Making, Buying, and Selling
While the ancient Near East didn’t have an economy in the sense that we do today – coins didn’t appear until the seventh century BCE, for example, and communication was painfully slow by our standards – they did trade and specialize. In the ancient Levant, people traded in barley, fruit, sheep, fish, textiles, and even ivory and copper. Though it happened slowly, there is evidence of trade in the Iron Age between places as far away as Egypt, Cyprus, Turkey, and western Iran.
Food on the Table...
In ancient Mesopotamia, agriculture was almost entirely dependent on weather and water. While people were able to build irrigation canals, a severe drought could lead to famine and debt for those who relied on farming for a living. On top of natural challenges, harvest time required a lot of labor within a short timeframe. If all went well, the yield would provide food, pay taxes to the king, and turn a profit.
This tablet lists the number of livestock and amount of grain from one harvest. It includes sheep, goats, beer, barley, and barley flour of “excellent quality.”
...and on the King's
Whatever a family farm managed to produce, some of the yield went to the king in the form of tolls and taxes. This was especially true of conquered peoples. In 2170 BCE, King Ibbi-Sin was the Sumerian ruler of the Third Dynasty of Ur. Unfortunately for him, he ruled during a time of drought, environmental changes, and destabilization. Grain prices rose dramatically, weakening his power and eventually helping to bring about the dynasty’s end.