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This webpage reproduces an article in
American Journal of Archaeology
Vol. 33, No. 1 (Jan.‑Mar. 1929), pp27‑33.

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
If you find a mistake though, please let me know!

p27 Silk in Greece

What inspired the Greek sculptor of the late fifth and early fourth centuries to give to his draperies the soft, transparent, clinging quality we so much admire today? Were the draperies of the Parthenon Fates (c. 438‑31), the Erechtheion Karyatids (c. 421‑14), the Nike Balustrade (c. 410), the Nereids (c. 400), the akroteria of Epidauros (c. 380‑375) merely an artistic convention, or were they suggested by draperies worn at the time? That the latter was the case is indicated by the fact that we have references to such thin, transparent garments at the very time when the "fashion" was prevalent also in the sculptural representations. In the Lysistrate of Aristophanes, l. 150 f. — produced in 411 B.C. — the women are told to captivate the men by coming forward "naked in their Amorgian chitons": κἀν τοῖς χιτωνίοισι τοῖς ἀμοργίνοις γυμναὶ παρίοιμεν. And again, l. 45, Lysistrate assures her companions that the diaphanous garments (τὰ διαφανῆ χιτῶνια) together with the paints and perfumes will save the day. We learn elsewhere that these Amorgian tunics were considered expensive and luxurious. Plato in a letter to Dionysios asks him to give to the daughters of Kebes "three tunics seven cubits long, not those expensive Amorgian ones, but the more ordinary kind which are made of Sicilian linen."1 Suidas2 calls amorginon πολυτελές, very expensive. Athenaeus (255 E) gives a description of a luxurious young man on a silver-footed couch stretched on a valuable Sardian rug and wrapped in an Amorgian cover. Inscriptions record the dedications of Amorgian garments to Artemis Brauronia, presumably as something precious.3 It seems natural to associate these diaphanous garments mentioned in literature and represented in art, and the connection has often been made. But what were these mysterious Amorgian garments? Their origin has been described in the most varied and fantastic ways both by modern archaeologists and the equally puzzled Roman grammarians. Let us review the various theories of these old grammarians.

(1) According to some the name is derived from ἀμόργεια, ἀμόργη, a red color obtained from a plant which grew on the island of Amorgos.4 But why a red color should make a garment thin, transparent and expensive is not explained.

p28 (2) Another theory is that the "amorgina" were made of an actual plant called ἀμοργίς,5 and this plant has been tentatively identified by some archaeologists as the malva silvestris,6 which is mentioned by Theophrastus in his Historia Plantarum7 as a wild herbaceous plant with a prostrate stem and classified under "uncultivated herbs." But textiles made from the fibres of this plant would surely be mere makeshifts. "The chances would be all against the development of any fine, exquisite textile from such wild plants at such an early period."8

(3) The third explanation — and that most generally sponsored by archaeologists today — is that amorgina were made of a linen9 from the island of Amorgos.10 The ancient texts quoted as evidence are: (1) Suidas: " 'Amorginon' is like linen, and very dear. It is also called 'amorgina' in the feminine. . . . 'Amorgis' is like unhackled linen. They strip it and work it. It is much finer than linen (βύσσον) or linen (κάρπασον)."11 (ii) Pollux:12 "They say that they (the amorgina) too are of linen." (iii) Etymologicum Magnum, 86.16: ἀμοργίς linen cloth λίνα ὑφάσματα. (iv) For the connection of amorgina with the island we may also quote the scholiast to Aristophanes, Lysistrate, 150: "Puteanus has an explanation for ἀμοργίνοις. Thence all the books and Suidas have Ἀμόργεια, from the name of the island Amorgos."13 It is noteworthy, however, that Suidas does not actually say that amorginon is linen, but only that it is like fine linen (ὅμοιον βύσσῳ) or like unhackled linen p29(ὅμοιον ἀλεπίστῳ λίνῳ), and that Pollux modifies his statement by the word λέγουσιν "they say."

