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Title: Seres  
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Not to be confused with Serres or Ceres.
For the English printer, see William Seres.

The Seres (Gr. Σῆρες, Lat. Sērēs) were inhabitants of the land Serica, named by the ancient Greek and Roman.[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", sērĭcă.

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, and the 19th Century orientalist Christian Lassen identified them in the sacred books of the Hindus as the "Caka, Tukhara, and Kanka".

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 loose confederacy of Tocharian people, 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

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.

Strabo (circa 20 AD)

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":

"Book XV, Chap I).

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" (XI.XI.I).

Pomponius Mela (50 AD)

Pomponius Mela gives the following details on the Seres:

" In the furthest east of Asia are the 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 III, 7).

Pliny the Elder

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." (Chap XX "The Seres").

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" (Chap XX "The Seres").

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."[2]

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 (Chap XXIV "Taprobane")

Ptolemy (c. 150 AD)

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) 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".

Geography and economy

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


  • 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

  • "Cathay and the way thither", on the Seres.
  • Extracts from Ptolemy's Geographia
  • Extracts from Pliny's Natural History
  • Extracts from Pomponius Mela "De Situ Orbis"
  • Pliny on the Seres
  • Pomponius Mela's De Situ Orbis (Latin)
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