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Silk Road History: Enabling Trade From China to the Parthian and Roman Empires
The Silk Road was an ancient trade route that connected the eastern realms of China and India to more western civilizations like Greece and Rome. It is believed the Silk Road existed as far back as the ancient Egyptians, and that silk production reached the West as early as the sixth century A.D. 1
Over time, the route grew and expanded into far-reaching corners of Western Asia, Northern Africa and Europe. As its name insinuates, the Silk Road played a hugely significant role in the distribution of luxurious Chinese silk into new regions of the world.
This trade route acted as a catalyst that would begin to blend both eastern and western cultures, and facilitate the exchange of goods such as silk, grains, spices and other highly coveted items.
Scholars believe the Chinese were the first to manufacture silk starting around the year 2,700 BC. 2
There is a well-known legend in China that offers an account of the first discovery of silk.
“According to Confucius, it was in 2,640 B.C. that the Chinese princess Xi Ling Shi was the first to reel a cocoon of silk which, legend also has it, had dropped into her cup of tea. From that historic moment, the Chinese discovered the life cycle of the silkworm and for the next 3,000 years were to keep their monopoly of silk.” 3
It is interesting, then, to consider the fact that 3,000 year old mummies have been discovered in Egypt from this same exact time, wrapped in silk fabrics that most likely came from China and eastern India. However, little is known about how silk could have made the long journey from east to west at such an early period in history. 4
The process of making silk is called silk culture, or sericulture. On average, it takes 25-28 days for a silkworm to mature enough to produce a cocoon. When the worms reach this stage, they are placed onto straws, and they proceed to attach themselves to the straw and begin to spin their silk. The cocoons are then heated to kill the pupae.
Next, they are placed in hot water so the cocoon can soften. Finally, once the cocoon is softened enough, it can be unwound. The raw silk is then dyed and woven into silk cloths. 5
Silk caught on quickly with the Chinese people and it soon became the preferred material for garments and clothing. In the very beginnings of its discovery, silk was only permitted to be worn by emperors and those of very high social status. 6
The fabric’s use, however, slowly began to appear in more areas of Chinese society:
"Gradually the various classes of society began wearing tunics of silk, and silk came into more general use. As well as being used for clothing and decoration, silk was quite quickly put to industrial use by the Chinese. This was something which happened in the West only in modern times. Silk, indeed, rapidly became one of the principal elements of the Chinese economy. Silk was used for musical instruments, fishing-lines, bowstrings, bonds of all kinds, and even rag paper, the word's first luxury paper. Eventually even the common people were able to wear garments of silk." 7
As the popularity of silk grew, so did its variety of uses in everyday life. Farmers began to use silk as a form of currency to pay their taxes and civil servants received payments in silk for performing good deeds. The Chinese government was able to keep the production of silk a very well-kept secret up until AD 300. At this point, the Chinese began trading silk with outside countries and this is probably the main reason China lost its monopoly on silk production. 8
The Spread of Silk from China the Mediterranean
The spread of silk from China into areas as far as Rome and Greece is contributed to the Parthian Empire of Persia, or modern-day Iran. The Parthians ruled from 247 B.C. to A.D. 228 and were famed for conquering much of the Middle East and Southwest Asia. 9
"The Parthians loved silk. In the early days of the silk trade they traded ostrich eggs for it. When their empire was at its height, Parthian armies carried great banners made of silk into battle.The first complete east-to-west land routes were linked together under the Parthians. They controlled strategic trade centers in the Middle East and many stops on what became the Silk Road passed through their empire. Some scholars argue that the Silk Road was formally founded when Parthia and China exchanged ambassadors and made trade agreements on the caravan route between them in the 2nd century B.C." 10
Chinese merchants would travel along the Silk Road with silkworms and silk fabrics through the Kushan area of India and on into Parthia. The Parthians quickly realized they should convince the Chinese not to travel any farther west with their merchandise, so they could become the middleman and make a profit.
As is common nature with capitalistic endeavors, the Parthians soon began to exploit their power. Author J. Thorley believes that the Parthians acted as intermediaries between China and the Roman Empire. He suggests that they “sold fancy Chinese brocades to Rome and then, using some deceit about silkworm cocoons in the Roman Empire, sold re-weavings of gauzy silk back to the Chinese.”
Romans and Silk
When silk was introduced to the Romans it adopted the same popularity in society as with the Parthians and the Chinese. And, although they adored the fabric, they knew virtually nothing of how it was produced. Many people in Rome believed silk was made from the leaves of trees. 11
Silk in Rome appealed to a slightly different crowd. Women who worked as prostitutes were known to wear revealing silken garments that highlighted the curvature and physical beauty of their bodies. This often upset Roman men, who believed that women who wore silk were scandalously inappropriate. Silk also proved to cause financial troubles for the Roman state:
The silk trade drained so much money from the Roman treasury that Roman Emperor Tiberius complained that "ladies and their baubles are transferring our money to foreigners." He prohibited Romans from wearing silk. In one year, Rome reportedly paid 22,000 pounds of gold for silk shipments. 12
As popularity of this luxurious material spread throughout various countries, people sought to develop the technologies necessary to produce their own silk and eliminate the need to depend on foreign imports. A silk production center was established in the city of Bursa, in what is now Turkey in the 6th century A.D. 13
This most likely had a strong influence of the presence of silks in western Europe around this time.
A Blend of Cultures
The establishment of the Silk Road out of China set the stage for the dawn of a cultural revolution across many countries, because it was the first step in connecting the dots between lands that were once inaccessible from one another. As time has wore on we have invented far more efficient means of travel than camel caravans, but we still perpetuate the exchange of goods between faraway places so as to provide each other with the material possessions we desire.
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1 Jeffrey Hays, "Silk Road History and Explorers," Facts and Details, accessed 20 Apr. 2011, <http://factsanddetails.com/china.php?itemid=49&catid=2#18>.2 "Silk - Inventions and Technology - Ancient China - Discovery Channel," Discovery Channel International, accessed 26 Apr. 2011, <http://www.yourdiscovery.com/ancient_china/inventions/silk/index.shtml>.3 "The History of Silk," Silk Association of Great Britain, accessed 26 Apr. 2011, <http://www.silk.org.uk/history.htm>.4 Jeffrey Hays, “Silk Road History and Explorers,” Facts and Details.5 “Chinese Silk and the Silk Road,” Chinese Culture, accessed 20 April 2011, http://chineseculture.about.com/library/weekly/aa021201a.htm6 "History of Silk," accessed 26 Apr. 2011, <http://www.silk-road.com/artl/silkhistory.shtml>.7 “History of Silk,” <http://www.silk-road.com/artl/silkhistory.shtml>.8 "Silk - Inventions and Technology - Ancient China - Discovery Channel," Discovery Channel International9 Edward, Hopkins C.D. "The Parthian Empire," Parthian Empire - History and Coins of Ancient Parthia, 28 Mar. 1998, accessed 26 Apr. 2011. <http://www.parthia.com/>.10 Jeffrey Hays, "Silk Road History and Explorers," Facts and Details11 “The First Contact,” accessed April 20th, 2011, http://www.silk-road.com/artl/romanenvoy.shtml12 Jeffrey Hays, "Silk Road History and Explorers," Facts and Details13 “Silk Road History and Explorers,” accessed April 20th, 2011, http://factsanddetails.com/china.php?itemid=49&catid=2
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