Including but not limited to: anachronistic references, awkward humor, historical accuracies, historical inaccuracies, gratuitous history in general, whiplash dramedy, occasional profanity, slow updates.
Imperial China and the Roman Empire were very much aware of each other, despite being situated so far away from one another. Oh, they didn't know each other well—quite the opposite, in fact. That's what makes this so fun.
As for the story, I originally imagined this as a sweeping historical drama of epic proportions, until I started plotting everything out and realized that I didn't actually want to write a giant angst-fest. In the wake of such self-discovery, I promptly three-sixtied the heck out of this thing and ended up with...comedic interpretations of semi-random moments in history.
So, Hetalia, basically.
(By the way, this story takes place in the same universe as Constellations, for those who've read that. For those who haven't, don't worry. It's hardly necessary.)
How Rome and China Almost Met
Greece was a pearl, a gem, a flawless treasure only fit to be sung in hushed voices of legend. She was the crown of Olympus, haloed in glory, unyielding in strength. She was the very definition of life and love, outshining even the lush beauty of Venus herself. She was the morning star to which all the heavens beheld in awe. She was—
She was not impressed with Rome's fawning praises.
"What do you want, Rome," she said. A pause. Then a sigh. "And it's Aphrodite, you cow. Not Venus."
Rome shot her a wounded glance. "Why would I want anything other than the splendor of your presence?" He folded his hands dramatically across his chest, presumably in an attempt to look sincere. Greece wasn't entirely sure. Either way, he was doing a commendable job of imitating one of Egypt's mummies.
"For one thing, you've been staring at Massalia for a while now." She flicked her hand, watching with dry amusement as Rome's eyes followed the jangling bracelet on her wrist. "For another, when have you not wanted anything?"
When it became clear that Greece was not falling for the debonair act, Rome straightened and smiled sheepishly.
"You know me too well, Greece! It's just that, ah, there's this little patch of land I'm kind of interested in, you know, along the southern coast—"
"You want a piece of Massalia," Greece said.
"Only a little piece," he said, going for a pained, puppy-eyed look. Greece examined his constipated expression, idly noting that he pulled off "debonair" with far more ease than he did "innocent."
"And you want Massalia because…"
"Because it's amazing and I love you?"
She considered this. Then, in one languid stroke, she reached over and gave him a hard pinch on the arm.
"Ow! Fine, fine! I want it because it's easier to fight Gaul from your place, right? And—and weren't you having trouble with Gaul, anyway? So it's a win-win situation. I get to beat him up, and you…don't beat him up!"
Greece nodded slowly. The prospect did have its appeal. Still…
"Aside from Gaul," she said, "this wouldn't happen to have anything to do with your obsession with Hispania, would it?"
He froze. "No."
She looked at him. She pinched him.
"Yes," he amended.
Greece eyed him wearily. "At this rate, you're going to run out of land to conquer," she said in half-hearted warning. Hispania was about as far west as one could possibly get, unless Rome planned on annexing Poseidon's kingdom as well. Actually, she wouldn't put it past him. The man was, quite frankly, a maniac.
Said maniac beamed at her. Teeth flashed. She resisted the urge to shield her eyes.
"Why," Rome declared, "that's what the East is for, my dear."
At the eastern terminus of the Silk Road, a man was arguing with his imaginary friend.
Or at least, that was what the citizens of Chang'an beheld. It was a wholly unimpressive sight, and one that was more than a little disturbing. Grown men oughtn't be seen arguing with themselves, after all, and especially not this grown man. It wasn't proper. What would the children think?
But for once, the personification of China didn't really care how he looked, because he had somewhat more important things to worry about. Xiongnu, his pig-faced arch-nemesis, was continuing to prove himself a pain in the unmentionables. And as if that wasn't enough, China's boss had cheerfully decided to lose his mind.
"It'd be nice to go with them," Tianming said blithely as he floated unseen above the streets of the capital. "A Journey to the West, if you will." The dragon then chuckled to himself, as if appreciating an inside joke. China had no idea what Tianming was talking about, and he was quite sure he didn't want to know. He'd elect to stay sane, thank you very much.
"Tianming," China said in his special, patient voice usually reserved for small children and madmen. "I can't just go gallivanting off into strange lands. I'm not sure if you're aware of this, but we're in the middle of a war."
The dragon looked amused, as if he found China's attempt at rationality unbearably cute.
"Yes," Tianming said, echoing China's patronizing tone. "Which is all the more reason for some time off. Think of it as a vacation. You've been so stressed lately, it's making my scales itch."
