The Silk Road was a network of trade routes, formally established during the Han Dynasty of China, which linked the regions of the ancient world in commerce. As the Silk Road was not a single thoroughfare from east to west, the term 'Silk Routes’ has become increasingly favored by historians, though 'Silk Road’ is the more common and recognized name. Both terms for this network of roads were coined by the German geographer and traveler, Ferdinand von Richthofen, in 1877 CE, who designated them 'Seidenstrasse’ (silk road) or 'Seidenstrassen’ (silk routes). The network was used regularly from 130 BCE, when the Han officially opened trade with the west, to 1453 CE, when the Ottoman Empire boycotted trade with the west and closed the routes.
PERSIAN ROYAL ROAD
The history of the Silk Road pre-dates the Han Dynasty in practice, however, as the Persian Royal Road, which would come to serve as one of the main arteries of the Silk Road, was established during the Achaemenid Empire (500-330 BCE). The Persian Royal Road ran from Susa, in north Persia (modern day Iran) to the Mediterranean Sea in Asia Minor (modern day Turkey) and featured postal stations along the route with fresh horses for envoys to quickly deliver messages throughout the empire. Herodotus, writing of the speed and efficiency of the Persian messengers, stated that:
“There is nothing in the world that travels faster than these Persian couriers. Neither snow, nor rain, nor heat, nor darkness of night prevents these couriers from completing their designated stages with utmost speed."
These lines, from his Histories, 8.98, would centuries later form the creed of the United States of America’s post office. The Persians maintained the Royal Road carefully and, in time, expanded it through smaller side roads. These paths eventually crossed down into the Indian sub-continent, across Mesopotamia, and over into Egypt.
WESTERN CONTACT WITH CHINA
After Alexander the Great conquered the Persians, he established the city of Alexandria Eschate in 339 BCE in the Fergana Valley of Neb (modern Tajikstan). Leaving behind his wounded veterans in the city, Alexander moved on. In time, these Macedonian warriors intermarried with the indigenous populace creating the Greco-Bactrian culture which flourished under the Seleucid Empire following Alexander’s death. Under the Greco-Bactrian king Euthydemus I (260-195 BCE) the Greco-Bactrians had extended their holdings. According to the Greek historian Strabo (63-24 CE) the Greeks “extended their empire as far as the Seres” (xi.ii.i). `Seres’ was the name by which the Greeks and Romans knew China, meaning `the land where silk came from’. It is thought, then, that the first contact between China and the west came around the year 200 BCE.
The Han Dynasty of China (202 BCE – 220 CE) was regularly harassed by the nomadic tribes of the Xiongnu on their northern and western borders. In 138 BCE, Emperor Wu sent his emissary Zhang Qian to the west to negotiate with the Yuezhi people for help in defeating the Xiongnu. Zhang Qian’s expedition led him into contact with many different cultures and civilizations in central Asia and, among them, those whom he designated the `Dayuan’, the `Great Ionians’, who were the Greco-Bactrians descended from Alexander the Great’s army. The Dayuan had mighty horses, Zhang Qian reported back to Wu, and these could be employed effectively against the marauding Xiongnu. The consequences of Zhang Qian’s journey was not only further contact between China and the west but an organized and efficient horse breeding program throughout the land in order to equip a cavalry. The horse had long been known in China and had been used in warfare for cavalry and chariots as early as the Shang Dynasty (1600 – 1046 BCE) but the Chinese admired the western horse for its size and speed. With the western horse of the Dayuan, the Han Dynasty defeated the Xiongnu. This success inspired the Emperor Wu to speculate on what else might be gained through trade with the west and the Silk Road was opened in 130 BCE.
Between 171-138 BCE, Mithridates I of Parthia campaigned to expand and consolidate his kingdom in Mesopotamia. The Seleucid King Antiochus VII Sidetes (138-129 BCE) opposed this expansion and, also wishing revenge for the death of his brother, Demetrius, waged war against the Parthian forces of Phrates II, Mithridates successor. With the defeat of Antiochus, Mesopotamia came under Parthian rule and, with it, came control of the Silk Road. The Parthians then became the central intermediaries between China and the west.
