The endgame of every civilization is essentially the same: the survival of its culture and advancements. War, education, trade, and expansion are all centered on that one simple goal. Anything that would harm or destroy a society is swiftly discarded, and anything that will preserve and advance the society is quickly adopted. While no society has been guaranteed survival, some have left lasting ideas on the world that have impacted and shaped the next generation of society.
Two such civilizations were ancient Greece and Rome. These two civilizations have been remembered and emulated for years for the same reason: these two giants of society approached civilization as a business agreement between each citizen and their government. Everything that was accomplished in their governments and economies were for the mutual benefit of the citizens. Having been passed down to the next generation of societies, the ideal that civilization is essentially a way of doing business with each other is still followed.

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Three main types of business were found in the ancient world. Agriculture provided raw materials, manufacturing took converted raw materials into refined products, and commerce handled the trade between the two. According to historian Mark Cartwright, “In Greece and the wider Aegean, local, regional, and international trade exchange existed…The presence, in particular, of pottery and precious goods such as gold, copper, and ivory, found far from their place of production attests to the exchange network which existed between Egypt, Asia Minor, the Greek mainland, and islands such as Crete, Cyprus, and Cyclades.” Business in Ancient Rome was much the same in that they had “regional, inter-regional, and international trade was a common feature of the Roman world.” Both had some kind of state regulation and taxation, at some point even large amounts of government control. But, for the most part, these two systems of economy were allowed to develop and flourish as the citizens worked hard for themselves and for the preservation of their civilizations.

The economic activity in these civilizations can be tracked as proven by the work that the historians at accomplished in tracking the economic activity in the Roman Empire. Certain increases and decreases in different economic areas can be plotted and compared to show when economic activity was greatest. In the case of the Roman Empire, “the evidence apparently indicates that aggregate economic activity in the ancient world peaked in the 1st century AD, after rising for nearly a thousand years and then started to decline, nearly continuously, for nearly a thousand years.” The components that made up the most essential parts of the Roman Empire and, therefore, were the easiest to track were increased lead productions, road development, Mediterranean shipwrecks, the increase in the size of the bones of mammals, and estimated population growth. By tracking the increase and failure of these few things, roughly halfway through the first century A.D. is easy to identify as the height of the economy in the Roman Empire. In addition to their increased productivity in key economic factors and the health of both their cattle and crops, both of these civilizations had well codified laws and structured legal systems. Historian and economist Peter Temin stated that “the existence of such a legal structure is often used today as a marker for modern societies and for economic growth in less-developed countries.” These laws, along with education and culture development, are the building blocks of economies.

However, neither of these civilization giants grew to the apex of their power and influence without enduring some dark spots of history. Greece underwent several wars that affected land profitability and population growth, including the Peloponnesian Wars and the multiple invasions of the Persian Army. Rome was also constantly at war, conquering and building nations while spreading throughout as much of the then-known world as possible. Besides being tangled in wars, the Greek and Roman cultures have endured the historical blight of slavery. In fact, Walter Scheidel has observed that “Classical Greece and the core of the Roman Empire are among the most notable cases [of genuine “slave economies”]. In some cases, labor was cheaper and easier to hire wage workers than to purchase slaves, but not every case allowed for that, especially in cases of hard physical labor. Incidentally, not every free laborer was a slave per se; some were working to pay off debts, and others were criminals that had been sent to work instead of serve a sentence in jail. Regardless of where the free labor came from, both Greece and Rome grew strong on the backs of those who would not or could not throw off oppression.

Finally, one of the largest contributions to their civilizations, and to the rest of the world, that Greece and Rome made was in the way of politics. The preface to Politics and Society in Ancient Greece states that “neither one, neither politics nor society, can be studied or understood in isolation from the other.” Historian Nicholas F. Jones observed that, whether in politics or society, “conflict is so fundamental to human society that it operates both at the level of the individual dispute and in a higher-order meta-contest among competing modes of conflict.” This conflict gave rise to the greatest gift that Greece gave the world – the democracy. The Greeks, especially the Athenians, settled on the idea that each individual should be able to have a say in the development of their country and the culture that was to surround them. Because of this liberty, business and trade flourished, technology developed, and education advanced on every level. Jones stated, “Perhaps, then, it was democracy, over and above the necessary conditions of climate, natural resources, and location, that provided the crucial sufficient condition that allowed for the release and full expression at Athens of the ancient Greek genius.” Struggles between citizens and their leaders gave rise to more representative forms of government.

The ancient world provided both growth and development to the rest of the world through their own innovation and expansion. Most of what the world has today has been based on some aspect of the Greco-Roman culture. Political revolution, scientific discovery, mathematical advancement, technological innovations, and artistic legacies have all been left to the world from the ancient Greek and Roman Empires. Although these great gifts have been left to the world, the desire to leave something behind was not in the minds of these giants of change. To provide for their families, to create a better society, and to understand their world drove the progress in the ancient world. Jones noted this specific phenomenon: “ Getting ahead of others, defeating one’s rivals, and (always to be kept in mind when dealing with ancient Greeks) gaining recognition for one’s victories seem to be widespread and enduring goals of civilized living, ancient and modern alike.” Conflict and competition are as normal to society as they are to business; neither institution would make any advancement without them. This inclination to strive with their peers produced two of the most successful societies and economies in culture. Just as the ancient world approached civilization as a business agreement, so, too, must successful societies today.

  • “The Rise and Fall of the Ancient Economy.” 24 June 2015. Web. 25 February 2016.
  • Cartwright, Mark. “Trade in Ancient Greece.” 18 January 2012. Web. 25 February 2016.
  • Cartwright, Mark. “Trade in the Roman World.” 17 December 2013. Web. 25 February 2016.
  • Jones, Nicholas F. Politics and Society in Ancient Greece. Westport, CT: Praeger, 2008. Print.
  • Preface to Politics and Society in Ancient Greece. Westport, CT: Praeger, 2008. Print.
  • Scheidel, Walter. The Comparative Economics of Slavery in the Greco-Roman World. November 2005. Web. 25 February 2016.
  • Temin, Peter. “Chapter 1: Economics and Ancient History,” The Roman Market Economy. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2012. Print.