In the last decades of the 2nd century BC, envoys from the Han dynasty of China were met on the banks of the Oxus River (modern Amu Darya) by an escort of Parthian cavalry. The Chinese historian Sima Qian (c. 145–86 BC) reported that “twenty thousand horsemen” were sent by the Parthian king to accompany the envoys on their journey, and that this news “delighted” the Han emperor. This official meeting of delegations marks the beginning of what we today call the Silk Routes, a network of trading arteries extending from China to the Mediterranean. During this early period, between five and ten caravans were sent westwards from China each year, carrying precious commodities that included silk.
As well as silk from China, the Romans sought spices, pearls from the Persian Gulf and Indian Ocean, and unguents such as frankincense from the Arabian Peninsula. The problem was that a large volume of these goods were transported across the overland trade routes that threaded through the Parthian Empire – Rome’s greatest rival in the East. The desire to acquire these luxurious goods was funnelling Roman wealth into their enemy’s hands. Writing in the 1st century AD, Pliny the Elder moralised on this appetite for the ostentatious, which he saw as a drain on the state’s finances: “by the lowest reckoning India, China and the Arabian peninsula take from our empire 100 million sesterces every year – that is the sum which our luxuries and our women cost us; for what fraction of these imports, I ask you, now goes to the gods or to the powers of the lower world?” Although Roman statesmen tried several times to introduce sumptuary laws to limit the wearing of extravagant silk garments, they were unable to extinguish the high demand for these products. The Parthians were clearly aware of their geographical advantage in the trade of these commodities. In the annals compiled by the Chinese historian Fan Ye (AD 389–445), it is said that the Parthians deliberately discouraged Chinese traders from attempting to reach western markets directly via the sea route. Instead of circumnavigating Parthia, Chinese merchants were largely compelled to channel their goods overland through its territories. Parthian rulers and merchants had much to gain economically as the middlemen in the trade system.
The luxury trade stirred much of Parthia and Rome’s exchanges, from the high fashion clothing styles that percolated through Parthia’s borders into Roman caravan cities such as Palmyra (in modern Syria), to bloody wars waged over lucrative trading arteries. In AD 114/5, the Roman emperor Trajan successfully invaded Armenia and northern Mesopotamia; he then marched southwards to the port city of Charax Spasinou, extending Rome’s trade links to the Persian Gulf for a brief period. Although Parthia eventually wrestled these regions back into their sphere, Rome continued to challenge their hold here right until the end of the Parthian period.
To come back to the eponymous commodity of the Silk Routes, the woven textile from the V&A’s collection is one of two surviving early silk objects that are displayed in the Epic Iran exhibition. This fragment, which dates to the end of the Sasanian period or to the early Islamic period, shows the mythical Senmurv bird (Simorgh in modern Persian) in yellow on a green ground. The fabulous winged creature, which is made up of the head of a dog, the claws of a lion and the tail of a peacock, is set inside a medallion with a border of large, round pearls. Although here we are dealing with a fragment of a larger textile, a similar design can be seen on the costume worn by the armoured horseman carved in rock in the large grotto at Taq-e Bustan in north-west Iran, dating to the time of Khosrow II (ruled AD 591–628). On the walls of the arched grotto, figures taking part in the boar and deer hunting scenes also wear beautifully decorated silk garments
Details of the Sasanian rock reliefs in the large grotto of Taq-e Bustan, drawn by Robert Ker Porter, and published in Ker Porter, R. (1822), 'Travels in Georgia, Persia, Armenia, ancient Babylonia, &c. &c. during the years 1817, 1818, 1819, and 1820', Vol. 2, London: Longman, Hurst, Rees, Orme & Brown, pls. 62–63.
In later centuries, precious textiles patterned with Sasanian motifs continued to hold currency in movement of silk westwards. Crusaders would wrap prized relics in pieces of silk before transporting them back home. This is probably how the V&A’s textile came to Europe – two other pieces from the same weaving were deposited in the reliquary of the church of St Leu in Paris and are now housed in the Musee des Arts Decoratifs.
Silk textile showing Senmurvs, about AD 600–900. 8579-1863
© Victoria and Albert Museum, London
The objects highlighted here showcase the wealth of goods that were coveted by the Parthian and Sasanian nobility, and by their rivals further west in the Roman world. Iran held an important position as the middle player in the flow of luxury goods across the Silk Routes, a position that frequently brought military conflict to its doorstep. Nevertheless, both the Parthian and Sasanian empires successfully withstood Roman aggressions for more than seven centuries. During this period, the global network of trade routes allowed Iranian styles of dress and decorative arts to reach consumers across a large expanse, from the caravan cities in Syria and Iraq to the imperial tombs of Japan.
 Sima Qian’s Shiji, §123, translated by Watson, B. (1968), Records of the Grand Historian of China: Translated from the Shih chi of Ssu-ma Ch'ien, vol. 2; New York: Columbia University Press, p. 278. See also see also Wang, T. (2007), ‘Parthia in China: a Re-examination of the Historical Records’, in Curtis, V.S. & Stewart, S. (eds.), The Age of the Parthians, London: I.B. Tauris, pp. 99–100.
 Curtis, V.S. (2000), ‘Parthian Culture and Costume’, in Curtis, J. (ed.) Mesopotamia and Iran in the Parthian and Sasanian Periods: Rejection and Revival c. 238 BC – AD 642, London: British Museum Press, pp. 23–34.
 Lucius Annaeus Florus’ Epitome of Roman History, §46.11.8. See also Benjamin, C. (2018), Empires of Ancient Eurasia: The First Silk Roads Era, 100 BCE – 250 CE, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 119 ff.
 Pliny the Elder’s Natural History, §12.41, translated by Rackham, H. (1945), Pliny. Natural History, Volume IV: Books 12-16, Loeb Classical Library 370, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
 Fan Ye’s Book of the Later Han, §10 & §12; see also Wang, T. (2007), pp. 100–101.
 Further details about Roman and Parthian encounters can be found in Curtis, V.S. & Magub, A. (2020), Rivalling Rome: Parthian Coins & Culture, London: Spink.
 Whitehouse, D. & Williamson, A. (1973), Sasanian Maritime Trade, Iran, 11, pp. 29–49.
 Priestman, S. (2016), ‘The Silk Road or the sea? Sasanian and Islamic exports to Japan', Journal of Islamic Archaeology, 3, pp. 1–35; Sugimura, T., (2008) , “JAPAN xi. COLLECTIONS OF PERSIAN ART IN JAPAN,” Encyclopædia Iranica, XIV/5, pp. 571–574, available online at http://www.iranicaonline.org/articles/japan-xi-collections-of-persian-art-in-japan.
 Curtis, V.S. (1993), Persian Myths, London: British Museum Press, pp. 21–24.
 Woolley, L. (1988), 'A medieval treasury: the figured silks in the Victoria & Albert Museum', Hali, 38 (Volume 10, No. 2, March/April), fig. 3; Baker, P.L. (1995), Islamic Textiles, London: British Museum Press, p. 42.