Keith Roberts

 

On his book The Origins of Business, Money, and Markets

Cover Interview of August 17, 2011

In a nutshell

This is the first book to trace the genesis of modern business in Western antiquity.  The time span stretches from prehistoric times to the late 7th century AD.

The Origins of Business, Money, and Markets focuses on the key civilizations and periods in this story.  It is a chronological tour of the major ancient Western civilizations, a survey of much of antiquity’s social, economic, and political history through the lens of business.

The book proceeds in three Parts: the ancient Middle East, the Hellenic world, and Rome.

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.

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.

Business reached its most prominent ancient position 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, which 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 thoughts about modern business that arose as I researched and wrote the book.  They cover three areas: wealth, morality, and public policy.