What does Tang China have in common with Anglo-Saxon England?

Over the weekend I found something rather neat in a Chinese chronicle of the Tang dynasty (旧唐书, The Old Book of Tang). According to this tenth-century source, ambassadors from the Roman empire were received in 643, 667, 701, 711, 719 and 742. This is fascinating enough and is something that has yet to be explored by Byzantinists (though I did find a few things on trade and Christianities in Central Asia that mentioned this), but what immediately jumped out for me was the mentions of embassies in 643 and 667, because these two took place during the reign of Constans II (641-668), one of my favourite emperors. Constans II had ruled in very interesting times, as he faced off against the might of the caliphate somewhat successfully, at least, until he got murdered with a bucket in 668. He however has a very bad reputation in later sources, so we instead get the image of a brutal ruler who cared little for the health of his empire. For many reasons, historians also generally portray the seventh century as a time of massive change for the empire, a time when it became increasingly insular and less interested in the outside world. In the words of John Haldon, Constans’ Mediterranean strategy was:

a testament to the beginning of the disintegration of that pan-Mediterranean world and its culture, and an attempt to reaffirm what was all too rapidly becoming a facet of the glorious past.


Constans II, a great emperor with a great moustache?

I think this is a bit premature and I’ll outline in another post how Constans’ reign could instead be seen as a time when the empire retained its broad horizons. This is why I find these embassies to China fascinating, since they attest to the emperor’s still impressively far-ranging foreign policy. Okay, maybe not the 643 embassy, since Constans was then only 13 years old and still dominated by his regents, but it was presumably sent just after the brutal dynastic infighting of 641, when two emperors got removed in quick succession, leaving young Constans the only emperor left standing. Even in a time of crisis, the crucial province of Egypt having fallen to the Arabs in 642, envoys were still sent eastwards:

贞观十七年,拂菻王波多力遣使献赤玻璃、绿金精等物, 太宗降玺书答慰,赐以绫绮焉.

In the seventeenth year of the Zhenguan period, envoys of the king of Fu-Lin [the Roman empire], Bo-Dou-Li, came to offer respectfully tribute of red glass, green beryl, and others. The emperor Taizong used his seal and answered that he was pleased, sending back fine silk.

Bo-Dou-Li is a phrase with many translations and I’ve read suggestions of it being a transliteration of patriarch, patrician, or most intriguingly, basileus, the Greek word for emperor. The first two are equally possible though, since regents at that time ruled Constantinople on behalf of Constans. As for the actual political and diplomatic purpose of the mission, I don’t think we can ever figure it out, but it’s something that I will keep looking at. The following passage is equally interesting:


As the Arabs have become more powerful, they encroached upon all kingdoms. They sent their great general, Mo-Yi [Mu’awiyah, governor of Syria], to attack the capital [Constantinople] and peace was established through a treaty. After this the Romans sent gold and silk every year and became a vassal of the Arabs.

The last sentence is I think the key here. Having defeated the Romans, the Arabs received tribute from the Romans, but it is difficult to put a timeframe on this treaty. There are various suggestions out there about which event the passage was referring to (with anything between 630s and 670s being plausible), but I don’t think we can confirm what it was talking about, especially as this came from a tenth-century source. It had also been interpreted through a Chinese lens, which presumably transformed the Romans making payments to the Arabs to them becoming the Arabs’ vassals. Regardless of the treaty the text described though, the Chinese were evidently aware of the ‘Mediterranean world war’ fought on the other side of the continent in the seventh century, which is pretty impressive in itself. Whether it accurately describes events there is very debatable, but if it is an essentially accurate account, it adds a whole new perspective to our understanding of the empire at the end of late antiquity.


Tang China at its height

The next Roman embassy was received in China in 667:

In the second year of the Qianfang era an embassy was sent, bringing gifts and theriaca [a Greek medical concoction].

There isn’t much to say about the sentence here, but the important part is the timing, as in the 660s the Roman empire was once again at war with the caliphate and was having a terrible time of it. Even so, the Romans still somehow managed to send an embassy to China; this coincided neatly with something that happened at roughly the same time on the other side of the continent. Yep, this is where England comes in!


A map of the Roman empire in the early eighth century. Its situation in the 660s was very similar.

