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Late Roman Silk: Smuggling and Espionage in the 6th Century CE

Posted by Patrick Hunt

Dr. Patrick Hunt, Stanford University

Fig. 1 a) Auxerre, Church of St-Eusèbe, Silk Shroud of St. Germain, Fig. 1b) 10th c.; Silk Byzantine Griffin, 10th c. Victoria & Albert Museum, London


Summary of Event

Industrial espionage – especially for luxury goods - has been around for millennia and an event in the mid-6th century CE is an apt illustration if we can adequately reconstruct it from the Late Roman / Early Byzantine historian Procopius. A delegation of eastern orthodox monks under Justinian broke two monopolies in the East – China on silk production and Persia on the silk trade routes to the West – by smuggling silkworms to the West, ensuring new Western silk production. This change made silk more accessible and less prohibitively expensive in the West by installing Constantinople (Byzantium) as a new source for silk, which removed the middlemen in the cost equation.

Understanding the background of the silk trade informs the dramatic change brought about around 552-563 CE. Silk was perhaps the most desirable luxury good in the ancient world after gold, although there have been many times when silk was equal in value to gold or more valuable. While the imperial city of Constantinople was the single largest consumer of silk and other precious goods like spices and gems – including lapis lazuli, emeralds, and especially pearls – it was also the most important entrepôt for all luxury goods flowing to the West from its superb location on the junction between two continents (Europe and Asia) and its position roughly commanding trade in the eastern Mediterranean world.

Control of the silk industry in Late Roman Constantinople and early Byzantium was a state monopoly and its imperial silk workshops to produce fabrics and clothing from imported silk were within the precincts of the Royal Palace at Constantinople. But the early Byzantine world had several problems acquiring silk, much of which in Justinian’s time derived from Persian control of the eastern silk trade under the Sassanian king Chosroes I who ruled from around 531-579 CE. The source of silk prior to this time was distant China, known at this time to Byzantium as Serinda, a word related to sericus, the Roman word for silk. Any attempt at purchasing silk was vastly more expensive due to the many necessary middlemen along the way who added their profit margins to the original cost. Thus, the greater the distance, the greater the cost, and China was at least 4000 miles away either by land or sea (the modern land distance between Constantinople and Xi'an is 4247 miles, 6835 kms). The caravan land routes could cross daunting mountain passes (e.g., Himalayas, Pamirs, Hindu Kush, Elbruz, Caucasus) up to 16,000 feet high or greater and these were notoriously inhospitable or rife with brigands. Great deserts (e.g., Gobi, Dasht-I-Lut, Nefud) with frequent horrific sandstorms and few oases were also en route. The sea shipping routes were no less dangerous, either pirate-ridden or difficult to cross even in good sailing weather (e.g. Indian Ocean, Caspian Sea, Black Sea and outer Persian Gulf). Furthermore, the many different cultures along these routes were not necessarily easy trade partners or even friendly to Byzantine interests. The average length of the journey to theoretically bring silk directly from Wei and Chou China (500-581 CE) of the Six Dynasties period would take around 230 days or nearly two-thirds of a year, and the indirect journey from Persia took months as well at much greater cost.

Fig. 2 Silk Road Map

Justinian had certainly inherited these silk trading problems from his uncle Justin I (450-527 CE), the Late Roman - Early Byzantine emperor who ruled from 518-527 CE, but the appetite for luxury goods and especially silk was not diminishing but rather increasing partially due to its status in Constantinople as well as to the demand for silk in the new Western powers of mainland Europe such as Ostrogoths and Lombards, former barbarian tribes whose new wealth was acquired from Rome’s demise and its loss of territorial hegemony.

Up to the 6th century CE, the Sassanian Persians (c. 224-651 CE) and their kings controlled the intermediate territory of Mesopotamia between Byzantium and the East. Ruling from their capital of Ctesiphon (now in Iraq), the Persians – ruled by King Chosroes I - dominated most of the southern access of Byzantium to the silk trade (Procopius, Wars I.xx.9, 12) as the “Silk Road” via the Persian Gulf and the Tigris-Euphrates watersheds. Even most sea routes had their terminus in the Persian Gulf that the Sassanians controlled. But Justinian seems to have broken some of the impasse by establishing some access over the northern land and sea routes. Byzantium was situated at the western end of the Black Sea through the Bosporus. Thus, along the northern route, Justinian began to use the Lazican kingdom on the Caucasus as his intermediary for silk, and his envoys began asserting control over northern routes - beyond Persian hegemony - by utilizing margins of the Gobi desert (now Mongolia or northern China), the route to the north of the Elbruz Mountains (now separating Iran and Azerbaijan), along the Caspian Sea and the Caucasus mountains (now mainly Armenia and Turkey) and into the Black Sea along its northern side with Crimea and further west. In the south, temporarily using the Ethiopian merchants from the kingdom of Axsum as intermediaries along the eastern coast of Africa, Justinian’s trade temporarily bypassed the Persian Gulf by sailing instead into the Red Sea and around the Persian Gulf. But while the northern route was more successful, the Persians continued dominating much of the silk trade coming through and out of India and the Indian Ocean (Procopius, Wars I.xx.12). It is likely if the Persians caught Byzantine shipping along the coast of Persia in the Indian Ocean, they might confiscate entire boats with their crews in order to protect what they assumed was their part of the silk trade monopoly.

