Silk Worms Are Smuggled to the Byzantine Empire Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

A delegation of Eastern Orthodox monks under Emperor Justinian I broke the monopoly of the East—especially China’s on silk production and Persia’s on the silk trade routes—by smuggling silkworms into the Byzantine Empire, ensuring new Western silk production. This change made silk more accessible and less expensive in the West.

Summary of Event

Silk was perhaps the most desirable luxury good in the ancient world after gold, although there have been times when it was even more valuable than gold. Although the imperial city of Constantinople was the single largest consumer of silk and other precious goods such as spices and gems, it was also the most important trade and shipping center for all luxury goods flowing to the West. It was a superb place geographically, located at the junction between two continents (Europe and Asia), which ensured its commanding trade position in the eastern Mediterranean world. [kw]Silk Worms Are Smuggled to Byzantine Empire (563) [kw]Byzantine Empire, Silk Worms Are Smuggled to the (563) [kw]Worms Are Smuggled to the Byzantine Empire, Silk (563) Silk;Byzantine Empire and Byzantine Empire;silk and Byzantine Empire;563: Silk Worms Are Smuggled to the Byzantine Empire[0120] Turkey;563: Silk Worms Are Smuggled to the Byzantine Empire[0120] Agriculture;563: Silk Worms Are Smuggled to the Byzantine Empire[0120] Science and technology;563: Silk Worms Are Smuggled to the Byzantine Empire[0120] Trade and commerce;563: Silk Worms Are Smuggled to the Byzantine Empire[0120] Justinian I Justin II

Control of the silk industry in the early Byzantine Empire was a state monopoly. The Byzantine Empire’s imperial silk workshops were within the precincts of the Royal Palace at Constantinople. The early Byzantine world had several problems acquiring silk, much of which in Justinian I Justinian I ’s time derived from Persian control of the eastern silk trade under the Sāsānian king Khosrow I Khosrow I (r. 531-579). The source of silk before this time was distant China (more than 3,500 miles, or 5,500 kilometers, away), known to the Byzantine Empire as Serinda, a word related to sericus, the Roman word for silk. Silk Silk Road was expensive because middlemen along the way added their profit margins to the original cost. Thus, the greater the distance, the greater was the cost. The caravan land routes crossed daunting and notoriously inhospitable mountain passes, which were rife with brigands. Great deserts with horrific sandstorms and few oases were also along the route. The shipping routes to sea were no less dangerous, being pirate-ridden or difficult to cross even in good sailing weather. Furthermore, the many different cultures along these routes were not always friendly to Byzantine interests. The average length of the journey to bring silk directly from Wei and Zhou China was about 230 days, or nearly two-thirds of a year, and the indirect journey from Persia took months and was more costly.

Justinian had inherited these silk trading problems from his uncle Justin I Justin I (r. 518-527), the Byzantine emperor, but the appetite for luxury goods and especially silk did not diminish. Rather, it increased partly because of its revered status in Constantinople and because of the demand for silk by the emerging powers of mainland Europe.

Up to the sixth century, the Sāsānian Sāsānian Empire[Sasanian Empire];silk trade Persians and their kings controlled the intermediate territory of Mesopotamia between the Byzantine Empire and the East. Ruling from their capital of Ctesiphon (south-southeast of modern Baghdad), King Khosrow I and the Persians dominated most of the southern access of the Byzantine Empire to the silk trade, including the so-called Silk Road via the Persian Gulf and the Tigris-Euphrates watersheds. Even most sea routes terminated in the Persian Gulf, which the Sāsānians controlled. Justinian seems to have broken some of this impasse by establishing partial access over the northern land and sea routes. The Byzantine Empire was situated at the western end of the Black Sea through the Bosporus. Thus, along the northern route, Justinian began to use the Lazican kingdom on the Caucasus as his intermediary for silk, and his envoys began asserting control over northern routes—beyond Persian hegemony—by utilizing the Gobi Desert, the route to the north of the Elburz Mountains, the route along the Caspian Sea and the Caucasus Mountains, and the route to the Black Sea along its northern, Crimean side and farther west. Using the Ethiopian merchants from the kingdom of Aksum as intermediaries, Justinian’s southern trade route temporarily bypassed the Persian Gulf by sailing instead into the Red Sea. But even though the northern route was more successful, the Persians still dominated the silk trade coming through and out of India and the Indian Ocean.

The event of smuggling silkworms to the Byzantine Empire in 563 is not easily reconstructed. There is some controversy over when the Byzantine silk industry was established. Scholar John Norwich believes the event occurred a decade earlier, around 552, and not in 563. Others also place the event before 561. True raw silk is produced only by the silkworm (Bombyx mori), which consumes vast amounts of mulberry leaves. The Byzantine historian Procopius described how several Byzantine monks, after returning from India, reported to Justinian that the Byzantines could bypass Persia and India by dealing directly with China. Then acting on an imperial mission, the monks returned to China and smuggled back either silkworm eggs or, more likely, larvae, possibly hidden in bamboo canes, to Constantinople in 563. The young mulberry plants were also needed, and they either had already been imported or were part of this mission. Because the nascent homegrown silk industry was not fully developed by Justinian, within a few years Berytus (Beirut) became the center of the Byzantine silk industry, beginning with Justin II Justin II and subsequent emperors. Later, the Morea district in the Peloponnesus of southern Greece became the most important place to grow mulberry trees.