"Middle. Of. War." China wondered if it would help if he grabbed a stick and diagrammed it all out in a patch of dirt. Maybe Tianming was simply a visual learner. Hasty sketches of dead stick figures would surely help him see the big picture. What part of "perilous diplomatic mission" screamed "vacation," anyway?
"Yes," Tianming said again. "Which is why we're sending an embassy in the first place. Because no one else is willing to help. Not Yuezhi, not Gojoseon—or do you not remember?"
If that wasn't a metaphorical punch in the gut, China didn't know what was. As if he needed to be reminded of his deteriorating relationship with Gojoseon.
"Besides," his boss continued, oblivious to China's distress, "I'll still be here. You'll have the Mandate of Heaven on your side. Xiongnu will not win while you're away. Trust me."
China wanted to say that the last time he trusted the Mandate of Heaven, he ended up with a megalomaniac on the throne. But before he could even open his mouth, Tianming employed the Look. Oh, stars above, the Look. How a respectable, fearsome dragon was able to transform into some unholy chimeric combination of doe-eyed bunny-rabbit-piglet-puppy-kitten thing, China would never know. What he did know was that, as long as Tianming possessed the Look in his arsenal, China's hope of victory was precisely zero.
Furthermore, Tianming was right in a sense. They did need help. Sad as it was, China didn't really have any friends or family willing to back him up.
Still, it was a little embarrassing how quickly he folded.
"I…I suppose I should start packing," China said, sighing.
Tianming grinned a smile long and sharp, all traces of his previous baby animal act vanishing. "To the west, then. And stop talking to yourself, you're starting to attract strange looks."
It was settled. "Operation: Beat Up Gaul" was a go.
Rome rubbed his hands gleefully. This was going to be good. He was going to get back at Gaul for totally messing up his capital a couple of centuries back—that time when Gaul had annihilated Rome's precious collections of vases, paintings, and nude statues. It was tragedy. It was a massacre. And it could have been a whole lot worse had a gaggle of fat geese not warned him about the impending attack. (Long story.)
A rustling of foliage caught his attention, and Rome stilled in excitement. This was it. The moment he'd been waiting for.
Gaul was here.
The instant the figure emerged, Rome sprung forward, a gallant battle cry upon his lips:
"This one's for the nude statues!"
Gaul ducked under his swing and caught his arm in an iron grip. Odd, Rome didn't recall the man being quite that flexible.
"Rome," Gaul said, exasperated, "what in Tartarus do you think you're doing?"
And since when had Gaul sounded so weirdly feminine? Rome squinted, willing his eyesight to penetrate through layers of murky gloom. The sun had already retired for the day, and at the moment it was difficult to really make anything out. It was that time of month when the moon was absent, and the stars never helped anyway, so everything was about as dark as Greece's hair…
"What are you doing here, Greece?" he asked in surprise.
"Well, I have a colony here," she said, "as you very well know. What are you doing here?"
"Protecting you from Gaul, of course."
She heaved a sigh that somehow managed to sound both patient and impatient at the same time. Rome was impressed. He hadn't known such a thing was physically possible.
"That's fine," she said. "But you've been giggling up and down the coast for the past few days now, and it's scaring my merchants. Could you maybe tone done your…" She gestured vaguely. "Your you-ness?"
Rome scratched his head with his free arm. Did he giggle, really? Surely not.
He opened his mouth to reply, but then the foliage rustled for the second time and he ditched his righteous indignation in favor of giddy anticipation. This was it; the moment he'd been waiting for. For real, this time.
A dark figure emerged—armored and masculine, Rome noted with certainty—and Rome wasted no time lunging happily at Gaul, fully prepared for some light, manly conversation. With fists.
Unfortunately, he had overlooked the fact that Greece still had one of his arms clenched in a pincer hold. He tripped, sprawling toward the ground in a swooping half-stumble. Colorful language danced through the air. Throughout it all, Greece hadn't budged an inch, and Rome was left hanging limply off of her arm like a strange, boneless creature.
Oh, but that woman was strong. Sometimes, he forgot that Sparta had been Greece's, too.
"Greece, I know I'm hopelessly irresistible, but you can let go of me now," he said in what he thought was a very suave voice.
Greece ignored him. Rome silently despaired.
"Uh, Greece? It's—it's kind of hard to fight Gaul with only one arm—"
"That's not Gaul," Greece said, absently releasing his arm.
Rome blinked up from where he'd collapsed on the ground. He scrambled into an upright position, and then saw that Greece was right.
