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How a few Monks Smuggled Silkworm Eggs into the Byzantine Empire

Ancient Industrial espionage: the story of the Few Monk-spies Who Broke Two Monopolies.

As a result of the removal of middlemen (China on silk production and Persia on the silk trade routes to the West) from the cost equation, Constantinople became a new source of silk, making it more affordable and accessible in the West.

Featured image: Emperor Justinian Receiving the First Imported Silkworm Eggs from Nestorian Monks, Plate 2 from “The Introduction of the Silkworm” [Vermis Sericus] ca. 1595, author: Karel van Mallery (source)
Related articles: A Third Century Chinese Account Of The Roman Empire

Even though there have been several instances where silk has been as precious as or more valuable than gold, it was perhaps the second most coveted luxury product in the ancient world after gold. Constantinople, which enjoyed a prime location at the meeting point of two continents (Europe and Asia), and held a position roughly commanding trade in the eastern Mediterranean region, was not only the single largest consumer of silk but also of other precious goods like spices and gems, including lapis lazuli, emeralds, and especially pearls. It was also the most significant entry point for all luxury goods flowing to the West.

Origin of the silk in China

Silk production originated in China during the Yangshao culture in the 4th millennium BCE. It was not until the Silk Road opened in 114 BCE that silk production spread to other parts of the world, although China maintained a virtual monopoly on silk production for another thousand years. Silk was not only used for clothing in China, but also for writing and other purposes.

Women were once only allowed to raise silkworms in China, and a large number of them worked in the silk production sector. Silk caused such a craze among the elite society that the rites in the Book of Rites (Li Ji) were used to restrict its usage to members of the imperial family, despite the fact that some people considered the creation of a luxury good as being pointless.

Sericulture The Process of Making Silk (蚕织图) by Liang Kai (梁楷), c. 1200s

The major diplomatic gift given by the Chinese emperor to his vassal nations or neighbors for more than a thousand years was silk. Silk was used so often that the character for it (糸), which is short for silk, rapidly became one of the key radicals of Chinese writing.

Archaeological evidence shows that silk was highly valued in foreign countries long before the opening of the Silk Road. For example, silk was found in the tomb of a mummy in the Valley of the Kings in Egypt dating back to 1070 BCE. Both the Greeks and Romans referred to the Chinese as the “people of silk” and had some contact with silk. The Chinese officially opened the Silk Road to the west in the 2nd century CE, with the main route starting in Xi’an and going either north or south of the Taklamakan desert before crossing the Pamir Mountains. Caravans that traveled this route to trade silk with other merchants were typically large, with 100-500 people and animals carrying around 140 kilograms of merchandise. The route linked to Antioch on the Mediterranean coast, a journey of about one year from Xi’an. There was also a southern route that went through Yemen, Burma, and India before rejoining the northern route.

During the Tang dynasty, the color of silk worn also had social significance and was a marker of social class.

Sericulture The Process of Making Silk (蚕织图) by Liang Kai (梁楷), c. 1200s

The Roman demand for silk cloth arriving from the Far East, which was subsequently resold to the Romans by the Parthians, signaled the start of regular commerce between the Romans and Asia not long after the conquest of Egypt in 30 BC. The Roman Senate made failed attempts to outlaw the wearing of silk, both for ethical and practical grounds. Silk apparel was seen as a symbol of decadence and immorality since the import of Chinese silk caused enormous quantities of wealth to leave Rome.

Menade (or maenad) in silk dress, a Roman fresco from the Casa del Naviglio in Pompeii, 1st century AD, Naples National Museum.
Menade (or maenad) in silk dress, a Roman fresco from the Casa del Naviglio in Pompeii, 1st century AD, Naples National Museum. (source)

China traded in silk, tea, and porcelain, and the Roman Empire exported gold, silver, exquisite glassware, wine, carpets, and jewels. The principal traders in antiquity were the Indian and the Bactrian, then the Sogdian from the fifth to the eighth centuries AD, and finally the Arab and Persian. Despite the fact that silk was well known across much of Asia and Europe, China was able to maintain a close to complete monopoly on the manufacture of silk for many centuries, protected by an imperial order that executed anybody caught trying to export silkworms or their eggs.

