Economic History

More Inventions of the Ancient Near East

Part 1 – A Gallery of Inventions: Some Lesser Known Firsts from the Ancient Near East.
Part 3 – Tatian, Clement of Alexandria and the Battle for History.

My post from last month highlighting a number of less well known inventions from the ancient Near East proved quite popular, so a sequel is of course forthcoming. Once again, this series avoids covering well known innovations like cities, writing, schools, agriculture and the wheel. Here are some more inventions that you may not know came from the ancient Near East.

1. Investment Banking

The Great Ziggurat of Ur. Sumerian temples played a major role in the ancient Mesopotamian economy.

Modern banking traces its origins to Babylonian temples in the early 2nd millennium BC. Ancient Mesopotamian temples always had a redistributive economic function. Temples took in donations and tax revenue and amassed great wealth. They then redistributed these goods to people in need such as widows, orphans, and the poor (sometimes the temples became corrupt and hoarded wealth, but that’s a topic for another article).

After a thousand years of this, the priests who ran the temples were literally sitting on giant piles of money. So around the time of Hammurabi (in the 18th century BC), they began to make loans. Old Babylonian temples made numerous loans to poor and needy entrepreneurs. The loans were made at reduced below-market interest rates lower than those offered on loans given by private individuals, and sometimes arrangements were made for the creditor to make food donations to the temple instead of repaying interest.[1]

Nevertheless, the temples still lacked many of the features of a full bank. They did not take deposits, issue checks, or engage in fractional reserve banking. They were religious institutions offering loans as a charity service, closer to modern microfinance initiatives than to Goldman Sachs.

Something closer to modern banking emerged in the neo-Babylonian period in the 7th century BC. Banking was conducted by certain families who passed the trade on from parents to children. The Ea-iluta-bani family of the city of Borsippa was active from 687 to 487 BC. Beginning as mid-level land owners possessing several tracts of agricultural land, the men of the family married well, received decent sized dowries, and invested their liquid assets (mostly silver and food products) in loans.

Cuneiform tablet detailing a loan of silver, c. 1800 BC. The text reads:
“3 1/3 silver sigloi, at interest of 1/6 sigloi and 6 grains per sigloi, has Amurritum, servant of Ikun-pi-Istar, received on loan from Ilum-nasir. In the third month she shall pay the silver.”
1 sigloi=8.3 grams.

Numerous contract documents have been recovered which list recipients of loans, the amount loaned, the term of the loan and the interest rate to be paid. When the loan was repaid, the tablet was usually broken. This gives us a possibly skewed picture of loans, because the only tablets we can read are from the loans that were not repaid.

What we can tell is that the Ea-iluta-bani family generally loaned at 20% annual interest. In other cases, possibly when the debtor was less reliable, items were taken as security in lieu of interest. If the loan was not repaid, the item would be kept and sold. Sometimes the security was an item that increased in value, such as a slave that could perform service for the creditors for the duration of the loan. This was in effect a disguised form of interest.

The Ea-iluta-bani family tended to make about half of their loans in silver and the other half in food products. There were no coins in use, so silver was measured by weight and purity. Silver had the advantage of having a fairly constant value. Food products on the other hand tended to decrease in value shortly after the harvest time and increase in value during times of the year when they were less plentiful. The family, therefore, tried structure contracts so as to lend out foodstuffs when they were cheapest and get repaid when they were more more expensive, making a greater profit.

Silver, on the other hand, could be loaned out at any time. 80% of our surviving contracts are for periods six months or less, but this may simply indicate that short term loans were less likely to be repaid. The Ea-iluta-bani family women would often loan out their dowry as a long term investment in order to make a steady stream of profit from interest payments.

By the time of the Persian Empire, finance was a major business in the cities Babylon, Borsippa, Sippar, Uruk, Nippur, Uruk, Larsa and Ur. Banking families such as the Egbi in Babylon, Iddin-Nabu of Babylon and Murashu of Nippur became very wealthy and even engaged in international commerce with countries outside of Mesopotamia. The Murashu broadened their investments under Persian rule, in addition to simple loans they branched out into real estate and managed and rented land. Due to their large land holdings, the Murashu family became extremely powerful in Persian-controlled Mesopotamia. They may have become too powerful. All record of their activity ceases after the 10th year of Darius II in 413 BC. Either the records are lost, or Darius moved to end their power.[2]

2. Poison Gas

In AD 256, the Sassanid Persians under Shah Shapur I laid siege to the Roman border fortress town of Dura-Europos in Syria on the Euphrates River. During the assault, the Persians built several siege ramps. They also dug a number of mines to try and cause the walls of the fortress to collapse.[3]

Aerial view of the fortress town of Dura-Europos, on the west bank of the Euphrates on the border of Roman Syria. Tower 19 was situated in the middle of the wall to the left side of the picture.


