How did the Byzantine Empire acquire the secrets of silk production from China, and what does it tell us about the history of silk, the diffusion of silk trade across the world, and the Silk Roads of Eurasia?
This episode of The Burning Archive podcast, available on Spotify and Apple/ITunes, reports on the historical detective work that has gone into the legend that the Byzantine Empire smuggled silk worms from China, and so undertook one of the great acts of industrial esponage in history. Great story but is it true.
I answer the question with reference to these materials – thanks to all the authors
- Account of the smuggling of the silk worms – Procopius
- Account of the smuggling of the silk worms – Theophanus – quoted by Feltham below
- Galliker, Julia L. (2015). Middle Byzantine silk in context: integrating the textual and material evidence. University of Birmingham. Ph.D. (Grats Julia)
- Debin Ma The Grand Silk Exchange: how the world was connected and developed 1998 also here (Apologies, Debin, I referred to you as she during the show)
- Heleanor B. Feltham, “Justinian and the International Silk Trade” Sino-Platonic Papers, 194 (November, 2009)
- Peter Frankopan, The New Silk Roads: the present and future of the world (2018)
There are, of course, many other sources on these extraordinary rich and complex stories. I hope the podcast helps you to be curious about them all – silk worms, silk trade, silk roads, and the empires of Eurasia in the medieval world.
Image: Silk with “Samson” and the Lion (detail), late 6th–early 7th century. Made in Eastern Mediterranean. Weft-faced compound twill (samit) in polychrome silk. Byzantine Collection, Dumbarton Oaks, Washington, D.C. (BZ.1934.1)