The history of silk is a key part of Chinese commercial history. For nearly twenty centuries China has protected the secrets of silk in every way possible, even with the death penalty, to maintain the monopoly over production of this valuable material for “imperial robes” and to keep the silk price high.
Despite these exceptional measures, the first “theft” occurred just at the hands of a Chinese princess who, for political duty, would have to marry a Tibetan prince. Legend has it that when the prince informed her of the absolute impossibility of producing the precious thread, due to the lack of the silkworm, she decided to take action.
For the princess, in fact, it was unthinkable not to dress in silk, so she stole eggs and mulberry seeds from the imperial gardens hiding them in her elaborate bridal hairstyle.
Following the introduction of mulberry and silkworm to Tibet, for some years, it also adopted the strategy of severe penalties to prevent the spread of the farms from special regions and, in fact, for centuries silk production remained guarded in a few kingdoms and the silk price was high.
The next phase of the history of silk involved the Greeks who had only imperfect knowledge, and only after the conquests by Alexander the Great, when the Greek and Persian civilizations came into contact, were the first stretches of what in later centuries become the Silk Road created.
Rome introduced silk robes only after the campaigns in West Asia, deriving the name Sericum from that of Seri, the people that then produced silk, set in a vast area of Central Asia then called Serica. However, in continuation of the history of silk, the rarity and the price of this fabric made it available exclusively to the Roman elite, even if we have little information regarding the silk price.
From a historical relic, a strip of silk originally attached to a roll, is reported as follows: “Roll of silk was in the reign of K’ang-Jen-ch’eng (ephemeral kingdom, built around 85 AD and located in the present province of Shantung) 2 feet 2 inches wide, 40 feet long, with a weight of 25 ounces, price 618 pieces of money. “This means that even in the case in which the coins were smaller pieces of silver, the silk price was still a significant figure.
Another indication of the value of the silk is the story of the Emperor Aurelian (in 275 AD), who denied to his wife a cloak of silk dyed purple for its excessive price. While in 301 AD, Diocletian with an imperial edict established the silk price for white fabric at over a thousand golden denarii per pound.
These stories make perfectly clear the idea of the preciousness of the silk in the East as in the West throughout the history of silk, and the value of this refined “raw material”, still desired by every person in the world, irrespective of the silk price.