The status of the merchant has varied during different periods of history and among different societies. In ancient Rome and Greece, merchants may have been wealthy, but were not accorded high social status. In contrast, in the Middle East, where markets were an integral part of the city, merchants enjoyed high status. In modern times, the term occasionally has been used to refer to a businessperson or someone undertaking activities (commercial or industrial) for the purpose of generating profit, cash flow, sales, and revenue utilizing a combination of human, financial, intellectual and physical capital with a view to fueling economic development and growth.
Merchants have been known for as long as humans have engaged in trade and commerce. Merchants and merchant networks were known to operate in ancient Babylonia and Assyria, China, Egypt, Greece, India, Persia, Phoenicia and Rome. During the European medieval period, a rapid expansion in trade and commerce, led to the rise of a wealthy and powerful merchant class. The European age of discovery opened up new trading routes and gave European consumers access to a much broader range of goods. From the 1600s, goods began to travel much further distances as they found their way into geographically dispersed market places. Following the opening Asia and the discovery of the New World, goods were imported from very long distances: calico cloth from India, porcelain, silk and tea from China, spices from India and South-East Asia and tobacco, sugar, rum and coffee from the New World. By the eighteenth century, a new type of manufacturer-merchant was emerging and modern business practices were becoming evident.
The English term, "merchant" comes from the Middle English, marchant, which itself originated from the Vulgar Latin mercatant or mercatans, formed from present participle of mercatare meaning to trade, to traffic or to deal in. The term is used to refer to any type of reseller, but can also be used with a specific qualifier to suggest a person who deals in a given characteristic such as "speed merchant" to refer to someone who enjoys fast driving; a "noise merchant", used to refer to a group of musical performers. Other known uses of the term include: "dream merchant" used to describe someone who peddles idealistic visionary scenarios and "merchant of war" to describe proponents of war.
Elizabeth Honig has argued that concepts relating to the role of a merchant began to change in the mid-16th century. The Dutch term, koopman (meaning merchant), became rather more fluid during the 16th century when Antwerp was the most global market town in Europe. Two different terms, for a merchant, began to be used, meerseniers referred to local merchants including bakers, grocers, sellers of dairy products and stall-holders, while the alternate term, koopman, was used to describe those who traded in goods or credit on a large scale. This distinction was necessary to separate the daily trade that the general population understood from the rising ranks of traders who took up their places on a world stage and were seen as quite distant from everyday experience.
Broadly, merchants can be classified into two categories:
However, the term 'merchant' is often used in a variety of specialised contexts such as in merchant banker, merchant navy or merchant services.
Merchants have existed as long as business, trade and commerce have been conducted. A merchant class characterized many pre-modern societies. Open air, public markets, where merchants and traders congregated, were known in ancient Babylonia and Assyria, China, Egypt, Greece, India, Persia, Phoenicia and Rome. These markets typically occupied a place in the town's centre. Surrounding the market, skilled artisans, such as metal-workers and leather workers, occupied premises in alley ways that led to the open market-place. These artisans may have sold wares directly from their premises, but also prepared goods for sale on market days. In ancient Greece markets operated within the agora (open space), and in ancient Rome the forum. Rome had two forums; the Forum Romanum and Trajan's Forum. The latter was a vast expanse, comprising multiple buildings with shops on four levels. The Roman forum was arguably the earliest example of a permanent retail shop-front.