An interview with Scott Crawford

By Owain Williams

In 53 BC, having been captured by a Xiongnu warband, nomadic horsemen who rule the seas of grass between the Gobi Desert and Mountains of Heaven, Roman soldier Manius Titinius rots in a slave camp. Until, with the help of a Chinese family, he escapes. In their frontier village, he grapples with the language and learns a new way of life. Then his former captors track him down and attack. Will Fortuna stand with Manius through the siege? Will the proud Roman forge a Chinese destiny? Can he ever find his way home?

“Fortuna, be with me. May I come before you with bloodied hands.”

Scott Crawford has contributed to both Ancient History and Ancient Warfare several times, writing about the Romans and ancient China. He has written a book, Silk Road Centurion, combining his interests. In this interview, Scott tells us about his book, his love of ancient history, and how he researched Silk Road Centurion.

Briefly, can you tell us what Silk Road Centurion is about?

Silk Road Centurion chronicles the adventures of Roman soldier Manius Titinius in the western frontier of Han-dynasty China. In the runup to the 53 BC Battle of Carrhae, Rome’s disastrous clash with the Parthian Empire, Manius falls into the clutches of a band of Xiongnu, nomadic horsemen who roamed the steppe beyond China’s borders. Driven to their lands, Manius escapes captivity with the help of a Chinese family. He forges a new life with them in their village – only for his former captors to track him down and attack. Amid a gruelling siege, daring rescue mission, and a monthslong hunt across the boundless steppe for an abducted child, the displaced Roman discovers a new meaning of family and of home.

Your character's name bears a close similarity to Maes Titianus, a merchant who partook in a merchant expedition that travelled from Syria to China (see 'An ancient Marco Polo - The lost story of Maes Titianus', Ancient History 42). Did this particular piece of history have any impact on your story?

Indeed. Titianus did not quite inspire the story yet I did wish to allude to him. It appears Titianus fell short of China proper but made it to the Tarim Basin, probably Tashkurgan, a Silk Road trading post I've been to the ruins of, located near what is now the border of China and Afghanistan. My visit to Tashkurgan became an early spark of my interest in the region which ultimately grew into the novel, so it later felt proper to honor that by making my character Manius Titinius perhaps a distant or 'spiritual' relation of Maes Titianus.

What inspired you to write this story?

I have long been fascinated by borderlands, meetings of civilizations, and journeys to foreign lands. Much of that interest stems from my own, albeit limited, experience of such experiences. As well as in the United States I grew up in Japan, and I have a relationship with China stretching back to my university days; I’ve lived in Beijing and Taipei (my current home) for more than a dozen years. These experiences stoked an interest to tell the story of an encounter between West and East but in a fresh and exciting way, and to explore a foundational period of Chinese history through a pacy adventure story.

Scott Forbes Crawford

You have written about ancient China for Ancient History several times in the past. What drew you to ancient China? 

My longstanding relationship with China certainly played a great part in that. Chinese history is vast and coming to grips with it can be a task. So many of the cultural institutions and practices which influenced the course of China’s history to the modern era – standardized writing, the Confucian philosophy, and a burgeoning imperial identity – crystallized during the ancient Han dynasty. Studying and writing about that time reveals some of the deep roots of China across time.

How did you research this book? What topics did you approach first? Were some elements harder to research than others?

What I find both fascinating and frustrating about writing about the ancient past is how much imagination must be relied upon to fill in the gaps.

The historian Sima Qian, author of Records of the Grand Historian, was immensely helpful to me. He wrote widely about many periods of Chinese history but lived through the height of China’s conflict with the Xiongnu Empire, making his book also a work of reportage. (In fact, this proved treacherous when he offended court factions and suffered castration as a result. Despite his mutilation he continued writing his masterwork – quite an inspiring tale, especially for writers and historians.)

The research into Chinese and Xiongnu daily life demanded some creativity. For China, much of the records from the Han dynasty pertain to the aristocracy and upper classes; with a farming village as the principal setting of my story, I had to extrapolate many details of daily life. This is of course permitted with fiction though nonetheless, I tried to go about it in a sober way. I was lucky too in that my editor is deeply steeped in Chinese history, making excellent suggestions and catching my fumbles.

