Teacher's Guide for the Ancient Economy

Economy Teachers' Guide

India Market
(a street market in Bombay)

Economics is all about math, and learning about ancient and medieval economics is bound to improve students' math skills as well. You will find lessons here about percentages, weights and measures, and some ideas about devaluing currency, what that means and what the effects are. You may need to go over some of these ideas with your student(s) to be sure they understand it.

The history of money might be a good place to start – why do people develop money? What did people do before they had money? What are the problems with barter? Does anyone still use barter today? Have they ever used barter? What about using gold – what’s better about gold than barter? What are the disadvantages of using gold for money? What’s the difference between a lump of gold and a gold coin? What are the advantages and disadvantages of a gold coin?

Inheritance is also a really important part of economics in the ancient and medieval worlds. What does inheritance law look like in different places? Did all children inherit? Even girls? Did you have to leave your money or land to your children? What if you got divorced?  Why did people care so much whether they inherited the farm? (Remember, there weren’t really any jobs for wages then – you either owned the farm or the business or you were unemployed, usually, and in danger of falling into slavery).

Some ideas for things to do in class might include operating a Roman market, discussing what things were sold there (don't forget slaves!) and who sold them, and who bought them, and what they used for money, and how much things cost (clothing, for instance, was much more expensive than it is today, while hand-crafted things like carved statues might have been cheaper than today). You could have goods from Egypt and West Asia, and even silk from China, cotton from India, and ivory from Africa.

Another idea might be to do a little play of the problems of small farmers, showing how they start out independent but tend to gradually fall into dependence and slavery. A tyrant could come along and free them at the end... (Joni Borges, who teaches 5/6 at Jefferson Elementary in Hanford, CA, reports that her students love inventing skits based on information she gives them on various subjects).

Or you might look at the economics of the Silk Road - what things are worth selling over the long distances between China and Europe? What things are not worth it? Why? How do political changes affect the economics of the Silk Road? How about technological developments like the invention of paper, or the people of Syria learning to produce silk, or the Mongols introducing cotton to China?

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