From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
  (Redirected from Seres)
Jump to: navigation, search
Not to be confused with Serres or Ceres.
"Seres" redirects here. For the Australian bridge player, see Tim Seres. For the English printer, see William Seres.
For the Tea Clipper (ship), see Serica (clipper).

The Seres (Greek: Σῆρες, Latin: Seres) were inhabitants of the land Serica, named by the ancient Greeks and Romans.[1] It meant "of silk," or people of the "land where silk comes from," and is thought to derive from the Chinese word for silk, si (Traditional Chinese: 絲; Simplified Chinese: 丝; pinyin: sī). It is itself at the origin of the Latin for "silk", sericum.[2]

The Seres and their country were named after the central product which sustained their industry, the "Ser" or Silkworm. Some classicists argued that it was extremely improbable that a nation would be named after an insect; the 19th-century orientalist Christian Lassen claimed to have identified references to the Seres in Hindu scripture, in the form of the "Çaka [Sakas], Tukhâra [Bactria], and Kanka [Kangju]".[3]

Mention of the Seres people, as the manufacturers and distributors of silk, is earlier than the country Serica. This made some historians believe that the Greco-Romans named the Chinese Sinae when approached from the Pacific Ocean but Seres when reached from the Asiatic steppes. Others contend that the Seres were a loosely connected series of Indo-European peoples, such as the Tocharians of the Tarim Basin, who traded with the Indians, the Chinese and, through the Parthians and later the Sassanid Persians, the Romans.

The Seres were universally depicted as prudent, just and compassionate people, whose genteel natures were addicted to comfort (not luxury), peace and harmony. In commerce they were shrewd, yet still more assiduous and diligent. For the Romans, a long and mutually remunerative commerce with the Seres was endangered when the middlemen, the Parthians, were usurped by the Sassanids.

A summary of Classical sources on the Seres (essentially Pliny and Ptolemy) gives the following account:

The region of the Seres is a vast and populous country, touching on the east the Ocean and the limits of the habitable world, and extending west nearly to Imaus and the confines of Bactria. The people are civilised men, of mild, just, and frugal temper, eschewing collisions with their neighbours, and even shy of close intercourse, but not averse to dispose of their own products, of which raw silk is the staple, but which include also silk stuffs, furs, and iron of remarkable quality.

— Henry Yule, Cathay and the way thither

Serica was described by Ptolemy as bordering "Scythia beyond the Imaum mountains (Tian Shan)" on the West, "Terra Incognita" to the North-East, the "Sinae" or Chinese to the East and "India" to the South. This would correspond with modern Xinjiang province in North-Western China.

Classical accounts[edit]

Detail of Asia in the Ptolemy world map. Gulf of the Ganges left, Southeast Asian peninsula in the center, China Sea right, with "Sinae" and "Serica" to the North.

The first accounts of the Seres, of disputed authenticity, seem to be those by the Greek historian Ctesias in the 5th century BC, in which he refers to them as "people of portentous stature and longevity", in his book Indika.


The Greek geographer Strabo mentioned the Seres in his "Geographia", written early in the 1st century, in two passages. He also alludes to the longevity of the Seres, said to exceed two hundred years, and quotes from "some writers":

Onesicritus ... expatiates also in praise of the country of Musicanus, and relates of the inhabitants what is common to other Indian tribes, that they are long-lived, and that life is protracted even to the age of 130 years, (the Seres, however, are said by some writers to be still longer lived), that they are temperate in their habits and healthy; although the country produces everything in abundance.

In one passage on the Greco-Bactrian Kingdom, he mentions that they extended far into eastern Asia, possibly leading to the first known contacts between China and the West around 220 BC:

they extended their empire even as far as the Seres and the Phryni

Pomponius Mela[edit]

Pomponius Mela gives the following details on the Seres:

In the furthest east of Asia are the Indians, Seres, and Scythians. The Indians and Scythians occupy the two extremities, the Seres are in the middle

— Pomponius Mela, De Situ Orbis, I, 2

Also, after speaking about the Caspian sea and the Scythian shores:

From these the course (of the shore) makes a bend and trends to the coast line which faces the east. That part which adjoins the Scythian promontory is first all impassable from snow ; then an uncultivated tract occupied by savages. These tribes are the Cannibal Scythians and the Sakas, severed from one another by a region where none can dwell because of the number of wild animals. Another vast wilderness follows, occupied also by wild beasts, reaching to a mountain called Thabis which overhangs the sea. A long way from that the ridge of Taurus rises. The Seres come between the two; a race eminent for integrity, and well known for the trade which they allow to be transacted behind their backs, leaving their wares in a desert spot

— Pomponius Mela, De Situ Orbis, III, 7

Pliny the Elder[edit]

Pliny the Elder a few decades later in his "Naturalis Historia" described the location of the Seres, going east from the Caspian Sea:

Then, we again find tribes of Scythians, and again desert tracts occupied only by wild animals, till we come to that mountain chain overhanging the sea, which is called Tabis. Not till nearly half the length of the coast which looks north-east has been past, do you find inhabited country. The first race then encountered are the Seres, so famous for the fleecy product of their forests.

