Silk – Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire Chapter 40 Part 2

byzantine silk Globalisation is not a new thing.  The Roman and Chinese economies were linked by the trade between them, and this trade was significant enough to have an effect on their economies.  Although they weren’t in a direct dialogue with one another, they were aware of each other’s existence and the policies they followed made a difference.

Trade between the two empires was carried out via intermediaries so they didn’t need to have direct contact. Gibbon suggests that although the Romans knew China existed they weren’t aware that it was a great empire.  Gibbon was seeped in the literature of the Roman world and no doubt what he says is true of the earlier period of Roman history.  But by the time of Justinian we are talking about a rather different world.  Let’s have a quick look at the situation that Justinian inherited.

To the west the former colonies of the Roman empire were divided up into competing barbarian kingdoms.  Any one of them might emerge on top, and it wasn’t clear who one should bet on.  In the early sixth century a wise bookmaker would offer even odds on the Vandals in Africa, the Ostrogoths in Italy, the Franks in Gaul or the Visigoths in quite a few places.  The fact that there was no longer a Roman emperor made their union even less likely and consequently the Eastern Empire’s western flank was reasonably secure.

In the north there was great potential danger from the union of the steppe nomads, but since the death of Attila no such union was forthcoming.  In fact the northern border was a source of skilled horsemen who could be hired and well bred horses that could be purchased.  To the south the Byzantines were allied with the newly Christianised Ethiopians.  Only to the east was there a power that could plausibly pose an immediate danger, the Romans’  long time sparring partners the Persians.  But the fortifications were good and the Byzantine military was in good shape.

So the military situation wasn’t too bad.  But what about the economy, which as we all know is key to maintaining a state.  Again things were not looking too bad.  Egypt was highly productive and was able to supply the grain to feed Constantinople – which was the big logistical problem of the empire.  But it wasn’t the only urban centre, it was one of many. Big cities tend to be productive, and with a money based economy create a great market for manufacturers.  Trade facilitates taxes, and we have already seen how the politically weak reigns just prior to that of Justin and and Justinian were able to accumulate significant budgetary surpluses.

The Romans like us were well used to importing luxuries from overseas. Even in the days of the republic conservative figures had railed against the fondness of some Roman ladies for silk.  References to it start in the first century BC and by the time of Justinian it was well known.  It remains popular to this day of course.  I always compose the scripts for my podcasts in a kimono made of silk and nothing else, in a room fragranced with rose petals while drinking jasmine tea.

The trade route was known as the Silk Road.  The silk was manufactured in China and was then passed from one merchant to another until it arrived at the borders of the Byzantine and Persian Empires.  The whole trade was possible because it was a commodity that was low in weight and volume but high in price.  This also meant that it was a lucrative source of tax revenue.  So the trade in silk being in the hands of the Persians meant an outflow of gold and silver weakening the Byzantine treasury while at the same time enriching the number one enemy.

So when a couple of Nestorian monks turned up in Constantinople with a project idea, Justinian was all ears.  These were Persian citizens, but they had a knowledge of the production of silk in China.  They knew that any attempt to bring the silkworms themselves away was doomed to failure.  Their lifespan was too short for such a long journey.  But with care, the eggs could be brought.

It was an affair requiring great skill.  The eggs needed to be incubated at the correct temperature – which was done by piling up sufficient dung to generate sufficient heat.  The worms could only be raised on the white mulberry tree, so these had to be planted in sufficient numbers.  The early stages worked well but that was just the start.  An entire infrastructure for silk production had to be created.

This developed into one of the most successful examples of state industry in world history.  Constantinople became a world centre  of silk production.  It was still a notable enough one in Gibbon’s time over a thousand years later for him to comment that modern European silk quality had now overtaken it.   Turkey today still has a reputation for the production of high quality textiles.

Being Byzantium, one of the purposes to which the silk was put was religious, with silk icons becoming a feature of worship in the empire.  But the availability of a portable commodity of high value added a further dimension to the already successful Byzantine economy.  It became another option for diplomatic incentives, or outright bribery, adding another component to the empire’s already extensive soft power.

Gibbon notes that contemporary observers did not appreciate the coup that Justinian had pulled off with this nifty bit of economic warfare.  They were more interested in the details of current military campaigns.  It is not uncommon for the significance of big events to pass by people who are there at the time.  Gibbon also goes into a rare example of grumpy old man mode.  He complains –

“I am not insensible of the benefits of elegant luxury; yet I reflect with some pain, that if the importers of silk had introduced the art of printing, already practised by the Chinese, the comedies of Menander and the entire decads of Livy would have been perpetuated in the editions of the sixth century.”

It is intriguing to speculate what the introduction of printing might have done in the Byzantine Empire in the sixth century.  But to be fair to the poor monks, bringing insect eggs back 4,000 miles on foot is one thing.  Carting an entire printing press is another.  In any case I suspect that the political situation in Constantinople probably wasn’t ready for the free dissemination of knowledge.

But let’s not let might have beens get in the way of praising a true achievement.  Some more great Greek plays would be good, but really top notch underwear and lingerie are well worth having too.

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