The chief argument against the theory that the amorgina were made of flax from Amorgos is the island of Amorgos itself.14 It is small in area (only about 524 square miles) and has a rugged mountain backbone, generally infertile and suited only to olive groves and vineyards; there are only a few very small, fertile valleys now planted in grain and tobacco. Flax, however, demands a rich soil, and "it is hardly credible that a few little narrow valleys perhaps an acre in area apiece could support what was evidently an important industry even though of a high-priced article."15

But if not linen or wool — the two staple materials of Greek textiles — of what fabric were these precious amorgina? My suggestion is that they were of silk. The evidence is singularly confused, but I believe it supports this theory.

It is well known that silk was known in China from a remote period,16 and that the secret of its production was jealously guarded, so that it was not until the time of Justinian (about 550 A.D.) that the eggs of the silk worm were brought to Constantinople17 and the silk manufacture started in the Mediterranean countries. In Greek literature the first mention of silk is supposed to be by Aristotle in his History of Animals. The much quoted passage reads: "From a great worm which has, as it were, horns and differs from others is produced at its first metamorphosis a caterpillar, then a bombylius and lastly a chrysalis — all these changes taking place within six months. From this animal women separate and reel off the cocoons and afterwards spin them. It is said that this was first spun in the island of Cos by Pamphile, the daughter of Plates."18 We have also p30a statement by Nearchos, an officer of Alexander on his Indian expedition, to the effect that "silk [Serian stuffs] is a kind of linen, scratched from the barks of trees."19 From this it has been argued that silk was not known in Greece until the second half of the fourth century and that Aristotle's vague and inaccurate knowledge20 was derived from information acquired by the Greeks who went East with Alexander.

Aristotle's very wording, however, suggests that the material was known before. If he were referring to a contemporary event he would hardly say of Pamphile πρώτη δὲ λέγεται. But if silk was known before Aristotle's time why is there no mention of it in Greek writings? Perhaps the reason why we have not found it is that we have looked for it by name. The regular Greek word for silk σῆρ (from σῆρ, silkworm and Σῆρες,21 the Chinese) does not to my knowledge occur until the Roman period, except for the mention of it by Nearchos when he saw it in India. But that is natural; for it would take some time for silk which was imported from a distance and of mysterious origin to acquire a specific name. At first it would naturally be regarded as a softer, finer kind of linen — the nearest equivalent in a known material. We must look for it therefore by description rather than by name.

Now it happens that the adjectives applied to the amorgina — luxurious, costly, sheer, transparent — are identical with those by which the Romans described their silks. For silk — imported from the East — was highly prized by the luxurious Romans. Latin writers refer to it variously as vestes Coae, bombycinae, sericae, metaxa.22 "So shines a woman's body through silk."23 "Vestments which while they cover a woman at the same time reveal her naked charms."24 It was said to be worth its weight in gold.25 Writers inveigh against it. Tacitus26 tells us that early in the reign of Tiberius the Senate enacted a decree "that men should not defile themselves by wearing garments of silk." Pliny is equally upset:27 "Nor in fact have the men even felt ashamed to make use of garments p31formed of this material in consequence of their extreme lightness in summer; for so greatly have manners degenerated in our day that, so far from wearing a cuirass, a garment is found to be too heavy." The virtuous Aurelian would neither use silk himself nor allow his wife to wear it.28

All these descriptions are singularly reminiscent of our amorgina: διαφανῆ, γύμναι παρίοιμεν, πολυτελές, the luxurious young man's coverlet. It is natural to assume that the two are identical. But why, if this is so obvious, has the connection not been made before? Because on this path, too, there are difficulties. It will be remembered that Suidas says that amorgis is "like unhackled linen. They strip it and work it." This, it will be argued, cannot apply to silk which is reeled off the cocoons — not hackled or stripped. And even if we think lightly of a Latin commentator's words who may not know what he is talking about there confronts us a text of Aristophanes, a contemporary witness. In his Lysistrate one of the women who wants to leave suddenly remembers the "amorgis" which she has left at home "unhackled" (ἄλοπον). And Lysistrate in disgust replies, "Here's another! She's stealing off to her unhackled amorgis."29

