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Essay on Classical Era Trade Networks Compared to Ancient Era Networks

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Greece has an extraordinarily rich tradition in the history of trade. The introduction of trade into Greek culture was one of the most defining points of Ancient Greek history. The need for trade came from the fact that all the resources that were needed in Greece were not always available hence the reliance on importing and exporting goods.

Initially, trade had been done by swapping goods of a similar value and it was not until around 590BC that coins started being used. Each city-state had its own unique symbol or feature on its coins but most just used the Drachma with an owl stamped on one side and Athena on the other side from Athens. The only exception to this was Sparta who refused to use the Athenian coin due to their rivalry. Kurke writes, coinage represents a tremendous threat to a stable hierarchy of aristocrats and others, in which the aristocrats maintain a monopoly on precious metals and other prestige goods. With the introduction of coinage looms the prospect of indiscriminate distribution, exchange between strangers that subverts the ranked spheres of exchange-goods operative in a gift exchange. (Kurke referenced by von Reden, pp.155). Seaford writes that the articulation of the citizen body in numerical terms [under Solon] …bestows on the abstraction of number a social significance, tending to replace birth and charisma in the determination of status, that is unparalleled in Homer but manifest also in the development of commodity exchange and of money at the expense of gift exchange (Seaford referenced by Reden, pp.155). Both authors make valid points about the impacts of money on social systems, however, they also claim that money was responsible for class lines which, although there were differences between the wealthy aristocrats and the poorer slaves and freedmen, there were no distinct class lines that had been fossilized and set into society as well as there being no middle class, the archaic Greek society was more of a division based on political standing and influence and citizenship more than anything else. Coinage relates to political gift giving as the person who was giving the gift would have to spend money on it and they would most likely have an inscription somewhere saying that it was their gift so they might get more political backing and become more popular with the people and if not themselves, then make a better name and legacy for their children.

Local trade and commerce in the Archaic Greek world were largely conducted in and around the Agora at the base of the Acropolis, particularly in city-states such as Athens, in which citizens could buy things such as food, household items, and if they so wished, slaves. Slavery was very common during this time, and it became solidly institutionalized in society. People could be sold into or born into slavery, but they could also escape slavery if they could pay their way out of the household. Even if they did end up having enough money to become a freedman or woman, they would still be, in the eyes of the rest of society, a part of the household that they had worked for previously and the label would stick with them. It, however, would not be passed onto their children as an inherited label and their children would most likely be seen as a citizen in their own rights. Some families have too many children for their land to support, others have to few to work it (Goody, 1973 referenced by Humphreys). Sons by right inherited equal shares of their father’s property in ancient Greece; daughters were given a dowry in lieu of inheritance, and if this was given in land in early times, dowry transfers would have tended to intensify inequalities in landholding (Humphreys pp.162). Inheritance laws were set up by city-states to keep the wealth concentrated at the top of society with the aristocrats. However, occasionally, some of this money would `trickle down` into the lower parts of society allowing the people at the bottom of society, such as freedmen, to become wealthier and rise in society.

Trading stations played a significant role as the furthest outposts of Greek culture. Here, Greek goods, such as pottery, bronze, and silver were exchanged for luxury items and exotic raw materials that were in turn worked by Greek craftsmen. The Greeks established trading enclaves within existing local communities such as at Al-Mina. The special status of Al-Mina as a port of trade for the long-distance movement of non-subsistence goods (Tandy, pg.64 chpt.3) along with other ports within Greece and its colonies allowed new sea trade routes to be established which, in turn, introduced Greek art to cultures in the East, and exposed Greek artists to a host of artistic styles and techniques, as well as precious stones.

