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15.4 Early Traders

The great trading cities of the Phoenicians are the most striking of the early manifestations of the peculiar and characteristic gift of the Semitic peoples to mankind, trade and exchange.[1] While the Semitic Phoenician peoples were spreading themselves upon the seas, another kindred Semitic people, the Arameans, whose occupation of Damascus we have already noted, were developing the caravan routes of the Arabian and Persian deserts, and becoming the chief trading people of Western Asia. The Semitic peoples, earlier civilized than the Aryan, have always shown, and still show today, a far greater sense of quality and quantity in marketable goods than the latter; it is to their need of account-keeping that the development of alphabetical writing is to be ascribed, and it is to them that most of the great advances in computation are due. Our modern numerals are Arabic; our arithmetic and algebra are essentially Semitic sciences.

The Semitic peoples, we may point out here, are to this day counting peoples strong in their sense of equivalents and reparation. The moral teaching of the Hebrews was saturated by such ideas. “With what measure ye mote, the same shall be meted unto you”. Other races and peoples have imagined diverse and fitful and marvellous gods, but it was the trading Semites who first began to think of God as a Righteous Dealer, whose promises were kept, who failed not the humblest creditor, and called to account every spurious act.

The trade that was going on in the ancient world before the sixth or seventh century B.C. was almost entirely, a barter trade. There was little or no credit or coined money. The ordinary standard of value with the early Aryans was cattle, as it still is with the Zulus and Kaffirs today. In the Iliad, the respective values of two shields are stated in head of cattle, and the Roman word for moneys, pecunia, is derived from pecus, cattle. Cattle as money had this advantage: it did not need to be carried from one owner to another, and if it needed attention and food, at any rate it bred. But it was inconvenient for ship or caravan transit. Many other substances have at various times been found convenient as a standard; tobacco was once legal tender in the colonial days in North America, and in West Africa fines are paid and bargains made in bottles of trade gin. The early Asiatic trade included metals; and weighed lumps of metal, since they were in general demand and were convenient for hoarding and storage, costing nothing for fodder and needing small houseroom, soon asserted their superiority over cattle and sheep. Iron, which seems to have been first reduced from its ores by the Hittites, was, to begin with, a rare and much-desired substance.[2] It is stated by Aristotle to have supplied the first currency. In the collection of letters found at Tel-el-Amarna, addressed to and from Amenophis III (already mentioned) and his successor Amenophis IV, one from a Hittite king promises iron as an extremely valuable gift. Gold, then as now, was the most precious, and therefore most portable, security. In early Egypt silver was almost as rare as gold until after the XVIIIth Dynasty. Later the general standard of value in the Eastern world became silver, measured by weight.

To begin with, metals were handed about in ingots and weighed at each transaction. Then they were stamped to indicate their fineness and guarantee their purity. The first recorded coins were minted about 600 B.C. in Lydia, a gold producing country in the west of Asia Minor. The first-known gold coins were minted in Lydia by Croesus, whose name has become a proverb for wealth; he was conquered, as we shall tell later, by that same Cyrus the Persian who took Babylon in 539 B.C. But very probably coined money had been used in Babylonia before that time. The “sealed shekel”, a stamped piece of silver, came very near to being a coin. The promise to pay so much silver or gold on “leather” (= parchment) with the seal of some established firm is probably as old or older than coinage. The Carthaginians used such “leather money”. We know very little of the way in which small traffic was conducted. Common people, who in those ancient times were in dependent positions, seem to have had no money at all; they did their business by barter. Early Egyptian paintings show this going on.[3]

[1]There was Sumerian trade organized round the temples before the Semites got into Babylonia. See Hall and King, Archaeological Discoveries in Western Asia. —E. B.
[2]Iron bars of fixed weight were used for coin in Britain. Caesar, De Bello Gallico. —G. Wh.
[3]The earliest coinage of the west coast of Asia Minor was in electrum, a mixture of gold and silver, and there is an interesting controversy as to whether the first issues were stamped by cities, temples, or private bankers. —P. G.

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