SILK ROAD TRADE GOODS
While many different kinds of merchandise traveled along the Silk Road, the name comes from the popularity of Chinese silk with the west, especially with Rome. The Silk Road routes stretched from China through India, Asia Minor, up throughout Mesopotamia, to Egypt, the African continent, Greece, Rome, and Britain. The northern Mesopotamian region (present day Iran) became China’s closest partner in trade, as part of the Parthian Empire, initiating important cultural exchanges. Paper, which had been invented by the Chinese during the Han Dynasty, and gunpowder, also a Chinese invention, had a much greater impact on culture than did silk. The rich spices of the east, also, contributed more than the fashion which grew up from the silk industry. Even so, by the time of the Roman Emperor Augustus (27 BCE – 14 CE) trade between China and the west was firmly established and silk was the most sought after commodity in Egypt, Greece, and, especially, in Rome.
SILK IN THE ROMAN EMPIRE
Prior to becoming Emperor Augustus, Octavian Caesar exploited the controversial topic of silk clothing to denounce his adversaries Mark Antony and Cleopatra VII as immoral. As they both favored Chinese silk, which was increasingly becoming associated with licentiousness, Octavian exploited the link to deprecate his enemies. Though Octavian triumphed over Antony and Cleopatra, he could do nothing to curtail the popularity of silk. The historian Durant writes, “The Romans thought [silk] a vegetable product combed from trees and valued it at its weight in gold. Much of this silk came to the island of Cos, where it was woven into dresses for the ladies of Rome and other cities; in A.D. 91 the relatively poor state of Messenia had to forbid its women to wear transparent silk dresses at religious initiations” (329).
By the time of Seneca the Younger (4 BCE – 65 CE) conservative Romans were more ardent than Augustus in decrying the Chinese silk as immoral dress for women and effeminate attire for men. These criticisms did nothing to stop the silk trade with Rome, however, and the island of Cos became wealthy and luxurious through their manufacture of silk clothing. As Durant writes, “Italy enjoyed an 'unfavorable’ balance of trade – cheerfully [buying] more than she sold” but still exported rich goods to China such as “carpets, jewels, amber, metals, dyes, drugs, and glass” (328-329). Up through the time of the emperor Marcus Aurelius (161-180 CE), silk was the most valued commodity in Rome and no amount of conservative criticism seemed to be able to slow the trade or stop the fashion.
Even after Aurelius, silk remained popular, though increasingly expensive, until the fall of the Roman Empire in 476 CE. Rome was survived by its eastern half which came to be known as the Byzantine Empire and which carried on the Roman infatuation with silk. Around 60 CE the west had become aware that silk was not grown on the trees in China but was actually spun by silk worms. The Chinese had very purposefully kept the origin of silk a secret and, once it was out, carefully guarded their silk worms and their process of harvesting the silk. The Byzantine emperor Justinian (527- 565 CE), tired of paying the exorbitant prices the Chinese demanded for silk, sent two emissaries, disguised as monks, to China to steal silk worms and smuggle them back to the west. The plan was successful and initiated the Byzantine silk industry. When the Byzantine Empire fell to the Turks in 1453 CE, the Ottoman Empire closed the Silk Road and cut all ties with the west.
LEGACY OF THE SILK ROAD
The greatest value of the Silk Road was the exchange of culture. Art, religion, philosophy, technology, language, science, architecture, and every other element of civilization was exchanged through the Silk Road along with the commercial goods the merchants carried from country to country. Along the network of routes disease traveled also, as evidenced in the spread of the bubonic plague of 542 CE which is thought to have arrived in Constantinople by way of the Silk Road and which decimated the Byzantine Empire. The closing of the Silk Road forced merchants to take to the sea to ply their trade, thus initiating the Age of Discovery (1453-1660 CE) which led to world-wide interaction and the beginnings of a global community.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Merchant Banking is where banks always began throughout history. Trading in the various commodities and engaging in import/export was the path to wealth from ancient times to the present. The takeover of Wall Street came from the commodity side where traders were born. It began with the Gold broker house of PhiBro who took over Salomon Brothers in 1981 and within 10 years they got caught rigging the US Treasury Bond auctions exactly like the LIBOR scandal. This is where the idea of transactional banking began. We have to comprehend that trading was one aspect that produced wealth, but it was the wealth that was created which remained idle giving rise to banking. Then these merchants typically created storage facilities to secure their excess wealth and then people would pay them to store their wealth as well. This was the origin of banking and it is vital to understand these elements for this was why Glass Steagall actually worked – it separated the trading from the lending.
