A Brief History of Free Global Trade

by Silverbird

Since human beings emerged from the slime of everything, we have searched far and wide in search of goods and services that we couldn’t grow, make or do ourselves.
In short,
we traded
From the Minoans
to the Romans
to the Silk Road merchants
to the British Empire
When trade is both
civilisation flourishes.
Ideas and innovations are spread. Revolutions destroy old orders. Technologies develop and disrupt communities. Cultures melt, reform, and rise again.
Free trade requires peace between nations. As such, it has always been enforced by great empires, from the Mongols to the United States of America.
The Internet provides the only alternative—free and global trade without borders, tariffs, police states, or empires.

In this free eBook, we’ll be exploring the history of international trade, starting with the Minoans of Bronze Age Crete.

Part I
The Minoans were a peaceful, highly-advanced Bronze Age civilisation inhabiting the fertile and forested island of Crete.
They had sewage systems. Complex bureaucracies. A writing system. Beautiful works of art. And lived in spectacular labyrinthine palaces.
They traded—extensively. A maritime power, one ancient writer claimed that there were Minoan traders in every port. They traded with peoples from all over the Mediterranean, and beyond. To manufacture bronze, the Minoans imported tin from the British Isles and imported amber from the Baltic.
Did you know?
The Minoans were a matriarchal society—not only did women play a prominent role in their religion, but the Minoans worshipped a Mother Goddess. 
Their early contact with ancient Egypt had a huge influence on their artwork, and they imported goldsmithing knowledge from Syria. In turn, the Minoans influenced their neighbours. The Mycenaean Greeks (the warrior heroes of Homer’s Iliad) integrated Minoan burial customs, art styles and pottery techniques into their own culture.

After a series of natural disasters and invasions, this peaceful, maritime civilisation fell apart.
The Phoenicians were a Semitic people inhabiting a narrow slither of land on the coast of modern-day Syria, Lebanon and northern Israel.
After the collapse of the Bronze Age civilisations, they began establishing trading settlements throughout the Mediterranean—from the southern coast of Spain to the coastline of modern Turkey.
With their reputation for craftiness, these traders and seafarers sailed as far as ancient Britain and circumnavigated the whole of Africa.
Far from being a homogenous, centralised country, they were a confederation of independent, sometimes rival trading communities.
Did you know?
The Phoenician city of Gebal (called Byblos by the Greeks) was a great exporter of papyrus and eventually gave the “bible” its name.
Their impact on wine-making was enormous, spreading their knowledge of viticulture to modern-day France, Spain, Egypt, and Greece. They were expert shipbuilders and glass-makers too, and their purple dye was highly prized.

But it was their alphabetic writing system—the root of all western alphabets—that proved to be their most valuable export.
ancient Greeks
Modern civilisation owes a lot to the ancient Greeks—democracy, philosophy, modern science, theatre, poetry, historical writing.
And the Greeks owed a lot to the Phoenicians. By spreading their alphabet to every corner of the Mediterranean, the Phoenicians ushered in a cultural renaissance in Greece the likes of which was not surpassed for another 2,000 years.
The School of Athens. Raphael (Wiki Commons)
Their city-states established colonies everywhere—from the coasts of Turkey to southern France—exporting their architecture, art, political systems, and ideas across the Mediterranean.

Greek Colonization Archaic Period (Wiki Commons)
Did you know?
Cosmopolitan comes from the Greek word ‘cosmopolis’, which means world city. This new word came into being in the 3rd century BCE after the Greeks had spread their culture across the Mediterranean.
But it was with the advent of Alexander the Great that things became truly global.
Conquering as far as Egypt and India, Alexander’s empire established Hellenic culture as the dominant cultural force in the Mediterranean. As a result, trade became even more widespread.
Rise of the Roman Empire
If it wasn’t for the Hellenisation of the Mediterranean and the vast interweb of trade routes, the Romans might never have been associated with civilisation.
They were cultural sponges, thoroughly absorbing Greek culture, complete with their pantheon of gods, their godless philosophy, their literature, architecture, and educational system, their love of olive oil and wine.
Of course, this wasn’t without controversy—the slow-burning globalisation of republican Rome, absorbing, as it did, all tenets of Greek culture, was highly criticised at the time. Some Roman senators like Cato the Elder, believed it contributed to a softening of the Roman military spirit.
With that in mind, it’s unsurprising that Roman elites looked upon traders with disdain. They believed that only war and farming were suitable occupations for gentlemen. Cicero claimed that port cities were hotbeds of vice and corruption, while the satirist Juvenal mocked such haughty social mores in his Satires.
Like the ancient Greek city-states, Rome had once been a humble, self-sufficient polis, the countryside beyond the city walls providing the basic necessities needed to survive. 

