The Romans had contact with the region of modern Vietnam.
Writing in the second century AD, Claudius Ptolemy used sailor accounts in his Geography (1.13-14) to describe the edges of the known world from the perspective of Romans and others living within the Mediterranean region. He detailed areas far to the east and beyond India, including what he called the Chryse Chersonesos (the Golden Peninsula), which scholars suspect may be the Thai-Malay Peninsula (Borell et al. 2014). One of the accounts described a port city referred to as “Cattigara,” situated at the mouth of the “Cottaris River.”
A combination of clues from both archaeological and textual records strongly suggest “contact” (whether directly or indirectly) between societies of the Mediterranean region and those of Southeast Asia, occurring within the first millennium AD if not earlier. This includes settlements located along the coastline of present-day Vietnam.
Modern scholars have considered the ancient port city of Oc Eo, located in the southern part of Vietnam approximately 200 km from the modern Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon), as a potential candidate for Cattigara; with the Mekong River corresponding to ancient Cottaris. Whether Oc Eo was indeed the city of Cattigara is a point of ongoing speculation, debate, and research. Regardless, the archaeological evidence recovered from the ancient city of Oc Eo suggests contact with the Mediterranean world.
The Mekong delta region straddles southern areas of today’s Cambodia and Vietnam. Settlements of this region dating to a period of AD 100-500, such as Oc Eo, show signs of elaborate architecture and links to expansive maritime trading networks. Oc Eo is considered to be an important port and urban center for a polity known as the “Funan Kingdom.” The kingdom was described in Sinitic texts such as History of the Jin Dynasty (Jinshu) and History of the Southern Qi (Nan Qishu) (Stark 2006). Two Roman medallions have been recovered from excavations at Oc Eo: one minted during the time of Antoninus Pius (AD 138-161) and the other during the reign of Marcus Aurelius (AD 161-180) (Higham 2014: 279). Also found at Oc Eo are pieces of jewelry either from or inspired by the Mediterranean region.
Archaeological materials, including Roman gold-glass ornaments and beads, have been found in various localities within Southeast Asia in the vicinity of the Mekong delta (Calo et al. 2020). The evidence clearly indicates the Mekong delta region having served as a hub in a wider network of exchange linking the Mediterranean, South Asia, Southeast Asia, and East Asia. Artifacts from these disparate areas have been found at Oc Eo and sites linked to it through canals, like Nen Chua (some 12 km away). In that regard, the Roman and Chinese empires of the first millennium were on either terminus of a long-distance maritime connection. Various societies along this vast network of travel and trade were in contact with one another, as reflected by the presence of South Asian deities and Sanskrit inscriptions in the Mekong delta.
In sum, archaeological investigations show how local and regional contacts and exchanges among communities sitting along rivers and coastlines fomented major social changes within the Mekong delta during the last centuries BC and early centuries AD (Le 2015). As important hubs within a burgeoning maritime system, the large plains and canal-river systems in southern Vietnam and Cambodia furnished a ready and abundant source of products sought by communities far afield, such as ivory and spices (Le 2015). In turn, materials like silk and semi-precious stones made their way in and out of the Mekong delta.
Moreover, the material evidence for the Oc Eo archaeological culture and the Funan Kingdom highlight incipient urbanism and ancient state development for Southeast Asia, and implicates early forms of “globalization” as part of these momentous developments. Funan is widely seen as one of the earliest examples of ancient states in Southeast Asia.
In addition to Claudius Ptolemy’s writings, pertinent textual evidence also comes from China.
Written texts compiled by court chroniclers of the Han Empire describe the arrival of diplomats or merchants from the Roman Empire (referred to as “Daqin” or “Ta-ts`sin”) at the capital city of Luoyang in China during this time period, likely using maritime routes (de Crespigny 2007). According to these sources, such as the Book of the Later Han (Hou Hanshu), the travelers claimed to have been sent by “Andun” (or “An-tun”), ruler of “Daqin”, which may correspond to Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius Antoninus (88.12):
In the ninth yanxi year [166 CE], during the reign of Emperor Huan, the king of Da Qin (the Roman Empire), Andun (Marcus Aurelius Antoninus), sent envoys from beyond the frontiers through Rinan, to offer elephant tusks, rhinoceros horn, and turtle shell. This was the very first time there was [direct] communication [between the two empires]. The tribute brought was neither precious nor rare, raising suspicion that the accounts [of the “envoys”] might be exaggerated.