For the Xiongnu aspects of the story, the picture is even hazier. They left no written records, only archaeological ones, and most of our knowledge derives from Chinese texts, which can hardly be called impartial. As a result, I had to delve into sources beyond what is strictly known about the Xiongnu, reading about other steppe peoples, such as in Herodotus’s account of the Scythians. I also closely read what I could find about religious practices of the Xiongnu, believing this would help illuminate their worldview and aspects of their lives.

What were some of the more surprising things you learned?

For the Romans, it was the practice of bandaging new-borns to shape their bodies into more 'correct' forms. This reveals something about Roman views of nature, and I used it to prompt a conversation between Manius and a healer in the village with whom he holds spirited exchanges about how Romans and Chinese perceive society and the world.

I’d been familiar with Chinese literary culture prior to working on the novel, yet research opened my eyes to its depths in the Han dynasty. At that time the number of Chinese characters exploded. New literary forms flourished. Chinese kept scrupulous records, often writing on bamboo slats bound into books (before they invented paper around AD 105). All these developments allowed China to spread its culture across the empire, even to Chinese who spoke different dialects and languages. I tried to touch on these developments in my book.

And with the Xiongnu, I found their political sophistication most surprising. Their confederacy encompassed multi-ethnic, multilingual peoples, with leaders seemingly governing more by persuasion than by fiat. How could they manage to overcome cultural, religious, linguistic, and other differences, atop the difficulty of coordinating across enormous distances, to organize into an empire which nearly toppled China? It’s astounding.

Silk Road Centurion's cover

There is always something more to learn about any given topic. How did you know when to stop researching?

That is quite a challenge! Let me answer in two ways.

First, after sketching out the premise, I turned to whatever sources I could find: period texts, academic articles, museum exhibits, etc. After I’d established a basic footing in the three cultures portrayed in my story, I began drafting – though I’d barely made it a few pages in before realizing I must stop to chase down some detail or other. What sounds might be heard in a Chinese marketplace? How did Roman men view facial hair? How might the Xiongnu have worshiped their sky spirit? That dynamic held throughout the whole process of writing, so the research was continuous, occurring whenever a scene needed some fresh historical element to bring it to life.

Second, while it is vital to become versed in your topic, it is equally vital to take the plunge at the right moment and begin writing. Digging up material can become so enthralling one almost forgets the research is not the objective but the means to propel the creation of the book. I certainly struggled to decide when I was ready; eventually, I hazarded my way in and soon learned that only by writing could I define my research requirements.

Do you have any tips for those who might wish to research and write their own books? What would you have liked to have known first, before embarking upon this endeavour?

It wouldn’t have changed my resolve to see the project through, though perhaps I would have liked to know just what an undertaking it would prove to be. I had published short stories and articles before this novel, but nothing at its scale and complexity, and such things can take a great deal of time.

A lesson I learned, or perhaps gained a deeper appreciation of, is the power of revision. Once something is on the page, no matter how paltry or flawed, it can be remade. In my experience this is especially true with writing fiction; no matter how well you might plan it out in advance, at some point creating a story becomes a process of discovery on the fly. And so many solutions to previously insoluble problems somehow appear once there’s a pen in hand or the keyboard is clacking.

Given all that you have learned about ancient Rome, ancient China, and the connections between the two, how common were interactions between these two civilizations, do you think?
About 150 years following the setting of my novel – AD 97 – a Chinese diplomatic mission lit out for the West, ostensibly in search of Da Qin (the Chinese name for ancient Rome). It is one of those tantalizing 'what-ifs' that the delegation reached the Persian Gulf, only to then turn back. Had direct, official contact been opened between the two empires, how might our history have been transformed?

That said, I am convinced contact occurred even if not at the state level. Humans are a peripatetic bunch. Trade flowed back and forth through intermediaries such as the Parthians, and I find it difficult to believe no person of either empire, whether for commercial reasons or out of burning curiosity, ever made the journey. Small-scale contact would likely leave traces so minute they’d be a miracle to unearth if traces survived at all. But perhaps in the absence of such evidence, fiction can step in.

Silk Road Centurion will be released May 9th by Camphor Press. You can find Scott at his website,, where he has written about the historical background of Silk Road Centurion and more!

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