Sorry, Mr Bush, the Romans got there before you

January 2, 2004

The Romans gave the world its first real taste of globalisation, according to a new theory to be outlined this weekend.

A reassessment of the trials and triumphs of the ancient empire-builders suggests many parallels and lessons for today's US-led new world order.

Bruce Hitchner, professor and chair of classics at Tufts University, will argue that globalisation is a recurring process that dates back at least 2,000 years when he addresses the Archaeological Institute of America's annual meeting on Sunday.

His ideas, to be published by Oxford University Press this year, represent a challenge to classicists and scholars studying the impact of globalisation today.

He said the empire integrated people, culture, technology and ideas on an unprecedented scale. Instead of McDonald's and Coca-Cola, amphorae of wine and olive oil became ubiquitous from York to Alexandria. Ambitious Gauls and Jews were taught to speak Latin in schools just as middle-class children in Jakarta and Sio Paulo learn English today, while columned temples and amphitheatres sprang up everywhere as office blocks and cinemas are springing up today.

Professor Hitchner said: "The empire brought a largely stable, peaceful environment but, as it transformed the world, it also brought enormous resistance as people realised that their cultures were being overwhelmed."

So today's anticapitalist protests and the rise of terrorist movements such as al-Qaida find parallels in the rebellions of the empire's early years such as Boudicca's uprising and the slave revolt led by Spartacus.

Professor Hitchner noted many differences, not least the fact that "modern globalisation is much faster and more complex". But he said the process of growth following the emergence of a single superpower was essentially the same.

He also observed that all globalisations ended at some point. Professor Hitchner said Roman integration was so successful that local cultures ultimately became strong enough to reassert themselves against Rome.

Ian Morris, professor of classics at Stanford University, said Professor Hitchner's work not only opened up new avenues to study ancient history but also "may give us fruitful ways to understand the processes of global change in our own world".

But James Mittelman, a professor at the American University, Washington DC, and author of The Globalization Syndrome , was sceptical. He linked contemporary globalisation to a fundamental change in capitalism in the 1970s, adding that he had problems with the West-centrism of focusing on the rise of the Roman Empire.

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