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  • That Was Genius Team

Episode 33 - When in Rome, do as the Chinese do (Silk Road Week)

Updated: Apr 18, 2020

Sam's Episode Notes: Rabban Bar Sauma – The opposite Marco Polo and the odd story of the Mongol-French alliance

A very odd story this week, about one man's very big adventure. Rabban Bar Sauma was born in 1220 in Beijing, which by that time had come under Mongol Rule. He was likely an Uyghur, which the Mongols considered to be a Mongol people rather than a subjected nation, so he had relatively high status and came from a wealthy family. Despite all this, he lived a simple life as a Nestorian Christian monk and religious teacher from around the age of 20 until his mid 50s.

The Mongols were pretty chill about Christianity – during their conquests most of the Christian nations they'd come across, namely modern Armenia and Georgia, had surrendered without a fight and as a result their faiths were more or less left alone and free to spread around the Mongol Empire.

So Bar Sauma was quite happily bimbling along as a monk with no real drive to do anything else, until he and one of his students, Rabban Markos, decided it was about time they went on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. Now, that's a bloody long pilgrimage: 7,150km or 4,400 miles. Through Mongol-controlled and war-torn China, into Central Asia, through the Stans and Iran, into Messopotamia, and through the desert to Jerusalem taking the silk road. They'd encounter robbers, civil war, local leaders with their own politics, Muslim raiding parties and potentially bloodlusting crusaders. It was a true world tour.

We don't know exactly when they went, or how long it took - But off they did go, making it as far as Georgia before discovering that war had closed off Southern Syria and they were stuck. So instead they headed for Baghdad, which had recently been conquered by the Mongols. And in true Mongol style, it had been completely decimated, burned to the ground and most of the inhabitants slaughtered. So there probably wasn't much to see in what had been one of the greatest cities of the east. After taking in the smouldering atmosphere and relaxing in the salted Earth, they pottered around the area for a bit touring monasteries and the like in Armenia, Georgia, and Iran. In the area which the Mongols now designated the Il-Khanate'.

Eventually, in 1266, they were approached by Patriarch Denha I of the Church of the East, who had just assumed the position of Nestorian leader after murdering the Bishop of Tus – very Christian – and was looking for support. He requested that, being of Mongol descent, the two travellers went to visit the court of Abaqa Khan, the newly crowned leader of the l-Khanate, to speak for him. As a reward, Bar Sauma's travelling partner Markos was made a bishop. Denha tried to send them back to China with word of his ascension, but by this time the Mongol Empire was well and truly tearing itself apart and the Golden Horde were piling on down Southern and Central Asia, so it was far too dangerous for any traveller – even Mongols, to travel the silk road overland.

So once again they found themselves fannying about in Baghdad until 1281. So a full 15 years that the silk road was impassable.

By this time, Bishop Markos had become the patriarch of the Eastern Church himself, probably not by murdering anyone as far as I can see, so the two headed for the Il-Khanate's capital in Marageh, Iran, to have the now Khan Arghun approve the appointment.

Now, Arghun had a funny old idea. The Mongols were well aware of the Western European Christian kingdoms. There were plenty of particularly Italian bankers and traders who had found their way to China, as well as several Byzantine diplomatic missions.

But whilst the west was known about, the Mongols in the East didn't really care what lay beyond the Byzantine empire with which they did most of their trade. However, as the Mongols spread west, the knowledge of what lay beyond and the opportunities that presented became pretty clear.

And Arghun had a plan. He was under attack from the Golden Horde to the North and the Muslim caliphates to the South and West. And he knew that the kingdoms of Western Europe had been struggling with a series of disastrous crusades, launched partly to retake the holy land, and partly as an effective way of getting rid of a hugely oversized, expensive, bored and quite often rebellious knighthood class.

So how about a Mongol-European alliance to squeeze out the Muslims? It was a genius idea. And who better to send in this endeavour than the elderly monk from China with no real knowledge of Europe and a religious belief that was considered heretical by the people he was being sent to befriend? Perfect!

And so off Bar Sauma was sent in 1287, aged 67. Which is pretty old for the 13th Century. He was given a huge retinue of supporters laden with gifts and offerings, all packed on to over 30 animals.

Now, this wasn't the first time an alliance had been suggested. There had been attempts from the 1240s to secure an understanding between East and West, but it just hadn't worked out. Because what happens when you the take pig-headed and power-hungry western papacy and try to establish diplomatic relations with the famously frosty Mongols? You get the papacy offering an alliance in return for converting to Catholicism and submitting to the pope, which sounds like a pretty crappy deal, and the Mongols replying that it would be far better if all of Western Europe bowed in submission and paid tribute to the Mongol empire. Which sounds, frankly, equally crappy.

