A short history of trade

A short history of trade

Coffee from Africa, tea from Asia, cocoa from America and wine from Australia. A quick glance at the selection of drinks on offer at an average German supermarket is all it takes to see the accomplishments of globalisation.

We trade with countries all over the world. But, instead of international trade thriving as a result of globalisation, isn’t it actually the other way round? Isn’t globalisation simply a consequence of international trade? People have been transporting goods over long distances to trade with other people for centuries. The Westfälische Hellweg, which leads from Duisburg to Höxter near Paderborn and beyond, is one of central Europe’s oldest trade routes and is said to be up to 5,000 years old. However, historians presume that around 75 percent of trade was conducted within a radius of around 20 kilometres back then – which would have been the furthest distance able to be reached in one day. Long-distance overland trade was only really worth the effort if valuable goods were being transported, such as amber or lapis lazuli.

A short history of trade

The volume of trade was greater in the Mediterranean than it was in central Europe. From 2,000 BC, the Phoenicians established their own trade empire from their base in the Levant (the countries in the eastern Mediterranean), which later extended as far as the coasts of Portugal and Guinea. The wood of the Lebanon cedar and cloths dyed with the colour of the purple murex were traded for metals and ores, which could be processed by skilled craftsmen into precious jewellery and sold on. By trading with the Hittites’ smelted iron, it is also probable that the Phoenicians had a hand in the transition from the Bronze Age to the Iron Age in the eastern Mediterranean. From 800 BC, the Phoenicians’ centre of trade, Carthage, in what is now Tunisia grew into an empire that would act as an adversary of the aspiring Roman Empire 600 years later.

Empires promote trade

The Delian League in Ancient Greece shows how political issues affect the economy. The association, which was founded to act as a form of defence against the Persians, breathed new life into trade between Greek city states partly because of the increase in legal security. Traders in the Roman Empire also benefitted from legal security. For example, they only had to pay duty on their goods when passing the first province border. The Romans’ transport infrastructure was so well constructed that crops from the provinces drove down prices in Rome. An increasing number of Italian farmers switched to wine or olive production or cattle breeding as a result – the basis of the higher culinary standards enjoyed by the people of Rome. Later on, a system of measurements and a monetary standard, both of which applied throughout the Roman Empire, boosted trade even further. Trading with the Romans encouraged other societies, such as the Germanic peoples, to produce similar goods, and inspired other styles of goods production. However, the fall of the Eastern and Western Roman Empires and the start of the Migration Period meant that long-distance trade subsided for the time being.

The first international currency

750 and 1100 AD, trade was dominated by the Vikings operating in Northern Europe. Their trade activities ranged from Russia to Byzantium and Central Asia and across the Atlantic to North Africa and North America. Coins from the era discovered in archaeological investigations show that German coins predominated as a method of payment. Experts estimate that the international reach of this currency back then was comparable with that of the US dollar in 1995.