In 1998 the Italian State Railway began the construction of a new regional headquarters near the city of Pisa when a forgotten treasure from the past was revealed from the depths of the Adriatic Sea. Rather than comprising golden coins and silver ornaments, this “treasure” is simply remains from shipwrecks. However, it represent one of the finest pieces of evidence for the trade in the ancient world with over 16 vessels ranging in date from the third century BC to the fifth century AD.
Archaeologists have uncovered large timbers of the ships sunk near the harbour of Pisa together along with fragments of the cargo and the bones of the perished sailors. Before proving my points regarding the importance of ancient trade, I would like to make some definitions clear. Trade essentially means the exchange of one good or service for another. In this respect the Greek ritual of xenia might be considered as trade because it involves exchange of gifts between host and guest. Trade also has many faces – it could be international, regional or local – and each one has its own unique role.
However, in this essay I will be specifically referring to market trade as means to bring nations together. The trade routes of the ancient world could be divided into two main groups: sea and land. Transporting goods by land was slow and expensive as large loads were pulled by lumbering oxen or in the case of horses and donkeys only lighter cargos could be transported. The shipments, on the other hand, were vulnerable to sea storms, pirates and poor navigational equipment and as seen in the Pisa example many ships did not reach their final destination.
Among the cargo of one of Pisa’s ships, archaeologists found Greco-Italian wine amphorae, Punic food amphorae and four thymiateria form North Africa, black glazed crockery from Volterra and two Iberian vases. The international freight of this ship is a mirror for the multinational face of trade. 2000 years ago goods were transported intensively from every part of the world and thus bringing towards the development of ancient globalization. One importance of this process is that it brings nations together and reduces communal tensions as the people know each other better the need for war is gone.
Despite the many pieces of pottery found, many archaeologists agree that the main cargo of the ship was livestock as proven by the bones of three horses and a lioness discovered among the timbers of the vessel. The question is why you would convey such ‘unnecessary goods’ from as far as North Africa putting in danger your life and crossing the unpredictable Mediterranean seas. I class the horses and lioness as ‘unnecessary’ because they could not support the economy or improve the Roman lifestyle in any way. And here comes the second importance of trade – trade as means to demonstrate power.
The battles of gladiators against African lions, Asian Tigers or German bears were simply an entertainment for the general public but they also symbolised the greatness of Rome. Slaughtering the African lion could easily be seen as defeating Hannibal and Carthage and strongly emphasised the role of the Roman man as master of the world. The Roman pride was just like a balloon which needs to be pumped with more and more air and the pump in this case was the trade. If I have to scrutinise carefully the Pisa’s evidence, I would not be able to draw any certain conclusions.
The fact that three horse and a lioness had been taken from North Africa to Italy cannot give any indication of the frequency, profitability or significance of such type of trade, nor its development over time. But from various sources, including Suetonius ‘The twelve Caesars’, we reveal that various emperors and consuls organized gladiatorial battles with oriental beasts. And because the sources often notice only the exceptional I can deduce that the shipping of livestock was only the tip of the iceberg; beneath the water there were thousands of other products dispatched in the world’s most powerful city every day.
Pisa’s ships are not quantitative evidence, but rather they have significance when incorporated in the wider economic environment of the ancient world. Truly, the huge transport costs made trade very expensive and often trades were poor, dependent and socially marginalised. However, as the time went on commerce developed and so did trade routes. Nowadays, we know for the existence of the Appian Way and Egnation Way, forming the Great East Road, which connected the Roman Empire and the Middle East.
Great Roads existed even earlier in the history – Alexander the Great did not move randomly while conquering Asia but used well established trade routes to navigate his troops across Asia. The Silk Road is an excellent example of the importance of trades as it the biggest and oldest trade route the historians know. The Austrian geologist Ferdinand von Richthofen named the road after the main form of currency the Chinese used, silk. The material was both highly valued and exclusive in every part of the world and therefore trading it was worth even given the opportunity cost of travelling long distance and crossing unfriendly kingdoms.
However, the reason why the Chinese exchange their silk was not profit maximisation but the valuable tin, turquoise, camels and horses they received. The unusual Chinese promptness towards commerce presents clear evidence that no ancient country could be self-sufficient. Trade was not a luxury but a necessity. Not only goods were traded but also ideas such as metalworking, the wheel, the chariot and writing. In this sense traders were almost like government official or diplomats who conveyed reports on the foreign lands and armies; something every king would like to know before starting a war.
This communication of ideas, technologies and techniques has been vital part of the world development not only the antiquity but even nowadays. The World Bank and IMF continue to pinpoint the importance of trade as an instrument to accelerate the growth of Africa. In a world with no telephones, satellites or faxes traders had the role to transmit technology and drag the advancement of the humankind. Trade was not only important to spread developments but also to stimulate such. A mixture of gum, resins and spices, incense was burned by the Egyptians to celebrate key victories, commemorate new shrines and for purification purposes.
This could be proven by the many images of Egyptian Pharaohs depicted in murals offering incense to the gods. Incense was so important that it led to the creation of the Incense Road which reached Saudi Arabia and India, the only place where incense could be produced. The Greeks and Romans, who adopted the usage of incense for religious purposes, faced number of problems when crossing the Indian Ocean because of the constant monsoons, sudden shifts of winds and the long distance they had to travel (the voyage from Egypt to India could take around 3-4 months).