This difficulty, however, disappears when we remember that the silk actually used by the Greeks and even largely by the Romans was not the silk made of the bombyx mori but of a wild silk worm,30 of which the cocoons were not reeled off but scratched from the barks of trees.31 Here the butterfly was not killed inside the cocoon, but was allowed to work its way out and thus break the silk threads.32 p32We hear of the introduction of this kind of silk in India.33 We may suppose that this silk came to the Greeks in this raw, unhackled state to be worked by the Greek women in a similar way as their flax.34 This theory, plausible in itself, is corroborated in extraordinary fashion by a passage in the Μαλθακοί of Kratinos (died c. 420) where some one is spoken of as spinning βρυτίνην amorgos.35 The βρυτίνη in this very passage is explained by Hesychius in his Lexikon as "he refers in jest to the drink βρύτινον. βρῦτον is also an animal like a beetle and from this comes βρύτινον thread, which is called by some βομβύκινον."36 In other words βρυτίνη amorgos is "beetle amorgos" or βομβύκινον = silk!

But why should silk be called amorgis? Probably because Amorgos was on the trade route by which this raw silk was imported into Greece. There were apparently two chief routes connecting the far East with the Mediterranean, one, the Northern, via Samarkand and the Caspian Sea, another further south via the Persian Gulf to Babylon and Tyre.37 Amorgos would be a convenient station on this second route. It is, moreover, a next-door neighbor of Cos which Aristotle says was the home of the Greek silk manufacture. What more natural than to call these silk garments Amorgian, just as the later Romans called them Coan (Coae vestes).38 To call a material after the nearest place from which it is supplied is, of course, a well known practice.

There is another circumstance which makes it probable that the Greeks used silk in the fifth century, — the fact that we are told that the Persians wore it at that time. The evidence (though sometimes disputed) is clear. Both Herodotos and Xenophon repeatedly p33tell us that the Persians wore the "Medic dress" (Μηδικὴν ἐσθῆτα) and that this was considered precious, luxurious, and beautiful.39 This Medic dress is described as of silk by Procopius: "This is the silk of which they are accustomed to make the garments which of old the Greeks called Medic but which at the present time they call Seric,"40 as well as by Tertullian:41 "Alexander conquered the Medic people and was conquered by the Medic dress. He stripped his breast, adorned with the emblems of armor, and covered it with transparent tissue; and, as it were, softening, quenched it, all panting with the labor of warfare, in floating silk."

But if the Persians wore silk in the fifth century B.C.42 it would, indeed, seem strange if the Greeks had not used it at all at a time of such close contact. Moreover, the second half of the fifth century was a time of unprecedented wealth for Greece and especially Athens. What more natural than that some of the luxurious habits of Persia should be adopted and that silk should be imported from the East to delight the women by its soft texture and the sculptors by its lovely folds and clinging quality? And then in the course of the fourth century, as Athens and Greece gradually lost their eminence and wealth, the luxurious silk slowly disappeared, to be imported again by Rome when her time of splendor came.

Gisela M. A. Richter.

Metropolitan Museum of Art


The Author's Notes:

1 Letters, XIII.363 A: ταῖς Κέβητος θυγατράσι χιτώνια τρία ἑπταπήχη, μὴ τῶν πολυτελῶν τῶν Ἀμοργίνων, ἀλλὰ τῶν Σικελικῶν τῶν λινῶν.

2 See below.

3 IGII2.754, lines 10 and 22; dated 343 and 341 B.C.

Thayer's Note: The printed text does have "IGII2.754" — but the inscription bearing that number is online, and is not the one.

