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Trade and Empire

Course Description

From the moment we humans abandoned the hunter-gatherer’s roving life and devised civilization, exchanging mobility for stability and prosperity, we’ve faced the same unending problem: no matter where you set down roots, something will be lacking. Every society wants for some resource found far away — a necessity like wood or a luxury like porcelain; and the more complex, powerful, and proud a society, the more they yearn for that which they do not have. How do the world’s societies slake these needs? And what is the relationship between trade, or acquiring distant resources — and empire, asserting control over them? Is the intrepid adventurer beating a path to Samarkand to acquire their silks or to San Salvador in search of gold the handmaiden—or rival?—to the next generation’s conqueror of the same lands and riches? In this course we’ll explore the most interesting and illuminating of humanity’s quests and competitions for control of distant resources, toward a greater understanding of what we do as nations when we want what we do not have.


Week 1. HELLO
Preliminary discussion of trade and empire, and of encounters between peoples. Sources and readings.

Week 2. BRONZE
The earliest challenge of ancient civilizations: the need for both copper and tin.

Week 3. NILE
Egypt’s gift was also its vulnerability: the pharaohs demanded Nubia’s Nile, too.

Week 4. PURPLE
The Phoenicians’ rare dye connected far-flung nations and redefined nobility.

East, west, north, and south lusted to control the mighty beacon of Babylon.

Week 6. CAESAR
Expanding far into alien lands, the Romans’ main currency was themselves.

Week 7. SILK
Europe knew little of Cathay, but their wares were the trappings of power.

Christendom and caliphate sought power though the acquisition of human souls.

Week 9. SLAVE
A massive system of profit and power churned on the stolen gift of captive labor.

Week 10. STEAM
The steam engine created global trade in factory goods, ideas, and exploitation.

Week 11. TEA
Who should control all the wealth of India — private enterprise or the crown?

Week 12. MARX
From its inception on, Communism has sought a great resource: distant minds.

Week 13. SKY
Airplanes, missiles, satellites, and spacecraft, all means of mastering the Beyond.

Week 14. TWEET
Information has always been a commodity; digitizing it changed everything.

Week 15. VERDICT
Final discussion of trade and empire, and of students’ papers.