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Wednesday, June 9, 2021

The Controversy Over Silk in Ancient Rome

Silk from China started flooding into the Roman Empire as early as the third century BC. The popularity of the fine flowing silk garments among the Roman elite class horrified the traditionalists. 

Seneca the Elder declared that silk garments could barely be regarded as clothing since these garments would not hide the curves and the decency of the Roman ladies. He declared that the foundation of Roman morality was being undermined by silk garments, which allowed men to see through the light fabric which clung to the female form and left little to the imagination. Here’s an excerpt from Seneca’s Declamations (Volume One):

"I can see clothes of silk, if materials that do not hide the body, nor even one's decency, can be called clothes... Wretched flocks of maids labour so that the adulteress may be visible through her thin dress, so that her husband has no more acquaintance than any outsider or foreigner with his wife's body."

In the first century AD, Pliny the Elder complained about the high cost of silk. He said that the Roman economy was being drained for enabling the “Roman lady to shimmer in public.” He calculated that the Roman economy was losing 100 million sesterces annually in importing silk. 

The Roman political establishment made repeated efforts to discourage their people from wearing silk. Emperor Aurelian forbade his wife from buying a mantle of Tyrian purple silk. Laws were passed to ban men from wearing silk since it was seen as effeminate and antithetical to Rome’s militaristic culture.

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