He describes the silk manufacture of the Seres:

The Seres are famous for the woolen substance obtained from their forests; after a soaking in water they comb off the white down of the leaves... So manifold is the labour employed, and so distant is the region of the globe drawn upon, to enable the Roman maiden to flaunt transparent clothing in public

And he speaks comparatively of what was known in the world at the time about iron and its tempering:

But of all the different kinds of iron, the palm of excellence is awarded to that which is made by the Seres, who send it to us with their tissues and skins; next to which, in quality, is the Parthian iron.

— [4]

Pliny also reports a curious description of the Seres made by an embassy from Taprobane to Emperor Claudius, suggesting they may be referring to the Indo-European populations of the Tarim Basin, such as the Tocharians:

They also informed us that the side of their island (Taprobane) which lies opposite to India is ten thousand stadia in length, and runs in a south-easterly direction--that beyond the Emodian Mountains (Himalayas) they look towards the Serve (Seres), whose acquaintance they had also made in the pursuits of commerce; that the father of Rachias (the ambassador) had frequently visited their country, and that the Seræ always came to meet them on their arrival. These people, they said, exceeded the ordinary human height, had flaxen hair, and blue eyes, and made an uncouth sort of noise by way of talking, having no language of their own for the purpose of communicating their thoughts. The rest of their information (on the Serae) was of a similar nature to that communicated by our merchants. It was to the effect that the merchandize on sale was left by them upon the opposite bank of a river on their coast, and it was then removed by the natives, if they thought proper to deal on terms of exchange. On no grounds ought luxury with greater reason to be detested by us, than if we only transport our thoughts to these scenes, and then reflect, what are its demands, to what distant spots it sends in order to satisfy them, and for how mean and how unworthy an end!


A mid-15th century map based on Ptolemy's manuscript Geography. Serica and Sina are marked as separate countries (top right and right respectively).

The country of "Serica" is positioned in the 150 AD Ptolemy world map in the area beyond the "Imaus" (Pamir Mountains):

The inhabited part of our earth is bounded on the east by the Unknown Land which lies along the region occupied by the easternmost nations of Asia Major, the Sinae and the nations of Serice

— Ptolemy, Geographia, ca 150 AD

Ptolemy also positions China (Sinae)[clarification needed] quite precisely:

The eastern extremity of the known earth is limited by the meridian drawn through the metropolis of the Sinae, at a distance from Alexandria of 119.5 degrees, reckoned upon the equator, or about eight equinoctial hours. . . .

— Book vii, ch. 5

Ptolemy also speaks of "Sera, the Capital of the Seres". Henry Yule argued that Ptolemy's misrendering of the Indian Sea as a closed basin meant that Ptolemy must also have misplaced the Chinese coast, and therefore the idea that Sinae is a separate country from Serica would be a misconception.[5]

Geography and economy[edit]

As Ptolemy describes it, Serica was bordered in the north by the Annibi and Auxacii Montes, identified as the Altai Mountains. The Montes Asmiraei, a Serican district, are the Da-Uri Chain while the Cassi Montes are believed to be the mountains of the Gobi Desert. Ptolemy names the principal river of the Seres as the Bautisus, identified as the Yellow River.

The Greco-Roman writers name over a dozen tribes and fifteen cities of the Seres. It is evident from their portrayals that they are not all of the same ethnicity but share a common national appellation. Their capital is named as Sera. Possible candidates include Kashgar and Yarkand. Issedon, the capital of the Serican Issedones, is thought to have been situated on the eastern slopes of the Pamirs or even the Altai Mountains, while the third notable city, Aspacara, was described as located near the source of the Yellow River.

The ancient fathers also describe the pleasant climate of Serica and its plenitude in natural resources. Among these are iron, furs and skins, and precious stones.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Schoff, Wilfred H.: "The Eastern Iron Trade of the Roman Empire", Journal of the American Oriental Society, Vol. 35 (1915), pp. 224-239 (237)
  2. ^ Yule, Henry. Cathay and the Way Thither, Volume 1. p. xliv. ISBN 8120619668. 
  3. ^ Lassen, Christian (1847). Indische Alterthumskunde (in German). 1. Band. Geographie und die älteste Geschichte. Bonn: H.B. Koenig. p. 321n. Retrieved January 25, 2016. 
  4. ^ Pliny the Elder, Naturalis Historia Chap XXXIV, 41 The Natural History of Metals, The Different Kinds of Iron, and the Mode of Tempering It.
  5. ^ Yule, Henry. Cathay and the Way Thither, Volume 1. pp. xxxvii – xxxviii. ISBN 8120619668. 
  • Dictionary of Greek and Roman Geography, Sir William Smith (Editor), Spottiswoode and Co;, London, 1873
  • Oxford Classical Dictionary, Simon Hornblower and Antony Spawforth (Editors), Oxford University Press, 2003

External links[edit]