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For the backstory of my WIP a Dieselunk-ish science-fantasy, I am building a Empire that possessed a caste system of sorts. Though the Empire is many centuries removed from the modern day of my setting, its legacy lives on in the cultural heritage those descendant from it.

The castes are closer to a mixture of fraternities/sororities and guilds than real world caste systems. People in this empire were at the age of majority inducted into the caste of their choosing assuming that they met the entry criteria.

At the end of their "tour of duty" a citizen could continue chose to serve another tour, (abeyance)they would still be a part of their caste but would not be required to work, they could also transmigrate to another caste most did not. The Empire held a place of high honor for those who served it in multiple capacities.

The castes are as follows;and are subject to revision.

Administrator-Leader.

Warrior.

Police.

Judicial/Arbitration.

Espionage.

Scholastic.

Technical/Artisan.

Worker.

Entertainer.

Priests: Are outside the caste system.

Magic-Users: Are adjuncts, they use their abilities to aid the other castes.

Outcaste: committers of some great transgression yet not executed, they are legal none persons.

Society&Economy

The Empire is ruled by a council composed of the Regional-Governors with a First-Councilor who is elected from the ranks of the Regional-Governors, servers as a tie barker in the invent of a deadlock and possesses veto power. Regional-Governors are the highest ranking members of the Administrator-Leader caste and are advised by a council consisting of the ranking members of every other caste in their region. This advisory council can with three fourths majority over turn decisions made by their Regional-Governor,they can even call for their removal.

The Empire possess legal person-hood and all things with in its domain are subjects of The Empire, even the Leader-administrator caste. The Leader-administrators job is to see that land and resources are adequately used. Once the "needs" are met the rest is leased to the highest bidder for private use. Most people live in public housing. The creation of currency and credit belong solely in the hands of the Empire.

Citizens operate on a pay grade, they are paid based upon caste, caste rank, and experience with bounces or penalties meted out by performance.

With all the set up out of the way I now ask my question just how does the merchant caste fit into the system? Because I am without a crystal clear image of their function in the Empire. The one thing that I'm certain about is that the merchant caste are the ones that interact most with the outside world through their trading with foreign powers.

Real World Sources of Inspiration

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  • $\begingroup$ So, can a person have a dual-caste? Magic-users already seem to be able to, it would also make sense that espionage have people in all the other castes, except perhaps leadership though they would still be monitored. Hah, makes you remember that information is power. $\endgroup$ – Necessity Jan 5 '16 at 21:03
  • $\begingroup$ @Necessity At the same time no? Can a person be a police officer,soldier and civil-engineer at once? The Mages job is to use magic to support the duties of the other castes,as a result they do cross train a little. As for the spies(also secret-police) are like you said diffused incognito through out the rest of society. With exception of the local office. $\endgroup$ – Trismegistus Jan 6 '16 at 1:23
  • $\begingroup$ Watch out that your story does not develop to a point where some self-centered merchant with narcissistic personality disorder decides to run for president. $\endgroup$ – user11864 Jan 6 '16 at 18:26
  • $\begingroup$ @AgapwIesu the mercantile/financial class will always attempt to subvert the rule of all;its happened through out earth history. And it will likely have happened at some point in this Empire's history. $\endgroup$ – Trismegistus Jan 6 '16 at 21:34
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Merchants would be a little like the priests, but in secular ways.

Besides trade, merchants would be good intermediaries between different castes. Say the scholastic class makes a new weapon. Merchants could set up the deal to sell them to the warriors.

When dealing with the outside world, high level merchants could also serve as a kind of ambassador, delivering messages and other things.
They could also deal in information, as they would see and hear a lot as they buy and sell things.
Warriors might be interested to know that someone is buying up a lot of metal that could be used for weapons.
Entertainers would be happy to pay for plays and music from faraway lands.

EDIT:
Depending on how money is handled inside of the empire, merchants could be the bankers too (as Jim2B suggested).
Even if the empire doesn't deal with money internally between castes, they need to manage it for external use.
Sell wagons to Quirm, take some of the money to buy iron from Gondor, and hold the rest for when it's needed or invest it in other trading ventures.

They could also be arbitrators, dealing with disputes between individuals or even between castes.

Edit 2:
The Empire sounds like a big corporation (person-hood et al).
Everything is owned by the corporation, everyone works for the corporation, etc.

As such you could get away with not using money within the empire like a corporation works without money (internally).
Each guild is a department, and leaders are management.
Leaders would decide that 1000 swords needed to be made, so they would call Merchants to acquire steel, get the latest design from Scholars, have Technicals forge them, and Workers deliver the finished product to Warriors.
The only money involved would be to buy the steel if it came from an outside source.

Workers need to make a living, but that could be handled too; Housing and perks instead of money.
Higher rank = better home, food, and other perks.
Since the housing is public (owned by the Empire), then anyone working gets a place to stay (like a cubicle).
Everyone gets a food allowance, and can decide how to use it, as food would come from Empire owned farms, or from stuff imported by the Merchants guild by the Empire.
IIRC, feudal Japan had something like this, as the serfs working the Samurai's land would be paid a salary in koku of rice. Workers might have a salary of several koku, and so be able to afford other things.

