Ancient Rome, Japan and the Interconnected World

Roman Glass Bead
Photo By Nara National Research Institute/AFP (c) 2012, Used without permission.

by Gene Howington, Guest Blogger

In the 5th Century CE, the world was a much more isolated place than it is today but it was still interconnected. Most people lived and died within 30 miles of where they were born. Yet even then, the world was an interconnected place where the far reaches could touch one another. Travel was restricted to by foot, horseback or boat. Regular communication depended upon trade routes or carrier pigeons. However, distance and geographical isolation did not prevent distant parts of the world from knowing about each other. The impact of foreign countries within a given country in the ancient world, both near and far, raises some interesting questions about interconnectedness, influence and the impact of telecommunications and air travel on the modern world. For context, let’s consider this recent archaeological find announced by the Nara National Research Institute for Cultural Properties.

On Friday, they announced that they found three glass beads in a tomb near Kyoto that can be traced to ancient Roman manufacturing techniques. The tomb itself dates back to the Yamato period of Japanese history, an era marked by inter-provincial warfare when the Imperial capitol was located in Nara. The definition of the Yamato period (named for the clan that became the Imperial dynasty during that time) is somewhat disputed. Conventionally assigned to the period 250–710 (including both the Kofun period (c 150-538) and the Asuka period (538-710)), the actual start of Yamato rule is disputed and the Kofun period is considered an archaeological period while the Asuka period is considered an historical period. This distinction is unpopular with modern Japanese historians, but the period does contain demarcations in Japanese culture.  The Kufun period marks a time when Chinese and Korean culture are impacting Japanese culture and the dominate religious influences were the domestic Shinto religion and the Chinese imports Confucianism and Taoism. The Asuka period marks both the rise to Imperial supremacy by the Yamato clan and the introduction of Buddhism to Japanese culture which was to have a long and profound effect. The tomb the beads were found in dates from the late Kofun period which is named for the style of burial mounds commonly used by nobles and dignitaries of the time.

To provide context, at the height of the Roman Empire under Trajan and Hadrian in the 1st and 2nd Century CE, the Empire stretched from modern day England south across the Mediterranean and in to what is now Iraq. The glass making techniques of the beads utilized natron – a natural salt best known for being part of the Egyptian embalming process for creating mummies. Although the process had been used by the Romans since at least the peak of their Empire, the beads found in the Kofun near Kyoto date from a tomb created as the Roman Empire of the late 400’s and early 500’s was in decline and rapidly losing territory. While it may come as a surprise to some, this is not the first evidence of radically distant and disparate contact between East and West that pre-dates Marco Polo‘s famous trade mission of the 13th Century CE.

In 1954, in Helgö on Ekerö Island in Lake Mälaren in Sweden, archaeologists were excavating a Viking ruin dated to the  8th or 9th Century CE when they found a small bronze buddha subsequently dated to the 6th Century CE and of suspected Indian origin. Some suspect the buddha came along for the ride with Vikings travelling the “Amber route”, one of the vast Viking trade networks which utilized rivers to transport amber, silk and others goods to the north through the Russian rivers and stepps although others think it was taken from treasure obtained raiding Ireland although how the Irish would have came to be in possession of such a statue remains a mystery. In 2010, archaeologists and genetics researchers examining a Roman graveyard near Vagnari in Southern Italy found a 2,000 year-old skeleton with mitochondrial DNA (mDNA) that showed a body buried there had East Asian lineage.

If the interconnectedness of the ancient world is to be believed on the evidence (and I think it should), what does that say about the modern world where cultures can influence each other via telecommunications at the push of a button and easy air travel – discounting the hassles of airport security – is readily available? Is “globalization” inevitable as cultures meet, merge, and share ideas or will geographical isolation still shape individual pockets of relatively homogeneous culture? Will geographically closer cultures tend to have dominant influence such as the relationship between ancient Japan and China or modern Mexico and America or will technology make geography increasingly irrelevant? Are we moving toward a universal human culture or not? If so, are we moving toward a universal set of laws or not? Is this a good thing? A bad thing? Something in between?

