Prior to The Origins of Business, Money, and Markets, nobody has ever described how business, the practice of selling at a profit, first began. As I discovered, it originated and took much of its modern form over the course of Western antiquity, stretching from prehistoric times to the late 7th century AD. Origins focuses on the key civilizations and periods in this story. As a result, this chronological tour of the major ancient Western civilizations surveys much of antiquity's social, economic, and political history, albeit through the lense of business. The book proceeds in three Parts: the ancient Middle East, the Hellenic world, and Rome.
Part I. THE ANCIENT MIDDLE EAST
The circumstances and mentality of prehistoric societies did not include any concept or possibility of selling at a profit. Only with the first civilizations in Egypt and Mesopotamia about 5000 years ago did any such notion appear. As the early states expanded and developed bureaucratic competence, the mentality and skills essential to business operations began to emerge, and especially in Mesopotamia so did governmental accomplishments that expanded trade and other business activities. Business remained a marginal activity, however, because the Middle Eastern states used status, rather than purchasing power, as the basis for distributing economic benefits.
Part II. THE HELLENIC WORLD
In Athens and other Greek city-states after 600 BC, a complex combination of entrepreneurship, coins, and markets gave birth to business recognizable in its modern form. An entrepreneurial market system became central to Greek urban economies, while banking and other forms of business provided an avenue of social advancement. In the 4th century BC Alexander the Great and the Macedonian rulers who followed him spread this economic system to hundreds of cities throughout the Mediterranean region. In the Hellenistic world that they created, however, the profitability and social status of business sharply declined.
Part III. ROME
Business reached its most prominent ancient position
under Rome, during a four hundred year period between 200 BC and 200 AD. The Romans favored entrepreneurial market systems in cities throughout the parts of Africa and western Europe that they conquered. Romans invented multinational business corporations, which attained considerable size and influence. Meanwhile, in the distant sub-province of Judea, a series of political and religious developments would strongly influence the nature of business for many centuries thereafter: Hillel and Jesus with their humanistic teachings, the Christian Church, and the completion of the Jewish diaspora throughout the Eurasian landmass. An important part of the Roman story is the explanation of how concentrated wealth played a major role in killing off business in most of Western Europe after 200 AD. From the Eastern half of the Roman Empire, though, the nexus between money, markets, and business would pass intact to succeeding states, most notably the Byzantine Empire and the Islamic caliphates.
In a very brief concluding chapter, I offer some thoughts about modern business that arose as I researched and wrote this book. They cover three areas: Wealth, Morality, and Public Policy.
Each chapter seeks to answer similar questions. What were the main forces that shaped business and its role in the economy? What new businesses emerged? How did they operate? What was the nature of business labor? How were business people regarded? In short, what was new about business, and why so?
My concept of the key forces that shaped business includes both impersonal forces like climate, geography, and technology, and the contributions of extraordinary individuals. Given the times, they were almost all men: kings called "the great," such as Sargon, Cyrus, and Darius in the Middle East, and of course Alexander of Macedon; thinkers like Solon, Aristotle, and Archimedes; Roman emperors including Augustus, Diocletian and Constantine. We also encounter such businessmen as the trader Imdi-Ilum of 2000 BC Assur, the banker Balmonahse of Babylonia, Roman investors like Pliny the Younger and Cato the Elder, and the greatest ancient tycoon of all, Marcus Crassus. All these people inhabited a world full of murder, cruelty, villainy and perversion, as well as love, wisdom, courage and heroism-and so, therefore, does the story.
Let me finish by stating what I have found to be the chief practical benefit of this book. It describes the driving forces of an earlier, simpler time, and thereby provides a relatively clear model to help understand the bewildering complexity of modern business and the public policies that may affect it.