How the Romans Stole Silk Production Secrets from China

How the Romans Stole Silk Production Secrets from China


The Silk Road was the most crucial economic
route in the world prior to the Age of Discovery. Many goods were transferred via the Silk Road,
but the silk itself was the primary commodity and was in high regard throughout the Old
World. This is the story of one of the earliest examples
of industrial espionage, the story of how the Roman emperor Justinian stole the technology
of silk production from China. Our sponsor today is Wix. Wix is a website builder that gives you the
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in the description or by entering the URL wix.com/KingsAndGenerals Wild silk is produced by many types of caterpillar
throughout temperate regions of Asia and Europe. The Chinese industrialised this process by
domesticating the mulberry silkworm sometime around 4000 BC. This new product was of a much higher quality
and was easy to dye, so it soon became a luxury fabric in China. The emperors guarded the secret of its production
in order to keep it a monopoly. In the 2nd millennium BC silk started appearing
in Central Asia and found its way to Iran, India, Egypt, and Europe by the end of the
1st millennium BC, becoming a staple luxury of ancient trade. The Scythians and the Achaemenid dynasty were
making a fortune as the middlemen, and the latter used their famous Royal Road as a continuation
of the Silk Road. Alexander of Macedon was the first to connect
the Greek world to the Silk Road directly when he founded Alexandria Eschate, and his
successors used it to their advantage. The Romans established trade with India through
Egypt in order to acquire silk, and their economy flourished from the high customs duty,
as Roman nobility were ready to pay exorbitant prices. However, that meant that gold was flowing
out of the Roman empire and to China and Iran. Eventually, the lack of gold became fatal
for the Romans and led to the Crisis of the Third Century and then the fall of the Western
Empire. The Germanic conquerors also liked silk, so
the Eastern Roman empire turned into a middleman re-selling silk bought from China via the
Sassanid Empire. The Silk Road was hardly protected at this
point; China was going through a period of disunity from 420 to 589 and the risky journey
from China to Constantinople was taking more than seven months, while the sea route was
full of pirates and other dangers of seafaring. At the same time, the Sassanids and the Romans
were at war almost all the time, and that was slowing down or stopping the silk trade
completely. Emperor Justinian I attempted to change this
situation in order to procure silk. Alternative routes via Lazica and Axum were
tried. The first was relatively successful, but its
length was decreasing the profits, and as this route was passing through the less civilized
lands, many caravans may have been lost. The sea route from Ethiopia to India was blocked
by the Sassanid fleet. Entire Roman merchant fleets were confiscated
by the Sassanids. That wasn’t good enough for the Roman emperor. During that period Justinian restored control
over North Africa, Italy, and Spain, which was a political victory but strained the economy
of the empire even more. According to the famous contemporary historian
Procopius, two Nestorian monks approached Justinian sometime in the 550s. They had traveled to China, Central Asia,
and the Sassanid Empire and were returning from India and to Constantinople. They claimed that they could solve the emperor’s
silk problem for a price. Justinian promised to bestow them with gifts,
and the monks started their adventure. The sources are conflicted here, as some claim
that they traveled on a ship to India and then to China and some say that they moved
via the northern route. Even the dates are not clear, but we know
that these monks spent two years on the road between 552 and 563. The secret of silk industry was protected
by the Chinese imperial dynasties, yet the disunity that we noted previously was probably
detrimental to this practice. We don’t know if these monks received any
help from the locals, but they were allowed to see and learn the process. Mulberry silkworms are delicate creatures,
so the Chinese probably weren’t expecting them to be stolen, as the perpetrators wouldn’t
be able to keep them alive. But the monks had a plan: they secretly hid
either the eggs or the larvae of the silkworms in their canes and also asked the locals to
gift them the mulberry bushes, that the worms ate. The monks also probably had help in Sogdiana,
the Northern Caucasus and Crimea, as many natives converted to Nestorianism in the 5th
century. One thing is clear: by the time they returned
to Constantinople, there were enough mulberry bushes there for the silkworms to eat and
procreate, so the whole affair was well planned. Justinian and his successor Justin II created
silk industry centers in Berytus, Prusa and Morea. Although Chinese silk was still considered
superior due to its quality, the Chinese and Sassanid silk monopoly was broken and the
Roman emperors had a new source of revenue. The silk trade became central to the economic
dominance of Constantinople and the rise of the Italian merchant republics. One of the earliest cases of industrial espionage
was a success. We will make more videos about economics and
history, so make sure you are subscribed to our channel and have pressed the alarm bell
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