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SILK IN ANCIENT GREECE & ROME

A million-dollar question: Did the ancient Greeks and Romans know the secret of silk's origin?

Published on 7 Sept, 2021

Introduction

Silk is perhaps one of the most valuable luxurious commodity in the Classical World. In ancient Greece and Rome, silk was insanely expensive, exotic, and rare. Silk robe dyed with Royal purple was reserved exclusively for the most powerful man in the Roman Empire: the Princeps Civitatis, or more commonly referred to as The Emperor. Almost all of Rome's silk was imported from the exotic Far East, creating a huge trade imbalance that worried Roman scholars and government. This leaves us an impression that ancient Greece and Rome did not produce their own silk, some even claim that the ancient Mediterranean people did not know where silk came from. But is this a historical fact?

Well, yes and no.

There is a commonly held belief, or misbelief that Greeks and Romans did not know where silk came from. Whether this statement is true or not depends on which Greek or Roman you are asking. Roman authors routinely provided erroneous stories to explain where silk came from, some of them very influential. For example, the famous Roman poet Virgil speculated that silk was grown on trees. His speculation that silk was a plant-based fiber, similar to linen or cotton, was perhaps influenced by the fact that almost all fibers that were used to make garments in Rome were plant-based. Virgil was not the only one who speculated silk's origin wrongly, but his tremendous influence further reinforced our impression that the Romans did not know the correct origin of silk.

The answer to whether ancient Mediterranean people knew where silk came from is a little bit complicated. Most ancient Greeks and Romans indeed did not know where silk came from. However, if we dig deeper into the Classical literatures, it is not difficult to find tell-tale signs that some Greek and Roman natural philosophers knew the correct origin of silk. in order to better explain it, we need to go back to one of the greatest philosophers in Greek history: Aristotle.

Aristotle on silk's origin

Aristotle (384 - 322 BCE) was one of the most influential philosophers in Western history. Born in Stagira near modern day Mount Athos, Macedonia, Greece, Aristotle studied abroad in Athens, the intellectual capital of the entire Greek world at the time, under the tutorship of Plato, another great philosopher of all time. His study in Athens lasted for 20 years before moving back to Macedonia. One of his students was the Macedonian "conqueror of the known world" Alexander the Great.

Aristotle wrote extensively on philosophy, religion, and logic, his influence on these disciplines has been tremendous. Aristotelian logic remains one of the most important foundations of modern logical reasonings, and the Aristotelian concept of a single, omnipotent and omniscience deity had tremendous influences on the development and maturation of monotheistic religions. However, Aristotle was not just interested in the realm of abstract concepts, he was also a down-to-Earth observer of the natural physical world. He wrote extensively on natural phenomena. And interestingly, Aristotle did write on the topic of silk.

In Aristotle's "History of Animals" (Greek: Των περί τα ζώα ιστοριών), he noticed that fibers extracted from cocoons of a species of moth could be used to make highly-prized garments. Let's see what Aristotle said:

 

Ἐκ δὲ τούτου τοῦ ζῴου καὶ τὰ βομβύκια ἀναλύουσι τῶν γυναικῶν τινὲς ἀναπηνιζόμεναι, κἄπειτα ὑφαίνουσιν· πρώτη δὲ λέγεται ὑφῆναι ἐν Κῷ Παμφίλη Πλάτεω θυγάτηρ.

A class of women unwind and reel off the cocoons of these creatures, and afterwards weave a fabric with the threads thus unwound; a Coan woman of the name of Pamphila, daughter of Plateus, being credited with the first invention of the fabric.

 

Hist. an. 5.19.551b

 

This is the first indication that Greek intellectuals actually knew silk was from silkworms. It also indicates that silk was produced in the Aegean Island of Kos, Greece indigenously, centuries before Justinian. As Aristotle described Pamphila as a historical figure, not his contemporary, it means that Greece and the Aegean area already had a flourishing silk industry in Aristotle's time that could be dated back to at least the era of Classical Greece, almost a millennium before Justinian.

