Why (Bronze Age) Nations Fail

Both the exchange between the shipwrecked sailor and the serpent and the later account of Hatshepsut’s trading mission hint at a material inequality between Egypt and the exotic lands to the east. The Prince of Punt dismisses as insignificant the sailor’s offer to bestow upon him the “specialties of Egypt,” and while the Puntites of Hatshepsut’s day are described as overawed by and subservient to the Egyptians, their produce is clearly more valuable than anything the Egyptians have to exchange. This probably posed little problem for the pharaohs, but since late antiquity, complaints about trade imbalances between east and west — the dividing line running more or less through the Red Sea and Southwest Asia — have been a recurrent theme among writers, as are politicians’ calls for sumptuary laws to restrict the import of “precious things.”

— Lincoln Paine, The Sea and Civilization (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2013), pp. 53–54.

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