Thursday, January 21, 2016


Martin Pitts, Miguel John Versluys (ed.), Globalisation and the Roman World. World History, Connectivity and Material Culture. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015. Pp. ix, 296. ISBN 9781107043749. $99.00.

Reviewed by Andrea U. De Giorgi, Florida State University (

Version at BMCR home site


Globalization describes the formation of one integrated, interconnected, supra-national society. Its applicability to the study of ancient Rome has already been discussed in a spate of studies, among which that of B. Hitchner particularly stands out.1 Globalization and the Roman World (henceforth GRW) draws on this recent, fertile scholarship and is the outcome of workshops held in Devon and Exeter in 2011 that were sponsored by the Classics department at Exeter University.

The volume includes contributions primarily from UK classicists. Part I, the Introduction, consists of two chapters. Part II, "Case Studies", includes seven essays, while Part III, "Perspectives," ends the book with two contributions. The subject, globalization and Rome, could not be more timely. The rub—and indeed GRW's main concern—is whether globalization theory, the genesis of which can be placed in the domains of economics and political science, can be applied to the study of the Roman world, which at its apex grew to encompass an extraordinary number of ethnicities and cultural traditions, while spurring unprecedented connectivity and mobility. It is plain that the climate of economic and cultural homogenization that pervades contemporary societies, along with the heightened interconnection of their inhabitants, serves as springboard to address questions as to whether the Romans perceived their world as global, and to explore a broad range of responses from a distinguished group of specialists. More fundamentally though, the book is rooted in the dissatisfaction with the theoretical paradigms that have hitherto sought to model the effects of Roman domination. Romanization and the subsequent post-colonial shifts to creolisation and identity are but some of the themes that, according to Martin Pitts and Miguel John Versluys, have led the general discourse of Roman hegemony to a state of impasse. A way forward, they argue, may be found in the battery of approaches that fall under the rubric of globalization theory.

In this vein, by way of introduction Chapter 1 lays out the aims of the volume, providing, first, a rich discussion of the genesis of globalization theories—rooted in world systems theory-, second, a clarification of what globalization in actuality means—against much modern distortion of the term-, and lastly, the assertion that globalization theory, unlike what many historians think, is indeed applicable to pre-industrial societies. The editors, in particular, argue that analytical parameters such as connectivity, the presence of a common market, economic integration, and time-space compression, among others, are lenses that should make the theoretical apparatus of globalization palatable to Roman archaeologists and historians. If fully harnessed, globalization theories are likely to yield significant dividends, they contend. Chapter 2 by Richard Hingley elaborates further on the conceptual plateau that underpins GRW. Admittedly, the tone of the first part of the essay reads more like an addendum to his 2006 book,2 and is not bereft of piqued responses to previous criticism. Yet, the chapter bristles with ideas as to the ways one may model the negotiation between the classical past and the globalized present, which are all the more relevant as the latter inevitably casts shadows onto the forms of knowledge of the past. A global approach can benefit any scholarly inquiry so long as we pair it with the genealogy of the ideas of the Roman world that exist in the present, he implies. Also, Hingley stresses the necessity to not make tabula rasa of the post-colonial lesson, a vein that appears not to be exhausted; over the last two decades the world has moved at a fierce pace, and we should use prudence when measuring the realities of past, corporate identities.

With Part II the book enters the nuts and bolts of case studies. Neville Morley opens the section with an essay that is fascinating on several counts. For one, he problematizes the notion of globalization, tracing its intellectual implications in the social sciences of the 19th century and in its modern theorizing, noting, in particular, that many historians don't seem to distance themselves much from the position of Rostovtzeff with regard to the economic sophistication of the ancient world. He adds that globalization theory presents other pitfalls, among which are, first, the danger of cushioning its wide-embracing character in rhetorical parallels between Rome and the contemporary world, and second, the fact that globalization, as it stands theoretically, means many things, and, to date no accepted single theory exists. Perhaps in this "versatility" lie the intellectual opportunities at the heart of this project. Time-space compression and consciousness of the world as a whole are but two avenues that Morley sees as profitable, and one cannot but agree with him. With Martin Pitts' article the volume steers toward the realm of consumption insofar as it concerns the proliferation of Roman material culture, and most notably the circulation of fine wares. In his assessment, this area of area of inquiry suffers from a scarcity of empirical studies and an excessive adherence to outdated models, which all too often wind up giving new, unwanted grist to the Romanization mill. He proposes a three-tiered agenda that rests on, first, the analysis of homogenization of consumption goods, one which excludes ideological engagement and center-periphery logic. Second, commodities don't come with tags; their use, circulation, and meaning need to be filtered through their cultural biography, as Appadurai puts it.3 Third and last, he advocates for attention to regional networks and their archaeological record, for they afford insights into local practices, foodways and, ultimately, cultural differences.4

