From China to Rome – from Rome to China

From China to Rome – from Rome to China

By Marco Galli via Journal of Eurasian Studies

From China to Rome – from Rome to China

We cannot conceive describing the trade relationship between Rome and the Far East without considering silk, one of the most legendary goods of the Eurasian networks ([1]: non vidi). If it is true that the Romans tended to identify goods with their supposed places of origin (for example pepper is associated with India, etc.), this identification is particularly evident in the case of China: the Latin word Seres used to designate the Chinese people. The same word was used as an adjective to identify the silk: sericum ‘silk’, serica meant ‘silk garments’ or also ‘from the land of the Seres’. Finally, the word sericum in the plural form serici was also a noun for ‘merchants of silk’.

It is only at the beginning of the Roman Empire that this material becomes a widespread luxury good [2]. Hardly a coincidence then to find silk mentioned in the poems of Martial –the poet of the Roman ‘daily life’– who, at the end of the 1st century CE, speaks of silk products in Rome, as such pillows or clothes, to convey an image of wealth and sophisticated lifestyle.

As far as the economic evaluation is concerned, it is worthwhile to mention the famous tax on the imported luxury goods from Alexandria (dated to the beginning of the 3rd century CE, see Appendix text 1) that concerned the precious textiles from the land of the Seres as an important source of revenue. On the list of the “articles subject to duty” it is possible to find the words “raw silk”, “garments made completely or partly from silk”, “silk yarn”, together with other luxury goods coming from the Eurasian trade networks [3].

The Silk roads to the Mediterranean combined maritime and overland itineraries. From the production centres in the territories of North-Western China, the caravans moved westward through the overland roads of the Tarim basin. From the Pamir Mountains, silk passed through Bactria, avoiding Parthia, and then down the Hindu Valley to the Northern India ports. The Periplus testifies the existence of silk and silk products in the Indian ports of the Western and Eastern coasts of India. From Muziris different routes could be taken: the most direct was crossing the Indian Ocean to reach the Egyptian ports on the Red Sea, then across the desert up to Alexandria. Another possible route was leading carriers to the port of Charax Spasinou on the Persian Gulf, and then across the desert to Palmyra. From this important city (a key hub for the caravan trade), the silk was then taken to the Syrian cities of Tyre, Sidon, Antiochia, famous centres for textile manufacturing.

With regard to the archaeological documentation of this precious textile, the most important site is certainly Palmyra. Extraordinary findings of ancient silk fragments have been made in the funerary contexts which include ancient silk fragments; thanks to the detailed analyses carried out by the German archaeologists it was possible to identify not only the remains of Chine silk but also pieces of wild silk.

Another reason why the Palmyra silk fragments are incredibly important is the fact that, thanks to archeometric analysis, it is possible to reconstruct the different ways of processing silk material when arrived in the West. The textile products made of Chinese silk reached the West as finished goods with typical original decorations and embroidered Chinese letters. But we know from ancient Classical sources and from the Chinese ones that once arrived in the Western cities, the Chinese silk finished products were completely unraveled and rewoven [4].

The new textile was extremely thin, shiny and transparent: this new creation was something that much more suited the Roman taste. It is highly significant that the beauty of these new ‘Chinese’ textiles, (re)manufactured in the Roman cities (Appendix text 2 a), could generate great interest and attraction in the very places from which that silk was originally being made, i.e. China. According to the brilliant suggestion of Thorley: “It was this that the Romans knew as silk, not the brocade with which we usually associate Chinese silk. This is what the Chinese were buying, totally unaware that they were simply buying back their own silk” ([2]: 77–78; [5] 227).

According to Chinese sources, the general idea was that the Romans knew and used not only wild silkworms (i.e. different species of Mediterranean silkworms) but also ‘silk-worm mulberry tree’ (i.e. the Himalayan-Chinese domesticated silkworm). Even if this last information is not true (this happened first only from the 6th century CE), the authors are aware of the unraveling and reweaving of Chinese Silk by the Romans (Appendix text 2 b). This last example gives us an important clue on how complex and evolving, absolutely not mono-directional were the interactions and the exchanges in the Eurasian networks during the first centuries of the Roman Empire.

