Good Reading Magazine

I grew up in the theatre, Shakespearean theatre. My parents were classical actors in London’s Old Vic. On a world tour, they brought me to Toronto as an infant and stayed there, acting, my father writing radio plays and both eventually founding Canada’s first Shakespeare festival. As a youngster, and later acting in the plays, I was continually fascinated by the Bard’s use of history and faraway places to create dramatic situations. I suppose that set me on a course of studying history at university and positioning myself later so I could travel.

When I was a boy, I thought the word history was derived from story. I still do in a sense, even though now I realize it comes from the Greek term for inquiry and not story at all.  While inquiry underlies all, history I think should be written as a narrative. Doing that magnifies the interest inherent in human actions and wipes the dust off the facts. Shakespeare must have thought so.

His plays are shot through with the wonders of travel – a passing strange island, a Greek battlefield, a Danish castle, Italian renaissance cities, even ancient Rome. I suppose my desire to travel stemmed from that.  And travel connects with history, is informed by it.  Without a sense of the history of the place, the visitor might as well be looking at a cardboard cut out.

Deterred by the financial insecurity of the theatre I went into law. But that didn’t expunge my desire to travel. When I was practising I always put my hand up for any assignment that involved travelling. One of them resulted in my visiting Australia, where my life changed utterly. While there, the mining industry caught my eye; it was burgeoning at the time. World class discoveries were being made in clusters. I wanted to be part of it.

Through consultants, I learned of a prospective exploration licence, acquired it and founded a company to go exploring on it. Luckily we made a major discovery. That led me to give up the law and commit myself to business. And of course to live in Australia.  The adventure allowed me to travel even more (mines are usually in remote places), all over the world in fact, sometimes to very unusual places, western China for instance.

For a number of years I had gone travelling along the Silk Road with my wife who is an artist using photography as her medium. On different occasions, for a single trip would be too much, we went along it through Turkey and Iran into Uzbekistan where the romantic cities of Bukhara and Samarkand mark an important stage in Alexander the Great’s eastern expedition. On the other side of the Pamir Mountains we entered Xinjiang (formerly called Chinese Turkestan), skirted the fearsome Taklamakan Desert and passed through the Hexi Corridor in Gansu province, ending up eventually in Xian, its start.

The Silk Road’s fascination for me stems largely from its being one of the great connecting forces in history.  Through the goods and ideas the caravans brought it linked Rome and China, even at a time when neither knew of each other’s existence. My interest was as much philosophical as historical, for it symbolizes the salutary effects of communication.

On one of my business trips to Gansu, China’s far western province (at the end of the Great Wall), I learned of a curious legend. It stimulated my imagination because it combined a Silk Road adventure with a major historical event.

A little Gansu village in the Gobi desert contains people with part Caucasian features, strange in itself so faraway but unusual for another reason. They believe they are the descendants of Roman legionnaires who travelled along the Silk Road after a pivotal battle somewhere in the West. Periodically they dress up as Roman soldiers and march to the top of a hill where they have built a small Roman temple. A tourist trade has sprung up around the legend, attracting visitors to come and stare at these people who seem so odd, wearing costumes they have never seen before.

The legend is not without foundation. Testing has shown that almost 60% of their DNA is Caucasian. That doesn’t mean they are Roman but it adds credibility to the story. Also, Pliny writes that after the Battle of Carrhae in 53 BCE when forty thousand Roman troops invaded Parthia (now Iran) and lost, Roman prisoners were taken to the eastern frontier (now Turkmenistan). It is possible that some escaped and travelled along the Silk Road as far as Gansu.

We are privileged to be witnessing one of the most important events in history taking place, the rise once more of China – after decades of turmoil and tragedy. For a long time that country has been off limits to Westerners; now we can visit the many wonders that have been hidden for so long and see a little of what is going on behind the impressive statistics of economic growth.

Great strategic blunders will bedevil the world if we in the West and they in the East fail sufficiently to understand one another.  I wrote this book in part as a metaphor for the difficulties, the challenges and the possibilities of connection between us. The Silk Road is the agent.

The book, which is historical fiction, is an adventure story cast in the form of a journey undertaken by a young centurion and his comrades who are part of the Roman invasion (led by Crassus, the richest man in Rome). There are several themes but one of them is the effect of travel on the mentality of the main character. Disraeli said, “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry and narrow mindedness.”

While doing the research, which naturally included the history of the times and places, I was thunderstruck by the similarity of philosophy between ancient Greece and China. In the Analects of Confucius and the pre- Socratic thinkers I saw virtually the same approach to most of the basic issues of human nature. Some differences do exist but there are more similarities.

I chose as the title for the book “The Tortoise in Asia” because the tortoise (testudo in Latin) is the name given by the Romans to the military formation they adopted to defend against projectiles. They would hold their shields horizontal over their heads to create a carapace like a tortoise.

It was a tactic used only by Romans, nobody else. In fact it gave rise to one of the pieces of evidence that supports the legend. A Chinese historian records a battle east of the Caspian Sea where a Han army won a victory against the Huns, nomadic tribes which constantly invaded China from the north and against which the Great Wall was built. He speaks of the presence of a hundred and forty-five soldiers who were gathered in a “fish-scale formation.” That could only refer to a testudo.

In the book, the protagonist and his fellows employ the testudo in a number of battles as they penetrate the mysteries of the East on the Silk Road and meet strange people along the way, going possibly further than any western soldiers had gone up to that time.