3/11/09 - silk

In today's excerpt - silk, one of the most rare and precious commodities of the ancient world:

"Millennia ago, only the most prized merchandise—silk, gold and silver, spices, jewels, porcelains and medicines—traveled between continents. The mere fact that a commodity came from a distant land imbued it with mystery, romance and status. If the time were the third century after Christ and the place were Rome, the luxury import par excellence would have been Chinese silk.

"History celebrates the greatest of Roman emperors for their vast conquests, civic architecture, engineering, and legal institutions, but Elagabalus, who ruled from AD 218 to 222, is remembered, to the extent that he is remembered at all, for his outrageous behavior and his fondness for young boys and silk. During his reign he managed to shock the jaded populace of the ancient world's capital with a parade of scandalous acts, ranging from harmless pranks to the capricious murder of children. Nothing, however, commanded Rome's attention (and fired its envy) as much as his wardrobe and the lengths he went to flaunt it, such as removing all his body hair and powdering his face with red and white makeup. Although his favorite fabric was occasionally mixed with linen—the so-called sericum—Elagabalus was the first Western leader to wear clothes made entirely of silk.

"From its birthplace in East Asia to its last port of call in ancient Rome, only the ruling classes could afford the excretion of the tiny invertebrate Bombyx mori—the silkworm. The modem reader, spoiled by inexpensive, smooth, comfortable synthetic fabrics, should imagine clothing made predominantly from three materials: cheap, but hot heavy animal skins; scratchy wool; or wrinkled, white linen. (Cotton, though available from India and Egypt, was more difficult to produce, and thus likely more expensive, than even silk.) In a world with such a limited sartorial palette, the gentle almost weightless caress of silk on bare skin would have seduced all who felt it. ...

"The gods themselves could not resist: Isis was said to have draped herself in 'fine silk, yielding diverse colors, sometime yellow, sometime rose, sometime flamy and sometime (which troubled my spirit sore) dark and obscure.' ...

"Although the Romans knew Chinese silk, they knew not China. They believed that silk grew directly on the mulberry tree, not realizing that the leaves were merely the worm's home and its food. ...

"[Silk] was costly enough in China; in Rome, it was yet a hundred times costlier—worth its weight in gold, so expensive that even a few ounces might consume a year of an average man's wages. Only the wealthiest, such as Emperor Elagabalus, could afford an entire toga made from it."


William J. Bernstein


A Splendid Exchange: How Trade Shaped the World


Grove Press and imprint of Grove/Atlantic, Inc.


Copyright 2008 by William J. Bernstein


Kindle Loc. 26-51
barns and noble booksellers
Support Independent Bookstores - Visit

All delanceyplace profits are donated to charity and support children’s literacy projects.


Sign in or create an account to comment