Lucius Caecilius Jucundus was just such a merchant banker who lived in Pompeii around 20–62 AD. His house is still standing, and can be seen among the ruins of the city of Pompeii. The eruption of Vesuvius in 79 AD partially destroyed the home. The home is renowned for its beauty, for it was large and flanked by merchant stores, which he also controlled.
We know Jucundus was a banker by his bank bookkeeping and wax tablets, which were receipts recovered during excavation of Pompeii. Jucundus was a type of banker called an argentarius, which meant that he acted as a middleman in auctions. The word in Latin for silver was argentum so the term is derived from silver meaning he was bought as an agent for silver who would finance the transaction. The Pompeian argentarius would pay the vendor for the purchased item at auction and then grant the buyer a timeframe in which to repay him. Jucundus was financing goods and slaves for various small businessmen, whom had a few months up to one year to repay the loan to the argentarius.
Jucundus would receive both interest on the loan, as well as a commission (known as a merces) for acting as the agent or broker. Some argentarii, called coactores argentarii, also collected debt money in addition to making arrangements in the auctions, while other argentarii were assisted by coactoreswho collected the debts for them – the muscle so to speak. It is uncertain whether Jucundus was a coactor argentarius or simply an argentarius.
These tablets have provided detailed transaction information in recording the names of vendors and witnesses to the banking arrangements. The lists of witnesses also gives some insight into the social structure of Pompeii, since Jucundus had his witnesses sign in order of social status. Jucundus kept many private records of his business transactions on wax tablets, many of which were found in his house in 1875.
Of the 154 tablets discovered, 16 are document contracts between Jucundus and the city of Pompeii; the remaining 137 are receipts from auctions on behalf of third parties. Seventeen of these tablets record loans that he advanced to buyers of auction items. Banking during Roman times is different from modern banking for private individuals, not the major banking firms that exist today, conducted it. Since almost all moneylenders in the Empire were private individuals, anybody that had any additional capital and wished to lend it out could easily do so. The rate of interest on loans varied in the range of 4–12%.
The tablets are known as triptychs, pictured here with a beautiful woman of Pompeii writing on one. They have three wooden leaves tied together to make six pages. Wax was applied to the inner four pages, and the receipt was written on these surfaces. The tablet was then closed and wrapped with a string, over which the witnesses placed their wax seals. This prevented the document itself from being altered, and there was a brief description of the receipt written on the outside for identification purposes.
There are 154 wax tablets from his archive dating between 52–62 AD. These documents recorded the sums paid to those for whom he had sold goods or slaves on credit, and for rents on property he owned. Also recorded were his commission payments ranging from 1% to 4% paid in transaction arrangements or as a broker of sorts.
You will notice that the documents ended in 62 AD, yet the eruption of Vesuvius did not take place until 79 AD. A tremendous earthquake, before Vesuvius erupted, first hit Pompeii damaging many buildings. Jucundus’ documents end with that earthquake, which was curiously two 8.6-year cycles before the big eruption on 79 AD.
Jucundus was a merchant banker who made a lot of money as a merchant and then put his money to use in lending, financing, and brokering. Most people who seemed to earn great fortunes were always merchants in general. That is where the talent always emerged for trading. This is an ancient trade that people do not understand. There lies the talent to understand capital flows and follow the trend.
Tags: Ancient Merchant Banking, Ancient Rome, Lucius Caecilius Jucundus, Pompeii
Ancient Egyptian overseas trade
During three millennia of pharaonic history Egyptians traded goods with other countries, while the Egyptian government tried to control this trade and profit from it.
The Persians under Darius I did much to further trade throughout their empire. The canal connecting the Nile and thus the Mediterranean with the Red Sea was re-excavated and remained in use until late Roman Times.