4 Etymologicum Magnum, 129, under ἀπομόρξατο, ἀπομόργω, ἀπομέργω. "Ἀμόργη is derived from ἀμέργω. It means two things: the dregs of oil and the lees of wine; and it is also a species of purple plant. From this amorgina himatia are called purple." τὸ γὰρ ἀμόργη ἐκ τοῦ ἀμέργω γίνεται. σημαίνει δὲ δύω, τὴν ὑποστάθμην τοῦ ἐλαίου, καὶ τὴν τρύγα τοῦ οἶνου. ἔστι καὶ εἶδος βοτάνης πορφῦρας. ἐξ οὗ ἀμόργινα ἱμάτια λέγονται τὰ πορφυρᾶ. Op. cit. under ἀμοργίς ". . . Something from the island of Amorgos, or amorginos, red in color": οἱ δὲ ἀπὸ Ἀμόργου τῆς νήσου, οἱ δὲ, ἀμοργίνους τοὺς ἐρυθροὺς τὸ χρῶμα.

5 Hesychios, under ἀμοργίς: "A certain stalk, of which clothing is made; a piece of cloth; a chiton." καλάμη τις, ἐξ ἧς ἔνδυμα γίνεται. ἢ ὕφασμα. ἢ χίτων. Etymologicum Magnum, 86.16, "ἀμοργίς, a certain stalk from which amorgina garments are made." ἀμοργίς δέ, καλάμη τίς, ἐξ ἧς ἐνδύματα ἀμόργινα.

6 Yates, Textrinum antiquorum (1843), pp296 ff., especially pp310 ff.

7 VII.VII.2 and VII.VIII.1.

8 The quotation is from a letter from Miss Ellen C. Semple, the well-known geographer; she compares the thistle cloth of our trans-Alleghany pioneers in the late eighteenth century.

9 Cf. among others Studniczka, Altgrieschische Tracht, p28.

10 Studniczka, loc. cit.: Ob dieser Name wie gewöhnlich angenommen wird (Büchsenschütz, Haupstätten des Gewerbfleisses, p68 ff.; Blümner, Gewerbl. Thätigk., p94 ff.), von der Insel herzuleiten oder als ein technologisches Appellativ aufzufassen sei, darf ich hier unerörtert lassen, obwohl ich mit der besseren Grammatikerüberlieferung von dem Letzteren überzeugt bin.

11 ἀμόργινον, ὅμοιον βύσσῳ καὶ πολυτελές, λέγεται καὶ ἀμοργίνα θηλυκῶς . . . ἔστι δὲ ἡ ἀμοργίς ὅμοιον ἀλεπίστῳ λίνῳ. περιλεπίζουσι δὲ αὐτὸ καὶ ἐργάζονται. ἔστι δὲ σφόδρα λεπτὸν ὑπὲρ τὴν βύσσον ἤ τὴν κάρπασον.

12 7.74, τὰ δὲ ἀμόργινα . . . λίνου δ᾽ οὖν καὶ ταύτας εἶναι λέγουσιν.

13 τὴν ἀμοργίαν sive ἀμοργίον Put., qui lemma habet ἀμοργίνοις. Deinde libri omnes et Suidas s. Ἀμόργεια habent insulae nomen Ἀμοργοῦντος.

14 Hirschfeld in Pauly-Wissowa, Realencyclopaedie, s.v. Amorgos, describes it as follows: "Die ziemlich lange, aber sehr schmale Insel wird fast ganz von hohen nach Nordosten streichenden Bergzügen eingenommen, welche inmitten, im jetzigen Hagios Elias, bis zu 663 m. ansteigen, nach Südosten meist schroff, nach Nordwesten mähliger abfallen, hier buchtenreich gegliedert sind und einige kleine (besonders für Öl- und Weinbau, auch für Feigen, Getreide und Tabak) fruchtbare Thäler enthalten."

15 This important point was first brought to my attention by Ellen C. Semple; the quotation is from her letter to me.

16 Its invention was attributed to Si-ling, wife of the Emperor Huang-ti (c. 2640 B.C.).

17 The story goes that two Persian monks who had long resided in China (or more probably pioneered into the Oxus River Valley, where the silk trade emerged from the passes of the central Asian highland) succeeded in exporting the eggs concealed in a hollow cane.

