Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Thursday, April 4, 2024

The echoes of Carrhae

Back on the ninth of June, 53 B.C.E., seven legions of Roman heavy infantry were lured into the desert near the town of Carrhae (now Harran, Turkey) by what appeared to be a small retreating force of Parthian soldiers.  It was a trap, and the leader of the Roman forces, Marcus Licinius Crassus (who was one-third of the First Triumvirate, along with Julius Caesar and Pompey the Great) fell for it.  Well-armed and highly mobile Parthian horsemen swept down and kicked some legionnaire ass.  Just about all of the Roman soldiers were either captured or killed, and Crassus himself was executed -- in some accounts, by having molten gold poured down his throat.

Not the way I would choose to make my exit.  Yeowch.

A bust thought to be of the unfortunate Marcus Licinius Crassus [Image licensed under the Creative Commons Sergey Sosnovskiy, Bust of a Roman, Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek, CC BY-SA 4.0]

In any case, very few soldiers from Crassus's seven legions made it back to Italy.  They didn't all die, though, so what happened to the survivors?

This is where it gets interesting -- not only because historical mysteries are intrinsically intriguing, but as another example of "please don't believe whatever you see on the internet, and more importantly don't repost it without checking it for accuracy."

The Battle of Carrhae comes up because a couple of days ago I got one of those "sponsored" posts on Facebook that are largely clickbait based on what stuff you've shared or liked in the past.  With my interest in archaeology and history, I get a lot of links of the type, "Archaeologists don't want you to find out about this ONE WEIRD HISTORICAL FACT," as if actual researchers just hate it when people hear about what they're researching and love nothing better than keeping all of their findings secret from everyone.

In any case, the claim of this particular post was that the survivors of the Battle of Carrhae were absorbed into the Parthian Empire (plausible), but never were accepted there so decided after a while to up stakes and move east (possible), where they eventually made their way to northwestern China (hmmm...) and there's a place called Liqian where their descendants settled.  These guys were recruited by the Chinese as mercenaries to fight against the Xiongnu in 36 B.C.E., and when the Xiongnu were roundly defeated the grateful Chinese Emperor allowed the Romans to stay there permanently.

This idea was championed by historian Homer Dubs, professor of Chinese history at Oxford University, who as part of his argument claimed that the "fish-scale formation" used by the Chinese army against the Xiongnu had been copied from the Roman "testudo formation" -- a move where legions go forward with their shields overlapping to prevent spears and arrows from their opponents from striking home.  The Romans had taught the Chinese a new tactic, Dubs said, and that's how they won the battle.

So far, I have no problem with any of this.  There's nothing wrong with researchers making claims, even far-fetched ones; that's largely how scientific inquiry progresses, with someone saying, essentially, "Hey, here's how I think this works," and all his/her colleagues trying their best to punch holes in the claim.  If the claim stands up to the tests of evidence and logic, then we have a working model of the phenomenon in question.

But the link I got on social media pretty much stopped with, "Hey, some Romans ended up in China, isn't that cool?"  There was no mention of the fact that (1) Dubs made his claim in 1941; (2) because there has never been a single Roman artifact -- not one -- found near Liqian, just about all archaeologists and historians think Dubs was wrong; and (3) a genetic test of a large sample of people around Liqian found not the slightest trace of European ancestry.  Everyone there, apparently, is mostly of Han Chinese descent, just as you'd expect.

And the genetic tests that conclusively put Dubs's claim to rest were conducted seventeen years ago.

Look, it's not that I don't get clickbait.  These sites like "Amazing Facts From History" exist to get people to click on them, boosting their numbers and therefore their ad revenue, irrespective of whether anything they're claiming is true.  In other words, if they can get you to click on it, they win.

But what I don't understand is the number of people who shared the link -- over five thousand, at the point I saw it -- and appended comments like, "This is so interesting!" and "History is so fascinating!", apparently uncritically accepting what the site claimed without doing what I did, a (literally) two-minute read of Wikipedia that brought me to the paper from The Journal of Human Genetics I linked above.  Not a single one of the hundreds of commenters said, "But this isn't true, and we've known it's not true for almost two decades."

I can almost hear the objections.  What's the harm of believing an odd claim about ancient history, even if the (very strong) evidence is that it's false?  To me, there is actual harm in it; it establishes a habit of credulity, of accepting what sounds cool or fun or weird or interesting without any apparent consideration of whether or not it's true.  Sure, there's no immediate problem with believing Roman soldiers settled in China.

But when you start applying that same lack of critical thinking to matters of your health, the environment, or politics, the damage accrues awfully fast.

So please do some fact-checking before you share.  Apply skepticism to what you see online -- even if (or maybe, especially if) what you're considering sharing conforms to your preconceived notions about how things work.  We can all fall prey to confirmation bias, and these days, with the prevalence of clickbait sites run by folks who don't give a rat's ass if what they post is real or not, it's an increasing problem.

Check before you share.  It's that simple.


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