Students of the ancient economy are all too familiar with the situation of being in the middle of a debate and slowly realising that the entire thing has been operating at cross purposes without anyone noticing. Most often, this is because discussion focuses on substantive matters, with questions of theory and interpretative frameworks pushed firmly into the background or ignored altogether; it’s perfectly possible even for someone like me to talk about a topic like Roman bakeries for some time before it becomes clear to me, if not to my interlocutor, that we’re agreeing on a specific point on the basis of diametrically opposite assumptions and conceptions. I must admit that my usual reaction to this situation is to feel embarrassed and uncomfortable; it feels quite rude and aggressive to switch the discussion to the theoretical or methodological level, like a dubious rhetorical move or illegitimate exercise of academic authority – and that’s almost certainly how it would be received; at any rate that’s how it felt whenever the late Keith Hopkins did it to me when I was a PhD student – but at the same time I fervently believe that you can’t do history properly without examining your preconceptions, considering the broader implications of your ideas and so forth, and so I feel I ought to say something to make it clear that we’re agreeing just on this point, not on everything else.
This does seem to have become more common in the last few years, with the more or less concerted effort to ‘move beyond’ Finley and the ‘unhelpful’ polarisations of the primitivist-moderniser, substantivist-formalist debates of the 1970s and 1980s. Obviously there are lots of different ways of being ‘post-Finley’ – some aim to build on his pioneering work and preserve some key ideas, others want to breathe a sigh of relief that all that nonsense can now be dispensed with – and the fact that there’s now a fair amount of common ground (e.g. there was quite a lot of trade in the Roman empire) compared with the extreme positions of the past actually makes the debate messier because it’s less clear where the lines are to be drawn (e.g. whether the existence of long-distance trade automatically implies the dominance of the market as organisational principle). Actually I’m starting to suspect certain colleagues of deliberating down-playing such areas of debate, ostensibly with the aim of moving the discussion forward but actually in the hope that annoying dissenters like myself will get tired and go away, or failing that will just be ignored by most people.
My feeling is that, however inadequate the answers offered by Finley and his opponents were, the questions that he raised and they for the most part begged remain important: above all, the choice of theories, methods and concepts, the relation of ancient economic history to the different social sciences, and the ways in which we conceive the relationship between present and past. (I’m not claiming that any of these are original questions – most of them can be traced back to Weber and Marx, if not earlier – but Finley was often the first to attempt to get ancient historians to confront them). We do not, contrary to Finley, have to reject all modern economic theory for fear of anachronism and distortion of the past – but we do need to have a pretty good idea of what we’re using and how we’re using it, and to remain sceptical of some of the claims of certain economists. It would be absurd to think as Finley did that all modern concepts are dangerous and misleading (and of course he was happy to use all sorts of modern concepts) – but it would be dangerous to assume that all concepts are safe and neutral, and that there is no possibility that we might end up preconfiguring the object of our research through the terms we choose to describe it.
It is in the field of concepts and technical vocabulary that these issues most often come to the fore – or at any rate they do as far as I’m concerned; I’m increasingly aware that my articles may be becoming a little predictable, as these days I seem begin at least a third of them with a conceptual-rhetorical discussion (and at least another third with a quick survey of what Marx, Weber or the classical political economists had to say on the topic). But I do this because I think it matters, and because hardly anyone else seems to think it matters, and as long as everyone else (a) ignores the subject and (b) persists in furnishing me with copious material showing how concepts do actually matter, especially if you take them for granted, then it doesn’t seem likely that I’m going to stop doing this any time soon.
A case in point is the chapter I’ve just finished revising for a forthcoming collection on Roman Globalisation, edited by Martin Pitts and Miguel-John Versleuys (CUP, ??2014??). Now, I am not – whatever the editors and my fellow contributors think – implacably, ideologically opposed to the idea that ‘globalisation’ and its accompanying theories might be a useful way of thinking about the development of the Roman empire, not only the processes of cultural change (which seems to be the main interest of most of my colleagues, not least in the hope that this might offer a handy replacement for ‘Romanisation’) but also the processes of economic integration. However, I would like to be persuaded of its usefulness, rather than taking this for granted, and in particular persuaded that this isn’t just a new way of presenting the ancient world as basically modern – it was, after all, precisely on the grounds of the resemblance of the ancient and experiences of being integrated into a wider world that Rostovtzeff produced his notorious claim that the differences between past and present were matters of quantity not quality.
It was in the course of responding to editorial queries and objections that I had one of those moments of realisation that we were, at least partly, talking at cross purposes – and I’ll readily admit that one reason for the delay in realising this was that I hadn’t until that point fully worked out what I actually thought. For them, this was a simple question of whether or not ‘globalisation’ was a specifically modern phenomenon or not; a range of theorists had argued that the term could be more widely applied, and so it wasn’t obvious why I was making such a fuss about it. My initial position was one of considerable sympathy for the idea that globalisation was a specifically modern phenomenon, and a certain suspicion that making it applicable to more or less all periods of human history required the emptying out most of its content first; if this is actually to be a useful concept, it needs to be modern, or at any rate a bit more specific, and it’s the exploration of the differences between the ancient and modern phenomena that was most likely to be illuminating.
But then I suddenly realised that the key issue as far as I was concerned was not so much whether globalisation could be applied to the pre-modern past in general but whether it could be applied to the special case of Rome, as a relatively complex and relatively integrated economy; and that raised the suspicion that at least some of my colleagues are not really signing up to the ‘all ancient societies were much more complex and globalised than we tend to assume’ agenda of someone like Andre Gunder Frank, let alone his call for a shift away from Eurocentricism, or the de-centring of Rome as Jan Nederveen Pieterse has put it. Rather, they seek to make use of the arguments for a wider applicability of ‘globalisation’ as a means of reconfiguring and refining the traditional account of Rome as a special case – more like ‘us’ than other pre-modern societies, superior to other contemporary civilisations.
Now, I don’t imagine for a moment that this line of argument will carry weight with the global historians, who have plenty of experience in seeing through the pretensions and special pleading of the classical historians – but that’s not the target audience for most of this; rather, these accounts are aimed at other Roman historians and archaeologists, offering a new and apparently better-founded version of the old modernising story, Rome as quantitatively but not qualitatively different from the present. I don’t for a moment think that this is the conscious intention of many (any?) of my colleagues – rather, they are genuinely committed to exploring whether the concept of globalisation might offer a useful addition to the ancient historian’s conceptual toolkit – but I can’t help seeing it as one of the unintended implications of the way that they are envisaging their subject. And this is the reason, to the vast and largely understandable annoyance of my editors, why I remain stubbornly sceptical of the usefulness of the term, and not just because I remain completely unconvinced that the adoption of the mule and the construction of a few roads represents time-space compression in any meaningful or useful sense…