Assyrian Agricultural Technology

Assyria is famous primarily for its military innovations. Siege warfare, cavalry, and the integration and methodical organization of warfare were all advanced considerably by the Assyrian state in its insatiable desire to conquer its neighbors. What Assyria is not well known for are its civil innovations. Yet, Assyrian armies were sacking foreign cities, the Assyrian homeland was being enriched with various things stolen and looted from other countries. The Assyrians may not have been great innovators, but they were great derivators, taking inventions from various parts of the world and adapting them to their own needs.

Assyria was a land power for sure, which means that its power was at its roots based on agricultural production. As both an agrarian society and a highly militarized state, Iron Age Assyria is not the type of society where one would expect to find much independent thought or innovation in the civilian sector. This is partly true. Few pieces of Assyrian agricultural technology were new. Most were adapted from surrounding cultures. But some great agricultural innovations and feats of engineering did arise.

Modern day farmer's fields along the Tigris River near Diyarbakır, Turkey.

The heart of ancient Assyria was situated along the Tigris River, in what is now northern Iraq. The Two Rivers were vital to farming in what would otherwise be a desert, but they also carry six times the silt of the Nile River. This means that their river beds are shallower and fill up faster, and therefore the rivers change courses more often. They also flow faster, and the Tigris flows even faster than the Euphrates. While the Nile flooded regularly and predictably and gently inundated Egypt’s fields every year, the shallow beds, fast rate of flow and heavy silt load meant that the Tigris and Euphrates were prone to violent, unpredictable floods that spilled over their banks and washed away fields rather than replenished them.[1]

As a result, systems of levees and canals were built in Mesopotamia from as early as Sumerian times. Canals were used to trap water, which could then be used to irrigate fields. There were no sluice gates to control the water flow, rather, fields were flooded by digging through the canal wall to flood the field, and then shoveling mud into the breach to seal it back up again once the desired amount of water had come through.This meant that each farmer’s field had to directly border a canal. As a result, complex canal systems sprung up everywhere people lived in Mesopotamia. Maintaining the canals was a major duty of government. The nation’s food supply depended on it.

Flood irrigation from canals is still used by many farmers in modern Iraq.

Rivers flooded in the spring as mountaintop snows melted at the sources of the rivers. Canal breaching was done at this time on fallow fields to prepare them for planting. The fields would then be plowed in autumn after a rain. If there were no rains, more irrigation was required. Once the field had dried out enough so that the ground was not wet, but before it was rock hard, it was ready to be plowed.

Plowing was done with oxen, typically four to a plow. The soil was tough enough that the plow required three or more passes for the point to break up the soil create a good furrow. It took three men to work a plow team, to guide the oxen and hold down the plow handles. There was no steering mechanism on plows or any wheels. Once the end of the furrow was reached, the oxen had to be unhitched and the plow turned around, and the oxen re-hitched and the process begun again in the other direction.


High North: Carthaginian Exploration of Ireland

In the ancient world, the British Isles were on the edge of knowledge, so far from civilization as to be placed in the realm of the almost mythical. Prior to Julius Caesar’s invasion of Britain in 55 BC, few men from the Mediterranean had been there. Winston Churchill chose to begin his History of the English Speaking Peoples at this point, because that is the point when he saw Britain as first making contact with the outside world. Modern archaeology has shown this assessment to be manifestly unfair. Britain was inhabited for millennia prior, its inhabitants built great tombs, mounds and stone circles, and traded across water with mainland Europe. Immigration, invasions and population exchanges took place with the mainland. Goods found their way through trade networks across Gaul to the Mediterranean.

Yet, if Britain was mysterious to classical authors, Ireland was the very edge of knowledge, a mysterious island with fertile soil but inhabited by strange and savage people. Ireland was never conquered by the Romans, indeed, the island’s recorded history did not begin until St. Patrick visited the island in the 4th century AD. Yet, there is evidence of earlier contacts.

The Phoenicians had colonized the area around the Straits of Gibraltar from at least the 9th century BC. But their settlements did not range far, and there is little evidence of Phoenician exploration along the Atlantic coast past the settlements at Gadir and Mogador. Phoenician traders were content to buy their wares from local traders in Tartessos and Morocco and then resell them across the Mediterranean. Their suppliers in turn bought their wares from the interiors of Europe and Africa where Phoenicians could not reach.

Himilco's Voyage.

