Textile Society of America


Date of this Version



From Textiles in Daily Life: Proceedings of the Third Biennial Symposium of the Textile Society of America, September 24–26, 1992 (Earleville, MD: Textile Society of America, Inc., 1993).


Copyright © 1992 by the author(s).


In Byzantium between the fourth and the twelfth century, a hierarchy of silken splendour was established across social, artistic, religious, economic and political boundaries. On one level silk was a decorative fabric socially exploited for its aesthetic qualities. On another level it was prized as a fabric fit for furnishing the House of God. Above all though, the Imperial house was intent to raise what was essentially a valuable economic asset to the heights of a powerful political weapon. Consequently silk was made to serve both as the prime Imperial ceremonial fabric and as the diplomatic cloth 'par excellence'.1 The present paper seeks to explore two questions in this context:
How and why did silk assume such a strongly political role in Byzantium?
What were the foreign ramifications of Byzantium's silken diplomacy?

Silk as a power base

Silk was established as a power base in Byzantium between the fourth and the twelfth century under three umbrellas:
• It was granted an elevated status through Imperial legislation and through its association with Imperial murcx purple dyes.2
• Concomitantly it was rendered indispensable to Imperial Ceremonial.3
• It was featured in domestic and in foreign policy as a tool for the implementation of Imperial policy.4

Imperial silk legislation

Imperial silk legislation survives in two forms: Imperial decrees (embodied in the Theodosian and the Justinianic Codes, in a Novel of Leo the Wise and in the Basilics)5 and in economic legislation (as found in the Book of the Prefect).6 The Decrees were concerned first to establish and then to maintain an Imperial monopoly over the production of silks intended for court consumption and principal amongst these were the murcx dyed purple silks.7 From the fourth to the tenth century Imperial silks and purples appear to have been manufactured only in Imperial workshops but in the tenth century some were manufactured under strict control by non-Imperial silk guilds in Constantinople. The Book of the Prefect, which details non Imperial silk guild regulations, indicates that seven categories of Imperial silk garments or purples were in non-Imperial production.8 These included whole silk garments and petticoats of Imperial cut, and exclusive Imperial red or blue purples of different strengths, as well as some peach and other green tinted purple silk shades. These purple dyes were produced through labour intensive and costly processing of the light sensitive, purple yielding juices from the glands of murex sea snails. The Imperial monopoly over manufacture and use of the murex purple silks in particular, immediately rendered Imperial silk a political presence. Leo VI (d. 912) was well aware that murex purples had a high political profile and that they had long since become synonymous with Imperial authority and power. Leo VI stated (Novel 80):
'I do not understand why the Emperors, my predecessors, who dressed in purple, were induced to legislate to forbid any piece of purple material from figuring as an article of commerce, or prohibit the purchase and sale thereof. To prevent the trade in a whole piece of the fabric would not be a vain matter for legislation; but since scraps and clippings cannot be of practical use or advantage to buyers and sellers, what honest purpose, and exempt from jealousy of their subjects can have prompted the idea of the legislators: and how can it be prejudicial or derogatory of the Imperial rank? Since we do not approve of suchan idea, weordain that scraps and clippings, to which our subjects attach distinction and importance, and which they can use for any purpose not forbidden by law, may be bought and sold. Besides other benefits which the Emperor confers upon his subjects he must not be envious of their luxuries.'9