Luxuries and other perks could be earned as workers do more than the minimum.
Say you have to work 20 hours a week to have a home. Another 15 hours is your food and energy budget. The final 5 is for non essentials; the stuff you want but don't have to have. If you work more than 40 then you get more perks.

Essentials like medicine are handled by Empire doctors in Empire hospitals, who work the same way. Sort of a single payer system.
Different skill sets would obviously have different levels of perks, but this just encourages people to work harder to progress in rank.

People who get "fired" become Outcasts.

There would still be potential for corruption, but it shifts more toward things like favoritism and yes manning. Merchants could still use skim stuff from shipments, or take Empire funds to buy personal luxuries, but that would be a white collar crime and there would be internal audits to looks for things like that. Maybe an internal affairs agency?

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  • $\begingroup$ Saying everything is going to take a couple of posts. The Scholastics are the researchers,scientist and architects they deal in theory. The Technical/artisan caste's job is to turn theory into practice,they perform all highly skilled labor. The worker castes does all the grunt work low to mid skilled labors and might as well be a satellite of the Technical caste. $\endgroup$ – Trismegistus Jan 4 '16 at 18:04
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    $\begingroup$ @Trismegistus If Workers deal with shipping and distribution inside of the empire, then Merchants could do the same thing outside the empire, as well as acquisitions. Say the Technicals need copper or other raw resources that the empire doesn't produce itself. Someone has to know who has it, go out to other countries, make deals, and bring it back in sufficient quantities. If the empire makes goods for trade, having someone that knows where to sell and then take it there would be useful. Other castes might be able to do some of that, but having one dedicated to it would be more efficient. $\endgroup$ – AndyD273 Jan 4 '16 at 18:44
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    $\begingroup$ I like some of the ideas here, merchants would be the negotiators both inside and outside the country. For transactions requiring exchange of goods, they'd serve the role we associate with merchants. For other transaction, they would serve as bankers, ambassadors, etc. The caste manages negotiations and does more than just monetary exchanges. $\endgroup$ – Jim2B Jan 4 '16 at 19:08
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    $\begingroup$ The Empire as in the nation as a legal person controls the creation of currency and credit with in the Empire. The Merchants like every other caste is an citizen-employe of the Empire, the wealth that passes through their hands doesn't belong to them. I was seeing merchants skimming off the top,or making deals that profited themselves more than the Empire as a whole. The freedom,adaptability, and ambition that makes a good merchant also makes them the most likely to brake ranks. $\endgroup$ – Trismegistus Jan 4 '16 at 20:36
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    $\begingroup$ You could also address the corruption thing by instilling a very strong sense of honor among the caste. For certain specific roles within the caste, that reputation for honor would be highly important. Perhaps advancement and pay in the caste depends upon the member's integrity? Only the most widely trusted caste members get entrusted with the most important and delicate (and lucrative) negotiations? $\endgroup$ – Jim2B Jan 4 '16 at 21:02
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Your list of real world inspirations lacks a mention of Pochteca. Which is a pity because that pretty much answers your question.

Since answering with an external link is kind of bad and the wikipedia article is kind of brief, I'll give a brief summary.

First is of course distribution of goods. While an empire can do bulk of distribution administratively, with clearing trade even across borders, it gets fairly inefficient very fast. Mainly the bureaucracy inherent in such systems (at least without computerization, many modern corporations have quite efficient logistic systems that work the same but with computers) makes them inefficient to respond to fast changes or fringe demand or supply. The last is especially lethal to economy because it means that experimenting with new products is very cumbersome. Oops, got bit distracted there, but the point is that regardless of the economic system there is significant benefit from people who move around and actively look for opportunities for trade.

Additionally, since merchants travel, they facilitate distribution of information. They provide the administration with a ready source of information of what is going on outside the capital, beyond the borders of the realm, and among the ordinary people. Importantly this channel is to large degree independent of the official channels administrators use to report how well they are doing their jobs. This compensates for the natural tendency people have of forgetting to mention they are highly corrupt or inefficient or have lost control of the populace.

Often forgotten is that the information goes both ways. Merchants are also the main way people have of receiving news of things going on in the capital, among the ruling class or beyond their borders. Thus the merchants have a large impact on how people see the empire and its rulers. Depending on your preference they can work as mass media or propaganda machinery of the state.

Merchants also facilitate travel by other classes. While roads and such can be built and maintained for military purposes. The infrastructure that allows individual administrators or artisans to travel safely is probably built for the merchants who travel all the time. This allows for more specialized exchange of ideas to happen. And of course merchants (or the infrastructure built for them) can carry private letters and allow for people to keep in touch across distances. Such exchange has benefits for culture, society, and technology.

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  • $\begingroup$ I don't recall having come across the Pochteca before your mention of them, but they do answer my question. $\endgroup$ – Trismegistus Jan 4 '16 at 20:23
  • $\begingroup$ That's pretty cool about the Pochteca, I hadn't heard of them before either. Good to know I was on the right track :) $\endgroup$ – AndyD273 Jan 5 '16 at 15:29

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