The Silk Route.
Roman Empire – Han Period
By Andre Willers
Dated 1 Feb 2007
Silk is a good example of real-politic usage of end-user monopolies and comparative advantages . Both the Romans and the Chinese ended up with large quantities of silk-armour paid for by indirect taxation on the luxury trade .
End-User Monopoly :
The major end users of silk were the standing , professional armies . While not as good as antibiotics , the ability of silk underarmour patches to cut RELATIVE mortality rates of puncture wounds is an estimated factor of 30 ( Comments? ) of expensively trained soldiers , not to mention the precious hides of the officers .
The factor of thirty is conservative . It derives from all the possible ways things that can fail , do fail . (To be exact probability = 1/e )
Silk is a force-multiplier for a standing , professional army .
The source of silk was everywhere (wild silk) , though China at the start had a comparative advantage as to long-length silk-fibres (they killed the larvae without damaging the thread , whereas in wild silk the larva eats through the cocoon , cutting the thread) .
Rome had an equivalent technical advantage in weaving and metallurgy .
Both Empires were thoroughly familiar with comparative advantages , as well as the law of unintended consequences .
Furthermore , they were not in competitition with each other and would not be in the foreseeable future .
If they incorporated each other’s advantages through espionage , the end result would not be more silk armour , but less . The luxury trade would swallow up all silk production , and control measures would be a futile exercise .
If however , a percentage of long-fibre silk was traded from China to Rome , there beneficiated into luxury transparent silk , which was sold at a huge markup to the Roman ladies ( and ironies , back to the Chinese ladies) . The profits paid for huge wild-silk farms in the middle east . Payment for long-silk fibres was taken partly in wild silk , which was then exported to China at a lower cost than they could produce it . The same in the West .
In effect , the upper classes paid an unnoticed tax to outfit their armies with silk-underarmour .
It was a nice little scheme that worked well while both Emperors had sufficient authority to prevent a bit of industrial espionage , as well as a sufficiently deep well of surplus wealth in the ruling classes .
Notice how Tiberius ( one of the most morally corrupt military Roman emperors ) used a ban on transparent luxury silks to stimulate demand .
The collapse of the Arrangement in the West is well documented . But what about the East ? Did Weaving and translucent silk production suddenly soar after Chinese long-fibre silk worms were introduced in the West?
The middle east production of wild-silk went to the nomads . The initial production surge went to the Huns . The timing is about right . The conventional viewpoint is that the birthrate of the west tanked and the more virile steppe dwellers surged in with greater numbers . In actual fact , equivalent percentages on both sides died from the plagues , but in the battles those with silk underarmour recovered quicker .
If all this sounds far-fetched , please consider diamonds in the world-economy 1890 – present .
Another example of a recent end-user monopoly is oil during the 1920-1972 period .
Silk and the Mongols.
The Mongols during this period ( --- till circa 1750) never had more than 700 000 Mongols on the steppe , with about 2 million on the boundaries of the steppe (making bows , iron , children , old people ) . Manpower attrition was a very big worry . Thus , every Mongol had silk underarmour , which had to be replaced frequently . Silk was much bigger strategic factor for them than their opponents . Of course , the Chinese and Khwaresms knew this . Obviously , the Mongols could not expect large-scale silk supplies from China .
But the Middle-east then was still a large producer of wild-silk (Islamic armies used silk armour) .
When the Khwaresms cut off his ambassadors’ heads , Ghengis Khan knew he faced a war of attrition on two fronts , and that his supply of silk had been equally truncated. The Khwaresms were the weaker front , and he could defeat them . But they could continue to breed new warriors , and worse , trade silk as a multiplier of force . The only long-term solution was to exterminate the cities , then destroy the capability of the remnants in the countryside to re-establish agriculture . Genghis was loath to do the last , since it would decrease the future value of his holdings . But the crucial factor here was the force-multiplier of silk . The Mongols could not afford to leave behind infrastructure that could support silk production .
Hence , they destroyed it . The regions have never recovered .