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Imagine Seres in Early Imperial Rome: A Reading of Plin. Nat. 6.53-54 and 12.84

Yanxiao He

University of Chicago

Inspired by Grant Parker’s work (2008) on the image of India in imperial Greek and Latin literature, this paper examines Rome’s interest in another important eastern landscape, Seres, which entails Rome’s incipient knowledge about its contemporary power, Han China. I argue that Rome’s ethnographic knowledge of Seres was driven by Rome’s trade and importation of silk from the East. As silk is the concrete material through which Rome’s imagination of Seres formed, this paper will tackle the issue of materiality in literary imagination, and will explore how to correlate textual and material evidence more critically and effectively.

Silk was first transported from China to the Mediterranean by Eurasian nomads, whose role in long-distance trade in the ancient world has been highlighted by anthropologists (Honeychurch (2015); Brosseder and Miller (2018)). I argue that these nomads helped to create a prestige economy of silk from the 1stcentury BCE onward. Silk fragments discovered in the tombs of Palmyra illustrate this prestige economy of silk on the ground as well as how silk marked elite identity (Schmidt-Colinet et al. (2000)).

I then move to demonstrate how Roman material consumption of silk and its display defined the Roman imagination of Seres. I will argue that silk registers elite anxiety about Roman morality throughout the course of Rome’s expansion and engagement with the rest of the world. Pliny the Elder’s detailed description of Seres is the centerpiece of my discussion. Although Augustan poets had introduced Seres into Latin literature, it is in Pliny’s work the portrait of Seres assumes its fully-fledged form.

In Pliny’s account of Rome’s importation of silk, he complains that the consumption of exotica by Roman matrons, including silk, will exhaust Roman wealth (Nat. 12.84), and points out that silk imported from the East eventually appears on the Roman matron’s body (Nat. 6.54). I argue that a more intellectually productive way to interpret this account is not to attempt to mine it for the data of economic history, but to read it as mapping Roman elite anxiety about the sexuality of Roman matrons onto silk through a critique of Rome’s long-distance trade.

Thus, I will show that Pliny’s deep concern about the sexual connotations of silk underlies his ethnographic interest in Seres. Pliny reports that Seres’s commerce is dominated by a barter economy, which, for Pliny, indicates the primitiveness of the Seres people (Nat. 6.53-54). I argue that this ethnographic description by Pliny is explicable when taking into account his concern about silk as a luxury good among Roman elites. That is, Pliny intends to show that silk is not a luxury item in its original place of production, thereby attempting to delegitimate silk’s prestige value. As I will demonstrate, this is where Pliny diverges from his Augustan precursors by redefining the familiar image of silk as a luxury good in itselfIn sum, Pliny’s writing on Seres represents a critical engagement with the Roman imperial economy in its heyday.

Session/Panel Title

Natural History and Pliny's Natural History

Session/Paper Number

38.4

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