18 Hist. Anim., V.19.551 b. 13. Ἐκ δέ τινος σκώληκος μεγάλου, ὅς ἔχει οἵον κέρατα καὶ διαφέρει τῶν ἄλλων, γίνεται πρῶτον μὲν μεταβαλόντος τοῦ σκώληκος κάμπη, ἔπειτα βομβύλιος, ἐκ δὲ τούτου νεκύδαλος· ἐν ἕξ δὲ μησὶ μεταβάλλει ταύτας τὰς μορφὰς πάσας. Ἐκ δὲ τούτου τοῦ ζῴου καὶ τὰ βομβύκια ἀναλύουσι τῶν γυναικῶν τινες ἀναπηνιζόμεναι, κἄπειτα ὑφαίνουσιν· πρώτη δὲ λέγεται ὑφήναι ἐν Κῷ Παμφίλη Πλάτεω θυγάτηρ.

For a more detailed discussion of this passage by an entomologist who attempts to identify the insects involved, see The Silkworm of Aristotle (CP 25:22‑25).

19 Quoted by Strabo, XV.693: τοιαῦτα δὲ καὶ τὰ Σηρικὰ ἔκ τινων φλοιῶν ξαινομένης βύσσου.

20 He says, for instance, that the changes in the silk worm take six months; those of the bombyx mori really take only two.

21 Pausanias VI.26.6 ff. and Frazer's Commentary IV, p110.

22 For a long list of references cf. Marquandt, Privatleben der Römer, II, pp493 ff. It is interesting to note that the modern Greek word for silk is μέταξα.

23 Martial, Epigrams, VIII.LXVIII:º "femineum lucet sic per bombycina corpus." (Cf. also Horace, Satires, I.2.101, etc.)

24 Pliny, N. H., XI.76,º "ut denudet feminas vestis."

25 Vopisc. Aurelian 45.4: "libra enim auri tunc libra serici fuit."

26 Ann. II c.33:º "Ne vestis serica viros foedaret."

27 N. H., XI.78, "Nec puduit has vestes usurpare etiam viros levitatem propter aestivam. In tantum a lorica gerenda discessere mores ut oneri sit etiam vestis."

28 Vopisc. Aurelian 45.4.

29 735 ff.

τάλαιν᾽ ἐγώ, τάλαινα τῆς ἀμοργίδος,

ἢν ἄλοπον οἴκοι καταλέλοιφ᾽.

αὔτη ᾽τέρα

ἐπὶ τὴν ἄμοργιν τὴν ἄλοπον ἐξέρχεται.

30 Blümner, Gewerbe und KünsteI (second edition), p202: "Den Unterschied zwischen den bombycinae und sericae vestes haben neuere Untersuchungen festgestellt. Danach wurden erstere, die namentlich aus Assyrien bzw. Syrien kamen, von einem wilden Seidenwurme gewonnen, dessen Kokons nicht abgewickelt werden konnten, sondern gekratzt und gesponnen wurden."

M. Latreille, Eclaircissement de quelques passages d'auteurs anciens, relatifs à des vers à soie, Annales des sciences naturelles, Paris, XXIII, 1831, p83: "De mes recherches l'on doit tirer cette conséquence que les passages d'Aristote, de Pline, de Pausanias, et de plusieurs autres anciens, concernant les vers à soie, ne sont que des traditions indiennes, chinoises ou thibétiennes, relatives à des vers à soie sauvages, plus ou moins altérées et entremêlées de quelques circonstances propres à la culture de l'espèce domestique."

31 Cf. Nearchos quoted above. It is true that Aristotle speaks of reeling off the cocoons, but as his account is inaccurate we are justified in assuming that he is confusing the two methods.

