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One area of human history that has greatly influenced society is trade and commerce. Supply and demand is a universal rule of trade, and one can see this thread woven throughout the pattern of history. From ancient Sumeria to the Roman Empire, merchants have always sought to supply the demands of people living in faraway places, for the right price of course. These merchants would also double as explorers as they sought new trade routes to better service their customers, often leading to the discovery of exotic new lands that were later colonized by their own people.

Obsidian was one of the earliest commodities traded between people in the ancient world. Obsidian is a volcanic rock that was valued by several ancient peoples because it was easily chipped into razor-sharp (but fragile) cutting tools and weapons. Archaeologists have discovered obsidian flakes dating over twelve thousand years ago in a cave in mainland Greece that originated from a volcano located on the island of Melos, which is one hundred miles offshore. They suspect that these fragments were likely traded to people on the mainland via primitive watercraft that was developed during this time period.[1]

The ancient kingdoms of Mesopotamia (including the Sumerians, Akkadians, Assyrians, and Babylonians) often acquired material goods from foreign nations in exchange for food. The area of Mesopotamia, which is located on a flat land between the Euphrates and Tigris rivers, possessed water and soil in excess and so produced an abundant supply of barley, wheat, fish, and wool. The area, however, nearly lacked several materials necessary for an empire to flourish, such as metals, large timbers, and even stone for building. These ancient empires would thus trade their excess food for the materials they required, often trading with places like the Sinai Peninsula, Persia, Lebanon, and even Anatolia.[2]

The ancient Greeks had just the opposite problem. Because most of the land around the various Greek city-states was known for its poor soil quality, the Greeks had to get their grain from other lands such as Egypt, once known as the granary of the Mediterranean.[3] The ancient Greek historian, Herodotus recorded that the pharaoh Amasis gave Naucratis, a city located in the Nile Delta, to the Greeks as a trading city for the various merchants who came from the city-states.[4]

In the Middle East, the Phoenicians dominated sea trade for several hundred years. Distantly related to the Canaanites, the Phoenicians lived in the area now known as Lebanon. Historians believe that by 400 BC the Phoenicians were familiar with both the eastern and western coast of Africa, as well as most of the coast of Western Europe.[5] They dominated commerce in the eastern Mediterranean for over a thousand years, and some believe them to have been the first people to engage in direct long distance-trade.[6]

The Romans were known for importing vast quantities of exotic goods, much of which came from China and India along a trading route known as the Silk Road. The Silk Road was first established during the Han Dynasty in the first century BC as means of creating a single trade route between the western world and India. The Romans particularly liked silk, and bought the fabric in such staggering quantities that the Roman scholar Pliny the Elder claimed that all of this spending on exotic goods was bleeding the empire’s treasury dry.[7]

While this is by no means the end of the history of trade, it is a small glimpse into some of the civilizations that have depended upon trade as a means of acquiring valuable commodities that they either wanted or needed in their own lives.


[1] William J. Bernstein, A Splendid Exchange: How Trade Shaped the World (New York: Grove Press, 2009), 23.

[2] Ibid. p. 28.

[3] Ibid. p. 46.

[4] Herodotus, The Histories (Baltimore: Penguin, 1968), 172.

[5] Donald Harden, The Phoenicians (New York: Praeger, 1962), 157-179.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Xinru Liu, The Silk Road in World History (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010), 20.

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