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Start Your Business Franchising

Could Ancient Business Predict Our Future?

ancient-business-11081702 Credit: Dreamstime.com

While many may consider Milan or Paris the world’s fashion capitals, author Keith Roberts says in a new book the industry got its true start centuries ago on what is now the coast of Syria.

It was there, in 1200 B.C., that the Phoenicians found a black substance in clams that could be turned into purple dye for clothing—  lending some color to fashion, which until then had comprised only plain fabrics, and establishing the Phoenicians as one of the earliest commercial powers.

"That started out as the fashion capital of the world," Roberts told BusinessNewsDaily. "The Phoenicians became extremely successful in business."

It’s the origins of businesses like that one that Roberts explores in his new book "The Origins of Business, Money and Markets" (Columbia University Press, 2011) which explains the history of businesses from their earliest beginnings in ancient Mesopotamia.

Despite what you may have been seen on "The Flintstones," Roberts said there were no businesses in prehistoric times.

"They didn't have much wealth and they didn't have any idea of profit," Roberts said. "It didn't enter their world view."

Roberts said businesses in their earliest form were started as a way to use goods or services as purchasing power. An example offered in his book is the people of Assyria, who would take monthlong caravans to Kanesh, in Turkey, where residents had an abundance of silver deposits.

"They would bring stuff that the people of Kanesh wanted," Roberts said of the early trades. "They brought compact things that they could easily travel with."

It was the creation of cities by the Greeks during the time of Alexander the Great that truly led to today's concept of businesses and money taking hold, according to Roberts.

"They made (businesses) central to the idea of a city," Roberts said. "They were the ones who brought money and markets to bear."

In the book, Roberts also examines how businesses expanded to the Roman Empire between 44 B.C. and A.D. 1400 to help sustain the wars they were fighting.

In the book, Roberts also explains, in ways frighteningly relevant to current conditions, the mysterious virtual disappearance of business in the third century.

While admitting there were extenuating circumstances such as plagues and a lack of landowners, Roberts said the disappearance of businesses is similar to today's economy in that the wealthy are the ones with all of the power.

"They can translate (their wealth) into political power," he said. "That power lets them operate selfishly."

That selfishness in the past led to the downfall of businesses – and Roberts said the situation should be watched closely to ensure it doesn't happen again.

"If we don't learn from history, we are bound to repeat it," he said.

Chad Brooks

Chad Brooks is a Chicago-based freelance writer who has nearly 15 years experience in the media business. A graduate of Indiana University, he spent nearly a decade as a staff reporter for the Daily Herald in suburban Chicago, covering a wide array of topics including, local and state government, crime, the legal system and education. Following his years at the newspaper Chad worked in public relations, helping promote small businesses throughout the U.S. Follow him on Twitter.