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As long as people have been trading with each other, they have created debt. And if people have created debt, some have been unable to pay what they owe. This was as true in ancient Athens as it is today. Before about the 6th century BCE in Attica, among a population consisting primarily of peasants and small farmers, borrowing occurred among members of local communities in the form of lending farming implements, small sums, and household goods. But when borrowing goes beyond neighborly trading, debts for such farmers and artisans become larger and more difficult to repay. From a vendor, a buyer could obtain an interest in property or goods by making a deposit, or an advance payment (Maffei, 2005, pp.261) The oldest form of security offered by the property was pawning. A third-person guarantor could also promise to pay if the debtor defaulted. from the earliest times, it was customary to make a secured sale with the right of recovery by the debtor. Thus, ownership of property is worth more than the debt passed to the creditor, but the debtor retained possession of it and could continue to get revenue from it in order to pay the debt. The debtor was entitled to the return of ownership after the debt was satisfied, but if the debtor failed to pay, the creditor retained ownership and got to take possession, regardless of the size of the debt compared to the value of the property. Debtors who lost control of their land became serfs who worked on the surrendered land and gave one-sixth of the produce or revenue to the creditor. If the debt was not paid off by the one-sixth payment, and if the debt came to exceed the value of the debtor`s land or other assets the debtor and his family became slaves. A debtor could also use his freedom as security for a debt, again leading to slavery upon default (Titze, 2013).

In Ancient Ages, civilizations used trade routes as a means to trade goods but actually, they traded more than goods. They also traded ideas, beliefs, and technology. One of the most essential trade routes through which these exchanges happened was Indian Ocean Trade. In the Indian Ocean Trade route, they traded goods such as Indian spices, Arabian aromatics, Chinese silk, and all other goods from different regions. They also exchanged nautical knowledge which led to the development of ships that were adapted to the Monsoon Climate. In addition, they learned ideas and beliefs about different cultures and beliefs. All of these impacted humankind on different levels but from my point of view, the main contribution to Humankind was cultural and religious exchanges. Firstly, we cannot state that it was possible to spread all the religions in the world. “Jonathan Z.Smith conceptualizes these differences by diving religions into those are practiced “here”(the domestic sphere), “there”(the civic and national sphere), and anywhere”. (“Networks and Social Cohesion in Ancient Indian Ocean Trade: Geography, Ethnicity, Religion.’, pg 385) .

All the religions that spread in this route belonged to anywhere groups which were Buddhism, Hinduism, and Islam that can be existed in each part of the world. The importance of the spread of religion relies on the identification of people. In those times, people’s connection to their geographical region wasn’t strong, thus when they traded with other regions, their religion would represent their identity. This was essential because merchants spread their identities and created religious communities in foreign regions that can give them a sense of identity and belonging. This community would facilitate the process of trading and adaption with regions that people did not know because people would have co-religionists in those religions whom they could trust and live with. These communities also lead the way to migrations which ease the development of cosmopolitan communities across the Indian Ocean. If the Indian Ocean Trade route existed for a long-time and if there was constant migration, these communities played a key role in these activities as they made these events happen easier and for a longer time because this community made it possible for minorities to exist in foreign regions. Secondly, religion didn’t only have an effect on creating communities but also religion affected local cultures.

Each religion presented a different culture which affected local populations. With the exchange of religion, people also exchanged their cultures. This led to the existence of heterogenous societies with different cultures. In those times, new-coming cultures didn’t destroy the existing cultures. They facilitated the creation of new mixed cultures. For example, in the Indian Sub-Continent, the north side had Islamic Influencers over Indian Culture and the south side where Hinduism and Buddhism were practiced was under the influence of Southeast Asia and Malay World Cultures. These two are examples of mixed cultures which didn’t eliminate the existing ones. These different cultural influences over different regions were essential because these influences helped regions in different ways. They helped them to develop and grow in areas such as Politics, Social, Commercial, and Languages. In that region, Islamic regions had their own legal and trading systems and languages. As other non-Islamic regions started to interact with them, they adopted them and began to use Islamic legal systems and languages while adapting them to their own cultures. This led to the development of those regions around the area as the Islamic system was one of the most developed systems of the time. To conclude, religious exchanges contributed to Humankind in areas such as the development of local regions and the existence of cosmopolitan communities around the Indian Ocean.


  1. Anderson, Thomas. “Teaching the Indian Ocean as World History.” World History Connected | Vol. 11 No. 1 | Thomas Anderson: Teaching the Indian Ocean as World History,
  2. McPherson, KENNETH. Cultural Exchange in the Indian Ocean Region. Westerly, No: 4, DECEMBER, 1964
  3. Seland, Eivind Heldaas. ‘Networks and Social Cohesion in Ancient Indian Ocean Trade: Geography, Ethnicity, Religion.’ Journal of Global History 8.3 (2013): 373-90. ProQuest. 31 Mar. 2019.

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