From the Encyclopedia of ancient Greece by Nigel Wilson:
Cotton, hemp, and silk appeared by the 5th century BC, attesting to the extensive trade networks developed by the Greeks.  Cotton originated on the Indian subcontinent, hemp in northern Europe, and silk in China.  Several purple and white textiles found in a late 5th century BC tomb in Athens raise questions about when silk arrived in Greece.
Hemp is straightforward.  Herodotus talks of the Scythians to the north using hemp seeds in their baths.

Alexander the Great hit India a hundred years later, at the end of the 4th century, and clearly by then India was well known to the Persians.  Cotton appearing in Greece in the 5th century via trade routes is very reasonable.  Though there probably wasn't much of it.  Most clothing was made of wool.

It's very unlikely--I'd go as far to say impossible to believe--that the silk road was open in the 5th century BC, but it's apparent that China was trading with Persia, Persia with Greece (when they weren't slaughtering each other), and therefore credible that some silk managed to make it to Greece.  


Steph Schmidt said...

It's very possible they weren't using the silk road at all for trade at that time period. China at one time did have an impressive navy as did Greece. Sea route?

Amalia T. said...

I've been wondering if part of what made Troy so wealthy, mythology-wise, might not have been Silk. They seem like they were in a perfect position to offer silk to Greek traders. But can we say absolutely for certain that there was no silk that far west previous to the 5th century? Would Mycenaeans have recorded silk as an individual type of fabric in their record-keeping?

We have these stories about Heracles and Theseus and Jason telling us that these people traveled EXTENSIVELY-- far more than your average joe-- so what are the odds that they might have come across these kinds of goods, that weren't necessarily available to Greece at large, even through trade?

Gary Corby said...

I like the idea, but the problem with a Chinese trading ship is there's no Suez Canal. The ship would have to get around India, get around Africa, and sail the length of the Med. We know for sure that the Persians made it around Africa in a momentous voyage, but this might be asking too much of the Chinese.

What they might have done is take an alternative route to the far north. I've read that a piece of silk was found in the grave of a 7th century BC German, which is pretty amazing. But I don't know how accurate that report is.

I've also read of silk in a 1,000 BC Egyptian tomb. Again, I don't know if it's true.

It's interesting to speculate though!