The travelers arrived with gifts including ivory, rhinoceros horn, and tortoise shell, which they likely acquired during their travels throughout parts of Southeast Asia. The travelers may have entered China from the south, by way of one of the Han Empire’s southern frontier commanderies known as Rinan (also known as Jih-nan, located in present-day central Vietnam) and Jiaozhi (present-day northern Vietnam) (Hill 2009). These areas were under varying degrees of Sinitic control for much of the first millennium AD.
Whether the travelers were actual Roman emissaries or subjects of the Roman Empire is still debated. Some scholars suspect the travelers were enterprising merchants and traders, perhaps from the empire’s eastern provinces, rather than imperial officials (see Borell et al. 2014: 112 and de Crespigny 2007: 600).
Complementing the clues from various textual sources, the archaeological data constitute compelling evidence of contact between the Roman world and communities in areas of modern Vietnam. In totality, the various sources of evidence can be knitted together to generally support the claim that Romans had contact with the region of modern Vietnam, though how direct and specifically by whom is unclear.
As mentioned above, the frequency and nature of the contacts are subject to ongoing debate. Another caveat, of course, is that the entity we know of as Vietnam did not exist two thousand years ago, just as there was no “Italy.” Instead, some of the earlier, precursor societies of what would become part of southern and central Vietnam (during the second millennium AD) were in contact with Roman entities during the first millennium AD. These contacts occurred during a period of proto-history or early history for the Mekong area, and the archaeological evidence from sites like Oc Eo is crucial for research questions dealing with the earliest linkages between societies on either side of the Eurasian landmass.
In that regard, the claim of Roman-Vietnam contact is not only interesting, but also significant for our understanding of historical trends leading to the globalized world we find ourselves in today.
- Brigitte Borell, Bérénice Bellina, and Boonyarit Chaisuwan, “Contacts between the Upper Thai-Malay Peninsula and the Mediterranean world. Before Siam was born: new insights on the art and archaeology of pre-modern Thailand and its neighbouring regions” (2014; hal-02393494).
- Ambra Calo, Peter Bellwood, James Lankton, Andreas Reinecke, Rochtri Agung Bawono, and Bagyo Prasetyo, “Trans-Asiatic exchange of glass, gold and bonze: analysis of finds from the late prehistoric Pangkung Paruk site, Bali”, Antiquity 94, pp. 110-126.
- Rafe de Crespigny, A Biographical Dictionary of Later Han to the Three Kingdoms (23-220 AD) (2007).
- Joshua R. Hall, “Marcus Aurelius and a mysterious embassy to China”, Ancient World Magazine (2018; accessed 8 July 2021).
- Charles Higham, Early Mainland Southeast Asia: From First Humans to Angkor (2014).
- John Hill, Through the Jade Gate to Rome: a Study of the Silk Routes During the Later Han Dynasty, 1st to 2nd centuries CE (2009).
- Lam Thi My Dzung, “Central Vietnam during the period from 500 BCE to CE 500”, in: P.-Y. Manguin, A. Mani, and G. Wade (eds), Early Interactions between South and Southeast Asia: Reflection on Cross-Cultural Exchange (2011), pp. 3-16.
- Le Thi Lien, “The Óc Eo Culture and its cultural Interaction with the outside world”, in: A. Reinecke (ed.), Perspectives on the Archaeology of Vietnam (2015), pp. 129-156.
- Miriam Stark, “From Funan to Angkor collapse and regeneration in ancient Cambodia”, in. G. Schwartz and J. Nichols (eds), After Collapse: The Regeneration of Complex Societies (2006), pp. 144-167.