In 1999 was unearthed, near the city of Taiyuan in the Shanxi province of China, a marble sarcophagus of one Yu Hong, who died and was buried there with his wife in AD 592, during the Sui dynasty.

Since then, it has been determined that this man was of Central Asian stock. Moreover, he was during his lifetime a high-ranking official or chieftain among the peoples of Sogdiana (Central Asia). He is one of the many people from that area to have settled in the Chinese empire in the 6th century.

What is particularily exciting about this discovery are the four relief panels on the walls of the sarcophagus. These panels depict scenes in the various countries that surrounded ancient Sogdiana, as for instance China and Persia. One of these scenes has been interpreted as the Roman (Byzantine) Empire (image below–you can see pictures of the other panels here. See also Harris, Anthea, “Britain and China at opposite ends of the world? Archaeological methodology and long-distance contacts in the 6th century” in Long-distance Contacts in the 6th Century, BAR Internat’l Series, 1644. Oxford, 2007).

The scene represents three men pressing grapes (wine-making was the most lucrative activity in the Eastern provinces in Late Antiquity) on top of a structure, a bird flying over them. Two other men appear to be running at the foot of the structure. The scene is surrounded by a luxurious vegetation, projecting an appearance of agricultural abundance and prosperity. The lower register depicts a lion fighting a hippocampus.

This is surprising, for it would represent the only known such scene discovered so far east. But, if the panel indeed represents a life scene in Byzantium, is it really so surprising? We know that the Sogdians had established, in the second half of the 6th century, close diplomatic and economic relations with the Roman empire, the object of which being trade, and particularily silk trade. In fact, we know from Menander Protector, historian of the reigns of Justin II and Tiberius, that an embassy headed by Valentinos was accompanied by 106 Sogdians, then living in Constantinople, during a mission to Central Asia in 575. The Sogdians therefore had first-hand knowledge of the empire, and in turn brought such reports to the Chinese courts when they traveled eastward. We also know that the Sogdian kings performed a ritual which consisted in bowing to the four cardinal directions, towards the great kingdoms that made up the Central Asian mind at the time: to the East for China, to the South for India or Persia, to the West for Rome (Byzantium). They knew the empire as a land of wealth, the golden solidi which they also were familiar with certainly being at the origins of this view. It is no doubt their position as intermediary that placed them in so favorable a situation. Constantinople understood this and seized the opportunity to strike an alliance with them to secure silk road trade and wage a war against Persia (cf. Luttwak, The Grand Strategy of the Byzantine Empire).