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SE´RICUM (σηρικόν, βομβύκια). Silk appears pears in Roman literature under three different names-vestes Coae, bombycinae, and sericae--though in strict usage only the last was what we should recognise as true silk. For the passages descriptive of the first, see COA VESTIS; it is mentioned by no writer later than Pliny, and we may suppose this industry to have died out early in the Empire. Though Isidore (Orig. 19.22) makes the Coae and bombycinae identical, there can be no doubt that he was mistaken. The difference was not merely that the one was manufactured in Cos, the other in Assyria (Aristot. H. A. 5.19, p. 551; Plin. Nat. 11. § § 76-78; Propert. 2.3, 15, where Arabius is loosely used for “eastern” ), but the worms themselves were different. The bombyx of Cos was a species living on the oak, the ash, and the cypress; that of Assyria was the true mulberry silkworm: the material therefore was originally different, but was treated in the same way; for in both districts the insect was allowed to develop itself, and the pierced cocoons were used. These were impossible to unwind, because the continuity of the threads had been broken; so they were carded, and then spun like cotton, and gave a coarser silk which is called galette. The fact of the worm being left in its wild state to spin on trees whence the deserted cocoon was gathered (cf. Verg. G. 2.121; Petron. 119; Plin. Nat. 6.54; Sil. Ital. 6.4, 14.664; Dionys. Perieg. 752) gave rise to the notion, which we find expressed even in Strab. xv. p.693, that the silk grew on the leaves, and was scraped off them. Pausanias (6.26), however, gives the true account.

The distinction between vestes sericae and bombycinae is marked in Ulp. Dig. 34, 2, 23, 1 Apul. Met. 8.27 (where the priests wear bombycina: the image of the goddess is “serico contecta amiculo” ). As will be seen from what has already been said, the essential difference lay not in the silkworm (since the produce of the mulberry silkworm was used at all times in India, Persia, and Assyria), but in the fact that the Chinese alone discovered the method of unwinding the cocoon while it was entire, and cultivated the silkworm for that purpose instead of carding the pierced cocoons. This true silk was therefore imported from China, usually overland through Samarcand to the Persian Gulf, thence to Phoenicia or Egypt, and finally to Rome (Procop. Anecd. 25; [Arrian,] Per. M. Eryth. 56). It is stated by most modern writers (Blülner, Marquardt, Becker-Göll) that the Chinese silk was imported at first in woven pieces (ὀθόνια σηρικά), that these were laboriously unravelled, and the silken thread thence obtained re-woven with an admixture of wool. We must confess that this theory, which is antecedently unlikely, seems to us to rest on very slight evidence. Pliny (who merely translates Aristotle), when he speaks of the “redordiri rursusque texere” (11.76) and of the “geminus feminis labor redordiendi fila rursusque texendi,” is, like Aristotle, speaking only of carding out cocoons whence to spin a thread and then to weave. [p. 2.650]The theory, then, rests on the lines of Lucan (10.140):

Candida Sidonio perlucent pectora filo,

Quod Nilotis acus percussum pectine serum Solvit et extenso laxavit stamina velo,
which Marquardt takes to mean that the stuff was woven in China, dyed at Sidon, and then unpicked and re-woven in Egypt. But it is dangerous to trust in so technical a matter to poetical description, and moreover the version of Mr. Haskins in his recent edition of Lucan is more probable, “loosened the threads by stretching the fabric;” i. e. the material was close-woven by the Chinese and thinned out, so as to be transparent, by the Egyptians: the word acus, perhaps, also implies embroidery. If this view is correct, the mixed fabrics which were worn under the earlier Empire must (when made of Chinese silk as sericae, not bombycinae) have been made of the silk thread (νγ̂μα σηρικὸν) or of the raw silk (μεταξα) interwoven with flaxen or cotton thread into a cheaper, lighter, and more transparent dress than the Chinese silk stuffs. This material became more and more fashionable. Even men dressed in silk; and hence the senate, early in the reign of Tiberius, enacted “ne vestis serica viros foedaret” (Tac. Ann. 2.33; D. C. 57.15). In the succeeding reigns we find the most rigorous measures adopted by those emperors who were characterised by severity of manners, to restrict the use of silk, while others, like Caligula, encouraged it (Suet. Cal. 52; D. C. 59.12: cf. Joseph. B. J. 7.5; Mart. 11.9, 27, 14.24).

