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For Profit

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For Profit

A History of Corporations

Basic Books,

15 min read
8 take-aways
Audio & text

What's inside?

Commerce, capitalism and corporations enabled some of history’s greatest strides and biggest horrors.

Editorial Rating



  • Overview
  • Background
  • Engaging


Though corporations have played a large role throughout history, textbooks often gloss over commerce. This entertaining history dives in, beginning with the origin of corporations in ancient Rome. Professor William Magnuson examines corporations’ role in funding the Renaissance, trade and exploration, war and peace, settlement of the American west, the invention of the automobile, and the growth of the oil industry and Silicon Valley. Magnuson makes a compelling case that, for good or ill, the corporation is fundamental to developed societies.


Roman societates had much in common with modern corporations.

The ancient Roman Republic was vast, but it lacked administrative apparatus. Its business societies – societates, the forerunners of modern corporations – functioned without big government. In the third century BC, the Roman commander confronting the Carthaginians in Spain during the Second Punic War could no longer provide for his legions and pled with the Senate for help. Lacking funds, the Senate appealed to the Roman people to provide for the troops and promised to repay them eventually.

The men of Rome formed three societies to answer the call. They agreed to supply the provisions, stipulating that this fulfilled their military duty and that Rome would make them whole if their cargos were lost at sea (attesting apparently to the safety of land routes under Roman control). Properly equipped, Roman troops prevailed.

Throughout the life of the Republic, these societies worked with the government to produce “a prosperous and flourishing society.” The societates often lobbied in favor of war and conquest, probably for the...

About the Author

Texas A&M Law School corporate law professor William Magnuson also wrote Blockchain Democracy: Technology, Law and the Rule of the Crowd. 

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