The importance of trade in the Ancient World
In 1998 the Italian State Railway began the construction of a new regional headquarters near the city of Pisa when a forgotten treasure from the past was revealed from the depths of the Adriatic Sea. Rather than comprising golden coins and silver ornaments, this “treasure” is simply remains from shipwrecks. However, it represent one of the finest pieces of evidence for the trade in the ancient world with over 16 vessels ranging in date from the third century BC to the fifth century AD. Archaeologists have uncovered large timbers of the ships sunk near the harbour of Pisa together along with fragments of the cargo and the bones of the perished sailors. Before proving my points regarding the importance of ancient trade, I would like to make some definitions clear. Trade essentially means the exchange of one good or service for another. In this respect the Greek ritual of xenia might be considered as trade because it involves exchange of gifts between host and guest. Trade also has many faces – it could be international, regional or local – and each one has its own unique role. However, in this essay I will be specifically referring to market trade as means to bring nations together. The trade routes of the ancient world could be divided into two main groups: sea and land. Transporting goods by land was slow and expensive as large loads were pulled by lumbering oxen or in the case of horses and donkeys only lighter cargos could be transported. The shipments, on the other hand, were vulnerable to sea storms, pirates and poor navigational equipment and as seen in the Pisa example many ships did not reach their final destination. Among the cargo of one of Pisa’s ships, archaeologists found Greco-Italian wine amphorae, Punic food amphorae and four thymiateria form North Africa, black glazed crockery from Volterra and two Iberian vases. The international freight of this ship is a mirror for the multinational face of trade. 2000 years ago goods were transported intensively from every part of the world and thus bringing towards the development of ancient globalization. One importance of this process is that it brings nations together and reduces communal tensions as the people know each other better the need for war is gone. Despite the many pieces of pottery found, many archaeologists agree that the main cargo of the ship was livestock as proven by the bones of three horses and a lioness discovered among the timbers of the vessel. The question is why you would convey such ‘unnecessary goods’ from as far as North Africa putting in danger your life and crossing the unpredictable Mediterranean seas. I class the horses and lioness as ‘unnecessary’ because they could not support the economy or improve the Roman lifestyle in any way. And here comes the second importance of trade – trade as means to demonstrate power. The battles of gladiators against African lions, Asian Tigers or German bears were simply an entertainment for the general public but they also symbolised the greatness of Rome. Slaughtering the African lion could easily be seen as defeating Hannibal and Carthage and strongly emphasised the role of the Roman man as master of the world. The Roman pride was just like a balloon which needs to be pumped with more and more air and the pump in this case was the trade. If I have to scrutinise carefully the Pisa’s evidence, I would not be able to draw any certain conclusions. The fact that three horse and a lioness had been taken from North Africa to Italy cannot give any indication of the frequency, profitability or significance of such type of trade, nor its development over time. But from various sources, including Suetonius ‘The twelve Caesars’, we reveal that various emperors and consuls organized gladiatorial battles with oriental beasts. And because the sources often notice only the exceptional I can deduce that the shipping of livestock was only the tip of the iceberg; beneath the...
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