Keith Roberts


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

Cover Interview of August 16, 2011

The wide angle

Each chapter deals with 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?

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.

You ask how my professional path led to this book.  Others have asked how long it took me to write, and I usually answer “all my life.”

I was the lucky recipient of a wonderful liberal arts education, in the course of which my chief passion was the law.  But shortly after graduating from law school I happened into one entrepreneurial role after another, ultimately managing or participating in a broad variety of small businesses: law firm management, investment advisory services, real estate development, magazine publishing, cosmetic and toilet goods marketing and distribution, and contract manufacturing.  Along the way I was an avid business school student and reader of business journals, and took many independent courses in management.

It was while trying to modernize the management and operation of my manufacturing company that the idea leading to this book first emerged.  Late one evening I was stomping around my office, talking to myself in frustration about poor management, when I heard myself say “This @#$#@ company is run like a Roman blacksmith shop!”  And that stopped me.  I realized that I had no idea how Roman blacksmiths operated—or even whether they existed in ancient Rome.

I got curious about how business first began, and tried to find a book on the subject.  Finding none, I started reading business history.  Pretty soon I realized that there was an important not to mention interesting story here.  And nobody had ever told it.