Globalisation and the Roman World

Martin Pitts
Classics Department, University of Exeter
Associate Member, Centre for Imperial & Global History

pittscoverGlobalisation and the Roman World (2014), edited by myself and Miguel John Versluys (Leiden University), is a new book that examines the case for understanding the ancient Roman world as one of the earliest examples of globalisation. This is a controversial project, not least because many Roman historians and archaeologists feel that the word globalisation is inappropriate to use when discussing the ancient world. In their view, Rome was a completely different beast to the image of western capitalism which is frequently conflated with globalisation, and of course, the Roman world was never global in a literal sense.

Despite this reluctance to engage with globalisation, a group of archaeologists and historians feel there is sufficient mileage to explore the application of the concept to the Roman world in more detail, having for themselves overcome the initial objections of the critics. For these Romanists, a major impetus is to critically examine the possibilities of a new explanatory framework based on increasingly popular notions of connectivity and networks. Likewise, many felt dissatisfied with a state of affairs in which older ideas of Romanisation and imperialism had been deconstructed, but not adequately replaced with something better. At the same time, from the perspective of those contributors coming from outside the discipline, the exploration was overdue since ideas of Rome have long been (mis)appropriated in modern writings on globalisation.

In essence, globalisation refers to the increased movement of people, objects and ideas between different places, connecting local cultures over long distances, and transforming societies in various ways. The book, which represents the culmination of a series of symposia from 2008-2011, considers the implications for life in a truly interconnected Roman world – even though Rome was never global in a literal sense. The contributors address a broad range of subjects, including migration, economics, consumption, urbanism, visual culture, heritage, and the symbolic use of Rome in the modern world, with each essay commenting on the benefits and risks of applying globalisation ideas. Two introductions cover the potential relevance of globalisation for Roman studies – to bring new understandings of the past (Pitts & Versluys) and to uncover the genealogy of imperial and global ideas in the present (Hingley). While these outlines are optimistic about the application of globalisation concepts in Roman studies, several aspects remain hotly contested – as evidenced by the differing opinions of Laurence and Trifilò (for) and Morley (against) on the existence of time-space compression in the Roman world, as well as the role of the Roman state in globalisation. Whereas economic indicators such as the frequency of Mediterranean shipwrecks showcase Rome in the first and second centuries AD as a highpoint of globalisation, several contributors, such as Isayev on migration, point to the high levels of connectivity that already existed prior to the supposed global moment of Rome’s victory over Carthage at the end of the Second Punic War, as famously described by the historian Polybius.

In the views of the editors, one of the most important themes of the book is to emphasise new possibilities for the interpretation of the multitude of styles and objects that circulated in the Roman world – from so-called ‘Egyptianising’ visual culture (Versluys), to everyday dining ceramics (Pitts). Rather than presuppose that cultural change emanated from Rome to the provinces – as from core to periphery, in either one or two-way processes – globalisation encourages us to de-centre Rome. De-centring Rome entails paying more careful attention to the complexity of cultural influences and differing degrees of shared culture that existed within the Roman world. In this sense, we might better conceive of the Roman world as a polycentric periphery, in which each city or community has the capacity to influence others in the wider network. This is, of course, not to diminish the role of Rome as both major hub and imagined standard for countless communities around the empire, at least until the later imperial period.

Most important perhaps, is what this book offers to change the current state of play. In the words of one contributor, global sociology Professor Jan Nederveen Pieterse, who wrote one of the concluding chapters: “For scholars of globalisation, the Roman world breaks with stereotypical representations of the past as immobile, fragmented, segmented, sheltered, and closed off. The Romans globalised their peripheries by bringing elements of other peripheries as well as their own influence. The globalisation take on the Roman world situates Rome in the stream of history, it decentres Rome.” It is clear that by engaging with globalisation, Romanists have a better chance to influence bigger debates on global history, in which Rome is set to figure – with or without their participation.

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