No, we don’t have any accounts of imperial embassies that reached Anglo-Saxon England, but an ex-ambassador, a North African abbot named Hadrian, did end up in Canterbury and he became a very influential figure in the Anglo-Saxon church. The whole tale was recorded by the Venerable Bede in the eighth century. After his account of Pope Vitalian choosing Theodore of Tarsus as the new archbishop of Canterbury in 667, Bede also wrote the following:

[…] but on one condition, that Hadrian himself should take Theodore to Britain, because he had already traveled twice through Gaul on various missions and was therefore better acquainted with the road and had an adequate number of followers.

Later on, Hadrian was involved in a bit of a kerfuffle with the Franks:

Ebroin [Frankish mayor of the palace] detained Hadrian because he suspected him of having some mission from the emperor to the kings of Britain.

Combined, these two passages suggest that Hadrian had previously been to Gaul on behalf of the emperor and that in 668, even when he was not there under imperial aegis, he was still suspected of being involved in an imperial plot involving the Anglo-Saxons against the Merovingians (or rather just Ebroin’s interests, as he was the power behind the throne). Hadrian had probably visited Gaul in the 660s, as Constans moved to Italy in 662 to reassert his power in the west, which can only have led to an intensification of contacts with the ‘barbarian’ kingdoms, even if we have no evidence of this. We should not discount the possibility of earlier visits though, since the papacy, a very imperial institution, was in contact with western churchmen in the 640s and 650s; Hadrian, who was seemingly on friendly terms with the pope, therefore could have had reasons to go to Gaul earlier as well.


Hadrian of Canterbury, who once served as an imperial ambassador.

Even so, as far as I know, and I may well be mistaken about this, the two embassies to China in 643 and 667 and the two embassies to Merovingian Gaul that Hadrian took part in were the only long-distance missions recorded for the reign of Constans II. This in itself is not unexpected, since the source material for his reign is particularly poor, yet the fact that we have two accounts of his ambassadors from two opposite ends of Eurasia in the 660s is simply astonishing. This was the decade when the crisis of empire was at its greatest, when Arab armies triumphed and internal dissent thrived, culminating in the revolt of a Roman general in 667 and a combined rebel/Arab army marching on Constantinople, which led to a new siege of Constantinople in 668. Yet amidst all that, the Romans were not becoming more insular or paranoid, which has been an interpretation put forward for this period, but instead continued to pursue an active foreign policy across the Eurasian world, one that, rather surprisingly, ended up linking together Anglo-Saxon England and Tang China.



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11 responses to “What does Tang China have in common with Anglo-Saxon England?

  1. consider that ‘bo-dou-li’ is the transliteration of the modern Mandarin pronunciation. in Tang Chinese, it may have been closer to Cantonese ‘Bo-daw-lik’ or Minnan ‘Bo-daw-lat’. might these give more clues?

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Pingback: The many faces of Constans II: the seventh-century empire in non-Roman eyes | Byzantine Perspectives

  3. Richard Sharpe

    Where did you find your copy of 旧唐书?


  4. Richard Sharpe

    There is one more thing to say about the rendering of the Roman name of the emperor as 波多力 in Chinese.

    While I am not an expert in Middle Chinese, modern (Hong Kong) Cantonese has removed pretty much all of the gw, dw, etc initials. In modern Cantonese 多 is pronounced do1 and rhymes with 波 (bo1) however, modern Mandarin’s pronunciation of 多 is duo and it may have been more like that in Middle Chinese.

    So, that name might sound like Bo-dwo-lik or Po-dwo-lik (because of different differentiation of of B and P in Chinese and Western languages.

    The Chinese writers would have tried to get the pronunciation as close as they could given the syllables they had available and a final t/k consonent would have caused them to 力 rather than another syllable not ending in such a consonant. In modern Mandarin, p/t/k finals are all gone.


  5. Thanks for a very interesting post. Do you have any sense of what Constans II was trying to achieve by these embassies? Was it purely a matter of the prestige involved in contact with such “exotic” rulers (in Byzantine terms), or were there more practical possibilities from contact with the Chinese?


    • Great questions! The evidence doesn’t provide us with the motivations, but there have been some good (admittedly speculative) theories about why these embassies were sent. Stefan Esders has done some great work on how in the 650s and 660s the Romans were interested in contacting the Franks, which provides a useful context for the intensification of diplomatic efforts elsewhere. Michael Kordosis has also suggested that the embassies to China were efforts to find allies against the caliphate (much like how the exiled Persians were hoping to do at the same time). Personally, I think the larger ‘world crisis’ the Romans were involved in against the Arabs must have shaped their diplomatic orientations elsewhere, but the details are sadly unrecoverable given the lack of information from the surviving Greek and Syriac sources.


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