Who is the man in this picture? How did this fellow, whose maternal ancestry is East Asian, end up in a modest grave in southern Italy about 2000 years ago?
Its an enticing question and one that has been in the news ever since Heritage Key announced the story of this mans discovery.
Just a quick recap; a team of scientists based at McMaster University in Hamilton Canada have found that this man, buried in a Roman cemetery at Vagnari, in southern Italy, is of East Asian ancestry on this mothers side.
They determined this through mitochondrial DNA testing.
The DNA tests cannot tell us where in East Asia his ancestors were from, or who his father is. The tests also can not determine how many generations removed he is from East Asia. This means that he could be the first person in his family to leave East Asia, or it could be that an ancestormoved westbefore he was born.
Archaeologists can say, from the one meagre pot buried with him, that he was buried sometime in the first or second century AD. This was the time of the early Roman Empire when it was at its military apex.
His grave was modest to say the least. His surviving grave goods consist of one pot, and someone else was later buried on top of him! The site of Vagnari was used for the production of textiles and iron implements. Its possible that this fellow was a slave, but archaeologists cannot be sure.
This appears to be the first time that a person with East Asian ancestry has been found in the Roman Empire. But the discoverers caution thatvery little of this sort of DNA research has been done on the Ancient Romans. Its possible that there could be many more people with an East Asian ancestry waiting to be found from the Roman Empire.
Is he the son of a concubine?
Dr. Raoul McLaughlin, of Queen’s University Belfast, has studied Sino-Roman relations extensively.
He has noted that there is not a lot of evidence of direct contact between China and Rome. While the silk trade flourished during the Early Roman Empire, the trade itself was conducted by middlemen roaming an 8,000 kilometre route between China and Rome.
After the articles appeared, Dr. McLaughlin emailed me and generously sent me a paper describing some of the possibilities on how this man ended up in Italy. He offered a number of possibilities but there is one that I found particularly intriguing.
Concubines were often offered as gifts in eastern diplomacy, Dr. McLaughlin wrote, adding that there is no evidence that the Chinese ever sent a royal concubine to the Roman court.
But perhaps the kings of inner Asia followed this practice in their diplomatic dealings with the Roman Empire.
A Concubine Sent to Augustus?
Emperor Augustus received ambassadors from Saka kings who had conquered the Indus from their homeland deep in Central Asia. These kings sent gifts from the East that conveyed the power and scope of their distant realm, wrote Dr. McLaughlin.
Augustus was given slaves including an armless youth that the Greeks proclaimed a living Hermes; a symbol of commerce and distant communications. Strabo also mentions that the Saka ambassadors brought servants dressed only in loin-cloths besprinkled with sweet-smelling odours. So perhaps the [individual] is the descendant of a slave sent from a court in inner Asia, possibly an exotic concubine given to the imperial household.
There are more scenarios by which a concubine from East Asia might come to the Roman Empire.
In this era merchants became involved in trafficking concubines overland between royal courts, wrote Dr. McLaughlin.
The writer Philostratus, who lived ca. AD 170-244, writes about a moral philosopher named Apollonius who was questioned by a tax collector when leaving the Empire on a journey from Roman Syria to the court of a Parthian king. The tax collector asked Apollonius what he was taking out of the country and Apollonius replied, I have nothing to declare but my virtues and he began to recite a list of his virtues such as Grace, Faith, Charity, Discipline, and so on. The tax collector was immediately interested as he believed these were the names of valuable female concubines accompanying the philosopher.
Concubines were also trafficked overseas.
A Roman merchant report called The Periplus of the Erythreaen Sea describes trade opportunities for Roman businessmen involved in commercial voyages between Egypt and India. The author records how Roman traders offered the Saka courts beautiful Mediterranean concubines and expensive slave musicians. This explains why female Roman attendants appear in the earliest Sanskrit plays as companions to Indian kings.
A concubine might also explain why this particular fellow was born into slavery. Asian concubines sent to the Roman court did not achieve high influence and as a consequence their children were born into slavery. Within a few generations their descendants could have lost much of their distinctive physical appearance.
Was his Ancestry Based in the Tarim Region?
Theres another interesting possibility, could this person be from the Tarim region? The place which is famous for its mummies?
Dr. McLaughlin wrote: a Roman writer named Florus suggests that Augustus received representatives from the Seres, or Silk people who inhabited the Tarim kingdoms. If the Emperor did receive representatives and gifts from this distant region, it was not an official embassy. Augustus makes no mention of the Seres in his memorial Res Gestae when he boasts about his most distant diplomatic dealings. Consequently the East Asian female ancestor of the Vagnari burial could have been a trade commodity.
Could he Have Been the First Person in his Family to Leave East Asia?
What if this fellow was the first person in his family to leave East Asia? Dr. McLaughlin wrote of a scenario that would make this possible.
Male slaves were also imported into the Roman Empire from the distant East. Horace indicates that these individuals were seen serving at Roman feasts.
Dr. McLaughlin continues-
Other evidence indicates that the Roman government imposed a high custom tax on eastern goods imported through Egypt and Syria. Some scholars suggest that the government seized a share of these goods rather than demand the monetary equivalent. If so, then a significant number of Asian slaves would have passed directly into the hands of the imperial government, he wrote.
These individuals could have entered the workforce on nearby imperial estates, been sold in regional retail markets, or even shipped onward to Italy for redeployment there… Another link is the fact that Alexandria in Egypt was a major centre for reworking eastern textiles. The key to understanding the Vagnari find could lie with the manufacturing business conducted at the site.
Kushan Diplomats at Trajans Victory Games
There is yet another interesting possibility:
By the reign of Trajan, the Roman government was in contact with a powerful Asian realm called the Kushan Empire, who ruled territories from the edge of the Tarim kingdoms to the Indus region. The Kushan came from a homeland in East Asia on the outer edge of the Chinese Empire, but had moved west into Bactria. At this time Kushan diplomats were seen seated with senators at Trajans victory games in celebration of his Dacian conquests.
Of course the DNA is maternal (mother to offspring) so you have to allow for them bringing someone with them who is female.
A Sad Meeting Between East and West
However this fellow, or his maternal ancestors, arrived in the Roman Empire, it doesnt seem he enjoyed good working conditions. From the evidence so far, it does not seem as if Vagnari was at all a pleasant place to work. One of the textiles has a marking saying that it was made by Gratus – a slave of the emperor.
The landscape was treeless, providing little shelter from the Italian summer. The work, making iron implements and textiles, would have been gruelling in the heat.
Given this information, and the extreme modesty of this mans burial, its difficult to envision a plausible scenario where this man came here willingly.