It is said that "Rome was not built in a day." Indeed, the Roman Empire was the last of a series of civilizations to emerge in the Mediterranean by the First Millennium, B.C. Precursors to the culture most identified as the seat of Western political economy, the Ancient Egyptians, Etruscans, Greeks, Syrians, Carthaginians and Phoenicians all had contact with the Romans, and eventually were incorporated through territorial expansion of the Empire in Asia Minor, Cyrenaica, Europe, and North Africa. Prior to the Roman period, Europe was primarily occupied by Barbarian tribes; societies where no written language, legal system or alternative mechanism of governance was in place. When we discuss the advancement of Ancient civilizations, then, it is through the transmission of law, literacy and polity that we find source to retrospect on early economic forms. In Feinman and Nicholas (2004), Perspectives on Political Economies, the difficulties of studying Ancient economy are addressed in that,
"The economy, and all the institutions, activities, and relationships we are accustomed to thinking of as composing it, was from prehistoric times onward for a millennium or more a fairly amorphous category conforming only poorly to any modern abstractions of what an economy ought to be. In other words, it was deeply intertwined with other cultural patterns whose articulations we can seldom do more than dimly surmise" (Feinman and Nicholas, 43).
Where state institutions are concerned, the primacy of archaeological and artistic record as a resource to rendering an accurate historiography of the Ancient world is discussed extensively in Angus Maddison (2007) Contours of the World Economy 1-2030 AD: Essays in Macro-Economic History. As Maddison confirms, the study of ancient economics is an exercise in exploratory patience, and one which requires great attention to oft competitive analysis where research conducted at different stages in modern history since the nineteenth century is so sparse in terms of number of investigations that details to accessible and legible official records such as an urban population census are worth their weight in gold.
Although documentation of laws scripted in stone or in scroll provide perhaps the best insight into the ancient historical record, comparative study of transcription in sculpture with a broader range of artifacts from the various period sheds more light on the economic activities of everyday life, than those afforded through legal proscription (Smith). Finally, theoretical impetus to the study of ancient economy is benefited by Walter Benjamin's mid-twentieth century musings on the role of archaeological artifacts as 'Ur' elements to social forms (Buck Norss, and Eiland & McLaughlin). If Benjamin's query is presumptive of later economic forces in market capitalization, the episteme is classical in the last instance: recapitulated into the present from the Mesopotamian valley of Ur.
In what is now contemporary Iraq, commencement of the Neolithic Revolution (12,000 -- 8,000 BC) marked the shift from the hunting and gather societies of the Paleolithic cultures. The beginnings of pastoral and agricultural society are evidenced in the Near Eastern record prior to other parts of the Mediterranean region and the appearance of cities along the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers shortly after the appearance of the Copper Age 3500 BC in Mesopotamia also affecting Egypt during the same period (de la Croix and Tansey). Collective recognition of the city-state formation is known as Sumer, with representation of Sumerian cultural developments, including protoliterate writings called cuneiform. Political organization of the Sumerian city-state was first administered under the leadership of a 'divine' ruler, and theocratic socialist system (Maddison).
In Yofee (1995), the political economy of the earliest states in ancient Mesopotamia is explored in an investigation to appraise the network of the region's great manorial estates, comprised of temples and palaces. Evidence to the study shows that local systems of power and authority coexisted with, and at times resisted the centralized governments of the Indus Valley. The nascent organization of the city-state afforded permeable social institutions to the point that individuals were conscripted to serve multiple and varied roles as economic actors; hence leading to the reduction of risks, and increased cooperation in competitive benefit as political leadership transformed over time. Of considerable importance is the noted interaction of the autonomous city-states within Mesopotamia, and the development of a cultural sphere supportive of proto-capitalist style value abstraction linked to the circulation of goods through production, trade, and consumption, from c. 3200-1600 B.C.
Interestingly, work on the ancient cultures of Southern Arabia is increasingly informative to the major a role a lesser discussed Bronze Age, Sabaean culture dating to the end of the second millennium BC played in the distribution of wealth from trade along the Incense Road (Pietcsch). While the backbone of the Sabaen economy was irrigated agriculture, the derivatives found in the Holocene soil in this area surrounding the Ma'rib Oasis have revealed the source so the ores and alabasters found in cultural objects definitive to the greater Mesopotamian archaeological record, illustrated by the map in Image 1.