In order to meet the demands of the sea the Greco-Roman sailors had to build vessels with a very strong hull and high weight sustainability. Instead of laying out the keel, the stern and the stem post first, then attaching the frames to the hull, and finally adding the planks, they did this in reverse. Thus the demand for trade of incense in the Greco-Roman markets led to the invention of the strongest vessels of the ancient world being capable of carrying a cargo of a thousand tons.
One might easily spot that instead of sailing all the way round the Arab peninsula and then to the Indies, traders could just prefer to walk straight through the land way and thus even save a few days. Truly, this was often used route until the Arabs, who acted as middlemen between the Indies and the Mediterranean, became increasingly wealthy. The wealth acted as a signalling mechanism for various people to start a war and gain control over the road and at various times the Assyrians, the Persians, the Greeks and finally the Romans were in charge with the road.
Whatever the king and the kingdom, traders were forced either to pay taxes on their cargo or were outrageously robbed or even both. It might not be a causal relationship, but it is an undisputable fact the nations with most trade power had to defend their borders more often than any other country. However, while the above statement is truthful for Troy, Egypt and Carthage, some states managed to derive benefits from their role as commerce centres. Clear example is Cypris??? It is interesting to note the importance of trade in purely economic terms i. . as a mechanism to satisfy supply and demand.
Neville Pussy says: “Classical antiquity was a pre-industrial agrarian society in which the vast majority of the population lived barely above the substance level. ” Having large proportion of the population working as farmers or soldiers created the problem of lack of mass demand and little purchasing power concentrated in 98% of the people. Given this fact trade could not have been flourishing apart from the selling of commodities and basic food.
But Neville Pussy continues: “Many goods were in fact not traded but ‘redistributed’ by the agents of the state or the nobility; the lioness at Pisa may have been a gift from one aristocrat to another or obtained on commission, rather than being an object of market trade. ” I think that this shows an important characteristic of commerce in ancient times, namely trade was little public and more private business. So, unlike the world today where trade has the role to sustain, support and develop the backbone of the whole economy, 2000 years ago trade was important only for the individual person or family.
This is a possible explanation of why the government took little interest in the process of exchange. When opening the “Atlas of the Greek World” you can read the following words: “Every civilisation is only three mills from a revolution. ” The grain history of Rome There is an ongoing debate between historians concerning the importance and development of ancient trade as the one side denies the existence of any significant international commerce in the Antiquity and the other defends the theory of the interdependence of the ancient states.
The whole discussion is brilliantly summarized by Cartledge: “Primitivists tend to be trying to explain how 98% of Greeks ‘economized’, that is, secured a bare livelihood within the framework of the ideally (yet rarely) self-sufficient oikos or household; whereas modernisers focus instead on the 2% of exceptions for whom macro-economic activity at a regional or international level was the sole or primary source of their wealth.
The flaw in Cartledge’s analysis is that he considers only why nation – that of the Greek, while there were thousands of other people, tribes and countries. This causes a problem because Ilium was highly civilised, well-aware of the world and properly organised, some might say ‘modern’, while Africa and Asia were often a chaotic mixture of tribes and folks, entirely self-focused and almost ‘primitive’. The trade or rather the exchange inside these tribes relied on two main principles: reciprocity and redistribution.
Reciprocity simply means that one gives to another today will be matched tomorrow by the taker and redistribution involves the tribal chieftain or priest defining what proportion each member should receive. For these people trade was not solely driven by the profit maximisation motive or market forces and mechanism, but it had an importance as a way to gain social status and climb up in the tribal hierarchy.
And despite the advancement of Greece and Rome, their civilisation partially kept this ‘primitive’ model of exchange in the way that trade was constantly shaped and reshaped by political and social trends whether in the form of foreign wars or family frauds. An important aspect of trade now and 2000 years ago was the usage of comparative advantage, which allows boosting the universal wealth by simply allocating resources in the most efficient way. In a nutshell, the theory claims that if every country produces the good with lowest opportunity cost then everyone would benefit.
Such concept is missing in the early self-sufficient societies but later patterns of comparative advantage profit could be noticed majorly in the way Rome reorganised its production. When the Empire grew enormous and more than a million populated the city of Rome, the magistrates understood that Italy solely would sustain so many people and established strong exchange patterns with its provinces. Thus the city was supplied with olive from Greece, wine from Gaul, opium from Turkey and armour from Spain.
And of course being capital of the world, Rome needed to more and more bricks and weapons to build up its monumental power. Greece and Northern Italy provided marble, gold and silver were mined in Spain, while Britain produced iron, lead and tin. And traders were important to deliver the raw materials to various small-scale cities and towns which would turn out hand-made pottery, glassware, weapons, jewellery and textiles and then the traders again would ship these to Rome.
Thus the poor, ignorant importers of goods gradually obtained significant status and gold and came to be among the wealthiest citizens of the Empire. Unfortunately, with fall of Rome began the Dark Age of the so called self-dependent states and the international trade almost vanished for a long period. In conclusion, I have tried to judge the importance of trade from various points by discussing different points of historians, different types of trade and different civilisations.
As seen from my arguments above the process of trade had various importance for the people around the ancient world – for some it was a pretext to begin a war, for others to make peace; for some it was meant to bring closer new cultures, for others it was just a source of money; some used it to spread religious beliefs, others – to destroy them. But from any prospective trade was necessary for the development of the world as it united the whole human kind for everyone’s benefit. Nowadays, commerce has the same the same mission but in much bigger scale.