The concept of international trade was born in the ancient Mediterranean, which provided the perfect set of circumstances needed to produce an intricate trading system, whose influence can still be seen in present-day economic practices. The ancient Mediterranean was home to a diverse range of cultures and landscapes, encompassing deserts, forests, islands, and fertile plains. Different natural resources were available in different geographical areas, and with the advent of sailing ships around 3000 BCE, people were suddenly able to travel much further afield than ever before. This created an opportunity to trade local resources in international markets in exchange for exotic goods not available at home.
At the same time, this shift in Mediterranean trade from a local to international scale was a catalyst for immense social, political, and economic changes that helped to shape the course of Western civilization, as a whole. Starting with the Egyptians and Minoans around 3000 BCE until the decline of the Roman Empire at the end of the fifth century CE, ancient trade in the Mediterranean brought cultures into increasingly close contact with one another, and just as in the globalized world today, these cross-cultural influences came to shape the development of belief systems, languages, economics, politics, and art throughout wide expanses of land. Traders not only introduced foreign goods, but also foreign ideas and new methods of expression, and they, in turn, took new ideas home with them from the places they visited.
Sometimes, these mutual exchanges make it difficult to determine whether a particular process or idea originated from the buyers or the sellers, and in some cases, the meeting of disparate cultures produced entirely new ideas unique from anything that existed in either culture prior to their interaction with one another. At the same time, interactions with foreign peoples also brought about new ways of viewing one’s own identity. Ancient cultures could now be more clearly defined in terms of their differences from other distinct cultures. This sense of distance between the self and the “other” helped form national and communal identities, made famous by the ancient Greek identification of non-Greeks as “barbarians”.
Over the centuries, the profits generated from trade helped establish wealthy nations and fuel economic development across the sea. By taxing imports and exports, governments could afford large infrastructure projects, like the construction of roads and harbors, which in turn helped to further increase trade and wealth. As a result, wars were fought for control of important trade routes and to maintain access to crucial commodities such as grain and precious metals. Economics became a primary consideration when establishing government policies and dealing with international relations. Some cities, most notably Rome and Athens, even built empires on the back of their mercantile success.
Furthermore, the question of how or why trade developed in the way that it did and what kind of cause-and-effect relationship existed between trade, wealth, and technology becomes similar to that of the chicken and the egg. Did the rise of wealthy civilizations create the demand for increased trade, or did successful trading give birth to wealthy civilizations?
Ancient Mediterranean Trade: The History of the Trade Routes Throughout the Region and the Birth of Globalization examines how the systems formed and developed, the goods involved, and the impact it had on Europe, the Near East, and Africa.