The Origin of Silk in Ancient Times
Silk is a fibrous substance produced by many insects, but the fibres used for manufacturing purposes are exclusively produced by the mulberry silk-moth of China. Natural silk is produced from silkworm cocoons in a process known as sericulture. During this process the caterpillars are killed. Silk was first developed in early China, possibly as early as 6,000 BC and definitely by 3,000 BC. According to ancient records the empress, known as the lady of Si-ling, wife of a famous emperor, Huang-ti (2640 BC), encouraged the cultivation of the mulberry tree, the rearing of the worms and the reeling of silk.
China and Beyond
Although it was first reserved for the Emperors of China, it's use spread gradually through the Chinese culture both geographically and socially. This marked the beginning were silken garments began to reach regions throughout Asia. The trade good silk rapidly became a popular luxury fabric in many areas accessible to Chinese merchants.
References in the Old Testament indicate that silk was known in biblical times in western Asia, from which it was presumably transplanted to the Greek Islands of the Aegean Sea. One of the first evidence of silk trade is that of an Egyptian mummy of 1070 BC. In the following centuries the silk trade reached as far as Europe, the Indian subcontinent, the Middle East, and North Africa with the help of traders. This trade became so extensive that a major set of trade routes between Europe and Asia was established during the days of the Han dynasty in the 2nd century BC.
The Emperors of China tried to keep the knowledge of sericulture secret from other nations, in order to maintain the Chinese monopoly on its production. This effort at secrecy had mixed success. Sericulture reached Korea around 200 BC with Chinese settlers; by 300 A.D. the practice had been established in India. Although the Roman Empire knew of and traded in silk, the secret was only to reach Europe around A.D. 550, via the Empire of Byzantium.
The ancient Persian courts used Chinese silks, unraveled and rewoven into Persian designs. When Darius III, king of Persia, surrendered to Alexander the Great, he was clothed in such silken splendor that Alexander was completely overshadowed and demanded as spoils a huge amount of silk. Caravans carried silk on camelback from the heart of Asia to Damascus, Syria, the marketplace at which East and West met. Here silk was traded for Western luxuries, some of which survive in China today.
Silk and the Ancient Romans
From about the fourth century BC, the Greeks and Romans began talking of Seres, the Kingdom of Silk. Some historians believe the first Romans to set eyes upon the fabulous fabric were the legions of Marcus Licinius Crassus, Governor of Syria. At the fateful battle of Carrhae near the Euphrates River in 53 BC, the soldiers were so startled by the bright silken banners of the Parthian troops that they fled in panic.
Neither the Romans nor the Chinese knew much about each other, and although the Romans loved silk, they knew so little about it that they even thought that the material grew on trees. By the second half of the 1st century, the Han's general Pan Chao stabilized the Tarim basin region and chased out the Xiongnu who fought to control the trade route in the area. In 97 he decided to directly contact the Roman Empire (Da Chi'en) by sending an ambassdor, Kan Ying, to Rome. Kan Ying set off to the west along the Silk Road with gifts. Kan Ying only got as far as Mesopotamia.
He intended to take a ship to Rome but was told by the Parthians that the journey would take up to two years, and upon hearing this he gave up and returned home. Kan Ying did not know that he was misinformed about the time by the Parthians, who feared that any contact between China and Rome might interfere with their profitable role as middlemen. The first direct contact between Rome and China only happened in the second century after the Roman Empire defeated Parthia and controlled the Persian Gulf. In AD 166, the first Roman envoy was sent by Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius from the Persian Gulf and successfully arrived China.
Silk Becomes a Favorite of the Rich and Noble Citizens of the Roman Empire
Within a couple of decades Chinese silks became a common sight and were widely worn by the rich and noble families of Rome. The Roman Emperor Heliogabalus (AD 218 - 222) for example wore nothing but silk. In the year 380 AD, Marcellinus Ammianus reported, "The use of silk which was once confined to the nobility has now spread to all classes without distinction, even to the lowest." The demand of silk continued to increase steadily over the centuries. The price of silk was extremely high in ancient Rome. The best Chinese bark, which is a particular kind of silk, cost as much as 300 denarii, which was a Roman soldier's salary for an entire year!
In 408 AD when Alaric, a Goth, besieged Rome, his price for sparing the city included 5,000 pounds of gold, 3,000 pounds of pepper, 30,000 pounds of silver and 4,000 tunics of silk. In 552 A.D., the Emperor Justinian sent two monks on a mission to Asia, and they came back to Byzantium with silkworm eggs hidden inside their bamboo walking sticks. This is one of the earliest known examples of industrial espionage. From then on, sericulture spread throughout Asia Minor and Greece.
Did you know...?
An Egyptian female mummy with silk has been discovered in the village of Deir el Medina near Thebes and the Valley of the Kings, dated 1070 BC, which is probably the earliest evidence of the silk trade.