Gaul's hair had never been that long. Or pale. Or bright. Sweet Jupiter, this guy's head reflected enough light to qualify as its own mini-moon.
"Oh. Who are you?" Rome asked.
Through the dimness he could just barely make out a scowl on the stranger's face. "Germania," came the reply. "Who are…where…?"
"Roman Republic," Rome said with a winsome smile. "In answer to both of your questions."
"Actually, you're in Massalia," corrected Greece, the spoilsport. "One of my colonies."
Rome waved a careless hand. "Yes, yes, close enough." He casually dodged Greece's elbow. "So, Germania, you're new here? Never visited old Rome, before?"
Oh, that laconic wit. Rome grinned.
"Well, allow me to welcome you to the greatest civilization in the Mediterranean! How about I show you around the place? You up for a grand tour? Trust me, you're going to love it…"
After a frightfully long journey, the Chinese embassy finally arrived in Anxi. They had traversed tens of thousands of li over mountains, deserts and valleys alike, braving such horrors as venomous snakes, blistering sandstorms, ruthless bandits, and unforeseen allergic reactions.
(In hindsight, the vibrant purple on the polka-dotted mushroom caps should have been fair warning against consumption.)
Their exhaustive voyage had now ground to a halt at the capital of Anxi. Not that anyone had told them it was the capital, but it certainly felt like one. Nations tended to have a nose for these things. China, in particular, was very proud of his nose.
A day's worth of rest and preparation later, and the embassy was standing at the finely crafted entrance to Anxi's seat of government, a building of pillars and arches lathered with hardened stucco. Silent attendants crept forward and ushered them inside, where they came face to face with Anxi's King of Kings.
Mithridates II had the beaked nose of a hawk, the fleeced beard of a lamb, and the round eyes of a child. China wondered for a moment if he ought to be offended by the king's grandstanding title, before brushing it off. It would be hypocritical; after all, China himself had practically invented grandstanding titles. Son of Heaven and what have you.
Rudimentary inspection complete, China quickly lost interest in him. Let his men deal with Mithridates; China was here to speak to Anxi, not this baby-faced king.
His brow furrowed.
Where was Anxi?
Upon raising this query with the king and his court, China learned two things.
One: Anxi was called Parthia in these regions.
Two: Westerners were apparently very bad at keeping track of their own countries, because the Parthian Empire was nowhere to be found.
At the barrel-vaulted entrance of the city, the Parthian Empire stood fuming.
"No," said Parthia. "No, no, no. You are not welcome here at my home. How often must I remind you? Kindly remove your fetid body from my establishment and go bother someone else."
With that, he shut the gate.
"Well, that wasn't very nice," Rome said. He glanced at Germania, who stared flatly back at him over the head of an equally deadpan horse.
Perhaps an explanation was in order. In preparation for Rome's grand adventure, the two travelers had picked up a pair of horses—a proud chestnut steed for Rome, and a weird speckly gray thing for Germania. Scruffiness aside, the speed at which Germania had bonded with his horse was nothing short of amazing. Rome had always been a fond proponent of equestrian love, but these two were so in sync that it was honestly starting to scare him. He could no longer tell if Germania was horse-faced or if the horse was Germania-faced.
"I thought this was supposed to be a tour of your land," Ger-horse-ia said. Creepy.
Rome laughed nervously. "It is! Well, in a manner of speaking. I mean, everything out east here is eventually going to be mine, anyway. So this is like…a tour of the future!"
He faltered when Germania turned his horse around to leave. Or the horse turned Germania around to leave. Damn, Rome didn't even know anymore.
"Wait, wait! Don't go just yet, I know another way inside, aren't you curious at all? I mean, this is the Parthian Empire we're talking about. Parthia!"
A convergence of trade networks. A lodestone for commerce. A merchant's paradise.
Traders of all ethnicities bustled to and fro in a veritable ecosystem of economics. The rich diversity should have offered China at least a little bit of camouflage, but for some reason, his visage still managed to remain a popular point of destination for hundreds of curious gazes.
Perhaps, he mused, it was the mushrooms. He had hoped that the rash would have faded away completely by now, but there was still an odd wiggle of red on his neck. Curse that wiggle. Surreptitiously, he tried to reposition his hair to block the offending sight from view. His efforts bore little fruit; if anything, people's stares seemed to increase tenfold.
There was nothing for it, then, other than to simply ignore the attention. With as much dignity as his lopsided hair allowed, China approached the first person who he thought looked at least somewhat intelligent.
