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Silk was popular in Rome

This post is also available in: Polish (polski)

Roman fresco showing person in silk
Roman fresco showing person in silk

During the reign of Octavian Augustus (27 BCE – 14 CE), silk was an extremely popular material. Gaius Petronius refers to him as ventus textilis (“woven wind”). However, this product was extremely expensive and it was difficult to get it because it was produced in distant China, a country that guarded its monopoly.

Octavian initially tried to curb the popularity of silk as his political opponents – Mark Antony and Cleopatra VII – valued it tremendously and spread it within their sphere of influence. In the end, the material was so valued that the emperor decided to give up his idea.

Silk was pulled raw from China and then used on the island of Kos to sew garments for ladies from Rome and other cities. Seneca the Younger, a 1st-century Roman politician and philosopher and his ilk criticized Chinese material as demoralizing for women and as effeminate for men. This criticism, however, had no tangible effect on the popularity of silk in ancient Rome; until the fall of Rome in 476 CE silk was an extremely expensive material that reached the value of gold in terms of price.

According to the accounts of Byzantine historians Theophanes and Procopius of Caesarea, the secret of silk was smuggled from China to Constantinople by two monks only around 550 CE.

  • Joshua J. Mark, Silk Road, "Ancient History", 28.03.2014

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