This situation began to change in the 6th century. The first change was that the disparate Phoenician colonies in the western Mediterranean were all gradually brought under the control of Carthage. Now united as one maritime empire, their pooled resources could be used for greater ventures. One of these ventures was to go to war to protect the Carthaginian sphere of influence and monopoly on trade. The Greeks were halted in 535 BC after the battle of Alalia and the westward expansion of Greek colonies past Massalia was halted. A treaty was concluded with Rome in 509 BC which recognized separate spheres of influence and trade for Carthage and Rome.[1]

The second venture was to outfit expeditions to explore the coasts of the Atlantic. Exploration could find new opportunities for trade and markets for Carthaginian goods. It could also cut out some of the middlemen in Spain and Africa, creating greater profits for Carthaginian traders.

A large scaled expedition under the command of Hanno explored the coast of Africa, founded several colonies along the coast of Morocco, and possibly reached as far as Cameroon. An account of the expedition has survived, but the exact date of this expedition is not known. Pliny the Elder says that it took place “while the power of Carthage was at its height.” Greek sources in the 4th century BC seem to have had knowledge of Hanno’s account.  A general consensus has formed around a date of approximately 500 BC or the early 400s.[2]

“At about the same time,” according to Pliny, an explorer named Himilco was sent to “to explore the remote parts of Europe.” Unfortunately, Himilco’s account of his voyage has not survived. Pliny does not mention anything about the expedition except that it happened.[3]

We do have one ancient author who cited sections of Hanno’s report (or cited someone who cited Hanno’s report). Oddly, the source is Ora Maritima, a poem by the 4th century AD Roman poet Rufus Festus Avienus. Ancient sailors used a type of document called a periplus as a guide when sailing unfamiliar regions. A typical periplus contained listed information about winds, currents, maritime hazards, and sailing distances between ports. Ora Maritima (“The Sea-shore”) is a periplus written in the form of a poem. Given that this is roughly equivalent to writing a poem based on Mapquest directions, modern critics have been rather charitable to describe Avienus’ work as “rambling” and “rather second-rate.”[4]


The Edge of the World: Life in the Phoenician Colony of Gadir

In ancient Greek and Roman geographic texts, Gadir (known in Latin as Gades, in Greek as Gadeira, and in modern Spanish as Cadiz) stands out as a marker, a boundary. Here was the end of the line, the western edge of civilization, the last traces of urban, settled familiar society. Gadir was inhabited by “people who dwell at the limit where the world ends.” To the north were the barely explored coasts of Iberia, Gaul, Britainnia and mysterious Hibernia (Ireland). To the south lay the even less well known shores of Africa, a land of inhospitable terrain, strange peoples and terrifying wildlife. Due west lay the great Ocean which ran around the edges of the world. Rumors and legends persisted of land across the waters to the west, of Hesperides, of Fortunate Islands or Islands of the Blessed, but none had been there, for the gods did not permit man to cross.[1]

What was life like on this colony at the edge of the world? Archaeological excavation of the city has been limited, because the site has been continuously inhabited and any large-scale excavation would involve unacceptable demolition of the modern city of Cadiz. We are left with the descriptions of ancient historians and what archaeological evidence is available.

Gadir is situated on the Atlantic coast of Spain, just outside the Straits of Gibraltar. Oddly, given its location on the far edge of the Mediterranean world, the ancient sources indicate that the city was the first Phoenician colony founded in the western Mediterranean. The dates given by Velleius Paterculus and Pomponius Mela indicate that the colony was founded shortly after the Trojan War, at around 1100 BC.[2] This would mean Gadir was founded before Carthage, before Utica, before Lixos or any of the other Phoenician colonies. Archaeologists have long disputed the early dates given to Phoenician colonization, but more recent discoveries have placed the founding of the first Phoenician colonies back to at least the late ninth century, definitely prior to Greek colonization of the western Mediterranean.[3] The earliest colonial outposts were likely small and would have left little to no archaeological evidence behind. Alternately, the founding date could have been the date of first contact with the area and establishment of trade, with permanent settlement structures being built at a later date. Whether Gadir was founded in 1100 BC or several centuries later, its great age and precedence over the western Greek colonies seems assured.

The Pillars of Herakles: The Rock of Gibraltar in the foreground and Jebel Musa in the background.

The people of Gadir traced their history to an oracle received by the people of Tyre directing them to set up a colony at the “Pillars of Herakles” (the strait of Gibraltar). They sent out an exploratory expedition, which reached the strait but assumed that the passage marked the edge of the world and did not dare to go further. They landed on the Mediterranean side of the straits, but the omens from their sacrifices proved unfavorable and they returned to Tyre. A second expedition was dispatched some time later, which plucked up the courage to venture through the straits and along the Atlantic coast of Spain for 1500 stadia. They found an island, but once again the omens proved unfavorable and the expedition returned. The third Tyrian expedition to the region founded the colony of Gadir.[4] Despite the founding story’s emphasis on the role of oracles, the tale as handed down to us does not mention any favorable omens associated with choosing the successful site. While other texts such as the Voyage of Hanno attest to the great influence given to divination and oracles in Phoenician exploration, one can also safely assume that the third expedition built on the discoveries of the first two. The idea of several scouting expeditions being made in preparation for finding an area for permanent colonization is entirely plausible.