What do you think?

Source(s): Yahoo! NewsNara National Research Institute for Cultural Properties“Town Origins and Development in Early England, C.400-950 A.D.” by Daniel G. Russo (p.177), Science Daily

56 thoughts on “Ancient Rome, Japan and the Interconnected World”

  1. Berliner,
    Won’t waste your time as you belong in another league than I do. This I will google and Wiki further on:
    “The difference is that the tone in these I-G languages isn’t a marker for a phoneme (i.e. a vocal or syllable) like the Chinese languages, but a lexeme (i.e. the word root and its attached meaning).
    Granted, that is a very linguistic-technical viewpoint.”

    You had mentioned ideograms (or GeneH or somebody did for the Chinese “words”. And then I assumed that our alphabet could be called phonograms. But now you mention phonemes. Will check it out.

    If I may take advantage: why is Chinese and Japanese so plagued with a lack of building distinct words with sounds compare with European languages. Is it the amount of syllables they will use in a word? As I mentioned, Chinese often uses clarification words to make distinct the meaning of the first word pronounced. My Shanghai trained doctor regards it as
    child’s play.

    And so two of the few Chinese phrases I can say:
    With reservation for transliteration—Tsche Tsche and Kan Pei. Och skål för ni allihopa!

  2. Howington knows it all! People, you no longer have to think for yourselves. Buddha will spoon feed you only the information you need to know, other than that, he is capable of plagiarizing all by himself.

    1. “Buddha The Klown Returns”

      Gee, I wonder what anonymous persona has been posting under all these new, weird pseudonyms? Actually, I mostly wonder what mild pleasure anyone would get in doing that, since it seems so pointless and childish.

  3. Berliner,

    Your point is taken, but compare the spoken versus the written and difficulty does become an issue. I have minimal familiarity with Mandarin, but I do have some experience with Japanese which comports with what you note about spoken languages. However, written language makes the “world go around” so to speak, especially in business and finance. Personally I think German would be a far better lingua franca than English because Bundesdeutsch has as a purposely created “synthetic” grammar much more logical rules (and less room for error) than English does.



    You better be careful anon in believing that anyone is either fooled by you or takes you seriously, because no one of any import is or does. You’re a minor annoyance at best and at worst you’re a minor annoyance.

  4. Better be very careful of whose posts you delete on the threads as they may soon lead to your doom. There are a lot of people on here that are tiring of the blog bully.

  5. idealist707,

    hah, I actually thought of the Danish “stoed” when I included the “as a phonetic marker” caveat in my post.
    Yes, Danish, Swedish, Norwegian, but also Lithuanian and Serbocroatian are not without reason called “restricted tone languages,” but the “restricted” part is important too.

    The difference is that the tone in these I-G languages isn’t a marker for a phoneme (i.e. a vocal or syllable) like the Chinese languages, but a lexeme (i.e. the word root and its attached meaning).
    Granted, that is a very linguistic-technical viewpoint.

    But you’re right: if you look at the whole Indo-Germanic family as a whole and all the different linguistic properties it has, the features of the Chinese languages get less and less “alien” and “inherently difficult.”

  6. Berliner,

    I presume you include Swedish as belonging to the Indo-German group. In which case you perhaps don’t either speak or understand the spoken language here.

    It is very tonal, as to meaning of the word, but in so many other ways.
    Swedes regard with pride their language as belonging to the tonal group. Perhaps it is inflection. But whatever it is, it is difficult to learn as an adult, and easy for children. The sound is very musical.

    Enjoyed your comment. And you may be correct in your assertion. I have not studied the question. But that the way it comes from here in Sweden.

    Just as icing, I spent a year working in Bangkok in ’65-6 and can still do some market Thai today.
    Our housekeeper had great fun when I tried to imitate the five different KA sounds she could make, each tonally clear to her.

    And with that I say: Krup kun krup.