But the Europeans were pretty keen on the idea of an East-West alliance to decimate the Muslims. The crusades were going badly, and the story of Prester John was already gaining popularity following the disasterous fifth crusade in 1217 – a great Christian king from the east who would swing down and sort everything out in a time of dire need. And there had been a king who'd done just as the legends foretold! Except he wasn't Christian. He'd been Genghis Khan. At least he tolerated Christians and hated Muslims, which was close enough – and many Europeans, despite the horrific reputation of the Mongols, did consider them the embodiment of Prester John or at least a passable substitute.

So it was in this spirit of wanting to work together but demanding not being able to sort out who'd be in charge that Bar Sauma set off to the west. He was accompanied by Italian businessmen familiar with European diplomacy, as well as translators, though he did manage to speak in Persian with most European kings, which I found interesting. And he wrote down all his experiences, which is very helpful.

He first travelled over the black sea to Constantinople – which he loved, particularly the Hagia Sophia, and then to Italy by ship. Whilst sailing around Sicily, he witnessed Mount Etna erupting in June 1287, and a naval battle between James II of Sicily and Charles II, the French-born king of Naples.

Unfortunately whilst all this was happening the Pope died, and so whilst Sauma stopped in Rome to negotiate with the Cardinals, he couldn't really achieve much. Besides, he pretty quickly scampered when they started asking him about Nestorian Christianity, knowing pretty well they wouldn't be pleased at what they heard. He did tour the churches though, which was nice.

He then travelled to Paris and spent a month with King Philip the Fair, who was so keen on the idea of an alliance that he dispatched a couple of monks and a nobleman to join Bar Sauma and return to the East to establish proper diplomatic ties. Which I bet the nobleman was thrilled about. He was apparently given a guard of one guy with a crossbow. So, essentially, I assume, Phillip wanted him dead.

Next he travelled to Bordeaux which was then in the hands of the English, and met with edward 1st, who was equally keen on an alliance but unfortunately couldn't commit because he was in the midst of fighting in Scotland and Wales – this was just a few years before the first Scottish War of independence.

So I find this particularly lovely – you've got an elderly Chinese monk touring Europe on behalf of the Mongol empire, sitting down with all these kings and chatting in Persian with them. Even in the darkest periods in history, the world has been an international place.

Anyway, at this point there was a new pope in town, Nicholas VI, who invited him back to Rome for communion and gave him a precious tiara to give to his old friend and student, now leader of the Eastern Church, Markos.

Because nothing says manly manly gift between religious figureheads like a bejewelled tiara.

And so in 1288 he returned back to the East with gifts, letters and one pissed off Frenchman. And an alliance was very, VERY nearly signed between the mongols and the French.

Part of a letter between the Khan and king Philip survives, suggesting that the Mongols would invade Egypt in the winter of 1290 with French support, and if they were successful the French would keep Jerusalem and the Mongols would take Damascus. Oh, and by the way, and I quote: If you care to please give me your impressions, and I would also be very willing to accept any samples of French opulence that you care to burden your messengers with.”

So let me know what you think. Also send presents.

Unfortunately, nothing ever came of the alliance, but Ban Sauma's efforts did lay the groundwork for regular diplomatic missions and a huge amount more trade between the East and West. Ban Sauma was finally allowed to retire although he never did return to China – he was either too old for the journey or it remained too dangerous, so he lived out the rest of his days in Baghdad, dying in 1294.

As an interesting side note, whilst the European kings and Mongols were keen to work together, the Crusader Kings generally hated the Mongols, viewing them as a much greater threat than the Muslims. There are even instances of the Crusaders and the Muslims signing non-aggression pacts in order to let Muslim armies slip through Egypt under the watch of the Crusaders in order to fight the Mongols.

Tom's notes: The Lost Legions of Carrhae. A whoppingly good name for a topic

I was a very brave boy last week and looked into Japanese and Chinese history; very much out of my comfort zone as I know next to bugger all about their history beyond the 21st Century

· For reference, I’m not lumping China and Japan together in some ignorant geographical generalisation; I understand that they are very difference places!

o All look the fucking same to me

o Chinese, Japanese dirty knees, what are these

This week I’m back in my fun zone; no not my groin. Woof.