"Xian sheng, qing wen—" China began. The addressed man gave him a look of crystal-clear incomprehension. China paused and started over, digging for a language the man would recognize. "Excuse me. Sir, would you happen to know where I can find the Parthian Empire?"
The man stared at him thoughtfully for a while, stroking at a nonexistent beard. He opened his mouth. China leaned forward to listen.
"You are a silk man," the man said.
"I see," said China. He waited, but it seemed that nothing else was forthcoming. "…Thank you for your insight."
"Seres," the man insisted.
"Yes, you too."
This was more or less how every conversation proceeded to play out for the remainder of the day. It was repetitive, to say the least. And frustrating. But China was here for a diplomacy mission, not a playground fight, so to prove to himself that he had more maturity than the average eight-year-old, he reined in his temper.
His face, however, did grow steadily redder in hue as the day progressed.
Evening approached, dragging the sun in hazy descent. China leaned grumpily against the side of a vendor's stand, wondering if perhaps he could still make his way back to the embassy in time for dinner. He turned his gaze up at the sky in an attempt to judge the time.
It was ludicrously, impossibly lucky that he glanced up at that very instant, because he otherwise would not have seen—or been prepared for—the spectacle that followed.
Namely, a man came hurtling over the city wall.
Straight toward him.
Like a human-shaped arrow.
Shoving his incredulity aside, China instead focused on immediate survival and took a couple of swift steps to the right. A shriek and a crunch suggested that the stand had been splintered beyond recognition. A glance over his shoulder confirmed this fact. Meanwhile, the man-turned-projectile was rising to his feet, brushing himself off from a crash landing that by all means should have been fatal.
Such disrespect for the laws of physics could mean only one thing.
This flying man was a Nation.
"Hey, are you Parthia?" China asked bluntly. He was grumpy and tired and hungry, and his patience for diplomacy had long since worn thin.
The person that might have been Parthia peered at him, jaw slackened in surprise. He had a rugged sort of look about him, a look of a man who dealt and reveled in warfare. China was instantly suspicious of him.
In response to China's inquiry, Unidentified Flying Nation gave him a look of sheer delight.
"You're a silk man!" was the informative reply. "Seres!"
And China felt that, all things considered, his reactions thenceforth were rather justified.
Germania wasn't sure what exactly had happened.
No. Correction. Germania knew precisely what happened. It wasn't the what that was proving to be problematic, but rather the how, and the why.
How Rome had managed to construct a human catapult from virtually nothing would forever remain a mystery of the universe.
Why Rome had deemed such a thing to be necessary (when a perfectly serviceable entrance existed on the eastern side of the city) was likewise baffling.
Where Rome had landed…well, Germania was getting there.
Out of some warped, pity-borne sense of responsibility, Germania had taken it upon himself to at least make sure Rome was still alive. It didn't take long for him to decide on a plan of action. Taking the aforementioned eastern entrance and retracing his steps along the other side of the wall should, in theory, lead him to the site of impact.
After securing their horses, Germania set out to search, scowling all along the way and glaring heatedly at nothing in particular. (A passing merchant fell off his donkey and several children ran off screaming, but Germania dismissed these as unrelated events and returned to his internal grumbling.) What little tolerance remained for his current situation was unraveling with dismaying rapidity. This entire misadventure with the Roman Republic was a farce at best—Germania was starting to feel like some demented version of a babysitter, which was certainly not what he had signed up for when he'd migrated south from Scandinavia…
There. A crowd. If that wasn't a sign of infantile shenanigans, he didn't know what was.
(On a happier note, the people of Parthia were wonderfully polite; Germania didn't even have to say a word for the crowd to part way for him. The cowering and the groveling he could do without, but he supposed that cultural differences couldn't be helped.)
He was treated to the uninteresting sight of Rome crumpled over in a senseless heap. A young man clad in oddly voluminous clothing hovered over the body, showing clear signs of distress. To the side, a vendor sobbed brokenly over his equally broken stall. Piecing the situation together wasn't too difficult.
Germania strode over to inspect Rome's unmoving figure. "Is he dead?"
The man with ridiculous sleeves shot him a panicked glance. "No! At least, I don't think so. I hope not. I didn't mean to hit him that hard, I swear!"
Germania stared at him. Upon closer inspection, the man's dark hair was noticeably asymmetric, and there was an odd red wiggle on his neck. "You…" He shook his head. "You're a country."
"China," came the distracted reply. "Are—are you?"
Well, not so much "country" as "loose personification of various Germanic tribes," but that would take too long to explain.
