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Justinian I the Great and silk

This post is also available in: Polish (polski)

Graphics showing Justinian I.
Graphics showing Justinian I

Justinian the Great and silk, or the story of how two smuggling monks became national heroes.

In 540, the Second Persian War broke out, which directly affected the interruption of silk imports from Persia. Silk, in the days of Justinian I, was a symbol of social status; it was made of gowns of senior state officials, and the gift in its form was proof of Justinian the Great and silk, i.e. the story of how two smuggling monks became national heroes. Interrupting the import of this valuable fabric caused a total collapse of the silk industry, and thus – the bankruptcy of private weaving and merchants. After the conclusion of peace with Persia in 545, imports resumed at extremely unfavorable prices for the empire. Certainly, it was a nightmare for the emperor and the finance minister.

Attempts to bypass Persia and buy silk in India have not been successful, they have even made things worse. However, around 550 before Justinian, an incredible opportunity appeared: the two monks claimed to have relevant connections in Sogdian (now Samarkand and Bukhara) with which they are able to bring silkworms to Byzantium. Supported and supported by all possible means, they set off on a long (about 2 years) journey. They wandered like this for several months, covering over 4,800 km. It is worth mentioning that the territories they conquered were engulfed in war, which constituted an additional risk. After the illegal and dangerous capture of silkworm eggs (in China, to protect the secret of making silk, the death penalty was given to anyone who could reveal it, or contribute to revealing this secret), they went on an equally long journey back. They hid eggs (about 26,000) in the hollow interiors of bamboo sticks, which they used to support themselves during the expedition.

Bringing eggs from Sogdiana did not immediately end the Empire’s dependence on Persian silk, but it certainly weakened the bargaining position of the Persians. Soon after, domestic production began to cover market demand, and two monks were gold-plated for their efforts. Some say it’s just a legend, but as you know, every legend has a grain of truth in it.

Author: Natalia Wilczyńska
  • Robert Browning, Justynian i Teodora
  • James Allan Evans, Justynian i Imperium Bizantyńskie
  • Procopius, History of the Wars
  • Theophanes the Confessor, Chronicle

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