Egypt had only partial success in controlling the flow of goods from Africa to Europe and the Near East. The cheapest and fastest way of transporting merchandise was by ship, despite the cataracts of the Nile and the storms on the Mediterranean and Red Sea and the difficulty and expense of keeping the canal connecting the Nile and the Red Sea in good repair. Because of the limitations of the ships' rigging which prevented them from sailing into the wind, the prevailing winds dictated the seasons when departure and return journeys took place. The alternatives were the routes crossing the Eastern and Western Desert. These caravan routes through the Negev and the Libyan Desert were impossible to interrupt and difficult to administer. Even during the times when Egypt was nominally in power in theses regions and sent officials there, their very distance from the central authority gave them an independence they often abused.
In the Late Period Kyrene was founded by Greeks who built a temple at the Siwa oasis and cooperated with the Libyan bedouins supplying the rapidly growing Greek diaspora with African luxuries. The huge profits the Egyptians made from their Africa trade, some speak of 300 percent and more, made this desert venture worthwhile again.
|Major trade routes in north-east Africa and the Middle East.
The direct overseas route to India was opened up by a Greek named Hippalus ca. 100 BCE. Before that traders had been hugging the coast line.
| From pre-dynastic times onwards Egypt had contacts with Mesopotamia, though they probably were of little economic importance, unlike those with Nubia and later the Sinai desert which were annexed during the Old Kingdom. Africa was reached both overland through Kush and by ship via the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden. Arabia likewise had overland and overseas connections. The cities of the Levant, above all Byblos, were mostly accessed by ship, again since the Old Kingdom.
Crete, where Egyptian artefacts were found at Knossos, could not be reached by coast-hugging. Mariners had to trust the stars and set out into a featureless sea.
The Phoenicians and Greeks, who began to handle the Egyptian trade in the Late Period widened the country's commercial contacts over the whole of the Mediterranean. Persian traders rounded the Arabian peninsula by ship and Indian wares were carried over the Indian Ocean. After the Roman conquest much of Egypt's wealth flowed directly to Rome.
Direct trade links to India were of small importance until Roman times. Strabo, the Greek geographer, noted that
Much of what the Egyptians needed they had in their own country. Grain was generally plentiful and in Roman times Egypt was an important wheat growing area for the city of Rome. Beer, a less potent brew than its modern counterpart, was the daily drink of the people. Wine on the other hand was imported for a long time until vineyards were planted in the Delta and some of the oases. Bricks for building houses and palaces were made from the Nile mud, rocks for tombs and temples were found close to the Nile. Natron for embalming and salt were mined locally; flax and hemp grown for making clothes and ropes. Oil for lighting was pressed from the kikki seeds and later from olives. Papyrus grew abundantly in the Delta and was made into a kind of paper.
But Wood, a necessity for the building of houses, ships, furniture etc. was in short supply and of inferior quality. Already during the Old Kingdom Egypt began developing a special relationship with Byblos on the Lebanese coast, which became one of its closest allies for almost two millennia. The cedar wood imported was critical to the development of a navy capable of defending the country against the incursions of the Sea Peoples. Different varieties of hardwood, among them ebony, and fragrant wood were imported from Africa.
Egypt was not exceedingly rich in metal, but it had quite a few gold deposits, only a little silver, iron, lead and some copper, not enough to satisfy the country's needs. The conquests of Nubia and the Sinai and the exploitation of their gold and copper mines were a major improvement and had international consequences. Significant amounts of gold were traded with Asiatic kings for their political support of the Egyptian empire and its policies.
From the Late Period on iron was mined in the eastern desert and worked in the Greek Delta town of Naukratis.
Punt was the main source of myrrh, frankincense and fragrant woods. Ultimately unsuccessful attempts were made to produce frankincense locally by importing incense trees under Hatshepsut.
Precious stones and other luxury goods
Lapis lazuli, mined in Bactria, was imported since pre-historic times. An East Iranian lapis lazuli statue was found in Egypt and dated to around 3000 BCE, preceding the first dynasty. Tapur, called Tefrer by the Egyptians , a fortified town on a canal between the Euphrates and Tigris, was their main trading centre for this gem. Turquoise found in Khorasan, gold, agate, carnelian and other precious stones were also carried on the Oxus road from Tepe Yahya near the Persian Gulf overland to Retenu and Egypt or by ship around the Arabian peninsula to Qoseir or the Nile-Red Sea canal. Vegetable oils, eye paints and other cosmetics also had their origins in eastern Iran and Afghanistan.