In conclusion, we may ask questions about the city of Rome, the final destination of this incredible journey. It is very rare to find archaeological evidence of these precious but, at the same time, easily-perishable materials in the city. Nonetheless, recent discoveries made in recent years provide new information about imported luxury goods from the Far East.

This is the case of the remains of a silk funerary veil found together with Sri Lanka sapphires. Approximately 26 km south-east far from modern Rome, at the town of Colonna, a monumental grave of the middle 3rd century CE was accurately excavated in 2005: the sarcophagus was found with remains of a rich Roman lady, dressed with a silk veil decorated with a gold-strip and wearing a beautiful gold necklace or diadem decorated with sapphires and probably originally in combination with pearls. The style of the jewel and the presence of the very rare Ceylon sapphires (and probably of Indian pearls) recall examples attested in Palmyra and the Syrian jewelry of the 2nd–3rd century CE [6]. We can consider this finding as one of the rare pieces of evidence of the trade and cultural Eurasian connections beyond the frontiers of Rome.


1. Hou-Han-Shu 88 (Lieh-Chuan 78). English transl. Leslie and Gardiner (1996): 43. 45–46.

A. In the 9th century (97 C.E.), Pan Ch'ao despatched his adjutant Kan Ying all the way to the coast of the Western Sea and back. Former generations had never reached any of these places, nor has Shan-(hai)-ching given any details (of them). He made a report on the customs and topography of all these states, and transmitted an account of their precious objects and marvels. (…)

B. (…) He arrived at T'iao-chih (Characene), overlooking the Great Sea. When about to take his passage across the sea, the sailors of the western frontier of Parthia told Ying: “The sea is vast. With favorable winds, it is still only possible for travelers to cross in three months. But if one meets with unfavorable winds, it may even take two years. It was when he heard this that Ying gave up.”

2. Sources on the unraveling and reweaving process of Chinese silk by the Romans.

A. Lucan, Pharsalia 10. 141–143. English transl. Leslie and Gardiner (1996): 228.
(Cleopatra's) white breasts were revealed by the fabric of Sidon, which, close-woven by the shuttle of the Seres, the Egyptian needle-worker pulls out, and loosens the thread by stretching the stuff.

B. Wei-Lüeh. Chapter 330. Paragraphs 1.26.28. English transl. Hirth (1885): 80; commentary Hirth (1885). 251–260; Leslie and Gardiner (1996): 226–227.

About the Author:

Marco Galli, Department of Ancient Sciences, Sapienza University of Rome, P.le Aldo Moro 5, Rome 00185, Italy. Email: [email protected]

Copyright Details

This article is an excerpt taken from a research paper titled -  "Beyond frontiers: Ancient Rome and the Eurasian trade networks" | Republished at under Creative Commons license provided by the original publisher.


[1] B. Hildebrand (Ed.), Silk: Trade and exchange along the silk roads between Rome and China in antiquity, Ancient textiles series 29, Oxbow, Oxford (2016)

[2] J. Thorley, The silk trade between China and the Roman Empire at its height, circa A.D. 90–130
Greece & Rome, 18 (1971), pp. 71-80

[3] G. Parker, Ex. oriente luxuria: Indian commodities and Roman experience Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient, 45 (2002), pp. 40-95

[4] A. Schmidt-Colinet, A. Stauffer, Die Textilien aus Palmyra. Neue und alte Funde, Philipp von Zabern, Mainz (2000)

[5] D.D. Leslie, K.H.J. Gardiner, The Roman empire in Chinese sources, Bardi, Rome (1996)

[6] F. Altamura, M. Angle, P. Cerino, A. De Angelis, N. Tomei
“Latium pictae vestis considerat aurum”. Sepolcri a Colonna (Roma), G. Ghini, Z. Mari (Eds.), Lazio e sabina, Quasar, Rome (2013), pp. 255-260
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