Religion vs. State: Response to Eurasian Wealth Accumulation c. 600 B.C. - 1500 C.E

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With the establishment of internal structure and the expansion of authority across massive regions, various Eurasian empires saw a large increase in wealth accumulation between 600 B.C.E. and 1500 C.E. General stability within these empires and regions during this time allowed for the growth and establishment of unprecedented long-distance, transregional trade networks. This vast wealth accumulation transpired diverging religious and state responses, with religious institutions placing a strong emphasis on charity and offerings to lead a blessed and virtuous life, while the state sought some sort of profit that was often accompanied by a certain level of governmental regulation to maintain stability.

While the state response to wealth accumulation differed in distinct ways across Eurasia, the commonality amongst the empires laid within two things: profit and stability. During the Warring States Period from 403-221 B.C.E., disunity and political and social unrest brought upon a period of clashing ideologies on how to bring unity and stability to China (Bentley et al, 102). The emergence of Confucianism, Daoism, and Legalism throughout this time further entrenched those clashing ideologies, acting as the backbone to varying solutions. The Zhou Empire that ruled over China during this time involved a decentralized power that placed trust in the local authorities in exchange for loyalty and military support.

Document 1 showcases the state profiting in loyalty to the crown; a source of interest that could hold just as much value as physical currency. By not interfering in the commerce and markets of the merchants in exchange for loyalty, it protected against potential rebellion that could bring further instability to a region working towards stability and unity.

A far more rigid response to wealth accumulation can be observed within the Mauryan Empire. Following a power vacuum in domino effect to the failed Persian presence in India, Chandragupta Maurya established India’s first centralized empire called the Mauryan Empire (Bentley et al, 120). His rule involved strict oversee of trade and agriculture, as well as a high tax collection. The empire initiated wide scale regulation of trade and mercantile affairs, which involved the government supervision of trade and control over the distribution of merchant products (DOC 2). Merchants, therefore, made minimal profit as they were subject to further taxation and fixed prices (DOC 2). This assertion of government control and interference within mercantile affairs showcases a dominating response to the accumulation of wealth with the desire of the state to profit largely while maintaining control.

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Methods behind such vast affluence and expansion of mercantilism were not viewed in a positive manner across all of Eurasia. The Roman Republic held onto traditional economic views, strongly believing in and relying on agriculture to bolster the region. Document 3 takes the viewpoint of a Roman statesman, mirrorring the beliefs of other members of his social standing and position within Roman society at this time. That belief was that agriculture was the morally best way to make a living and profit within Roman society, thus making the occupation of merchant or moneylender a corrupt and “vulgar” job (DOC 3). This state response of seemingly traditional view would have to shift with the end of the Roman Republic and the emergence of the Roman Empire in 27 B.C.E. The exponential expansion in both size in influence of the Roman region would place the Roman Empire in a position of even better trade potential, and in turn an increase in wealth.

By encouraging transregional trade and bolstering the roads, ports, and transportative technologies to support it, empires were able to pocket even more opulence to ensure internal stability. The establishment of trade routes, such as the Silk Road under the Han Dynasty in China, had an immense cultural and economic impact on society as a whole by connecting regions in trade. While trade could be a treacherous and costly venture, its reward proved tremendous. Rulers, such as King Ganapatideva of the South Indian Kakatiya state, saw value in merchants partaking in the potential dangers in order to reap the rewards (DOC 7). The king encouraged trade and trade venture, while only seeking to take a small taxation on shipwrecked goods. However, the encouragement of trade from “all continents, islands, foreign countries, and cities”, essentially increased the king’s profit, as it increased the potential for storms and wreckage (DOC 7). This supports the notion that the state sought and received profit in some manner in regards to the influx of wealth via mercantile practices.

While the state prioritized profit and stability in response to wealth accumulation, religious institutions valued charity and religious offerings. The beginnings of Christianity took place within the early Roman Empire and was seen as a threat to the empire due to their refusal to acknowledge the emperor as a god (Bentley et al, 156). Despite the state’s attempt at repressing Christianity, it soon spread quite rapidly throughout the Roman Empire, Mediterranean basin, and eventually beyond. In document 4, in the perspective of a Christian monk, wealth is compared to the devil. It insinuates the worshipping of God required the practice of a virtuous life void of material wealth, encouraging the relinquishment of one’s possessions. They believed the wealth should instead be given away charitably, or towards the church (DOC 4). This brings into perspective the idea of pure worship and seeking after a more just and heavenly life in the name of Christianity.

The Christians were not the only ones that associated wealth with the devil. The religion of Islam emerged in the Arabian Peninsula, which also served as a crucial link and hub of long-distance trade networks. With the increasing insecurity of land trade routes, sea-lanes became favored and in turn caused Arabian cities to thrive (Bentley et al, 200). The Quran served as the holy book of Islam, compiled of Muhammed’s revelations. In document 5, which is an excerpt from the Quran, it promotes charity in the name of God to atone for one’s sins. It further promises that in partaking in charity, God will see and God will be with them (DOC 5). This once again illustrates that when it came to the influx of wealth, religiously it was seen as unvirtuous unless distributed in a charitable way.

Religious offerings were another way in which religious institutions believed wealth should be concentrated. When it came to Buddhism, the religion travelled via trade route, such as on the Silk Roads and to China. With high standards of morality, intellectual worldliness, and the promise of salvation, Buddhism found vast resonation and home in China (Bentley et al, 227). Document 6 depicts Asian merchants bearing gifts to the Buddha and bodhisattvas in return for blessings. This image encourages both religious offerings and charity by merchants and traders. It seems that in terms of religion, it was viewed that wealth accumulation should in many parts be offered in a charitable manner to those they worship, and in turn the charitable people would be blessed and viewed as virtuous and good in the eyes of holy figures.

The establishment and expansion of long distance trade routes via both sea and land connected the ancient world in a way that nothing else could. These networks were pivotal in the flourishing of mercantile practices and trade, as well as the intertwining of societies and their cultures. It is from these mercantile links and exchanges that the empires of the period 600 B.C.E. to 1500 C.E. accumulated mass influx of wealth and thrived accordingly. In response to this affluence came the diverging responses of both church and state.

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