Slaves were captured or bought from the Levant, from Nubia and further south. This trade in humans was apparently of insignificant proportions.
Animals and animal products
Ivory from elephants (the Egyptians had local ivory from hippopotami), ostrich feathers and eggs, leopard and lion skins came from the west and south.
In return the king of Babylon hoped to get much gold, that I need for my work. In another letter Burnaburiash, dissatisfied with the amount of gold received, writes
Officially cats were not to be sent abroad, but they spread over the whole region carried on ships for pest control and as pets and probably sold quite often.
One of Egypt's main export products was grain, at first to the Lebanese coast, where often not enough corn could be grown locally, and later in large quantities to Rome, more than 100,000 metric tons per year under Augustus. Fruit, such as dates, were also sold abroad. At Camulodunum in Roman occupied Britain amphoras which had been filled with fruit of the doum palm were found, quite possibly of Egyptian origin.
Egypt was the only Mediterranean country where papyrus grew and a sort of paper was produced from it. It was marketed in the form of long rolls between ten and forty centimetres wide. It superseded the clay tablets used in the Akkadian speaking region and remained the main writing material in Europe until the Middle Ages, when its availability decreased and locally made parchment began to be used.
In addition to agricultural produce and raw materials like gold and precious stones Egypt exported artefacts. At Byblos sarcophagi and statues have been found, at Malta amulets, rings, scarabs and beads made from faience, statues and torch holders. In Punt weapons, jewelry, mirrors and the like were exchanged for exotic woods, ivory and frankincense.
Some of the trade was certainly an exchange of goods between merchants, but a considerable amount took the form of exchanges of "presents" between the pharaohs and the rulers of foreign countries. Until the end of the New Kingdom - for as long as Egypt was perceived by its neighbours to be a power of consequence in the region - such "exchanges" were generally in Egypt's favour and dealt with by bureaucrats. These could conveniently be blamed when anything was not to the recipients liking:
Official Egyptian trade was handled by scribes as representatives of the king or by priests if a temple was involved . Egyptian reports generally describe these ventures as glowing successes; a rare exception is the story of the journey of Wenamen, a trading expedition gone wrong. But while Wenamen was in difficulties, dozens of other Egyptian traders were doing business in the ports of Byblos and Sidon, as the ruler of Byblos reminded him:
When trade was organized by the central authority, there were no middlemen to profit from the exchange of luxury goods, dear to the hearts of the elite, an advantage not lost on Hatshepsut:
Watercraft from Punt.
But there were times, when the king was weak and preoccupied with other matters, yet the temples will have wanted incense for their worship. They may well have bought it from Arabian traders carrying it overland or from Puntites trading by sea.
The Asiatic merchants who imported Iranian goods into Egypt were often accompanied by their families and settled for lengthy periods in Palestine and Egypt. The Egyptians knew them as Amu and Mantu (Martu) and thought that they came from "northern countries". Their lifestyle was at first nomadic. When they had to pay tribute the goods they provided were mostly of Iranian origin: Lapis lazuli, carnelian, gold, silver and copper which contained arsenic and was almost as hard as bronze.
Asiatic traders wearing striped garments
Traders ran not only the risk of being waylaid by outlaws, but were sometimes robbed by members of the local nobility. If they were lucky their own king interceded on their behalf
Kings were thus held responsible for the deeds of their subjects, even if pleas for indemnification were often ignored, as - the probably fictional - Wen-amen learnt in the city of Dor when its king, Beder, refused to accept responsibility for a crime committed on his territory because the supposed criminal was not his subject.
Robbers waylaid caravans in the deserts, pirates intercepted ships in the straits of the Gulf, and there was not always a state nearby with sufficient military power to interrupt their activities
During the Late Period international trade was dominated by Phoenicians and Greeks who founded colonies along the shores of the Mediterranean. The influence of the Ionians on Egypt was especially important. After the foundation of Alexandria, this Hellenistic city became a centre for the exchange of knowledge and merchandise for the whole Middle East