Globalization Isn’t New

A Professor's Perspective On Current Events

Image of Professor Vejas Liulevicius
By Professor Vejas Liulevicius, Ph.D.

Think globalization is a new concept? Think again! Read below as Professors Liulevicius and Benjamin weigh in on a multi-year journey National Geographic adventurer, Paul Salopek is taking across ancient roads.

This article originally premiered on NPR.

Globalization Is Not New

As we hear more about Paul Salopek‘s epic walk on historic routes of migration and trade, we all should cheer him on. I agree entirely that these paths he is retracing (now along the famed Silk Road) are part of the early beginnings of globalization and shared ideas.

Nowadays, we somewhat immodestly assume that it is only in our own times that the world has been “globalized” or bound together, but the phenomenon is an enduring and far older one. In addition, we need in general to illuminate the ways in which human history has not been exclusively the story of clashes, wars, and conflicts.

In fact, it is also about astonishing episodes of cooperation for mutual benefit, trade, and exchange. Historians can do so much more to highlight what artifacts of long-range contact reveal to us on a regular basis. Consider the Indian ivory carving of a graceful goddess or dancing beauty that was found in Pompeii’s volcanic ruins. Or the way in which the design of folding chairs used by Egyptian pharaohs was copied by Germanic tribes as far north as Denmark.

Chunks of glowing golden amber from the Baltic seacoast were traded all the way down to classical Greece and Rome along the Amber Road trade route.

Or marvel at the fact that black bitumen (petroleum tar used as a sealant) from Syria was found in the Anglo-Saxon ship buried at the seventh-century grave at Sutton Hoo in England. The Viking tomb in Helgö, Sweden, included a Buddha statue from northern India.

The amazing statues of Gandhara, an ancient kingdom in what today is Pakistan and Afghanistan, blended the styles of Hellenistic Greek, Syrian, Persian, and Indian art to create something synthetic and new. Roman coins have been recently unearthed in a Japanese castle on Okinawa.

As we can see in example after example, trade and exchange has a long, old history. It contains astonishing stories of heroic efforts, the drama of entrepreneurship, risk, loss, and reward. All these stories need to be better known.

Globalization’s Impact On Economics And Communities

Image of Professor Craig Benjamin, Ph.D.
By Professor Craig Benjamin, Ph.D.

I really enjoyed listening to Steve Inskeep’s fascinating interview with National Geographic adventurer, Paul Salopek. In particular I appreciated Salopek’s perspectives on the importance of the ancient Silk Roads network.

As he notes, the Silk Roads was ‘one of the pioneering experiments in globalization’. It can be a little counter-intuitive for people to think that globalization was occurring thousands of years ago, because most folks think of it as a modern phenomenon that only commenced once the entire globe had been connected by trade and exchange.

But if we consider the essence of globalization as the establishment of a transregional complex connectivity that triggers a wide range of social changes amongst participants, essentially a dense web of interactions between different communities created by trade and exchange, then globalizations (plural) have occurred multiple times in the past.¹

In my forthcoming book, Empires of Ancient Eurasia and the First Silk Roads Era (Cambridge University Press, 2017), I am in complete agreement with Salopek about the role of the ancient Silk Roads in facilitating globalization. His discussion of some of the towns and cities of Central Asia, such as Khiva, Samarkand and Bukhara, is also fascinating and quite poignant to someone like me, who has also had the good fortune to visit these amazing places.

During the golden age of the Silk Roads, these were bustling, thriving, wealthy commercial hubs deep in the deserts of Central Asia, frequented by merchants and ambassadors from all the great civilizations and cultures of Afro-Eurasia.

This article is part of our Professor’s Perspective series—a place for experts to share their views and opinions on current events.

But with the collapse of classical empires such as those of the Romans, Parthians, Kushans and Han Chinese, Silk Roads trade declined dramatically and these cities were left in a greatly reduced and impoverished state. They thrived again during a Second Silk Roads Era between c. 600 and 900 CE, when trade flourished between the Islamic caliphates and the Tang Dynasty in China, only to suffer destruction and calamity at the hands of the Mongols.

As Salopek points out, today these magnificent urban centers boast a series of superb mosques, madrassahs, and public squares (like the magical Registan in Samarkand) that serve as reminders of the golden age of the Silk Roads, one of the most important periods in world history.

These cities, and the globalized trade networks that sustained them, feature heavily in both my Great Courses series, the Foundations of Eastern Civilization, and the Big History of Civilization.

¹For more on the idea of ancient globalizations see Justin Jennings, Globalizations and the Ancient World, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011; and also John Tomlinson, Globalization and Culture, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999, who is responsible for the above definition of globalization.

For more with Professor Liulevicius, check out “History’s Greatest Voyages of Exploration

For more with Professor Benjamin, check out “Foundations of Eastern Civilization” or “The Big History of Civilizations” on the Great Courses Plus!