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p1028 Sericum

Article by James Yates, M.A., F.R.S.,
on pp1028‑1029 of

William Smith, D.C.L., LL.D.:
A Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities, John Murray, London, 1875.

SE′RICUM (σερικόν), silk, also called bombycinum. The first ancient author who affords any evidence respecting the use of silk, is Aristotle (H.A. V.19).a After a description, partially correct, of the metamorphoses of the silkworm (bombyx, Martial, VIII.33), he intimates that the produce of the cocoons was wound upon bobbins by women for the purpose of being woven, and that Pamphile, daughter of Plates, was said to have first woven silk in Cos. This statement authorizes the conclusion, that raw silk was brought from the interior of Asia and manufactured in Cos as early as the fourth century B.C. From this island it appears that the Roman ladies obtained their most splendid garments [Coa Vestis], so that the later poets of the Augustan age, Tibullus (II.4), Propertius (I.2, II.1, IV.2, IV.5), Horace (Carm. IV.13.13, Sat. 1.2.101), and Ovid (Art. Amat. II.298), adorn their verses with allusions to these elegant textures, which were remarkably thin, sometimes of a fine purple dye (Hor. ll. cc.), and variegated with transverse stripes of gold (Tibull. II.6). About this time the Parthian conquests opened a way for the transport into Italy of all the most valuable productions of central Asia, which was the supposed territory of the Seres. The appearance of the silken flags attached to the gilt standards of the Parthians in the battle fought in 54 B.C. (Florus, III.11), must have been a very striking sight for the army of Crassus.

The inquiries of the Romans respecting the nature of this beautiful manufacture led to a very general opinion that silk in its natural state was a thin fleece found on trees (Virg. Georg. II.121; Petron. 119; Seneca, Hippol. 386; Festus Avienus, 935; Sil. Ital. Pun. VI.4, XIV.664, XVII.596).b An author, nearly contemporary with those of the Augustan age already quoted (Dionysius Periegetes, 755), celebrates not only the extreme fineness and the high value, but also the flowered texture of these productions. The circumstances now stated sufficiently account for the fact, that after the Augustan age we find no further mention of Coan, but only of Seric webs. The rage for the latter increased more and more. Even men aspired to be adorned with silk, and hence the senate early in the reign of Tiberius enacted "Ne vestis Serica viros foedaret" (Tac. Ann. II.33; Dion Cass. LVII.15; Suidas, s.v. Τιβέριος).

In the succeeding reigns, we find the most vigorous measures adopted by those emperors who were characterized by severity of manners, to restrict the use of silk, whilst Caligula and others, notorious for luxury and excess, not only encouraged it in the female sex, but delighted to display it in public on their own persons (Suet. Cal. 52; Dion Cass. LIX.12; see also Joseph. B. J. VII.5 §4). Shawls and scarves, interwoven with gold and brought from the remotest East, were accumulated in the wardrobe of the Empress during successive reigns (Martial, XI.9), until in the year 176 Antoninus, the philosopher, in consequence of the exhausted state of his treasury, sold them by public auction in the Forum of Trajan with the rest of the imperial ornaments (Capitol. in vita, 17). At this period we find that the silken texture, besides being mixed with gold (χρυσόπαστος, χρυσοῦφης), was adorned with embroidery, this part of the work being executed either in Egypt or Asia Minor (Nilotis, Maeonia, acus, Lucan, X.141; Seneca, Herc. Oec. 664). The Christian authors from Clemens Alexandrinus (Paedag. II.10) and Tertullian (de Pallio, 4) downwards discourage or condemn the use of silk. Plutarch also dissuades the virtuous and prudent wife from wearing it (Conj. Praec. p550, vol. VI ed. Reiske), although it is probable that ribands for dressing the hair (Martial, XIV.24) were not uncommon, since these goods (Serica) were procurable in the vicus Tuscus at Rome (XI.27). Silk thread was also imported and used for various purposes (Galen, Περὶ Διάγν. vol. VI p533, ed. Chartier).

