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emperor Wu of Han



EMPEROR WU OF HAN, the Chinese emperor that had a war with the successors of Alexander the Great in Bactria. The War of the Heavenly Horses (2nd century BC).

BACKGROUND, FROM ALEXANDER TO WU. The empire of Alexander the Great, stretching from Greece to north-western India, collapsed with the death of its conqueror. His generals and successors, the Diadochi, spent the rest of their lives fighting each other. The empire was divided between them, and the successor states began their separate paths. For the Greeks, these events marked the end of the Classical Period and the beginning of the Hellenistic Age. Each of the successor states intermingled with the local cultures. Egypt saw a dynasty of Greek pharaohs and in Asia, Hellenistic and Iranic warfare merged in the Seleucid Empire. It’s from the Seleucid Empire that eventually emerged two independent Hellenistic states, the Indo-Greek kingdom in northern India (which occupied former Mauryan territories), and the Greco-Bactrian kingdom in Central Asia. These two eastern hybrid Hellenistic kingdoms became isolated from the western Greeks when the Parthians took a huge portion of the Seleucid Empire. The Greco-Bactrian kingdom was then invaded by the Scythians, who took Alexandria Eschate (meaning Alexandria the Furthest) for themselves, and later by the Yuezhi, another Indo-European nomadic group of uncertain language (the future founders of the syncretic Kushan Empire). Both the Scythians and the Yuezhi ruled Alexandria Eschate while respecting the cultural diversity of the local population, basically by taking taxes. So, Alexandria Eschate, located in the Ferghana Valley, was still an important centre of Hellenistic culture but paying tribute to nomad warlords. The furthest Alexandria stablished trade with the distant Han Empire of China (making the first steps in what would become the Silk Road), and the Chinese knew these isolated Greek colonists by the name “Dayuan” (meaning Great Ionians, as all the Greeks in Asia were known as Ionians).

Meanwhile, China was fighting a war with the nomadic confederation of the Xiongnu, the ancestors of the Huns that made their way to Europe centuries later. The identity of the Xiongnu is not clear, but they may have been something between Proto-Turkic, Mongolic or Yeniseian, and the later Huns were far more diverse. Emperor Wu of Han wanted to defeat the Xiongnu, so he sent an envoy named Zhang Qian to forge an alliance with the Yuezhi, but what he found in the west was more than just nomadic tribes. Zhang Qian visited Alexandria Eschate and observed that the cities and customs of the Dayuan were practically identical to those of the neighbouring Greco-Bactrians. He noticed that through trade with the nomads, Chinese products could be seen in Alexandria Eschate. But most importantly, he noticed that the Dayuan had powerful horses and horsemen. These would have been either light horse archers or Hellenized cataphracts. Zhang Qian returned to the Han court with news of the existence of these horses, and emperor Wu thought these would be useful against the Xiongnu. So, he sent diplomats to the Dayuan in order to get the horses through trade, but the offer was refused because the people of Alexandria didn’t see China as a threat due to long distance and the Gobi Desert in the middle. The Chinese diplomats enraged, and the Dayuan responded killing them. Diplomacy failed. Emperor Wu saw no other way than a military invasion. He sent an army across the Gobi, but the harsh desert and constant attacks by the Yuezhi weakened the Chinese army, which was easily defeated by the Dayuan. Wu sent a bigger army, one so big that the Yuezhi would not dare to attack, and this time, the Chinese succeeded in besieging Alexandria Eschate. The territory of the Dayuan was annexed to China as the Protectorate of the Western Regions, and the Heavenly Horses played a key role in the Chinese victory over the Xiongnu. The opening of China to the west resulted in what we know today as the Silk Road.


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