Management Management In Antiquity
Karl Moore
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 January 2013
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 January 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199846740-0067


“Antiquity” may be defined as the period in world history ending with the fall of Rome in 476 CE. Usually a study of Antiquity or ancient history would begin with the rise of the first civilization in Sumer early in the fourth millennium BCE. The study of Antiquity as it relates to the subject of management begins with the Uruk culture in Sumer around 3500 BCE and then proceeds to a study of Sumer, Assyria, Babylonia, Syria, Canaan/Israel, Egypt, Anatolia. Egypt, Iran, India, and China follow, and finally the Aegean, Archaic, classical Greek, Hellenistic, and Roman polities, societies, and economies may be analyzed. “Management” in the context of Antiquity may be defined as the organization and supervision of production, and as exchange in agriculture, manufacturing, and/or services such as public administration of taxation systems or treasury. A more concise definition may be the process of “getting work done through people.” Studying management in the ancient world presents unique problems. The boundaries between public and private sectors are often highly fluid, and exchanges often took place for motives other than profit. Modern business models involving risk, productivity, and investment calculations are hard to apply. Until the 1990s the general consensus of business schools held that the study of management was relevant only since 1800. This view is challenged by Morgen Witzel, who maintains that management has been both thought about and practiced for at least five thousand years. In support of Witzel’s argument, this article maintains that management has a much more extensive history than previously thought, and such a history offers valuable lessons for current management. Ancient Phoenician, Egyptian, Chinese, Greek, and Roman culture are examined. Organizing people to complete a task, essentially the task of managers, has long been a point of interest for scholars, merchants, philosophers, and rulers. The examination of several ancient societies and their management practices moves the dialogue past simply the origins of scientific management and toward a more holistic understanding of current management theory and practices. Understanding the transition from the strictly hierarchical royal businesses of the ancient Near East to the more entrepreneurial practices of the Greeks and the advent of the first firms in Rome will enable a broader and deeper understanding of the current managerial field.

General Overviews and Introductory Works

Near Eastern and Asian management models were more hierarchical than those that later arose in the classical world. In the former, among cultures such as the Egyptian, Assyrian, Tyrian, and Carthaginian, the boundaries between those who managed and those who were managed were very clear; the same is true in China. Those boundaries were less clear in Greece and Rome. Any brief survey of ancient business must be highly selective, focusing on those civilizations that are the best documented with archaeology and literature. Even a selective approach will illuminate management and organizational trends that emerged over centuries, moving from the highly centralized business models of the Phoenician, Egyptians, and Chinese to the more entrepreneurial model used by the Greeks, and ending with the family model propagated by the Romans. Moore and Lewis 2009, Roberts 2011, and Witzel 2012 provide a strong general overview of their respective topics and together form the research basis for much of this article. Other sources supply the needed detail for specific sections of the discussion. Moore and Lewis 2009 makes a useful guide for analyzing business practices in many of the ancient civilizations. Witzel 2012 focuses solely on management thought and less on the actual nature of business in the ancient world.

  • Moore, Karl, and David Lewis. The Origins of Globalization. New York: Routledge, 2009.

    Modern elements of business can be traced back to some of the most ancient civilizations. Moore and Lewis examine the lineage of globalization and current international business trends.

  • Roberts, Keith. The Origins of Business, Money, and Markets. New York: Columbia University Press, 2011.

    Roberts is able to construct a gripping, detailed narrative centered on the origins of money and financing.

  • Witzel, Morgen. A History of Management Thought. London: Routledge, 2012.

    Witzel takes readers through the evolution of management thought beginning with the ancient empires of Egypt and the China, moving right through to the modern day.

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