silk road map
Silk Road Map (source)

The silk in the Byzantine Empire

The Persian domination of the eastern silk trade during the authority of the Sassanian king Chosroes I, who ruled from around 531 to 579 CE, was a major cause of the Byzantine empire’s numerous issues purchasing silk throughout the Justinian period. Prior to this, silk came from far-off China, then known to Byzantium as Serinda, a name linked to sericus, the Latin word for silk. The cost of buying silk was greatly inflated due to the involvement of many intermediaries who added their own profit margins to the original price. The further the distance, the higher the cost. China was located at least 4000 miles away from Constantinople by land or sea. The land routes for caravans to transport silk could pass through treacherous mountain ranges that reached heights of over 16,000 feet, which were often dangerous or home to bandits. These routes also crossed vast deserts with frequent sandstorms and few oases. Sea shipping routes were equally risky, with the potential for piracy or rough waters in good weather. In addition, the various cultures along these routes were not always friendly to Byzantine interests and made trade difficult. The journey from China to the Byzantine Empire took around 230 days, or nearly two-thirds of a year, while the indirect journey from Persia took several months and was even more costly.

Until the 6th century, the Sassanian Persians controlled the region of Mesopotamia between the Byzantine Empire and the East. From their capital of Ctesiphon, they dominated the southern route of the Silk Road through the Persian Gulf and the Tigris-Euphrates watersheds, and controlled the terminus of most sea routes in the Persian Gulf. Justinian I, the Byzantine emperor, managed to gain some access to the northern land and sea routes.

Smuggling of silkworm eggs into the Byzantine Empire

The Incubation of the Silkworm Eggs, Plate 3 from "The Introduction of the Silkworm" [Vermis Sericus] ca. 1595, author: Karel van Mallery
The Incubation of the Silkworm Eggs, Plate 3 from “The Introduction of the Silkworm” [Vermis Sericus] ca. 1595, author: Karel van Mallery (source)

Around 552-563 CE, silkworms were first introduced to Byzantium from Asia. According to legend, a delegation of two eastern orthodox monks smuggled silkworm eggs out of China, where they were jealously guarded as state secrets. Procopius (Wars. VIII.xvii.1–7) recounts how several Byzantine monks reported to Justinian that the Byzantines could avoid dealing with Persia and India by dealing directly with China because true raw silk can only be produced by the silkworm (Bombyx mori), which consumes enormous quantities of mulberry leaves (Serinda). The monks then left on an imperial errand, traveled via Persia-bypassing Tashkent or Turfan, and made their way back to China while smuggling silkworm eggs or, most likely, very young larvae. These have long been thought to have been transported directly to Constantinople between the years 552 and 563 CE, maybe concealed among bamboo canes.

The eggs did not cocoon before the monks arrived, but they did hatch while in their care. In order to create a significant silk industry in the Eastern Roman Empire utilizing methods acquired from the Sassanids, the church factory in the Byzantine Empire was able to produce garments for the emperor. Despite the empire continuing to import silk from other significant Mediterranean cities despite the gynecia’s legal monopoly on the material. Due to the careful attention devoted to the weaving and decorating of the Byzantine silk, which was made using Egyptian weaving techniques, the fabric was widely renowned for its exceptional quality. In the fifth century, semple loom designs first emerged.

The Silkworm Eggs Spread Out On Shelves, Plate 4 from "The Introduction of the Silkworm" [Vermis Sericus] ca. 1595, author: Karel van Mallery
The Silkworm Eggs Spread Out On Shelves, Plate 4 from “The Introduction of the Silkworm” [Vermis Sericus] ca. 1595, author: Karel van Mallery (source)

Through Sicily, silkworms were introduced to Italy in the 12th century, and by the 13th century, sericulture—the cultivation of silkworms—had moved up to the Po River Valley. Sericulture had been brought to the Como region by the 16th century. Because silkworms need a continuous, moderate temperature, entire farmhouse parts were dedicated to them, and whole families frequently helped out by lighting fires around-the-clock to maintain the right warmth. According to Ester Geraci, a representative of Como’s Educational Silk Museum, some even “gave the worms the home and slept outdoors in the stalls with the animals.”

Sources: 1, 2, 3, 4

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