The Silla Kingdom of Korea

Silla or Shilla was a Korean kingdom that ruled over the southern and central parts of the Korean Peninsula from 57 BCE to 935 CE. The Three Kingdoms of Korea were formed by Silla, Baekje, and Goguryeo. The Korean dynasty was founded by Hyeokgeose of Silla, of the Park family, and ruled for 586 years by the Gyeongju Gim or Kim clan, 232 years by the Miryang Bak or Park clan, and 172 years by the Wolseong Seok clan. It started out as a chiefdom in the Samhan confederacies, allied with Sui China and then Tang China before conquering the other two kingdoms, Baekje in 660 and Goguryeo in 668. Later Silla occupied most of the Korean Peninsula after that, while Balhae, a successor-state of Goguryeo, emerged in the north. Silla broke up into the Later Three Kingdoms of Silla, Later Baekje, and Taebong after nearly 1,000 years of rule, handing over power to Goryeo in 935.

The Founding of Silla

In the history of Korea, the central and southern regions were divided into three Samhan confederacies during the Proto–Three Kingdoms period. Saro-guk was a statelet within Jinhan’s 12-member confederacy when Silla was founded. Saro-guk was made up of six clans from Gojoseon, later known as the Six Clans of Jinhan. Silla was founded in 57 BCE by Bak Hyeokgeose of Silla near present-day Gyeongju, according to Korean records. Hyeokgeose is said to have been hatched from a white horse’s egg, and when he was 13, six clans submitted to him as king and founded Saro-guk.

Silla royals claimed Xiongnu ancestry through the Xiongnu prince Kim Il-je, also known as Jin Midi in Chinese sources, according to various inscriptions on archaeological foundations such as personal gravestones and monuments. According to historians, this unknown tribe may have originated in the Korean peninsula and joined the Xiongnu confederation. Later, the tribe’s ruling family returned to Korea from the Liaodong Peninsula, where they prospered, and after returning to the peninsula, they married into the Silla royal family. Some Korean researchers claim that the grave goods of Silla and the eastern Xiongnu are identical and that the Silla king is descended from the eastern Xiongnu. Nonetheless, this theory about the origins of Silla royalty is not widely accepted in academia, and it is considered a minority viewpoint. Given the circumstances of the time, it is assumed that the King Munmu Monument was created as propaganda for friendship with China and northerners, as well as the legitimacy of the dynasty.

The Earlier Development of Silla

Silla began as the city-state of Saro, which was founded by Yemaek refugees from Gojoseon. It has also accepted dispersed people fleeing Goguryeo’s invasion of the Lelang Commandery, later incorporating native Jin people in the area and Ye people to the north.

During the reign of Pasa of Silla (80–112), the territory outside the capital was greatly conquered. He ordered officials to encourage agriculture, silkworm farming, and military training as soon as he ascended the throne. The Eumjipbeol and the Siljikgok had a territorial dispute, and the two countries asked Pasa of Silla to mediate. Pasa of Silla was then handed over to King Suro of Gimhae, the local leader at the time. Instead, King Suro settled the territorial dispute by ruling in favor of Eumjipbeol. King Suro, on the other hand, dispatched an assassin to kill the commanders of the six Silla divisions, who took refuge in the Eumjipbeol while the assassin was on the run, and King Tachugan protected the assassin. In 102, Pasa of Silla invaded Eumjipbeol, forcing Tachugan to surrender, as well as the Siljikgok and Apdok, who had been frightened by Silla. It invaded the inland area six years later, attacking and merging Dabulguk, Bijigukuk, and Chopalguk.

