With the current round of NAFTA negotiations underway, trade deals are back in the political discussion. After the Trans-Pacific Partnership served as a punching bag for both parties in 2016, it is as important as ever to discuss the merits of long distance trade.

In one of my classes, The First Great Transformation: The Economies of the Ancient World (3000 BCE –500 CE), a final essay option was to examine long distance trade in ancient economies, and I looked at ancient Assyria and China’s famed Silk Road.

These two case studies show that trade is at times essential for development, and at other times, an outgrowth of earlier development with immense long term significance.   

Are these case studies instructive? Let me know what you think!

In modern society, debates around the importance of trade swirl around the world, with some countries abandoning ambitious trade policies and others swooping in to fill the void. These policies are far from without precedent, and policymakers would be wise to turn to the past to solve the predicaments of the present. Both the ancient Assyrians and the Chinese utilized policies of long distance trade, to a varying degree of success. The benefits the Assyrians reaped were far more immediate than those the Chinese attained, but both long distance trade strategies were at turns essential and beneficial to their respective civilizations. Long distance trade has a long standing record of success, and contemporary leaders should examine the accomplishments and setbacks of these civilizations to understand the immense significance that long distance trade has had for civilizations throughout the world, and throughout history.

In the ancient Assyrian economy, long distance trade was an economic necessity. Mesopotamia’s “early civilization could not have developed and flourished without essential materials such metals, stones, and timber, which the alluvial floodplain of Tigris and Euphrates lacked.” The easiest solution for them was to engage in trade in Anatolia. This desire for silver and gold in exchange for their tin and textiles led to more permanent settlement of Anatolia and the eventual creation of the Hittites, an entire new empire. The Hittites were ultimately strengthened by the traders and the goods sent by the Assyrians to their region, so it is no exaggeration to state that trade helped forge an entire new empire that grew to dominate parts of the Middle East. (Veenhof, 336)

The Assyrian system of long distance trade was remarkably innovative, and the Assyrians were the “first to create a well organized network of commercial settlements abroad, in Anatolia, an area with a different ecology, culture and economy, hence in a different economic sphere.” The significance of their expansion was broad in that it “created new possibilities, offered new challenges, and stimulated entrepreneurial creativity.” This trade allowed Assyrians to seek profits from their commercial ventures, giving “rise to a trade [based] on purely commercial exchange resulting in ‘profit’ by acquiring much more silver than originally invested…than anywhere else in the ancient Near East.” For the Assyrians, everything from Assur’s central location to bonds of trust formed between traders to its well-developed merchant class “gave rise to particular commercial techniques, procedures, and attitudes, meant to improve, guarantee, and facilitate the success of the trade, its turnover, safety and profits.” (Veenhof 339-340)

The trading system of the Assyrians was complemented by economic concepts such as the tamkarum that assisted their ability to trade across long distances. While the concept is nebulous to an extent, scholarship summarizes it best as a form of bearers check that can easily be likened to a form of currency. These “bonds with anonymous tamkarum as creditor could be ceded and this must have been very useful in a society of traveling traders and agents.” (Veenhof 355) The reasons that long distance trade was essential for the Assyrians are manifold, but include their ability to attain profits while trading abroad, the well-developed merchant class, and their extensive usage of tamkarum to facilitate monetary exchanges across long distances. A final factor at the core of their prolific trading was the need for goods that existed outside their borders such as gold and silver that could most effectively be attained through trade. The Assyrian economic system included trade at its core, and was enriched because of it.

A helpful point of comparison is an even longer distance system of trade, which stretched from China to Europe: the fabled Silk Road. On the surface, Étienne de la Vaissière’s analysis of the Silk Road’s role in history suggests that trade’s role was limited, his ultimate conclusion proves that trade’s benefits can exceed the tangible and can actually drive empires. To begin with, La Vaissière mainly focuses on silk, which, as a luxury good, suffered from price elasticity, and the Silk Road itself does not lend “support to the grandiose theories that have been built on its importance[;] trade from China to the Near East was a discontinuous and quite often highly political phenomenon, which never allowed itself more than limited growth, mainly among the go-betweens.” (La Vaissière 120)

La Vaissière argues persuasively that long distance trade was not the sole factor of economic growth along the Silk Route. The evidence for this claim is irrefutable, but it does not imply that trade’s impact was not a net positive overall for the areas it impacted. Recent scholarship highlights that even in Turfan, one of the “turning points of the Silk Road,” most of the “population had no link whatsoever with international trade.” However, taking the case of Turfan and applying it to the international order writ large is incomplete analysis. (La Vaissière 115)

