i.e. an insect parasite that lives exclusively on tobacco and nowhere else. LOL!

  23. prime rose

    July 27, 2019 1:11 pm

    DAYUHAN mean foreign in filipino
    because filipno have good diplomacy to china on ancient time may be we have loan word

  24. 高桥凉介

    July 27, 2019 1:38 pm


  25. 神原タクヤ

    July 27, 2019 3:38 pm


  26. Daniel YN Chow

    July 28, 2019 5:16 am

    Here are something from the opinion at the Han Empire. For the background Han is having series of war against Xiongnu(Hues) nearly a hundreds of years, and before this war Xiongnu has already been defeated and returned to very north and west areas. For the reason that Xiongnu has not been a strong enemy against Han Empire, Han Wudi, the emperor of Han decided to show his power and prestige to other countries. These countries including all the tiny city-states on the silk-road were conquered during the second war. Because these countries were located between the influence of two far stronger country Han and Xiongnu and were very likely to change their side, nearly all the emperor of China's dynasty had to try their best to establish regime at this parts to confirm the geographic advantage over Xiongnu, though these parts is far away from the kernel territory of China. And the Chinese have a famous saying "No matter who offends the Great Han, no matter how far they will be destroyed(明犯强汉者,虽远必诛)" by a later general Chentang who conquered these countries again after they betrayed Han. On the other hand because these places are too far away to start a war and to govern, the Han dynasty nearly exhaust all resources including funds and population that accumulated for nearly a hundred of year to win this war. Although the emperor have successfully brought the havenly horses back and make these countries surrendered to his army, plebeian of Han were squeezed completely and back to poverty again. Then the emperor issued a imperial edict for blaming himself for the bad effects of this series war. Han wudi has always been considered as one of the best emperor of Chinese history for he has built the fundament of China's territory and guaranteed China‘s prosperity for a long time without worries of Xiongnu's attack. And the most important thing is that that's the first time the national identity and national pride as Han(the main nation of China) has been set among Chinese people.

  27. Christina Masden

    July 29, 2019 10:26 am

    No trey parker it is me u need to give me money today im about to die a homeless torture victim. 10 c is ur mom black boogie

  28. Christina Masden

    July 29, 2019 10:30 am

    Ooga booga catholic over german japanese crusades eh trey parker? So im the inferior enemy?

  29. Christina Masden

    July 29, 2019 10:34 am

    Trey parker happy sunday. Nobody has time for your stupid ideas outside of the church of atheism. Do u think Machine Elves developed D&D? Look what u chose instead. Ooga booga catholic over german japanese crusades eh trey parker? So im the inferior enemy?

  30. Christina Masden

    July 29, 2019 10:37 am

    Trey parker happy sunday. Nobody has time for your stupid ideas outside of the church of atheism. Do u think Machine Elves developed D&D? Look what u chose instead. Ooga booga catholic over german japanese crusades eh trey parker? So im the inferior enemy? Now instead of branch and idea identity politics u have black stripper superiority communism? Send me money honey u gonna tithe tonight?

  31. michaelanthony perez

    July 31, 2019 3:46 pm

    If you're going to do documentaries learn the language. Distance is far and farther not fur and further. Degree is further, as in we don't need to discuss this any further.

  32. M. Karbaschi

    August 3, 2019 9:39 am

    So you mean the only interaction they had was a war which lasted 40 days?
    And the people were hardly Greek since they were mixed with the other locals and neighbors for 200 years.
    And those horses most probably were not originated from Greece since they werent known for their horses. Perhaps they were from Persia or the Arabian regions.

  33. Armchairwoman Mao

    August 3, 2019 9:40 am

    Why did the "intelligent" ancient Greeks refuse the gold and worse, kill the convoy, bewilders me.

  34. Cyril Chui

    August 3, 2019 11:26 am

    I think there is a technical error in your story. By the time Zhang Qian visited Tayuan, Tayuan was already conquered by another nomadic tribe (Scythians?), and the arrival (or migration) of another tribe called Yuezhi due to Xiongniu aggression had splitter Tayuan and Bactria. (Yuezhi later in 125BC conquered Bactria as explained in your another video regarding Greek states in Afghanistan). Although Tayuan people still have plenty of Greek DNA, the ruling class should not be of any Greek origin.

  35. o00o00o00o0o

    August 5, 2019 3:11 pm


  36. Tuxedo Steve

    August 11, 2019 12:35 pm

    Soldiers dont fight because they hate what is on front of them but because some Jackass killed the ambassador of the most powerful empire at the time who just wanted to buy some horses for his emperor.


    August 13, 2019 10:06 am

    they later replicated the horses with a lower quality version with the Made In China logo stamped on their butts

  38. Drunk Peasant

    August 13, 2019 6:56 pm

    My Heavenly Pony: Warfare is Magic
    My heaven horsey
    I use to wonder what warfare could be
    My heaven horsey
    Until you all shared this battle with me
    Slicing Big swords
    Tons of arrows
    A beautiful armor
    Faithfull and strong
    Sharing pettiness
    It’s an easy feat
    And killing an envoy makes it all complete
    You have my heaven horsey
    Do you know you are my very best enemy

  39. Hans w

    August 14, 2019 3:43 am

    Corrections: There's no such historical figure called "Li Guangli". His name is "Li Guang" aka "the flying general of the Han".

  40. Ari Blue

    August 14, 2019 12:06 pm

    The thing that fascinated me the most is the possibility of communication… As, how the hell did they understood each other? How the chinese asked for the horses? How so many things!?

  41. I touch little b9ts

    August 14, 2019 10:41 pm

    I can see why this peace of history is forgotten/little known.
    The white people had so little going for them for so long they had to adopt Rome, and Greece into their supposed peoples great pasts… when they are just as related to then as they are to the Japanese!

  42. GoobNoob

    August 17, 2019 1:54 am

    If I saw a video with the title "Roman-Chinese War" I would literally shit myself. There has to be some alternative history where this happens.

  43. Ruri GoKou

    August 17, 2019 5:08 am

    the chinese emperor made a golden horse and sent it to the Greek. But the dude was killed and the golden horse
    disappeared. That's why the emperor so mad

  44. Diaramamond

    August 17, 2019 12:24 pm

    Would it be fair to guess that the west might have possessed such well bred horses due to the legacy of the horse riding Proto-Indo-Europeans?

  45. H2uss G

    August 18, 2019 8:35 am

    In Chinese culture, even in a war, both side can't kill an ambassador or
    messenger, this is a barbaric act

  46. David Lee

    August 18, 2019 5:22 pm

    Civilizations will admire and respect each other. The Chinese have boasted the Greco-Bactrian Kingdom and the Byzantine Empire, and the Western Roman Empire and Byzantines also boasted of China. People don't like barbarians, such as the Huns, Attila, and Mongolians.


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