Marble Bust of Aristotle

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Roman mentions of silk's origin

We now know that some Greek intellectuals and natural philosophers knew cocoons of some insects could be used to make fabric, this is very important because it was basically where silk came from. Then, we need to ask a question: how about the Romans?

Even though considered very closely related, the Romans differed from the ancient Greeks in their attitude toward scientific discoveries. Romans were more interested in applied sciences, engineering, they were much more practical people than the Greeks. They had to govern a vast Empire and rule a quarter of the world's population, their innovations had a specific purpose: to maintain the rule and stability of the Empire. During transition period between the fall of the Hellenistic Era and the rise of Pax Romana, armed conflicts engulfed the Mediterranean. Some Hellenistic knowledge was unfortunately lost in the process when Caesar's siege of Alexandria damaged part of the Great Library there. Did the knowledge of silk's correct origin survive the political turmoil during this troubled era into the Golden Age of Roman domination?

Actually, the answer is also a resounding yes.

Pliny the Elder, whose full name was Gaius Plinius Secundus, was an influential natural philosopher in the Early Roman Empire. Born in Novum Comum, Como in Lombardy, Northern Italy in 23 or 24 CE, Pliny the Elder was from an equestrian family. He rose to prominence during Vespasian's reign and was governor of Gaul, Africa and Hispania (modern Iberian Peninsula). Pliny's curiosity was unbounded and he was also a keen observer of the nature. He wrote many books but some were unfortunately lost, the most famous surviving work was Naturalis Historia, or Natural History. Natural History was an epic 10 Volumes 37 Books work that formed an ancient encyclopedia covering different disciplines of knowledges at the time. And of course, it included paragraphs on the origin of silk. Let's see what he said on this topic:

Et alia horum origo. ex grandiore vermiculo gemina protendens sui generis cornuum urica fit, dein quod vocatur bombylis, ex ea necydallus, ex hoc in sex mensibus bombyx. telas araneorum modo texunt ad vestem luxumque feminarum, quae bombycina appellatur. prima eas redordiri rursusque texere invenit in Coo mulier Pamphile, Plateae filia, non fraudanda gloria excogitatae rationis, ut denudet feminas vestis.

These creatures are also produced in another way. A specially large grub changes into a caterpillar with two projecting horns of a peculiar kind, and then into what is called a cocoon, and this turns into a chrysalis and this in six months into a silk-moth. They weave webs like spiders, producing a luxurious material for women's dresses, called silk. The process of unravelling these and weaving the thread again was first invented in Cos by a woman named Pamphile, daughter of Plateas, who has the undeniable distinction of having devised a plan to reduce women's clothing to nakedness.

Plin. Book XI.76

He correctly pointed out that silk came from larvae of a moth species, and it could be used to make garments. He probably paraphrased Aristotle but at least he knew what he was writing about, because he was more explicit than Aristotle in pointing out the thread extracted from the cocoon was indeed silk and was a luxurious garment material. Since Pliny was at the top of the Roman social hierarchy and had frequent contacts with other high officials and the Emperor (he was a personal friend of Vespasian), it is likely that this knowledge was known among some of the political elites, and even the Emperor himself in the Roman Empire.

Statue of Pliny the Elder

Statue in the façade of Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore, Como, Italy. Façade was built in the 1740s and designed by Italian architect Ferdinando Fuga, and hence the statue is not ancient and the appearance of Pliny the Elder is speculative.

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Greco-Roman-Byzantine silk industry

The reason why Hellenistic Kingdoms and Rome did not develop a full-fledged domestic silk supply line is a controversial topic, especially given the high demand, insane price of silk and the huge trade deficit with the East that resulted from the Roman crave for this exotic, beautiful fabric. Pliny himself estimated that luxury goods trade was causing a 100 million HS (Roman currency, Bronze coin) outflow of cash, mainly to Arabia, India and China, and silk was one of the major commodities involved in luxurious goods trade and this was an alarming trend. The prospect of women bankrupting the Empire was a fantasy though, and from another perspective, the ability of Roman consumers to spend 100 million HS a year on luxurious items was a vivid demonstration of the Empire's tremendous economic strength, productivity, and solid monetary base. However, running such a huge trade deficit every year was of course a source of concern for the government, because it might cause a drain of precious metal and money supply inside the Empire.

