THE Ancient Romans never quite made it to China ... but the Chinese made it to Rome ... and sent back reports of tall and virtuous people who wore odd clothes and tended to dispose of their rulers on a whim.
One of the best Chinese travel reports is in the "Weilüe," a 3rd Century AD account of the interactions between the two nations. Here's what China had to say about their imperial neighbors!
From a translation by the University of Washington’s John E. Hill:
This country (the Roman Empire) has more than four hundred smaller cities and towns. It extends several thousand li in all directions. The king has his capital (that is, the city of Rome) close to the mouth of a river (the Tiber). The outer walls of the city are made of stone.
This region has pine trees, cypress, sophora, catalpa, bamboo, reeds, poplars, willows, parasol trees, and all sorts of plants. The people cultivate the five grains [traditionally: rice, glutinous and non-glutinous millet, wheat and beans], and they raise horses, mules, donkeys, camels and silkworms. (They have) a tradition of amazing conjuring. They can produce fire from their mouths, bind and then free themselves, and juggle twelve balls with extraordinary skill.
The ruler of this country is not permanent. When disasters result from unusual phenomena, they unceremoniously replace him, installing a virtuous man as king, and release the old king, who does not dare show resentment.
The common people are tall and virtuous like the Chinese, but wear hu (‘Western’) clothes. They say they originally came from China, but left it.
They have always wanted to communicate with China but, Anxi (Parthia), jealous of their profits, would not allow them to pass (through to China).
Here's a description of some of Rome's trade goods:
This country produces fine linen. They make gold and silver coins. One gold coin is equal to ten silver coins.
They have fine brocaded cloth that is said to be made from the down of "water-sheep". It is called Haixi ("Egyptian") cloth. This country produces the six domestic animals, which are all said to come from the water.
It is said that they not only use sheep's wool, but also bark from trees, or the silk from wild cocoons, to make brocade, mats, pile rugs, woven cloth and curtains, all of them of good quality, and with brighter colours than those made in the countries of Haidong ("East of the Sea").
Furthermore, they regularly make a profit by obtaining Chinese silk, unravelling it, and making fine hu ("Western") silk damasks. That is why this country trades with Anxi (Parthia) across the middle of the sea. The seawater is bitter and unable to be drunk, which is why it is rare for those who try to make contact to reach China.
You can read the full account at SMITHSONIAN MAGAZINE.