Fig. 3 6th c. Mosaic: Ravenna, St. Vitale, Theodora's Procession ( note silk garments, especially at left by visible sheen)

The actual event of 552-563 CE is not easily reconstructed. Since true raw silk is produced only by the silkworm (Bombyx mori) who consume vast amounts of mulberry leaves, Procopius (Wars. VIII.xvii.1-7) describes how several Byzantine monks, after returning from India, reported to Justinian that the Byzantines could bypass Persia and India by dealing directly with China (Serinda). Then acting on an imperial mission, the monks returned to China – probably by the northern route along the Black Sea, Transcaucasus and Caspian Sea using Tashkent of Turfan to bypass Persia - and smuggled back silkworm eggs or probably very young larvae. These have been long assumed to have been possibly hidden in bamboo canes to Constantinople directly somewhere between 552-563 CE. The young Mulberry plants were also needed and either had already been imported or were part of this embassy, but it also appears the monks had expressed interest in and were given gifts of small mulberry shrubs in earthenware pots with root balls, treasures they would have kept watered even if it meant they themselves were thirsty.

Fig. 4 Silkworms

Since the nascent home-grown silk industry was not fully developed by Justinian, within a few years beginning with Justin II and subsequent emperors, first Berytus (Beirut) is noted as the early Byzantine silk industry center (Procopius, Secret History XXV.14). Later, the Morea district in the Peloponessus of southern Greece became the best or most important place to grow mulberry trees, a Byzantine agribusiness still under imperial monopoly, although Broussa (Prusa) in Turkey still has importance as a residual silk industry center originally set up by Byzantine imperial edict and control. Naturally, there is some controversy of date when this event happened. Norwich has it assigned around a decade earlier in Justinian’s reign around 552-53 CE and not toward the end of his reign in 563 CE, others like John Peter Wild (in David Jenkins below) as well also credibly place the event at least five years before 561 CE.


Although some raw silk and sewn cloth were still imported, the now indigenous Byzantine silk trade and its concomitant monopoly in the West gradually became one of Byzantium’s most important trade endeavors and economic resource. Before the home-grown silk industry, only members of the imperial family were allowed to import or wear silk, and only relatives who were mercantile associates were allowed to export what little silk was not directly used. With Byzantine silk now an indigenous production, access to silk became much greater for the entire West

Shown in the old Byzantine Adriatic port city of Ravenna in eastern Italy, several of the famous 6th. CE San Vitale mosaics commemorate Justinian’s reign and the construction of the church under Maximianus. Justinian’s wife, the empress Theodora (c. 500-548 CE) and others - including the Paleochristian martyr St. Vitale himself - appear in the apse wearing what must be shimmering silk garments. If these are indeed new home-grown Byzantine products, it could suggest an earlier date for smuggling the silkworms, but this date isn’t as important as the imperial rationale to demonstrate that these portrait figures required silk garments to display them at their best and most powerful as images of imperial propaganda.

After the sixth century, silk became one of the most important diplomatic gifts of Byzantium to the West, utilized as the highest status medium for royal clothing, ceremonial robes and vestments of the highest clergy, burial wraps for both royalty and clergy as well as precious textiles wrapped around the most important religious reliquaries of pilgrimage cathedrals and basilicas. Some of the most important extant examples of Byzantine silk in royal or religious uses were found in shrines, such as St. Madeberte’s in Liège, likely to be early seventh century from the Byzantine emperor Heraclius (c. 610-640 CE); the 7-8th CE silk fragment of the Annunciation in the Vatican Sancta Sanctorum; the famous 8th c. fragment of samite silk with the quadriga emblem found in Charlemagne’s (died c. 814 CE) reliquary of the Aachen treasury (now in the Cluny Museum, Paris); the 11th c. triumphal Byzantine emperor silk wall hanging found in the tomb of Bishop Gunther of Bamberg (died 1065 CE); and the Byzantine silk found in St. Lambert’s shrine, Liège, from 1142 CE These are only a few examples of the silk industry that kept the West looking to Byzantium for its fabled luxuries. Many of the silk textiles called "Byzantine" up to the sixth century -and possibly beyond - have strongly Sassanid traditional motif elements of symmetrically-facing creatures; one is possibly the mythical simurgh (or senmurv in earlier use) surrounded by roundels of pearls. This continuing Sassanid influence (or source) complicates determining what should be rightly called "Byzantine" silk, and the debate is not likely to be easily resolved, although the research and publications of Anna Murthius is perhaps most credible to date on this matter.