Several of the famous mosaics at San Vitale in the old Byzantine Adriatic port city of Ravenna in eastern Italy commemorate Justinian’s reign and the construction of the church under Maximianus in the sixth century. Justinian’s wife, Empress Theodora (r. 527-548), and others—including the Paleochristian martyr Saint Vitale himself—appear in the apse wearing what must be shimmering silk garments. If these are indeed new homegrown Byzantine products, it could suggest an earlier date for smuggling the silkworms, but this date is not as important as the imperial rationale demonstrating that these portrait figures required silk garments to present themselves as images of imperial propaganda at their best and most powerful.

After the sixth century, silk became one of the most important diplomatic gifts of the Byzantine Empire to the West, used for royal clothing, ceremonial robes and vestments of the highest clergy, burial wraps for both royalty and clergy, and protective wrapping for the most valuable religious reliquaries of pilgrimage cathedrals and basilicas. Some of the most important extant examples of Byzantine silk are found in shrines, such as the probably early seventh century fragment from the Byzantine emperor Heraclius (r. 610-641) at Saint Madeberte’s in Liège, Belgium; the seventh to eighth century silk fragment of the Annunciation in the Vatican Sancta Sanctorum; the famous eighth century fragment of samite silk with the quadriga emblem found in Holy Roman Emperor Charlemagne’s (r. 800-814) reliquary of the Aachen treasury (now in the Cluny Museum, Paris); the eleventh century triumphal Byzantine emperor silk wall-hanging found in the tomb of Bishop Gunther of Bamberg (d. 1065); and the Byzantine silk found in Saint Lambert’s shrine in Liège, dating from 1142. These are only a few examples of how the Byzantine silk industry made the West look to the Byzantine Empire for its fabled luxuries.


Although some raw silk and sewn cloth were still imported, the now indigenous Byzantine silk trade and its concomitant monopoly in the West gradually became one of the Byzantine Empire’s most important economic resources. Before the homegrown silk industry, only members of the imperial family were allowed to import or wear silk, and only relatives who were mercantile associates were allowed to export what little silk was not directly used. With Byzantine silk now locally produced, access to silk became much greater for the entire West.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Franck, Irene M., and David M. Brownstone. The Silk Road: A History. New York: Facts On File, 1986. Comprehensive study of the history of the Silk Road as a crucial communication, trade, and travel route from the Mediterranean to Central China.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Liu, Xinru. Silk and Religion: An Exploration of Material Life and the Thought of People, A.D. 600-1200. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996. Explores the religious significance of silk and the silk trade in the Byzantine, Buddhist, Islamic, and Christian worlds of the Middle Ages. Maps, bibliography, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Major, John S. The Silk Route: Seven Thousand Miles of History. New York: HarperCollins, 1995. Traces the history and purpose of the legendary trade route between China and the Byzantine Empire during the Tang Dynasty. Especially for young readers. Colored maps.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Norwich, John Julius. A Short History of Byzantium. New York: Knopf, 1997. Places Byzantine history and trade in context with imperial policy and changes taking place throughout the Eastern Roman Empire.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Procopius. History of the Wars of Justinian. Translated by H. B. Dewing. London: Heinemann, 1928. Describes how Justinian procured silk from China through direct contact with monks. A very reliable account of the smuggling of silkworms from China.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Procopius. Secret History. New York: Folio Society, 2000. Procopius’s contemporary sixth century biography of Justinian provides firsthand accounts of the life of this emperor and his trade and economic policies, including discussion of the silk industry under imperial monopoly.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Rice, Tamara Talbot. Everyday Life in Byzantium. 1967. Reprint. New York: Barnes and Noble, 1994. Extensive account of Byzantine silk consumption and trade and the imperial monopoly.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Rodley, Lyn. Byzantine Art and Architecture. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1994. Discusses how the early Byzantine silk trade was a vital link between East and West.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Stockwell, Foster. Westerners in China: A History of Exploration and Trade, Ancient Times Through the Present. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland, 2003. Examines the history of the West’s trade with China, including the time of the silk trade into the Byzantine Empire. Also discusses “China’s First Contacts with the West” and the history of the Silk Road. Map, bibliography, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Wood, Frances. The Silk Road: Two Thousand Years in the Heart of Asia. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002. Presents a history of trade routes in Asia, specifically the Silk Road. Maps, bibliography, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Wyatt, James C. Y. When Silk Was Gold: Central Asian and Chinese Textiles. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1997. Describes Chinese and Central Asian medieval silk technology and discusses Central Asia’s influence on production and exportation.

Categories: History