Silla: Notes - Archontology

Silla: Notes

The Emergence of Silla

A traditional account of the emergence of the kingdom of Silla in the principal Korean source for the polity, the 12th-century Samguk Sagi, dates the accession of the first ruler of Silla to the initial year of Wǔfèng (五鳳) of the Han Empire corresponding to BC 57. Neither the official histories of Han, nor other contemporary Chinese chronicles do provide any corroboration of the foundation. Unlike Goguryeo or Buyeo, Silla is not mentioned in the Book of the Later Han among the polities in and around Korea, implying that it did not exist before the fall of Han (220 AD) — at least not as a separate entity of note.

Describing the southern part of the Korean peninsula in the mid-third century AD, the Chinese chronicle Records of the Three States, ch. 30, primarily focuses on the Samhan (三韓|삼한), or Three Han confederations, Mahan (馬韓|마한), Jinhan (辰韓|진한) and Byeonhan (弁韓|변한). These confederations existed as political entities ("tribal leagues") comprising people of different ethno-linguistic origins. The Records of the Three States assert that the people of Mahan ('true' or 'real' Han) were "indigenes" in the area. According to this chronicle, quoting the 3rd-century Wèilüé (魏略), a ruler of Joseon (historically known as Gojoseon, 古朝鮮|고조선) Jun wang (準王|준왕) was dethroned and fled southward to become the king of the Han. A different story is presented in the Book of the Later Han which says that Jun attacked Mahan and defeated it, making himself the king of the Han. Referring to local narratives, the Records of the Three States claim that Mahan received refugees "avoiding service in the Qin Empire." Other immigrants from the North fled e.g. warfare in Joseon. The people of Silla specifically are said to have lived in Lèlàng (樂浪) (which the Chinese had formed from the core of Joseon) during the Han Empire, before relocating in consequence of the Chinese military campaigns against Goguryeo in the 240s (Book of Sui, ch. 81). These immigrants were settled on territories along the south-eastern coast, subsequently forming the Jinhan confederation of initially six and later twelve polities, which however remained — at least nominally — subordinate to the Mahan.

Silla originated from the Jinhan (e.g. Book of Liang, ch. 54), where it is first listed as Saro guk (斯盧國|사로국) (Records of the Three States, ch. 30), but also reportedly spelled Sinro (新盧|신로) in the 3rd century (Book of Liang, ch. 54). [1] After the Han are last reported in contact with the Jin Empire in 286, Silla is first mentioned as such in contact with China under the years 367 and 371 (Spring and Autumn Annals of the Sixteen Kingdoms, ch. 37) and about the same time also in Japan (Nihon Shoki, ch. 9), followed by mentions in Goguryeo inscriptions of the 5th century, such as the Gwanggaeto stele (414 AD) [2].

Archaeologically the area of Jinhan/Silla began to diverge from that attributed to Byeonhan during the late third to mid-fourth centuries (which may well reflect political consolidation). However, a distinctive feature of a larger and more centralized polity, the highly visible mounded tombs did not begin to appear until the late fourth to mid-fifth century (Barnes 2004; Davey 2016, p. 18; Lee 2016). Only during the early sixth century, when Silla was still considered a small country by Chinese standards (Book of Liang, ch. 54), were regional autonomies abolished in favor of a centralized and sinified kingdom (Lee 2016). This slow process of consolidation and centralization is also reflected in epigraphy (McBride 2016) and, albeit somewhat distorted (Best 2016; Byington 2016), historiography.

Early Rulers

The annals of Silla in the Samguk Sagi begin with the mythical founding of the kingdom by Hyeokgeose (赫居世|혁거세), who is said to have emerged from a gourd-shaped egg when the heads of the six chiefdoms of Jinhan gathered to select a king. At the age of 13 he was made ruler with the title geoseogan (居西干|거서간) and is said to have ruled for a full (Chinese) cycle of 60 years. [3]

The first line of descent, retroactively surnamed Bak (|) (explained as derived from the native word for gourd) is said to have ruled for full four cycles of 240 years. Seven of the next eight rulers were, again clearly retroactively, given the surname Seok (|) (meaning 'the former [ruling clan]') [4], the remaining one belonging to the Gim (|) clan that followed with the accession of Naemul (奈勿|내물), whose line is said to hail from Baekje (Book of Sui, ch. 81).

The first successor of the founder bore the title chachaung (次次雄|차차웅) or jachung (慈充|자충) while the remainder were given the title nisageum (尼師今|니사금). The rulers of the third line (the Gim clan) finally used the title maripgan (麻立干|마립간) [5] as early as the 380s (according to the Samguk Sagi, ch. 3, not before 417) [6]. This succession of titles fits the evolution from a tribal confederation to a federation to a centralized kingdom, but the existence of these rulers can be confirmed neither in Chinese or Japanese histories nor epigraphic sources. With the beginning of national historiography in Silla dated to 545 (Samguk Sagi, ch. 4) the early records do not withstand closer scrutiny.