Chapter 5 by Ray Laurence and Francesco Trifilò is concerned with the dialectic of local vs. global and gauges large, overarching datasets. First, it delves into the corpus of funerary Latin inscriptions in the West to assess how the indication of the deceased's age may vary regionally and thereby show possible patterns, as in the case of Italy vs. Numidia. A similar approach is then attempted with the census of public monuments in the Mediterranean during the second and third centuries CE: their generally equal incidence hints at the global character of monuments in the Roman imperial period, it seems. Then enter the problem of connectivity and the question of how space-time compression theory helps frame it in meaningful ways. Chapter 6 by Elena Isayev takes up Polybius, the historian that more than any other signified the globalizing role of Rome. She uses the well-known 88 BCE incident in Asia Minor, when apparently throngs of Romans were killed at Mithridates' command, to address the issue of migration and human mobility in the Mediterranean. She contends, in harmony with Horden and Purcell,5 that the Mediterranean was connected long before Rome cemented its hegemony; the archaeological record at sites like Pithekoussai or media like tesserae hospitales substantiate her contention. Instead, with Polybius we may be in presence of a watershed in the perception of connectivity, not in terms of practices.

Miguel John Versluys returns to Chapter 7 with an essay that after venturing into 17th c. China explores forms of material culture and the concept associated with them; altogether, the essay offers an analysis of the commingling of visual traditions that make up a visual koine in the Mediterranean basin from 200 BCE onwards, a most complex fusion that Otto Brendel already had styled as the "Roman problem".6 Versluy's "moving images for deterritorialised viewers" and universalizing visual culture could only be sparked by the engines of the Roman state, he argues. Tying in nicely with Versluys' analysis, Michael Sommer in Chapter 8 expands on the concept of a globalized oikoumene; in particular, he charts three areas (space, law, and sense of belonging) of the well-known oration in praise of Rome by Aelius Aristides that he sees as meaningful in illustrating the global character of the Roman world. Next, Witcher's thoughtful essay (Chapter 9) surveys the issue of globalization in antiquity from the angle of cultural heritage, yet he brings its theoretical underpinnings into sharper focus through a variety of lenses: modern politics, 9/11, multiculturalism, and frontier studies. The latter, in particular, offer a vantage point from where the Roman empire can be experienced globally; moving from Hadrian's Wall to the utopia of a wide-embracing Roman frontier treated as a World Heritage Site, Witcher underscores the potential of narratives of inclusion, division, and cultural fusion that liminality engenders, provided that adequate gravitas is accorded to the local/global dialectic.

Chapter 10 introduces Part III. In it Jan Nederveen Pieterse reviews once more the benefits and the pitfalls of a globalizing approach to Rome. Two key points emerge from his analysis: first, the notion of "decentring Rome" and the consequent undermining of the center-periphery tenet. Second, he contextualizes the Graeco-Roman universe within a time-table of globalization events that involved forces comparable to those spawned by Rome, chiefly interconnectedness and security conditions. Through this second point one can grasp the reiteration of patterns, shared practices, and meaningful commonalities, so long as in this global history "we identify historical phases and shifting centers." Lastly, by way of conclusion, Tamar Hodos weighs this book project with regard to its merits, limits, and points of disagreement. Drawing on Pieterse's analysis, he argues that, to date, no better model than that of globalization succeeds at illustrating the nature of Rome and the interaction among its societies and the processes that it sets into motion; at the very least this framework enables the scholars of Rome to free themselves of any Euro/Western-centrism and thereby engage the wider archaeology community.

All in all, the book is a stimulating read and poses questions that have long incubated and driven research for at least two decades. Some may argue that those questions may be simply repackaged here and that much of the terminology employed, be it connectivity or networks, may conceal concepts that have long percolated in the discourse of the Graeco-Roman universe. Hoarden and Purcell's monumental work, to cite but one, though shying away from employing the term "globalization," addressed already many of the points that GRW takes up. Nevertheless, Globalisation and the Roman World is a perfectly sensible operation; it situates the position of historians/archaeologists with respect to a theme that has wide resonance in this day and age, offers a healthy illustration as to where we stand after years of dwelling on romanization, and stimulates further discussion of the questions at stake. Granted, no fixed globalization theory is offered here, nor are the individual authors interested in forging an orthodoxy of what may or may not fall under the heading "globalization." It is apparent that the variability of globalization and its many facets are what makes this avenue attractive and one that is bound to yield interesting work. Aside from the redundancy of the genealogy of globalization theories that appears in most essays, the book is a stimulating read and deserves to be treated with all seriousness by the scholarly community.


1.   Hitchner, B.R. 2008. "Globalization avant la lettre: Globalization and the History of the Roman Empire." New Global Studies 2, 2: 1-12.
2.   Hingley, R. 2009. Globalizing Roman Culture: Unity, Diversity, and Empire. London and New York.
3.   Appadurai, A (ed.). 1986. "Introduction: Commodities and the Politics of Value", in The Social Life of Things: Commodities in Cultural Perspective. Cambridge.
4.   Luley, B. 2014. "Cooking, Class, and Colonial Transformations in Roman Mediterranean France." AJA 118: 33-60.
5.   Horden, P.-Purcell, N. 2000. The Corrupting Sea. Oxford.
6.   Brendel, O.J. Prolegomena to the Study of Roman Art. New Haven and London: 3-9.

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