The establishment of a silk industry in the Byzantine Empire began in the A.D. 500s with a few hardy silkworms, which were smuggled from China into Constantinople at the request of the Byzantine emperor Justinian. The silkworm secretes a silk thread, which it uses to make a cocoon for itself. Thousands of years earlier the Chinese had learned how to weave fine cloth from the silk. With its own silkworms, the Byzantine Empire was freed from dependence on China and Persia for its silk.
The silk industry became one of several vital Byzantine economic enterprises. Low internal taxes and a common currency stimulated trade within the empire. Local craftspeople and merchants exchanged their goods, such as high-quality glass and papyrus, at countryside fairs. Because of its fine harbor and access to the Black and Mediterranean Seas, Constantinople, the capital city of the Byzantine Empire, was a thriving trade center. Traders-on-route from India, China, and Persia to Italy and other parts of Europe-carried spices, silks, furs, pearls, precious stones, and timber through the port at Constantinople. Exported from Constantinople were luxury items, such as silk textiles, carved ivory, enamel, glassware, and bronze church doors. Byzantine luxury goods sold especially well in the Italian cities of Amalfi and Venice. As cities grew in western Europe and commercial trade with the region increased, raw materials and agricultural products were exported there from Constantinople.