After the Third Century Crisis, Diocletian introduced an Edict on Maximum Prices to curb hyperinflation amid a major currency crisis. This Law capped the maximum price of purple silk at 150,000 denarii (Sestertius was no longer circulated in 4    Century) per Roman pound. Given the huge trade deficit and the high value of silk, the Romans must had a very strong incentive for import substitution using domestic alternative. Why didn't the Romans produce their own raw silk in mass quantity? It is generally believed that the indigenous moth species used by the Greeks to make silk was a now-extinct wild species, it was never domesticated and raised in farms, but instead obtained from the wild. This limited the output and made mass-production impossible. Therefore, we can safely assume that Greece has always had an indigenous silk industry since antiquity, but the output was neglectable, rendering import substitution impossible and causing the market to be dominated by imported silk from the Far East.

Despite the fact that Romans were unable to produce silk indigenously in significant quantity to make a difference in the market, at least before the Byzantine Era, Romans were indeed very innovative in their search for substitutes. The Romans even discovered the "silk from the sea". Roman textile industry found out that the Pinna nobilis, a large mollusk native to the Mediterranean Sea, secreted filaments to anchor the shell onto rock surfaces under the sea. They developed a technology to convert the filaments produced by this shellfish into a smooth and shiny fabric very similar to silk that could be used as a silk substitute. However, this substitute was not cheap either, as the method of obtaining the shellfish and the extraction, conversion of the filaments into clothes was laborious and costly.

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Mosaic of Justinian I, Eastern Roman Emperor

in present-day Hagia Sophia, Istanbul (Constantinople)

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It was not until the 6    Century when a breakthrough was made. Eastern Roman Emperor Justinian brought back the silkworm species first domesticated in China, and since it was a domesticated species, mass production was possible. It was a historical turning point as Byzantine silk production quickly exploded. The long tradition of processing wild silk in Greece means that the know-how could be directly adapted to domesticated silk introduced from Asia, and Byzantine silk reached a quality competitive in the market and had very good reputation internationally. The Byzantine Empire quickly became a dominant player in silk trade in Western Eurasia, and Greece became the hub of silk production during the Medieval Era.

 

Byzantine silk production centers included Pera (Galata), Thebes and Thessaloniki. in the 12  Century CE during the Komnenian Dynasty, Peloponnese was an economic center of gravity for private silk manufacturing. Since Byzantine silk was produced in Europe, it had a huge advantage in the cost of transportation over Chinese or Indian silk for consumers in Western Eurasia. Constantinople used silk as a diplomatic gift extensively, and apart from the forbidden (in Greek: κεκωλυμένα) purple silk clothes, all kinds of luxurious clothes and items were open for sale in a free market in Constantinople. You could literally buy anything with money there. This left the Western Europeans, who in the Medieval Era lived in a condition of relative economic impoverishment when compared with the Eastern Mediterranean, with the false impression that Byzantines equaled to crazy rich and had unlimited money.

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References and footnotes

  1. Aristotle (ca. 350 BCE) The History of Animals V.19, translated by D'Arcy Wentworth Thompson. MIT Classics. Retrieved from: http://classics.mit.edu/Aristotle/history_anim.5.v.html

  2. Pliny the Elder (77) Natural History XI.76, translated by John Bostock and H. T. Riley. Project Gutenberg. U Chicago. Retrieved from: https://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/L/Roman/Texts/Pliny_the_Elder/11*.html

  3. Wild J. P. (2008) The Oxford Handbook of Engineering and Technology in the Classical World, Ch. 18, pp.469. Oxford University Press. New York, USA.

  4. Lopez R. S. (1945) Silk Industry in the Byzantine Empire. Speculum 20(1) (Jan., 1945), pp. 1-42. The University of Chicago Press. Chicago, USA.