32 Besnier in Daremberg et Saglio, Dictionnaire, s.v. sericum, p1252; Pariset, Les Industries de la soie (1890), p6: "Le bombycinum s'obtenait en ramassant les cocons, percés par les papillons, en les enfilant humides à un bâton, et en tirant leurs soies sous forme d'étoupe qu'on filait au fuseau comme le coton et la laine . . . on ne pouvait pas se douter qu'il était possible d'empêcher les papillons de sortir de leur cocons, et de dépelotonner ces cocons pour avoir le fil dans toute sa finesse."

33 Lassen, Indische Altertumskunde, I, pp369 ff.; and Pliny, III.27, speaks of the product of the Assyrian silkworm.

34 Besnier, loc. cit.: ". . . différentes espèces inférieures de bombyx, à l'état sauvage ou domestiquées, dont les cocons, au lieu de se laisser dévider comme ceux des bombyx mori de Chine, devaient être râclés au peigne;" cf. also Webster's Collegiate Dictionary: "hackle, a comb for dressing flax, raw silk, etc. (hackle, v., comb out with a hackle)." Unhackled (ἀλεπίστος), therefore, can clearly refer to both raw silk and linen.

35 Ἀμοργὸν ἔνδον βρυτίνην νήθειν τινα (Meineke, Fragmenta Comicorum Graecorum I, p26). The codex has νίθειν; some read ἠθεῖν "to strain."

36 ἔπαιξε πρὸς τὸ πόμα τὸ βρύτινον· ἔστι δὲ καὶ ζῶον βρύτον, ὅμοιον κανθάρῳ, καὶ τὸ ἀπ᾽ αὐτοῦ βρύτινον πήνισμα, ὅπερ ὑπ᾽ ἐνίων βομβύκινον λέγεται.

37 Marquandt, Privatleben der Römer, II, p496.

38 Interesting in this connection is a text in Aristophanes' Lysistrate (I.25 ff.) in which Kimberika (Kimmerian) garments are evidently synonymous with διαφανῆ. Since Kimmeria (Crimaea) lies on the other great trade route which connected Greece with the East, it is possible that we have here still another source of supply for these foreign silks. At all events it is interesting to recall that the only actual piece of Greek silk preserved was discovered in the Crimea, quite near Kertch; yellow, with lozenge pattern, unfortunately in a very fragmentary condition, found with a three-legged table tentatively dated in the third century B.C. (Compte rendu de la commission impériale archéologique, 1878‑79, pl. V, 3.).

39 Herod. I.135; III.84; VII.116; Xen., Kyropaidia, VII.40.

40 History of the Wars, I.XX.9‑12: αὔτη δέ ἐστιν ἡ μέταξα ἐξ ἧς εἰώθασι τὴν ἐσθῆτα ἐργάζεσθαι, ἣν πάλαι μὲν Ἕλληνες Μηδικὴν ἐκάλουν, τανῦν δὲ σηρικὴν ὀνομάζουσι.

41 De pall. 4, p542 (ed. Ochler): "Vicerat Medicam gentem et victus est Medica veste. . . . Pectus squamarum signaculis disculptum textu pellucido tegendo nudavit, anhelum ab opere belli et ut mollius ventilante serico extinxit." It is interesting in this connection to remember that the Lydians (both men and women) wore fine transparent chitons called σανδύκες or σανδόνες. Cf. Joh. Lyd. de magistr. 3.64. These, too, may have been of silk.

42 Besides Persian (and Indian) records we have other evidence that the Near East had silk long before the time of Aristotle. The prophet Ezekiel (16, 10 and 13) twice speaks of the young girl, emblem of Jerusalem, as clad in schesch and meschi, silk; cf. Pardessus, Mémoires de l'Institut royal de France, Académie des inscriptions et belles lettres, XV, pp1 ff. This indicates the use of silk in Palestine from 1900 B.C. Cf. also Abulfarage, Hist. dynast., p18 of Arab text and p12 of Latin translation: Samirus rex Chaldaeorum invenit mensuras et pondera, et texturam serici, et artem tinctoriam.


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