Entrepreneurship in the Ancient and Classical World

In the ancient and classical world, the creation of empires and merchants was not viewed in a positive light.

The Arabic number system
3000 BCE
The Silk Road
Receipts used by Chinese merchants
The Philosopher Entrepreneur
The equestrian class
Achaemenid Empire

The creation of cities and towns

The Agricultural Revolution propelled entrepreneurship forward by creating an avenue for businessmen and women to profit off their skills. When hunting and gathering turned to farming and trading, families could work together on a farm to produce goods they could sell or trade for a profit. But many developments in the ancient and classical world, such as the expansion of trade routes, made it possible for business-savvy people to become entrepreneurs.


After trade became more common, there was no need for humans to continue living as nomads, and the development of permanent settlements led to the formation of cities. Entrepreneurs during this time were still specializing in areas such as pottery and carpentry, but they also realized they could increase their profits by engaging in trade with other cities.

Some entrepreneurs traded goods, such as those who traded rice from China. But ideas and technology were also traded from one city or culture to another. Leonardo Fibonacci was an Italian trader and mathematician who brought the Arabic number system to Europe, instead of material goods. Fibonacci made a profit by teaching other European citizens about accounting. By doing so, Fibonacci was one of the first service-based entrepreneurs, helping others complete a task to benefit their business.

Entrepreneurs and the expansion of trade routes

After the formation of towns and cities, trade routes expanded, allowing civilizations to trade with places farther away and reach more people. Before this period, communities had to be self-sufficient to survive. But with the expansion of trade routes, if a farmer had milk and meat, he could take it to a market to trade for other goods.

When civilizations started trading with one another, it changed the course of the world, both socially and economically. People began to realize they could trade with far-away cities where different products were available. It’s believed that the first long-distance trade, from one city to another, occurred around 3000 BCE between Mesopotamia and the Indus Valley, where some of the earliest cities began.


In many cases, at least at first, it was simply luxury goods that were traded. With the earliest trade routes, goods were being transported by sea. But with the domestication of animals such as the camel, trade routes over land became more feasible and efficient. Entrepreneurs in the ancient world realized that the right trade route could lead to immense profit. From coffee to gunpowder, the number of commodities that entrepreneurs traded continued to increase, leading to more innovations across the globe.

How the Silk Road impacted the ancient and classical world

Not all trade routes were created equal, but many significantly impacted the ancient world. As trade routes expanded, some entrepreneurs used these routes as a source of wealth by creating or obtaining goods that were in high demand.

One instance of an impactful trade route during this time was the ‘Silk Road.’ The Silk Road was a series of trade routes that connected parts of Asia, Africa, and Europe. Merchants used these routes to send silk from China to Europe, as well as stones, spices, and tea from Asia. But the significance of the Silk Road lies in the fact that religion and ideas also traveled along these routes, allowing for more innovations and developments in technology, which entrepreneurs took advantage of.

The innovation of silk alone was an important part of the Silk Road. Though it was originally used for clothing, it was later discovered that silk could also be used for fishing line or musical instrument strings.

The invention of money

Before the invention of money, entrepreneurs engaging in trade would barter with someone by offering to trade their product for another. For example, if an entrepreneur wanted to obtain iron, he might trade several cattle for it. Knowing iron was worth quite a bit when it came to gaining political power, he might then barter with someone in another city to trade the iron for something profitable.

Without an actual currency, however, trade was limited. Currency looked different for each culture at the time, but it opened up a world of possibilities for entrepreneurs. Silver bars, coins, and even rocks were some of the earliest forms of currency.


The invention of currency, which eventually led to the development of paper money, allowed entrepreneurs to exchange something of value without having to find someone willing to trade the specific goods they had. The art of paper making originated in China, and the original form of paper money came from the receipts Chinese merchants used to collect payments for their trades.

Creation of empires

An ‘empire’ is often described as a political organization or power where one central state controls smaller, weaker states. In general, empires are about political power. Around 3200 BCE, the first recognized empire was created in Egypt. At the time, Southern Egypt was divided into 3 separate kingdoms, all centered around a major city. The earliest empires often lasted hundreds of years, if not longer. The Roman Empire was the longest empire to exist, lasting over a thousand years. As most empires do, the first empire was started by a powerful city that conquered 2 smaller cities.


From Ancient Greece to the Byzantine Empire, empires have controlled the economy and impacted the world both culturally and socially for thousands of years. But how did the creation of empires begin? Although it may not have been their motive, the entrepreneurs engaging in trade during this period made the creation of empires possible. There were entrepreneurs who realized trading weapons could lead to a substantial profit. Iron was discovered around 2000 BCE, and having control of iron allowed civilizations to dominate other areas. The trading of weapons and other military goods by entrepreneurs led to the creation of the first empires, including the Roman and Persian Empires.

Ancient Greece

Though the creation of an empire may be fueled by political gain, empires have led to innovations throughout history. In fact, Ancient Greece and Rome are said to have defined Western Entrepreneurship, and both cultures were full of art and innovation.

