A Splendid Exchange

by William J. Bernstein

All history consists of two ingredients mixed in differing proportions: story and interpretation. The story part is the plain recitation of events: once upon a time, some historical character X did some action Y, yada, yada, yada. The interpretation part is the drawing of conclusions reflecting larger truths of the human condition. Of course, the two ingredients are often closely intermixed, sometimes inextricably so. Did Julius Caesar “invade”, “conquer”, “subjugate”, “liberate”, or “civilize” Gaul? Were the events in America from 1776 to 1783 a rebellion, an insurrection, a liberation, or a revolution? There’s a lot of interpretation built into the way that we describe past events.

Every history book has its own mix of facts and interpretation. More academic works strive for a minimum of interpretation and a maximum of objective fact. Popular history is more interpretive, but usually mixes interpretation with fact more freely. A third class of work attempts to impose some interesting broad interpretation upon the historical record. This kind of effort is exemplified by the works of Marx, Toynbee, and Braudel. Having absorbed most of the basic facts of western history over the last forty years, I now prefer the more interpretive works; among my own favorites are those of Braudel (The Structures of Everyday Life, the Wheels of Commerce, The Perspective of the World), McNiell, Schama, Boorstin (The Creators and The Discoverers) and Diamond (Guns, Germs, and Steel).

So I eagerly snapped up this book (subtitled “How Trade Shaped the World”) the moment I saw its description. I was very interested in seeing a high-level analysis of the role that trade played in the development of civilization. I was disappointed. This book is lively and readable, but leans far in the direction of fact instead of interpretation. It tells the tales, but not the morals of the tales. It is especially thorough in its handling of the maritime spice trade, but that concentration serves to highlight the paucity of treatment of other important topics. For example, there’s little about the role that the Cretans and later the Phoenicians played in the development of the Mediterranean economy, and nothing at all about the huge changes wrought by the Greeks, or how the grain trade from Egypt played such an important role in the Roman economy. The transition from oar power to sail power was of enormous moment, yet gets only a few paragraphs of sideswipe discussion. The treatment of the Silk Road seems almost digressive, and the ancient trade in tin from Britain and copper from Cyprus (the word “copper” comes from “Cyprus”) rates just a brief mention. The trading from Scandinavia to the Near East via the Russian rivers is never mentioned, even though it provided the basis for the development of the Russian polities. The Rhine river large volumes of traffic in the High Middle Ages, yet we hear nothing of it.

Now, I don’t expect this book to cover every topic in the history of trade, and so such omissions would have been easy to overlook if the author had provided some sort of overarching, unifying idea about the effect of trade on civilization. But he never rises to such levels of abstraction; he seems more intent on telling some good yarns than analyzing history. It’s a good collection of tales, bouncing through history to illustrate some of the interesting moments. I recommend this book to any reader who wants to get a basic grounding in the history of trade, especially the trade between the far-flung reaches of Eurasia. But it most certainly does not explain “How Trade Shaped the World”.