This mixed fabric, based on Chinese silk, was generally called sericae vestes, but received a distinct name when the Romans began to import the pure woven silk stuffs, which were called holosericae and were introduced by Elagabalus (Lamprid. Heliog. 26): the silk flags on the Parthian standards, which struck the eyes of the Romans in the battle of Carrhae more than two centuries earlier, were doubtless of this material (Flor. 3.11). The expense of it was so great that the successor of Elagabalus, Alexander Severus, never wore it (Lamprid. Alex. Sev. 40), and it was said to have been sold for its actual weight in gold (Vopisc. Aurelian. 45). Thenceforth, though the general name sericum, or sericae vestes, included both kinds, and naturally more often means the less costly mixed silk, there was strictly the distinction between holosericae (pure silk) and subsericae (or tramosericae), in which the woof was silk, and the warp of flax or wool (Isid. Orig. 19.22). The increasingly common use of both holosericae and subsericae may be seen as time went on (Solin. p. 202; Vopisc. Tacit. 10, Carin. 19; Amm. Marc. 23.6; Symmach. Ep. 4.8). Christian writers condemn it (Clem. Alex. Paedag. 2.10; Tertull. de Pall. 4); St. Jerome (ad Marcell.) says that those who did not wear it were taken for monks: actors were forbidden to wear figured and gold-embroidered silks, but were allowed plain silks (Cod. Theod. 15, 11, 7). We find among trades the sericarii, holosericopratae, and metaxarii (C. I. L. 6.9678, 9893; Cod. Just. 8, 13, 27), and a σηρικοποιός (C. I. G. 5834).

The production of raw silk (μέταξα) in Europe was first attempted under Justinian, A.D. 530. The eggs of the silkworm were conveyed to Byzantium in the hollow stem of a plant from “Serinda,” which were probably Khotan in Little Bucharia, by some monks, who had learnt the method of hatching and rearing The worms were fed with the leaf of the Black or Common Mulberry (συκάμινος: Procop. B. Goth. 4.17; Glycas, Ann. iv. p. 209; Zonar. Ann. xiv. p. 69, ed. Du Cange; Phot. Bibl. p. 80, ed. Roth). The cultivation both of this species and of the White Mulberry, the breeding of silkworms, and the manufacture of their produce, having been long confined to Greece, were at length in the twelfth century transported into Sicily, and thence extended over the South of Europe. (Otto Frisingen, Hist. Imp. Freder. 1.33; Man. Comnenus, 2.8.) The progress of this important branch of in dustry was, however, greatly impeded even in Greece, both by sumptuary laws restricting the use of silk except in the church service or in the dress and ornaments of the court, and also by fines and prohibitions against private silkmills, and by other attempts to regulate the price both of the raw and manufactured article. It was at one time determined that the business should be carried on solely by the imperial treasurer (praefectus thesauro).

Peter Barsames, probably a Phoenician, held the office, and conducted ducted himself in the most oppressive manner, so that the silk trade was ruined both in Byzantium and at Tyre and Berytus; whilst Justinian, the Empress Theodora, and their treasurer amassed great wealth by the monopoly (Procop. Hist. Arcan. 25).

(The best treatment of this subject will be found in Pariset, Hist. de la Soie, vol. i. pp. 1-90: see also Marquardt, Privatleben, pp. 491-499; Blümner, Tcchnol. 1.192; Becker-Göll, Gallus, 3.283; Yates, Textrinum, p. 160 ff.)

[J.Y] [G.E.M]

hide References (10 total)
  • Cross-references from this page (10):
    • Pausanias, Description of Greece, 6.26
    • Vergil, Georgics, 2.121
    • Suetonius, Caligula, 52
    • Tacitus, Annales, 2.33
    • Lucan, Civil War, 10.140
    • Pliny the Elder, Naturalis Historia, 11
    • Pliny the Elder, Naturalis Historia, 6.54
    • Martial, Epigrammata, 11.27
    • Martial, Epigrammata, 11.9
    • Martial, Epigrammata, 14.24
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