“Silk Road Centurion” by Scott Forbes Crawford

Scott Forbes Crawford Scott Forbes Crawford

Although they certainly did trade indirectly via merchants traversing the Silk Road routes across the Asian continent, one of the most fascinating historical what-if tropes is whether ancient Romans and Chinese ever actually met. In Silk Road Centurion, a Roman centurion named Manius is taken prisoner by Asian tribesmen fighting for the Parthians, which leads to an epic quest to gain his freedom and return home.

Venturing into Carrhae, in what is now Turkey, in 53 BC to fight the Parthians, the Roman army in which Manius served was destroyed, something that really happened in history when Marcus Crassus invaded the Parthian Empire with a massive army. After being taken prisoner by Xiongnu steppe tribesmen mercenaries fighting for Parthia, Manius is taken east as a slave across Asia back to the Xiongnu’s home territory. Clinging desperately to a figurine representing the goddess Fortuna while enduring humiliating and rough treatment, Manius fervently tries to plot an escape and take revenge on the chief of his Xiongnu captors.

The Xiongnu were a confederation of nomadic horsemen tribes who inhabited the eastern part of the vast Eurasian Steppe, which stretched from Siberia westwards across northern China to Central Asia. They often fought with and raided the Chinese who resided just to the south of their territory, something which becomes the focus of the second half of the book.

When finally he does escape, Manius manages to flee to a village populated by Chinese, though beyond the Chinese Han Dynasty’s territory and lying within reach of the Xiongnu. As such, Manius, while trying to settle in with the Chinese family who rescued him and learn more of their ways, tries to help the villagers form a militia. The inevitable assaults from Xiongnu, now led by the chief’s younger brother, come, then leads to a wild chase across forest and harsh mountainous terrain to rescue the daughter of the Chinese family which sheltered Manius.

There is no certainly no shortage of action throughout the book, and Manius’ challenges seem unceasing and at times insurmountable as he wrestles with finding meaning in his life beyond vengeance and fighting.


Silk Road Centurion, Scott Forbes Crawford (Camphor Press, May 2023)
Silk Road Centurion, Scott Forbes Crawford (Camphor Press, May 2023)

The novel traces out a now largely debunked historical conjecture that the northwestern Chinese county of Liqian was settled by former Roman captives, based on mentions in Chinese chronicles of  the military use of a “fish-scale formation” of soldiers, derived (so went the speculation) from the Roman phalanx testudo formation.

The prose flows, but the length, at over 400 pages, might have been trimmed. The historical details are a little sparse, especially regarding the places and the Xiongnu and Chinese, which is surprising for what is supposedly a historical novel. Disappointingly, the Xiongnu characters are also hardly fleshed out and reduced to caricature as evil barbarian horsemen, though historically to the Chinese, they certainly have seemed so.

Silk Road Centurion is a riveting action-packed novel that is an ambitious attempt at imagining the meeting of two great civilizations in the form of an indomitable centurion.

Hilton Yip is a writer based in Taiwan and former book editor of Taiwan’s The China Post.