Entrepreneurial Spawning, B.C.

Cornelia Wunsch’s chapter on Neo-Babylonian entrepreneurs epitomizes the book’s successful efforts. Wunsch bases her essay (chapter 2) on the analysis of 2,000 tablets from five generations of the Egibis, a prosperous merchant family of the time. Through the analysis of this rich archival data, she brings an extinct world to life by detailing the broader historical context and by giving concrete examples from the tablets that she studies. Entrepreneurship in Neo-Babylonia could take a variety of forms, including farmland investment and leasing, transport and marketing of agricultural products, and “tax farming” for the government (i.e., private tax collection). . . .

Her essay offers a fascinating perspective on venture-backed entrepreneurship as a form of economic organization. The Neo-Babylonian harrānu contracts established a partnership
between senior financial backers and junior entrepreneurs. Young individuals starting a new business in international trade, for instance, would often lack the necessary financial endowment. This was typically true for sons who were not the first born and were therefore largely deprived of inheritance. The harrānu contracts allowed these fledgling entrepreneurs to raise money from senior partners in exchange for division of the surplus created by the venture. If successful, these entrepreneurs often went on to become senior partners themselves, lending money to a portfolio of enterprising young individuals. One can easily imagine the original Sand Hill Road running through Babylonia rather than California!

That’s from Michaël Bikard and Scott Stern’s Journal of Economic Literature review of The Invention of Enterprise: Entrepreneurship from Ancient Mesopotamia to Modern Times (ed. David S. Landes, Joel Mokyr, and William J. Baumol, Princeton, 2010). An excellent addition to your collection!

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