· I’m going Roman (albeit Roman’s in China). Cultural fusion.

o It’s like noodles on pizza or Bolognese in a wok

· I’ve got Classics and battles and people getting lost, disasters and murder, death and destruction, killing and sorrow, latin and Plutarch, these are a few of my favourite things

The Lost Legions of Carrhae

Let’s start with some background; that involves understanding the Frist Triumvirate of the Roman Republic.

· I know you know about this and some of our listeners probably do, but it’s worth summarising for the cretins, sorry, laymen.

· It was an alliance between three major politicians in the late Roman Republic; so 1st Century BC. Let’s introduce them like Russel Crowe:

o Gaius Julius Caesar, Commander of the Armies of the North, Father of a married daughter. He was actually a very successful general in Gaul and controlled this area of the empire in this arrangement.

o She was actually married to Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus, Commander of the Armies of the West, Defeater of Spartacus. Pompey was an incredibly successful military general, and he took control of Spain.

o Marcus Licinius Crassus, Commander of the Armies of the East, fucking wealthy bastard, he get richer, in this life or the next. Crassus was militarily less proven than the other two, but the richest man in Rome; jingle jangle. He took control over the Eastern extent of the Empire; so Asia Minor, Syria and Egypt

§ Del Boy Impression

· These three eventually fell out, Crassus died, which we’ll come on to, Pompey and Caesar fall out, Caesar decided to march on Rome, he’s assassinated. The whole episode is a major step in the evolution of the Roman Republic into the Roman Empire.


As mentioned, Crassus hadn’t had the military successes of Pompey and Caesar, but he was loaded.

· He had a Bentley, fur toga, lots of sovereign rings, leopard skin top hat, diamond encrusted staff, designer sandals, his wife had a lovely pair of marbles busts, the lot!

· Crassus was very keen to proving himself militarily so he set his target on Parthia, an empire that stretched across, roughly speaking, the modern countries of Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan and the other stans.

· There was a war of succession in Parthia between Orodes and Mithridates, two sons of a king that they murdered.

o Rome looked to interfere to get a leader who was allied closely to Rome and easily influenced. They chose the wrong side; Mithridates who was eventually killed by Orodes.

o Orodes secures the loyalty of the Armenia king who had been allied with Rome

· So Crassus decides to get stuck into the Parthians

55BC he arrives in the east and builds an army of 7 legions (35000 men), 4000 light infantry and 1000 Gallic infantry under the command of his son.

· He’s quite quickly outmanoeuvred by Orode’s general Surena and a pitch battle is teed up

· The Parthians have 9000 horse archers and 1000 cataphracts (heavy cavalry)

· Its sounds like a rather comical battle

o Nothing funnier than people dying

· The Roman infantry lined up and were shot at by the horse archers, so they formed testudos, then the archers retreated and the cataphracts smashed them, then they formed a conventional line, and the archers returned.

· Anyway, the end result was that the Romans were smashed, Crassus was killed during a negotiation, 20000 Romans were killed and probably 10000 captured

o Crassus was actually beheaded and supposedly had molten gold poured down his neck

o Orodes searched through the captors and found the one that most resembled Crassus and made him dress up as a lady and paraded him through Parthia for all to see

§ I imagine Orodes laughing heartily at his jest whilst everyone else just watched on bemused

Now, here’s the silk route connection. The 10000 men who were captured were reportedly transferred to Alexandria Margiana, now known as Merv which is in Turkmenistan, on the Eastern border of the Parthian Empire. This town was an important town on the silk route. They were expected to fight now for Parthia.

· It has been hypothesise d by a University of Oxford academic in the 1940s, a chap called Homer H. Dubs, that these Romans ended up journeying further east into China, basically along the Silk Route.

· After being border soldiers for the Parthians, the Romans became mercenaries fighting for a nomadic confederacy based in Mongolia.

· After fighting for this confederacy against the Han Dynasty at the Battle of Zhizhi in 36BC in modern southern Kazaksthan, the Romans, according to the theory, impressed the Chinese enough to be made their mercenaries. Homer H Dubs cites a Chinese Chronicler’s reference to a fish-scale formation used against archers; possibly the testudo.

· The Romans eventually founded a town called Liquan (which apparently sounds a lot like Legion in Chinese).

o Genetic tests have been done which don’t show anything conclusive although the inhabitants of Liquan apparently look a bit more Roman; big noses

o There has also been no archaeological evidence so the theory is widely labelled as lacking sufficient evidence

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