The Eight Port Kingdoms War broke out during the Naehae of Silla period (196–230) to determine hegemony in the southern part of the peninsula. When the eight small kingdoms of the Nakdong River basin attacked the Silla-friendly Alla-guk in 209, the prince of Alla-guk requested a rescue army from Silla.  The king granted his request through an order to Crown Prince Seok Uro who in turn gathered his troops and attacked the eight kingdoms. Crown Prince Seok uro rescued Alla-guk and 6,000 pro-Silla Gaya people from captivity and returned them to their homeland. Three years later, Golpo-Guk, Chilpo-Guk, and Gosapo-Guk, three of the Eight Kingdoms, will launch counterattacks against Silla. The war ended when the Silla king came out to fight against it, and the soldiers of the three kingdoms were defeated in Yeomhae, the southeastern part of the capital.

Silla was a separate state in the southeastern part of the Korean peninsula by the 2nd century. It grew in power over neighboring Jinhan chiefdoms, but it was probably no more than a weak city-state in a loose federation by the third century.

The emergence of a centralized monarchy

The Gim clan’s Naemul of Silla (356–402) established a hereditary monarchy and assumed the title of Maripgan. However, in Samguk Sagi, Naemul of Silla is still listed as an Isageum title. Many historians consider him to be the founder of the Gyeongju Gim (Kim) dynasty, which lasted over 550 years. The worship of the founder Bak Hyeokgeose continued even after Gim monopolized the throne for more than 500 years. Silla dispatched emissaries to China in 377 to establish relations with Goguryeo. Silla allied with Goguryeo in the late 4th century, facing pressure from Baekje in the west and Japan in the south. Silla, on the other hand, lost its status as a subordinate country after King Gwanggaeto’s campaign. Nulji of Silla was forced to ally with Baekje when Goguryeo began to expand its territory southward and moved its capital to Pyongyang in 427.

Silla had grown into a full-fledged kingdom by the time of Beopheung of Silla (514–540), with Buddhism as its state religion and its own Korean-era name. During the Gaya–Silla Wars, Silla absorbed the Gaya confederacy, annexing Geumgwan Gaya in 532 and conquering Daegaya in 562, extending its borders to the Nakdong River basin.

Silla’s Jinheung (540–576) built a formidable military force. It assisted Baekje in driving Goguryeo out of the Han River (Seoul) area, and then took control of the entire strategic region from Baekje in 553, breaking the 120-year alliance between the two. In addition, King Jinheung founded the Hwarang. With the death of Jindeok of Silla and the end of the “hallowed bone” rank system, the early period came to an end.

The Unified Silla

Silla allied with the Chinese Tang dynasty in the 7th century. Silla conquered Baekje in 660, under Muyeol of Silla (654-661). Silla conquered Goguryeo to the north in 668 under King Munmu of Silla (King Muyeol’s successor) and General Gim Yu-sin. Silla then fought for nearly a decade to drive out Chinese forces intent on establishing Tang colonies on the peninsula, eventually establishing a unified kingdom stretching as far north as modern-day Pyongyang. Balhae emerged from the northern region of the defunct Goguryeo state.

The rise of the monarchy at the expense of the jingol nobility characterizes Silla’s middle period. This was made possible by the new wealth and prestige gained as a result of Silla’s peninsula unification, as well as the monarchy’s successful suppression of several armed aristocratic revolts that occurred shortly after unification, giving the king the opportunity to purge the most powerful families and rivals to central authority.

However, by the late eighth century, these royal initiatives had failed to check the aristocracy’s power. Revolts led by branches of the Gim clan in the mid to late eighth century effectively limited royal authority. The most notable of these was a three-year-long revolt led by Gim Daegong. In 757, the rescinding of the office land system and the re-institution of the former tax village system as salary land for aristocratic officials was a key indicator of the erosion of kingly authority. You may read the history of the Korean family for ample information on this.

Silla’s Decline and Fall

The Silla state’s final century and a half were marked by almost constant upheaval and civil war, as the king was reduced to little more than a figurehead and powerful aristocratic families rose to actual dominance outside the capital and royal court. The Later Three Kingdoms period, which ended with Silla’s submission to the Goryeo dynasty, saw the emergence of the kingdoms of Later Baekje and Taebong, which were really composed of military forces capitalizing on their respective region’s historical backgrounds.