The Ancient Greeks are well-known for their contributions to the field of philosophy, and their ideas even impacted the philosophies of Ancient Rome. There are parts of Western culture that were influenced directly by Ancient Greece, such as modern ideas about mathematics and architecture.


Entrepreneurs in Ancient Greece were not viewed as highly as philosophers or politicians, but they weren’t looked down upon as long as their profits were also used to improve the civilization overall.

In Ancient Athens, there were conditions to what entrepreneurs should be able to do since there was a strong emphasis on virtue. Entrepreneurship was viewed as something that had a positive impact on the economy so long as the entrepreneur spent his money in an ethical way and contributed to the public expenses of Athens.

The Philosopher Entrepreneur - Thales of Miletus

In order to truly understand how the culture of Ancient Greece influenced entrepreneurship today, we must take a look at one of the most influential entrepreneurs of their day – Thales of Miletus.

Often known as the ‘Philosopher Entrepreneur,’ or the ‘Renaissance Man of Ancient Greece,’ Thales knew how to use his business knowledge for his own gain and success. Thales was the first Ancient Greek philosopher, and he used his skills to think through how his talents could help him produce something instead of just expecting fortune to come to him.


One example is the story of how Thales gained a profit using his skill of weather forecasting. Aristotle explained how, after predicting an excellent season for olive production, Thales invested in olive presses. Able to rent them out at a high price when his prediction came true, Thales made a substantial profit from this investment. By purchasing the olive presses out of season, Thales made one of the first speculative investments.

From potholes to profit

As an ancient philosopher, Thales of Miletus spent much of his time thinking, reflecting, and contemplating the world around him. In fact, he spent so much time reflecting and studying the movement of the stars and planets, that he reportedly fell into potholes quite often.


This anecdote led his fellow citizens to believe philosophy could not be applied to any practical skill, and was only useful for reflection. According to Aristotle, this belief was part of the reason why Thales sought to make a profit off the olive presses he purchased. Instead of desiring wealth, he wanted to show others that philosophy was useful for more than contemplation and reflection. Thales continued to prove this through his life’s work, which included his work in engineering, his prediction of a solar eclipse, and his contributions to mathematics.

So what can we learn from Thales of Miletus? Through his actions, Thales shows us that practical application of knowledge and using creativity to gain profit is part of what it takes to be a successful entrepreneur.

Ancient Rome

Much like Ancient Greece, Ancient Rome had a culture that pushed the world forward, especially regarding innovation. Ancient Rome is still impacting the world today. The culture of Ancient Rome contributed to modern language, religion, politics, art, and literature, to name a few. It also played a role in the Renaissance Period and the Enlightenment.

But when it came to entrepreneurship, the wealthy leaders in Ancient Rome, particularly those in the patrician class, looked down on entrepreneurs. The patrician class lived a life of luxury and were generally ranked right below the emperor. In addition, Lex Claudia, a Roman law established in 218 BCE, prevented senators from engaging in commerce.


Due to the negative view high-class officials had towards entrepreneurs, the equestrian class saw an opportunity for wealth. This class, originally made up of the Roman Calvary until the establishment Lex Claudia, began purchasing privately owned buildings and selling them to make a profit. By engaging in business the higher classes believed was beneath them, the entrepreneurs of the equestrian class often became wealthy businessmen.

Persian Empire

The Persian Empire is the name given to a group of territories that covered modern day Iran. The first Persian Empire, known as the Achaemenid Empire, was founded by Cyrus the Great, around 500 BCE.

The significance of the Persian Empire comes back to Cyrus the Great. What started as a collection of tribes that raised various animals such as sheep, goats, and cattle became the world’s first superpower because of its leader. Before this dynasty fell to Alexander the Great in 330 BCE, it made major contributions in the areas of culture, science, art, and technology.


Many of the entrepreneurs present throughout the Persian Empire were merchants. Merchants, who engaged in trade to make a profit, could be either male or female during this period. They often engaged in local trade through the use of markets, as well as long distance trade with other civilizations.

Even the peasant class in the Persian Empire fulfilled entrepreneurial roles by farming livestock, cattle, or other crops. Since the economy at the time was based mostly on agriculture, the peasant class contributed to the economy more than some of the wealthier classes did.

Byzantine Empire

The Byzantine Empire, also known as the Eastern Roman Empire, existed from 330 CE to 1453 CE. During the early days of the Byzantine Empire, entrepreneurs who engaged in trade became increasingly wealthy as trade between different cultures allowed them to obtain goods that weren’t available locally.

Trade was carried out over land and through the sea, and Constantinople, the capital established by Constantine, became one of the largest hubs for trade. Despite the contributions that commerce added to the Byzantine Empire, entrepreneurs were not viewed in a positive light, making it difficult for those trying to make a profit off their business knowledge.


Due to this negative view, Emperor Theophilos allegedly burned a cargo ship when he discovered that his wife, Theodora, had been involved with commercial activity. Overall, there was a distrust of traders and entrepreneurs in the Byzantine empire.

These views did change over time, however, and the Treaty of Nymphaeum in 1261 CE established formal trade relations between the Nicene Empire and Genoa, furthering opportunities for entrepreneurship.

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