La Vaissière’s broader analysis of trade states that “it is still to be demonstrated that the global growth that central Asia undoubtedly experienced from the fourth to the tenth centuries is directly linked to international trade rather than agricultural new developments.” However, whether or not this growth is directly attributed to trade is immaterial when considering whether trade is beneficial. Much of the growth of areas such as the northern foothills of the Tian Shan has been falsely attributed to trade alone, when in fact “these were agricultural ventures on virgin lands by nobles which created these towns, and that it is only later that traders made use of them as stopovers.” However, the fact that trade routes sought out these developed areas suggests a symbiotic relationship between initial development and benefits from trade. Additionally, the example of trade routes following development in the Tian Shan region does not eliminate trade’s ability to create growth in areas without preexisting growth. An example of trade revitalizing areas is the increased economic activity in the Sogdian steppe area that suffered a slump after its conquest by Arab armies in the eighth century. The Silk Road experience a brief revival from around 1290-1340, and during its “short revival…as a result of the security on the inland roads created by the Mongol unification of the steppe…the price of plain silk from China to Italy tripled.” This increased demand for silk facilitated by the Silk Road’s resurgence helped spur massive economic productivity in the Sogdian steppe. (La Vaissiere 113-114)

In the context of the Silk Road, it is possible, although incorrect, to argue that while the west benefitted from the trade that China was relatively left behind. This is not enough to make a broader claim against long distance trade. La Vaissiere writes that “the focus of the argument on the economic importance of the Silk Road in the economic history of antiquity and middle ages has actually been on the receiving societies, not on China or the countries of the go-betweens…whatever the small volume of luxury trade, its importance for the receiving societies was nevertheless enormous.” Even if this is correct, it is far from universally true. The statement’s logic necessitates price elasticity in luxury goods and price inelasticity in staple goods (which explains why Europe would only trade for silk in times of plenty). However, in Mesopotamia, Assur sent tin and textiles to Kanis in exchange for gold and silver, and both sides benefitted immensely from the long distance trade. (La Vaissiere, 116)

La Vaissiere concludes by acknowledging an under-appreciated benefit of trade: international awareness. Without both east-west and north-south trade during and before the Middle Ages, many areas of the world would have continued their existences without awareness of how entire civilizations operated within a few hundred miles of their borders. With the proliferation of long distance trade, “an international division of labor was contemplated, even if not actually realized.” (La Vaissiere, 121)

With this influx of knowledge, “Muslim geographers inherited from this basic geography and developed their much broader vision of the world. They had an actual, if patchy, knowledge of the whole Eurasian and African landmass, from Japan to Madagascar and Senegal.” This was mirrored in Europe, where “the novelty of the thirteenth century in Europe was the discovery of the possibility of trade, which proved to be more important in the long run than the actual trade. This is what led the Portuguese around Africa to the Indian Ocean, in search of spices and Christians.” The proliferation of goods and knowledge exchanged over long distance trade led to a global explosion of knowledge and expansion. (La Vaissiere, 121)

Long distance trade’s impact on the Silk Road does pale in comparison when compared with its importance for the ancient Assyrians, but both civilizations point to the importance of trade for a variety of short and long term benefits. The fact that the Silk Road was not the sole factor for growth of cities along its route, and that in some cases its path followed previous growth and expansion is not indicative of systematic weaknesses of trade in China. Additionally, the ensuing spread of knowledge around the world that helped fuel the Age of Exploration is an undeniable outcome of long distance trade. The Silk Road was a more unstable source of economic growth and trade than the more constant flow of goods between Assur and Kanis, and the Assyrian society was better equipped to deal with the complicated aspects of trade, allowing them to reap its rewards more effectively.

When examining the growth strategies from long distance trade in both Assyria and the Silk Road economies, it is helpful to examine them in the context of extensive and intensive growth strategies. The trade routes from China to Europe and Assur to Kanis were, by and large, intensive operations that relied on mutual exchanges of goods rather than forcible conquest. Economist Esther Boserup’s findings confirm that intensive growth is more sustainable in the long term and less susceptible to falling into the Malthusian trap than extensive growth strategies. (Morley, 32) However, not all intensive growth strategies are the same, and the Assyrians capitalized on the benefits of long distance trade in a way the Chinese were unable to for a litany of reasons, including extended periods of political instability during the Silk Road’s existence. Both forms of trade ultimately proved beneficial, leading to great economic growth and increased international awareness, proving the benefits of embarking on systems of long distance trade for survival, economic growth, and ultimately the pursuit of knowledge itself.

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Works Cited

Morley, N. 2011. “Demography and the Graeco-Roman World: New Insights and Approaches.”

In C. Holleran and A. Pudsey. Demography and the Graeco-Roman World: New Insights and Approaches, Cambridge: 14–36.

Vaissière, É. de la. 2015. “Trans-Asian Trade or the Silk Road Deconstructed.” In Neal and

Williamson 2015: 101-124.

Veenhof, K. R. 1997. “‘Modern’ Features in Old Assyrian Trade.” Journal of the Economic and

Social History of the Orient 40: 336–366.