The tombs traditionally (in Joseon times) attributed to the kings of Silla, do not include the rulers of the second line, whereas those believed to belong to the first line are certainly misidentified. Even if the names (and titles and genealogies) were to reflect some oral tradition, the claimed reign lengths do clearly not agree with the indicated genealogies. Both the first and second line of rulers are said to cover five generations — that would furthermore include Naemul and his successor, whereby this last generation is to cover 119 years (trad. 298-417) — that, moreover, ended prematurely by the last ruler being killed. A more plausible 20 to 25 years per generation would instead expect the second line of rulers to begin somewhere in the 290s to 320s rather than the claimed 184 AD. The assigned reign lengths furthermore are suspiciously regular when the rulers of the first line are given reigns of, respectively, 60 & 20, 33 & 23, 32 & 22 and 20 & 30 years (together covering four full cycles) while the rulers of the second line are said to have died in regnal years ending, respectively, in 3-5-8-5-3-5-3. The last ruler of the second and the first of the third line finally, are both given 46 years, despite being assigned the same generation.

Beyond all that, the compiler of the Samguk Sagi (or his principal sources) apparently fabricated the early sections of the annals by not only extending the reigns and adding descriptions from Chinese chronicles, but also by systematically antedating records and/or events that properly pertain to later centuries and ordering them in ways that created the impression of chronological and historical consistency (Byington 2016, p. 119).

The Kings of Silla in Chinese and Japanese Chronicles

Rulers of Silla before the 6th century are not mentioned by name in Chinese chronicles. The Book of Wei, ch. 100, which covers the period 386-535/557 for Northern China, does not include a segment on Silla. The earliest name that is mentioned, is a garbled "王募名秦" ("king Mù named Qín") under the year 521 (Book of Liang, ch. 54), which would pertain to the reign of Beopheung wang (法興王|법흥왕) (r. 514-540). His successors are mostly mentioned, though initially (reigns 540-654) with their regnal name (as reported by the Samguk Sagi) treated as a personal name. It was only when the contacts with China intensified in the mid-7th century, that the Chinese information on Silla (as reported in the Old Book of Tang, ch. 199a) became more detailed. The transitions between 742-826 though seem to have been reported to China with some delay (the last one only in 831 — unless the Samguk Sagi got it wrong), while the transitions during the last decades of Tang are not covered at all — which reflects a general trend, as e.g. similar events in neighboring Bohai/Balhae or even within the empire do also lack coverage.

In the official Japanese chronicles the kings of Silla are generally not mentioned by name, with the notable (and early) exception of Pasa maegeum (波沙寐錦|파사 매금) under the year 200. As the chronology of the Nihon Shoki up to the 450s is distorted however, this entry is clearly misdated and might more likely belong to the 360s.

  1. Considering the Middle Korean and Japanese pronunciations of as sin/shin, one might even suspect a direct continuity between 辰韓|신한진한 and 新盧|신로新羅|신라.
  2. A monument erected in memory of Gwanggaeto wang (廣開土王|광개토왕) who ruled Goguryeo in 391-412.
  3. His personal name seems but a spelling variant of this title prefixed by a laudatory epithet. An alternative form, Bulgunae wang (弗矩内王|불구내왕), is reported in the Samguk Yusa, ch. 1.
  4. Both the Old Book of Tang, ch. 199a, and the New Book of Tang, ch. 220, say that in Tang times only nobles had surnames. As late as the early 6th century there is no epigraphic evidence for even the nobles using surnames (McBride 2016, p. 75).
  5. Spelled maegeum (寐錦|매금) in the Nihon Shoki, ch. 9, and on the Gwanggaeto stele (414 AD).
  6. Two Chinese encyclopedias, the 8th-century Tongdian (Tòngdiǎn|通典), ch. 185, and the 10th-century Taiping Yulan (Tàipíng Yùlǎn|太平御覽), ch. 781, in their entries for Silla, mention an embassy of Silla to the Qin State by, respectively, 其王樓寒 or 新羅國王樓寒, with the latter source explicitely quoting a Qin source, which dates the event to 382 AD. The 'name' Ruhan (樓寒|루한) is considered a translation of the title maripgan (Samguk Sagi, ch. 3), which would then demonstrate that this title was already used in the late 4th century (as given by the Samguk Yusa, ch. 1).
Last updated on: 29 Nov 2023; URL: