ONE of the great innovations of the Hellenistic Age was the creation of State banks.
These initially appeared in a number of city-States; but the most noteworthy government banking corporations were organised by the Ptolemies in Egypt.
The main bank was in the capital, Alexandria, with branches throughout the country.
These were, in fact, branches farmed out to individual contractors and, as a result, even villages often had their own ‘State banks’.
These institutions collected the State’s revenues from royal officials as well as tax farmers and sought to invest any funds that were not immediately spent on government activities.
The banks also attracted private capital, mainly from government officials.
In those days, investment in the Hellenistic world was often in the form of loans to private individuals and members of government, but much of this money was used to finance trade.
Private banks handled most of the needs of the common people.
The independent bankers of Athens remained, as did the temple bankers of Asia and the large commercial banks of Mesopotamia.
This economic mix produced a startling increase in the number of financiers and traders, many of whom became quite wealthy.
In addition, a new class of entrepreneurial bureaucrats were created to administer the government. This is not to say that the bureaucrats of the pre-Hellenistic Near East did not engage in personal business while conducting that of the State, but the Hellenistic bureaucrats intermingled public and private activities so thoroughly that it is often difficult to untangle them.
An impression of some of these individuals is seen in Egyptian papyri of the 3rd Century BC, most notably those from the surviving archive of Zenon, the secretary-steward of Apollonius, the chief financial officer of King Ptolemy H. Apollonius had his hand in many ventures, while Zenon left records of several of these projects.
Through his staff and directly, Apollonius engaged in trading ventures in wine, oil, papyrus and cloth, with correspondents in what are today Turkey, Lebanon, Israel, Syria, and countries of the Arabian Peninsula.
Many of these goods were carried by his merchant fleet.
Additionally, he was said to hold an estate from the King comprising
6 200 acres near Cairo, in central Egypt.
Apollonius worked with other politicians and bureaucrats who were regularly in on his deals.
Even Zenon acquired businesses of his own. Economically, the Hellenistic world absorbed aspects of the State-dominated economies of the Near East as well as much of the freewheeling, entrepreneurial spirit of the poleis.
Although in many respects the Hellenistic Age represented a blend of the best of the ancient Near East and the Greek city-States, a sinister legacy of the previous Hellenic poleis remained, namely political division and warfare.
A reason for the adoption by the respective States of the near eastern practice of State monopoly was to maximise revenues to support large armies and fleets.
Owing to these fratricidal conflicts, the Greek world failed to meet the challenge arising to the West in the Italian peninsula – the growing power of Rome!
With the European Middle Ages, following the fall of the Roman Empire, came the birth of a new economic age.
At the end of the 3rd or 4th Centuries AD, while the processes of life continued, the old Roman economic life was broken down and a new dispensation put in place. The new scheme of things, usually designated as ‘Medieval’, did not replace Rome in a flash or even in a few generations.
The Germanic invaders, who succeeded the Romans, now admired the civilisation they had infiltrated and conquered, and their kings even accepted titles from the emperors in Rome and Constantinople.
A good deal of the Roman economic structure the Germanic invaders inherited remained intact for centuries.
Ultimately, however, the Germans and those they conquered created a very different economic world from that of the Roman Empire, or of any of the States of Western antiquity.
Economies within the borders of the old Roman Empire continued along the path set in the late imperial period; namely, large, mostly self-sufficient agricultural estates.
By the 5th Century AD, a small wealthy aristocracy monopolised land owning and consequently the economic system of the Roman world.
However, the distribution system, in particular, was inefficient, leaving the majority of the Roman population near starvation.
Germanic society fared little better.
Most Germans had been herdsmen and farmers and within their ranks there was also an hereditary nobility who owed their prominence to their positions within the clans that dominated Germanic society.
Like their Roman counterparts, German barons exercised control over large estates.
Thus, within the German villages, most of the population was subservient in some fashion to the Baron.
These peasants differed only in the depth of their dependency, as reflected in their obligations to nobility. Many of them were outright slaves, with little room for the merchant, the manufacturer or, indeed, the banker that had been present in substantial numbers in ancient Mesopotamia, Egypt, Greece and Rome.
The Germans, recorded Julius Caesar in his Commentaries, traded amber, furs and slaves to the Celts for horses, for “… on horseback he buys and sells; on horseback he takes his meat and drink….”
For their part, Roman merchants actively traded with the Germans on a barter basis from the 1st Century BC onwards.
As a result, several Roman towns near the frontier, such as Marbach and Augsburg, had become trading centres.
While some of this trade survived the collapse of the Roman government, commerce in general remained at the low levels found in the late Empire.
If capitalism means ‘the desire for wealth’, the accumulation of capital and the search for profit-making ventures, a form of capitalism had no doubt existed in those civilisations.
The pursuit of wealth did not decrease during the early Middle Ages, but it was subdued and tied almost exclusively to the acquisition of land.
Dr Michelina Andreucci is a Zimbabwean-Italian researcher, industrial design consultant and is a published author in her field.
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