Seres (Gr. Σῆρες, Lat. Sērēs) was the ancient Greek and Roman name for the inhabitants of the northwestern part of modern China, (in other words modern Xinjiang or Eastern Turkestan). It meant "of silk," or people of the "land where silk comes from." The country of the Seres was Serica.

The name 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.

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, "Cathey and the way thither")

Classical accounts

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

Strabo (circa 20 CE)

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." (Strabo, Geographia, 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 BCE:

"they extended their empire even as far as the Seres and the Phryni" (Strabo, quoting Apollodorus of Artemita, Geographia, XI.XI.I).

Pomponius Mela (50 CE)

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

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." (Pliny the Elder, The Natural History, Chap XX "The Seres").

He also 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" (Pliny the Elder, The Natural History, Chap XX "The Seres").

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 ancient Caucasian 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!" (Pliny the Elder, The Natural History, Chap XXIV "Taprobane")

Ptolemy (ca 150 CE)

The country of "Serica" is positioned in the 150CE 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 eastermost nations of Asia Major, the Sinae and the nations of Serice" (Ptolemy Geographia, ca 150 CE).

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".


See also

  • Serica (The country of the Seres)
  • Daqin (the Chinese name for the Roman Empire)
  • Sino-Roman relations
  • Zhang Qian (Traditional Chinese: 張騫; Simplified Chinese: 张骞; Hanyu Pinyin: Zhāng Qiān; Wade-Giles: Chang Ch'ien; d. 113 BCE, explorer/founder of the Silk Road)

External links

* Extracts from Ptolemy's Geographia
* Extracts from Pliny's Natural History
* Extracts from Pomponius Mela "De Situ Orbis"

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