"Germania," he said simply.
"And…him?" China's voice was steeped in bald horror. "Is he Parthia?"
"Oh, thank Heaven," China said, visibly relieved. "That's alright, then."
"What's going on here?"
Both countries startled, China more conspicuously than Germania. The crowd parted for a second time, revealing a tall man in merchant's attire—the same man who had given Rome an earful not so long ago.
"That's Parthia," Germania said, and then watched in mild fascination as China's posture softened into something ten times more polite.
"Well?" demanded the Parthian Empire, stabbing an accusing finger at Rome's pitiful form.
"My deepest apologies," China said, sparing Parthia a brief bow. "His…sudden appearance startled me and I reacted poorly. I didn't mean to cause trouble."
Parthia's dark eyes narrowed. "You are the one responsible for this?"
"Well, I—" China floundered. "Yes, but I meant no lasting harm—"
"You assaulted this man?"
"You are the reason he is lying on the ground, silent, immobile, possibly but not probably dead?"
"Please allow me, then," Parthia said seriously, "to express my complete and utmost gratitude."
China paused, nonplussed.
"I will see to it personally that you receive the best accommodations this city has to offer," Parthia continued. "Clearly, you are a man of great moral fiber. I believe we will become great friends."
China did not seem to know what to say to that. Germania did not blame him. It wasn't every day that violence and brutality were lauded as emblems of virtue. Sometimes foreigners had all manner of odd customs.
"As for you—" Parthia pointed at Germania, who blinked at the sudden attention. "Please dispose of your garbage. Good night." He marched away, dragging a bewildered China after him.
Dispose of garbage. Germania supposed that Parthia was talking about Rome. With a sigh of annoyance, he set about relocating the body.
"Germania," Rome mumbled, contemplating the dusty Middle Eastern landscape with groggy eyes, "I had the weirdest dream about a silk man…who could fly…but then…I think he beat me up…?"
"You're an idiot," Germania informed him, before rolling over and going back to sleep. He'd deal with Rome in the morning.
…Or he would have, if Rome hadn't conveniently vanished by daybreak. A cursory inspection of Germania's surroundings revealed little about Rome's whereabouts, other than the fact that he wasn't there.
Germania considered his options. He didn't particularly hold any grievances against this recent development. It was fantastic, actually. Germania was now free to ditch Rome and return west, back to where things actually made sense.
But just as he was about to race into the nonexistent sunset, he noticed something that dashed all his plans for freedom into smithereens.
Odin's eyeball, Germania thought dully. He took the horses.
1] Time period: Roughly 120 BC. China's well into the Han Dynasty, and Rome is still a republic. Accuracies: China really did send a delegation to Parthia around this time, for aid against the Xiongnu (the Han–Xiongnu War was ongoing). Inaccuracies: Rome didn't have direct contact with Parthia until 96 BC, and Romans had little knowledge of silk at this point in time.
2] Massalia: Marseille. Began as a Greek settlement off the coast of Gaul (modern day France). Rome, looking for a safe land route to Hispania (Iberian Peninsula), struck a deal with them. In return for knocking some Gaulish heads, Rome got a strip of land called Gallia Transalpina.
3] Xiongnu: Nomadic empire. Got into lots of fights with China, especially during the Han Dynasty. You can thank these guys for the existence of the Great Wall.
4] Gojoseon: Ancient Korea. China-Gojoseon relations weren't all that great to begin with, but they became super strained thanks to a man named Wiman (Wei Man in Chinese). Wiman was a Chinese general who, in fleeing from the general crappiness of the crumbling Qin Dynasty, was accepted as a refugee in Gojoseon. He proceeded to thank the king's hospitality by overthrowing him. Cue start of the Wiman Joseon and decades of festering animosity.
5] Yuezhi: Ancient Indo-European pseudo-nomads. (I say pseudo because they eventually settled down.) Chinese Silk Road pioneer Zhang Qian attempted to secure an alliance with them against the Xiongnu, but failed.
6] Germania: Rome had its first major encounter with Germanic tribes in the late 2nd century BC, when a bunch of migrating people entered Gaul, Italy, and Hispania.
7] Geese: Battle of Allia, sack of Rome. Legend has it that the sacred geese of Juno helped warn Romans of the invading Gauls.
8] Parthian Empire: Ancient Iranian empire, sandwiched between Han China and Rome. Became a hub of commerce, thanks to the Silk Road. Famously did not get along with Rome.
9] King of Kings: Mithridates II was the first Parthian ruler to claim this title on his coinage.