Phoenician colonists were careful and shrewd in selecting the locations for their cities. They preferred to site colonies on small offshore islands or peninsulas, where they could be secured against sieges and attacks. They chose islands with good harbors and easy access to favorable trade winds. Because Phoenician colonies were primarily trade-driven rather than settlement-driven, they only needed small outposts rather than large land areas.[5]

Map of the island of Gadir as it appeared in ancient times.

The Tyrian colonists founded Gadir on what was then three small islands at the mouth of the Guadalete River. In today’s city of Cadiz, the islands have since filled in with sediment and connected to the mainland to form a narrow peninsula. The city of Gadir was built on the northern end of the islands, farthest away from the mainland. There was a temple to Ba’al Hemmon in the city proper, but on the tip of the south side was situated a temple to the god Melqart, which would grow to great size and become world famous by time of the Roman Empire. The nearby Guadalquivir River allowed easy access to the interior of Spain for communications and trade

The economic benefits of the site were enormous. The island was just offshore of the Spanish kingdom of Tartessos. The Tartessans appear to have been on friendly terms with the Phoenicians at Gadir and traded heavily with them. Tartessos was rich with mines that produced lead, tin, silver, copper and gold. The most valuable of these minerals was tin. Tin is required for the manufacture of bronze, yet it is a very rare mineral. On the other hand, bronze was used to make almost everything in the ancient world, even after the introduction of iron. Tin was only found in significant amounts in a few locations known to the ancient Mediterranean world, notably Britain, Spain and Germany.[6]

Two of these three locations were most easily accessed through the ocean route. Ships can move faster and carry more goods than caravans of pack animals moving overland. The colony at Gadir put the Phoenicians in prime position to trade not only with Tartessos but with the entire Atlantic coast of the Iberian peninsula as well as the mysterious “Cassiterides”, the “tin islands” commonly associated with the coast of Cornwall. What’s more, the location of Gadir meant they were now in a prime position to monopolize this trade by controlling the Straits of Gibraltar. At first, there was no competition, for no other nation thought to sail this far to trade. By the 6th century BC, all the Phoenician colonies in the western Mediterranean became part of the Carthaginian empire, and from then on Carthage set their foreign relations and national trade policy. The Carthaginian treaty with newly Republican Rome in 508 BC set spheres of influence and trade for each nation. The Romans were forbidden from trading or traveling anywhere west of what is now the north coast of Tunisia. Polybius speculates that this was to prevent the Romans from becoming familiar with the area, and he was probably right. What’s more, archaeological evidence indicates that the Greek colonists in Massalia (modern day Marseilles, France)  ceased trading with Tartessos at around 500 BC. It seems that the Carthaginians had a general policy by 500 BC of prohibiting non-Carthaginian trade in their western territories.[7]


The First Economic Reforms

The Sumerian city-state of Lagash has some of our earliest documented evidence for how a city was administered. We don’t know when the city was founded, but it existed as early as 2500 BC. Lagash was near the coast, or at least the coast as it was 4500 years ago. The Tigris and Euphrates rivers have since filled in much of the former Persian Gulf with silt.

Sumerian city-states were ruled by kings. The king was an absolute sovereign, who had both a secular function as ruler of his city and a religious function as an intermediary between the citizens and the gods. The king was supposed to intercede with the gods on behalf of his people, and honor the gods to ensure their continued benevolence towards the city. If the king neglected the gods, the gods could in turn be expected to neglect the city.[1]

Part of this duty involved building large temples as public works projects in order to honor the gods. Inside these temples, food offerings were left to the gods. Food offerings had to be collected from the populace. Over time, the temple grew to be a major center of government and economic activity. Sumerian temples employed numerous priests, priestesses and administrative staff. Scribes, archivists, storage supervisors and other administrators were required to make the operation run. Hundreds of laborers were employed to move items and undertake new construction projects.

Temples came to own large tracts of farmland. This provided more jobs for agricultural workers, who delivered the produce to the temple storehouses in return for being allowed to keep some of it for their own use. Cash did not exist in Sumer, rather, trade was done by bartering and wealth was primarily accumulated in barley and livestock.

What did the temple do with all this food? Some of it was used in ritual offerings to the gods. Most of it was distributed to employees of the temple as well as temple dependents – the old, orphans, the very poor and the widows. The temple therefore functioned partly as a religious charity and partly as a system of income redistribution.[2]



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