As Rome expanded her empire, the capital city swelled in size, reaching a population of 1 million. Rome needed to import cheap food from elsewhere. The answer lay in her empire—over half a million tonnes of wheat came from Africa and Sicily every year. 
Through military conquest, Rome’s empire stretched from Britain to Syria by 100 CE. It was a truly globalised empire.
The economy was agrarian, and long-distance trade over the Empire’s bounds supplied the Roman elite with luxury goods: silk, rare dyes, olive oil, silver, and gold.
After the collapse of the republic, paying and supplying Rome’s large, professional army became the foremost concern of the elite. Feeding Rome, the largest preindustrial city in world history, motivated Rome to conquer territories with grain in plentiful supply, like Egypt and the Black Sea Caucus.
Image via Wikimedia Commons | The Alexander Mosaic depicts a battle between Alexander the Great and King Darius of Persia.
This was also a monocultural, multi-ethnic empire. Latin was the language of administration; Greek was the language of the everyday. Anyone could become a Roman citizen, and sometimes, Croatians and North Africans could become emperors.
Pax Romana
Their 113 provinces were connected by 372 roads, all leading to Rome—spanning 250,000 miles in total—and all the roads led to Rome, stimulated trade, and flooded the capital city with everything from Chinese silk to Gallic slaves to Indian spices to African lions.
Roman Emperor Augustus Caesar surrounded by prominent Romans with many peoples of the Empire gather
This was when the Silk Road began. The Romans had a love of silk—particularly Roman women—and had an established trading relationship with the Han Dynasty of China.
Did you know?
Roman senators didn’t approve of silk, which had fast become popular among women. Some, like the philosopher Seneca, thought it scandalous—after all, silk exposed a woman’s naked body to strangers. Needless to say, they tried to ban it many times.
This complex, interconnected web of roads meant that, where Rome conquered, she took her lifestyle. Olive oil was imported to the northern regions. Viticulture was introduced to the British Isles (the Romans planted vineyards as far as Yorkshire).
It also meant that the Romans could introduce their innovations to the rest of the Known World: concrete, aqueducts, baths, roads, the calendar we use today, modern plumbing, and the Latin language, which forms the basis for French, Spanish, Italian, and Portuguese.
Strangely enough, the Romans also introduced the cultivation of apples, peas and pears to the British Isles—food that we now consider to be quintessentially British.

Still life showing fruit bowl, jar of wine, jar of raisins: House of Julia Felix, Pompeii (Wiki Commons)
And Rome’s global empire was centralised around a single currency—so, a Romano-Brit with a wallet full of denarii could seamlessly trade with an Egyptian merchant.
More importantly, the trade routes of the Roman Empire allowed for the rapid spread of Christianity—from Israel to the British Isles.

AV Aureus.Ancient coin of the Roman Empire
But in the Third Century, things started falling apart. To maintain their enormous military infrastructure, various Roman emperors debased the coinage, so much so that traders and bankers refused to accept coins minted by the central government. Taxes were increased. Prices and wages were fixed.
Thomas Cole’s The Course of Empire. 1836. Source: Wikimedia Commons
Fall of the Roman Empire
After centuries of ecological crisis, political breakdown, moral turmoil, migrations, and barbarian invasions, the Western Roman Empire fell apart into tiny chunks. Overrun by illiterate tribes, the flame of civilisation briefly sputtered, then died.

Roman buildings fell into ruin, became ghost towns. The knowledge of how to build structures as technically advanced as the colosseum faded away. And instead of luxury villas made of marble, people built crude homes of wood and mud.
Hubert Robert — The Fire of Rome. Source: Wikimedia Commons
People didn’t read or write anything. Instead of using coins in exchange for goods, people bartered.
It was a bad time for free trade. The Silk Road had ended. And without the Roman Empire, pirates marauded the high seas.
The upwardly mobile society of the Greco-Roman world decayed into a thin layer of dust, and the roots of the feudal system grew over it.
Radhanites and Vikings
By 711 CE, the Islamic Moors had conquered the Spanish peninsula. Within two centuries, they controlled the Mediterranean, splitting Europe between the Christian North West, and the Islamic South.

The old Roman trade routes connecting Europe with the East were very nearly broken. Fortunately, the Radhanites stepped in—a people who became the linchpin of two hostile, opposing worlds.

Trade routes of the Radhanite Jewish merchants. Source: Wikimedia Commons
Speaking dozens of languages, the Radhanites were used by both Christian kings and Islamic caliphs as translators, many of whom gave them privileges.
This elite guild of Jewish traders had a trade network stretching from England to Persia to China.
Did you know?
As a sign of friendship, an Islamic caliph gave a white elephant to Charles the Great of Frankia, and a Radhanite trader took the elephant with him—all the way from Baghdad to Aachen.
Of course, the Radhanites weren’t alone—there were Vikings to contend with.
Sailing from their homes in Scandinavia in search of fertile regions in which to settle, they went as far as Persia to trade, loot, and conquer.

The Buddha statue found in a Viking burial is a testament to their spirit of adventure.
Viking Armada by Edward Moran. Source: Wikimedia Commons
But after the Viking raiders settled in their respective new lands in England and northern France, they slowly became Christianised, and the new order arose.
There is no previous part
To be continued
The Crusades
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