This one 6th century event changed the course of history in how several silk monopolies in China and Persia were broken through industrial espionage and smuggling by the Byzantine world to set up a competing silk monopoly in the relative West. Because they were likely to know they were being watched by or sought by different suspicious groups en route, the Byzantine priestly spies were likely to have returned with their smuggled silkworms and potted mulberry shrubs by the northernmost route in order to avoid Sassanian interception, coming back to Constantinople at least two years after their initial setting out form Byzantium. We may never if these priest spies were fully publicly acknowledged and justly and amply rewarded by Justinian and the imperial court for the risks they took, especially if they were austere types who were unlikely themselves to personally wear this most luxurious fabric at a time when silk was gold.

Key Details:

Locale: Constantinople, Early Byzantine Empire (now Istanbul, Turkey, along with modern Turkey and Greece as well as Levant (now Syria and Lebanon); also known as Eastern Roman Empire.
Time: 552-563 CE
Key figures:
₪ Justinian the Great (c. 482-565 CE), emperor of Eastern Roman Empire between 527-565 CE. His full name was Flavius Petrus Sabbatius Justinianus.
₪ Justin II (c. 540-578 CE), nephew of Justinian as well as his successor and Eastern emperor between 565-578 CE
₪ Procopius of Caesarea (c. 505-570 CE), historian of 6th c. and biographer of the emperor Justinian. His Secret History (Anecdota) and History of the Wars are vital sources for the sixth century.

Further Reading

When Silk Was Gold: Exhibition of the Metropolitan Museum. New York: Metropolitan Museum, 1992. Text describes the medieval silk trade and silk technology and shows the influence of the West on production as well as exportation.

Jenkins, David, ed. The Cambridge History of Western Textiles. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003, 108, 141.

Muthesius, Anna. Byzantine Silk Weaving: AD 400-AD 1200 . Vienna: Verlag Fassbaender, 1997; also Anna Mathesius. Studies in Silk in Byzantium. London: Pindar Press, 2004.

Norwich, John Julius. A Short History of Byzantium. New York: Knopf, 1997. Places Byzantine history and trade in context with imperial policy and changes taking place throughout the Eastern Roman empire.

Procopius. The Secret History. New York: Folio Society, 2000. Procopius’ contemporary 6th c. biography of Justinian provides first-hand accounts of the life of this emperor and his trade and economic policies, including silk industries under imperial monopoly.

Procopius of Caesarea. History of the Wars. H.B. Dewing, tr. London: Heinemann, 1928. Esp. Book VIII.xvii.1-8. Describes how Justinian procured the silk by direct contact with China through monks. The most reliable account of the smuggling of silkworms from China is found here.

Sabatino-Lopez, R. “Silk Industry in the Byzantine Empire.” Speculum 20 (1945) 1-42. Account of the variety of uses to which Byzantine silk from Broussa (Prusa) in Asia Minor and Berytus (Beirut) was produced and used in the medieval West.

Rodley, Lyn. Byzantine Art and Architecture. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994. In the minor arts, the early Byzantine silk trade is shown as a vital link between East and West; the later Byzantine dominance of silk depended on an indigenous silk industry.

Talbot Rice, Tamara. Everyday Life in Byzantium. New York: Barnes and Noble, 1994 (reprint of 1967). Extensive account of Byzantine silk consumption and trade as well as imperial family monopoly.

Note: This article is partly excerpted by the author from his encyclopedia entry in Great Events in History, vol, 2, Salem Press, 2004

Photo credits: Fig. 1a from Julianna Lees (http://www.flickr.com/photos/27305838@N04/with/4968434205/); Fig1b by courtesy from Victoria and Albert Museum, London, # 764-1893; all others (Figs. 2,3, 4) in public domain; Fig 4 creative commons share alike (Fastily at en.wikipedia).

Copyright © 2011 Dr. Patrick Hunt
Stanford University