By Heleanor B. Feltham
Sino-Platonic Papers, No.194 (2009)
Introduction: In this study I will be looking at three aspects of the international silk trade as it affected Justinian’s Byzantium in the mid-sixth century: the introduction of sericulture, the availability of draw-loom technology, and Procopius’ allegation that Justinian bankrupted the Syrian silk merchants by a policy of price-cutting at a time when the Persians had raised the price of silk.
I will argue that the conventional image promoted by scholars such as Anna Muthesius of a dominant China as the primary source of both sericulture and silk-weaving, and Byzantium as a passive recipient of trade and technology is far from accurate and that, among other factors, including an unusual socio-political situation in Central Asia, the role of the Sogdians in the silk trade was highly significant.
In the mid-sixth century the Byzantine historian Procopius included in his history of Justinian’s wars a single paragraph on the introduction of sericulture to Byzantium. Quoted, misquoted, and used as the basis for elegant historical fantasies on early industrial espionage or the relationship between Byzantium and China, this remains one of the few pieces of evidence we have for the introduction not simply of silk or weaving, but of sericulture to the West.
However, Procopius’ story, and that of the later historian Theophanes, needs to be considered not simply within the Byzantine context, but within the complex and shifting cultural and political world of international trade and relations in the mid-sixth century, a world in which both raw and woven silk played a major role as virtual currency, symbol of status, and arbiter of style, involving cultures as divergent as the Persians, Byzantines and Chinese, the Indian kingdoms (trading by both land and sea), Turkic nomads, and the Sogdian merchants of Central Asia.