Espionage

Rome was trading for silk by the 1st century c.e., but Rome never achieved the secrets of silk.  Rome fell in 530 c.e. but even before that time, the Byzantine empire was on the rise in the east, building up Constantinople as it’s capital, and primed to become the dominant empire under the reign of the Emperor Justinian, who began his reign in 527 c.e.  But where Rome failed for hundreds of years of obtain the secrets of silk, Justinian would succeed, in just 25 years.

Constantinople was a major hub of the silk road, and end point for trade goods from the far east and a shipping center for goods coming from the west, and a staunch supporter of Christianity.  Consequently, there were multiple missionaries who used Constantinople as a base from which to send their disciples. 

Likely, the two monks who pulled off the earliest form of corporate espionage were members of the Nestorian Church, although it’s certainly possible they were Eastern Orthodox or Oriental Orthodox.  Regardless, in 551 c.e., two monks worked their way north from India and into China.  While in China, they carefully observed everything that went in to the care and feeding of silk worms.  On their return to Constantinople, the two Mystery Monks approached the emperor with a bold offer to steal the secrets of silk.  What the monks received in return has not been recorded.  But the agreement was struck and a two year plan of corporate espionage went in to effect. 

Now, the moths themselves were entirely too delicate to smuggle anywhere.  Also, entirely too obvious.  But the silk worms?  The larvae were easily concealed inside hollowed out bamboo canes.  The journey, already a slow process overland, must have taken forever.  And it must have been terrifying, as the secrets of silk were still tightly regulated by China, with attempts to leave the country bearing silk worms carrying a death sentence.  But they did it.  Slowly.  First with the worms, which eventually cocooned themselves, the monks made their way from China back to Constantinople.  Given that the life cycle from worm to moth is only 4 to 6 weeks, and traveling the silk road took a full two years round trip, this must have been a constant stop and go journey.

But it paid off in spades.  When the monks returned from Constantinople, Justinian had the secrets of silk.  And production began immediately in the Byzantine centers of Constantinople, Beirut, Antich, Tyre, and Thebes, destroying Chinese and Persian monopolies on silk, and establishing his own monopoly, perfectly poised from Constantinople, the crossroads at which East meets West on the silk road.