Global Romans (1). The classical world through post-colonial eyes

Miko Flohr, 07/01/2020

I have lived inside the boundaries of what used to be the Roman empire for my entire life. Born in Rotterdam in The Netherlands, I grew up in Brabant, in the south of the country, and went to the university in Nijmegen, where they were still excavating the legionary camp as I arrived in 1995 to study Classics; every year or so, newspapers would report new local discoveries – burials, structures, or roads. Later, in Oxford, we lived within a couple of hundreds of meters of the old Roman road between Silchester and Towchester. Since moving back to the Netherlands, we live right between the Roman castellum at Valkenburg, and the small town of Forum Hadriani at Voorburg, and I happen to work within fifty meters of the northern boundary of the Empire – when I go on my bike from home to work, I often cross it twice. I know no better than that the object of my study is a regular part of the past of the places that I have called home.

Birth places of my ancestors, five generations back. Top: The Netherlands. Bottom: Java, Indonesia.

Oddly enough, it took me some time to realize that this does not also mean that my deeper personal roots lie within the empire. Actually, as the map above shows, the reverse is true. My mother was born just north of the Rhine, in Arnhem, her parents in Arnhem and Groningen. Part of my grandfather’s family can be traced back to the riverine area that was once just inside the empire (but only just); however, my grandmother’s ancestry almost entirely came from Frisia, which never was part of the Roman realm. More radically, my father was born on the other end of the world, in Southern Sumatra, in what then still was called the Dutch East Indies by some. Both of my grandparents who were born on Java and had mixed Javanese-European ancestry. Only in 1954, they came to Europe. It is safe to say that there is not an awful lot of Greco-Roman blood running through my veins.

In a way, of course, this is pompous nonsense. Family histories can only be traced back to the early modern period, and we are shaped by them only to a fairly limited extent even if they are of great antiquarian personal interest. Also, there is no intrinsic meaning attached to living within or outside the former boundaries of an empire that has been gone for a millennium and a half apart from the fact that Roman stuff may be found in your back yard or around the corner. Antiquity is dead and gone, and no-one in this world, except for the pope maybe in Rome, entertains a living relation with the world of the first centuries of our era.

Still, place matters, and it is kind of ironical how we, in the Netherlands, and in larger parts of North-Western Europe (never mind North-America), have somehow decided, long ago, that our collective historical narratives start from Greece and Rome, far away in the Mediterranean. In a way, we have artificially appropriated a past that is wholly or partially unrelated to the land where our families come from and we have made it our own. Additionally, we have asked people arriving in our country from elsewhere (like my father’s family) to buy into this narrative even if it essentially excludes the places where they (also) come from. It is surely a tempting narrative – I am certainly not the only European with roots in the Far East to study Greco-Roman ‘classics’. But it is also a bit odd, if you think about it – it is strange to spend your professional life within a historical tradition that has nothing to say about the land where part of your family comes from.

Personally, I only gradually came to be bothered by the geographical boundaries of ‘our’ ancient world. Of course, I learned about Rome’s intensive trade with India in the first and second centuries CE, and I read stuff about China under the Qin and Han emperors, but the actual position of Rome, and its empire, in the wider world of the early first millennium CE is something that only came onto my radar over the course of the last two years or so; perhaps, this is due to the increasingly heated debates about the extent to which European perceptions of the past are still firmly rooted in ideas defined in the era of European colonial empires. Should not a post-colonial view on the history of the world also have implications for the way in which we approach the Ancient Mediterranean, and if so, which?

I would argue that it is the task of Ancient Historians to begin to set this record straight. Some of us, of course, have already begun spinning historical threads connecting the Greco-Roman world to the world around the ancient Mediterranean, including India and China. Yet it is safe to say that very little of that has really entered the central debates in our field, or reached a broader public. Indeed, if Greco-Roman scholars experiment with the concept of globalisation, they mostly use it as a concept within the confines of the classical world – that’s how provincial we (still) are! Indeed, the wider world is only rarely part of what we teach – our world, too often, still stops where (and when) they stop writing Greek and Latin. There are some prominent exceptions, but it also seems that many of us simply don’t know very well what the hell is happening out there. This needs to change – we need to change.

So here we go. What I will be doing is write a number of blogs on the ‘echoes’ of Rome in the world outside the boundaries of the empire – and vice-versa. One could argue that this still is, essentially, a Romano-centric approach, and that certainly is true. But it also offers a powerful perspective, and what I hope is that it does give me some clues in connecting all the dots – after all, I have a direct personal interest in doing this. I have no fixed schedule, and no clear timetable for this, and many other obligations, so we’ll see how it goes. This might be a five-year project, on and off, but eventually, we’ll get there, and it will help me understand how the Greco-Roman world in our handbooks related to and interacted with the world beyond the Rhine, the Danube, and the Syrian, Arab and North-African deserts. Maybe, it will help some of you as well.

Note: The title of this series is resembling that of Frits Naerebout’s recommendable article ‘Global Romans? Is globalisation a concept that is going to help us understand the Roman empire?’ (Talanta 38-39 [2008], 149-170), which can be found here. It deserves some emphasis, however, that it lacks the question mark.