Although Commodus in some degree replenished the palace with valuable and curious effects, including those of silk (Capitol. Pertin. 8), this article soon afterwards again became very rare, so that few writers of the third century make mention of it. When finely manufactured, it sold for its weight in gold, on which account Aurelian would not allow his empress to have even a single shawl of purple silk (pallio blatteo serico, Vopisc. Aurel. 45).c The use of silk with a warp of linen or wool, called tramoserica and subserica, as distinguished from holoserica, was permitted under many restrictions. About the end, however, of the third century, silk, especially when woven with a warp of inferior value, began to be much more generally worn both by men and women; and the consequence was that, in order to confine the enjoyment of this luxury more entirely to the imperial family and court, private persons were forbidden to engage in the manufacture, and gold and silken borders p1029(paragaudae) were allowed to be made only in the imperial gynaecea [Paragauda].

The production of raw silk (μέταξα) in Europe was first attempted under Justinian, A.D. 530. The eggs of the silkworm were conveyed to Byzantium in the hollow stem of a plant from "Serinda," which was probably Khotan in Little Bucharia, by some monks, who had learnt the method of hatching and rearing them. The worms were fed with the leaf of the Black or Common Mulberry (συκάμινος. Procop. B. Goth. IV.17; Glycas, Ann. IV. p209; Zonar. Ann. XIV p69, ed. Du Cange; Phot. Bibl. p80, ed. Roth). The cultivation both of this species and of the White Mulberry, the breeding of silk-worms, and the manufacture of their produce, having been long confined to Greece, were at length in the twelfth century transported into Sicily, and thence extended over the south of Europe (Otto Frisingen, Hist. Imp. Freder. I.33; Man. Comnenus, II.8). The progress of this important branch of industry was however greatly impeded even in Greece both by sumptuary laws restricting the use of silk except in the church service or in the dress and ornaments of the court, and also by fines and prohibitions against private silk-mills, and by other attempts to regulate the price both of the raw and manufactured article. It was at one time determined that the business should be carried on solely by the imperial treasurer. Peter Barsames, probably a Phoenician, held the office, and conducted himself in the most oppressive manner, so that the silk trade was ruined both in Byzantium and at Tyre and Berytus, whilst Justinian, the empress Theodora, and their treasurer amassed great wealth by the monopoly (Procop. Hist. Arcan. 25). The silks woven in Europe previously to the thirteenth century were in general plain in their pattern. Many of those produced by the industry and taste of the Seres, i.e. the silk manufacturers of the interior of Asia, were highly elaborate, and appear to have been very similar in their patterns and style of ornament to the Persian shawls of modern times.


Thayer's Notes:

a Considering how early silk was known to the Persians with whom the Greeks came into such close contact well before Aristotle, this seems unlikely: a 20c scholar has, to my mind at any rate, solved the mystery and pushed the date of the first reference to silk back by about a hundred years (AJA 33:27‑33). The article includes a translation of the passage in Aristotle, too.

b Not all of them.

A reference not given in the article above is to Pliny (H.N. 11.XXVI.76) in which the Roman encyclopaedist, speaking of the bombyx or silk moth, says that "They weave webs, like spiders, that become a luxurious clothing material for women, called silk."

That other writers may have been a bit confused as to the origin of silk is probable, since a tree is in fact involved; and the same word bombyx is used by Pliny himself (19.II.14) apparently to mean another "silk-like" fibre from a bush: cotton.

Pliny was quite aware of the confusion, since he mentions two other sources of silk-like material: a tree in the Atlas mountains of Mauretania (5.I.14) the leaves of which "are covered with a tenuous down, which, with expert handling, can be used to make cloth similar to that obtained from silkworms"; and an Assyrian plant (24.LXVI.108) on the thorns of which "a spider-like down is collected, from which in the Orient people even make certain fabrics that are like silk (bombycinis similes)". The editor of the Loeb edition plausibly attributes the latter material to a different insect: a caterpillar, Lasiocampa otus, now more properly Pachypasa otus, native to a swath of territory from Turkey to Iran, "from which vestes Coae were made." If the silkworm produces finer silk than its East Mediterranean cousin (which would also permit weaving more fluid patterns such as floral designs), that would account for the shift in consumer preferences. I don't know bugs, so we'll leave it at that.

c Or even more expensive than gold: see the Loeb edition note to that passage of the Life of Aurelian, with my addition.


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