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Original Articles Home > Acta Via Serica > Archives > Original Articles
Title The Terminology of Silks in Texts of the Roman Empire: Qualities, Origins, Products, and Uses
Author Berit Hildebrandt
Volume Vol. 6 No. 2
Pages pp. 117~140 (all 24 pages)
Publication Date December, 2021
Keyword Silk, Textiles, Terminology, Qualities, Archaeological finds
Abstract At the beginning of the Roman imperial period, moralizing authors criticized a material from the East that quickly gained popularity among the elites: silk. During Late Antiquity, the trade, production, and use of purple-dyed silks increasingly became the privilege of the emperors. While literature, court poetry, and laws give insights into the discourses surrounding silk, they are rather unspecific concerning silk qualities. This contribution analyzes the scattered descriptions of silks in Greek and Latin texts in a diachronic perspective, with a focus on the 1st cent. BCE to the 4th cent. CE, paying particular attention to the terminology, products, origins, and qualities of silk. The aim is to build a framework for comparisons with archaeological silk finds and other textile terminologies along the Silk Roads. Here, the silk finds from the oasis city of Palmyra/Tadmor in modern-day Syria, dating from the 1st cent. BCE to the 2nd cent. CE, will be used as a case study for the early imperial period. Taking these silk finds as a comparison, it will be shown that Greek and Latin terminology does not match the variety of silks known in the Mediterranean. Rather, linguistic differentiations focus on the forms in which silk reached the Mediterranean, as skeins, yarns, and fabrics, as well as on the different kinds of silks that were produced in the West, namely pure silk and half-silken fabrics, checkered “scutlata” damasks, purple-dyed, and gold-embellished silks. In contrast, silks from the East were subsumed under the term for “silks from the silk people” or simply “silks”. Moreover, ancient authors do not use the terms in the same way. These findings show the limitations of Western silk terminology and the importance of combining archaeological and written sources.