Image 1. Location of Ma'rib and investigation area.
Source: Pietsch, D. Holocene soils and sediments around Ma'rib Oasis, Yemen: Further Sabaean treasures?. Holocene, 20.5 (2010), 786).
Rich in phosphate, organic material and volcanic ashes, the Ma'rib offers select demonstration of cultivation before the Great Dam of Ma'rib was constructed in the first millennium BC and is proving an important record or archive of land use.
Aside from archaeological and architectural remains, knowledge of the Mesopotamian culture and its predominantly agricultural trade economy is discussed in the Epic of Gilgamesh; a Sumerian text survived more fully in Akkadian, the language of ascension used by the Assyrian king Assurbanipal in Nineveh in the Bronze Age, (c. 2340 -- 2180 BC), just prior to the transformation to the Iron Age cultures of Babylon (c. 1792 -- 1750 BC), Assyria (c. 1000- 612 BC), Neo-Babylonia (c. 612 -- 539 BC) and Persia (c. 559 -- 331 BC) (de la Croix and Tansey).
With exception of the short lived Neo-Babylonian period, the three main latter periods in Mesopotamian economic history are representative in: 1) the Babylonian dynasty of Hammurabi (c. 1792-1750 BC) whose legal code of 282 laws pertaining to commercial and property matters as well as domestic problems are inscribed on the lower portion of the Stele of Hammurabi; 2) Assyria the first military state; and 3) Persia the successor to the lineage of Mesopotamian kings. Less is known about Mesopotamia's final chapter, Sassania (c. 331 BC -- 651 AD), yet presence of cultural tenets are found in a canon of Roman art which would come to have a great effect on the symbolic and stylistic aesthetics seen in the circulation of objects in Christian Middle Ages and Islamic world.
If Mesopotamian culture had some influence on Ancient Egypt through trade, nothing within the Near Eastern city-state formation would predict in the scale of the Egyptian contribution to the history of world economics both in scope and in longevity. Interpretation of Ancient Egyptian history is extensive, and typically addressed through classificatory distinction of the following periods: Pre-Dynastic Period (Before c. 3150 BC); an Early Dynasty (c. 3150 -- 2700 BC) comprised of Dynasties 1-2; and a series of three (3) Kingdoms: Old (c. 2700 -- 2190 BC) comprised of Dynasties 3 -6, Middle (c. c. 2040 -- 1674 BC) comprised of Dynasties 11-14, and New (c. 1552 -- 1069 BC) the final Dynasty. Two Intermediate Dynastic periods are reflected between the Kingdoms, constituted of First Intermediate (c. 2190 -- 2040 AC), comprised of Dynasties 7-10; and Second Intermediate (c. 1674 -- 1552 BC), comprised of Dynasties 15-17 (de la Croix and Tansey).
Consecutive to Mesopotamian history, is the emergence of the Ancient Egyptian unified state in 3150 BC. The vastness of Ancient Egypt is still evidenced in the structural remains of the pyramids and mega construction in both Upper Egypt in the South, and Lower Egypt, near the Nole Delta culminating at the Northern tip of the Nile River. The density of large scale architecture dedicated to the Pharaonic Dynasties of the various periods is survived in temples and the different stages of pyramid funerary tombs, illustrated in Image 2.
Image 2. The necropolis is the Great Sphinx whose head traditionally was through to resemble the features of Khafre.
Accompanied by a number of sculptures, such as those seen in statuary of King Khafre, his son Menkaure and Wife, Queen Khamekemebty, the temple and tomb organization connecting Pharaonic rule on earth with that of the heavens went through a series of theological changes, with the New Kingdom and the reign of Akhenaten (c. 1352-1336 BC) when he launched an artistic and religious revolution dedicated to monotheism. Restoration of orthodoxy in religion and art began soon after Tutankhamen, Akhenaten's son-in-law in the mummy mask in Image 3, ascended the throne. The most intact repository of afterlife holdings found in contemporary history, King Tut's mummy and lavish funerary objects later circulated the planet on exhibition; artifacts from an economy of scale of impressive proportions even today.