  7. “… English will hold sway simply because it is now ubiquitous ad also because Chinese is so hard for Non Asians to learn. …”

    Mike Spindell,

    the first may very well be true, I don’t think that any language in human history ever had such a global predominance.

    But the second argument is also true in reverse for Non-Europeans and English. And English *is* the common language globally, not just in Europe and its former colonies.

    “… I don’t think the same would have happened if that network of influence had first been implemented by a culture using the more inherently difficult languages found in the East. …”


    there are no “inherently difficult” languages. Mandarin grammar (aside from the “counting words,” which are a minor nuisance) is very, very simple by all objective standards.

    (I’ll grant you that a pictographic writing system is harder to learn (and to use with electronic media), but the combination “Mandarin and Hanyu pinyin” isn’t too hard for a second language.)

    Spoken Chinese languages are difficult for Indo-Germanic speakers because
    1) Indo-Germanic languages never use tone as a phonetic marker (only as a sentence marker for example in questions), and
    2) Mandarin vocabulary and Indo-Germanic vocabulary don’t share roots, not even Latin or Old Greek ones.

    But these are difficulties of *familiarity*, not *objective* difficulties.
    For an African who speaks Hausa – also a tonal language which shares no vocabulary with Indo-Germanic languages – it is pretty much a toss up in terms of difficulty.

    And don’t forget that a lingua franca *creates* its own familiarity.

    If Mandarin had the status that English has today:
    – almost all music you’d hear in the radio had lyrics in Mandarin
    – most movies and a lot of TV shows would be Mandarin with subtitles
    – advertising would use a lot of Mandarin words to sound “modern”
    – new things (from new consumer gadgets [iPod] to new medical conditions [AIDS]) would, of course, get Mandarin names

    In short: even if you hadn’t learned Mandarin yet, it would be as familiar to you as English is for Asians and Africans today.

  8. mespo,

    I tend to think more of the former but certainly some of the later.

  9. Gene H:

    Been in trial and just got the chance to read the article. Very good. Do you think we habitually underestimate the extent of trade in the ancient world and the amount of cross-cultural exchanges or did the ruling class then — like the one now — gets what it wanted when it wanted it?

  10. Berliner,

    My comment was not meant to supplant your observation but enhance it. What I said of English being easy to learn on a technical level actually applies to several Germanic and Romance languages. My point was that part of the reason English is such a common second language is comparative ease of learning – not the totality of why, but part of why. The Empire took two things with them everywhere they went: British style schools (also a huge contributing factor) and British style banks. That the British made global banking a reality with their spread of empire (and thus making English the language of money) I think also has to do with the choice of “lingua franca”, but ease of use contributed to its retention once the English Empire started to retract. I also think the same would have happened had some other European power with a Germanic or Romance language brought about the global economic influence that the English did. French or Italian or Portuguese or German could all just as easily have ended up the world’s most common second language. I don’t think the same would have happened if that network of influence had first been implemented by a culture using the more inherently difficult languages found in the East. Some other easier language would have supplanted Mandarin or Mongolian or whatever as the common tongue. The constraints of the work force would have demanded it. Chinese and languages like it are very education intensive to make highly proficient technical speakers, readers and writers. Consider India as a microcosm of that phenomena. India is just a Hindi speaking country, they have numerous dialects and distinct languages across the country, but even after the English left, they retained it as the “official” language in part because it was already the language of government and money and in part because the English runs schools all taught it and in part because it comparatively easier to master than some of the local languages. No, I’m not disagreeing with you at all. Your point is directed at how English became the lingua franca. My point is about part of why it was retained.

  11. Mike & Gene,

    “Easy to learn” or other utilitarian advantages have nothing to do with it. I mean English with its bizarre tenses, its over-reliance on idioms, and its spelling completely decoupled from pronunciation isn’t some kind of paragon of simplicity either.

    No, the point is the status of “lingua franca.” Outside the Francophonie itself even French isn’t really any more helpful than Chinese or Maltese, because the number of people who speak it as a second language is so tiny compared with the prevalence of English as a second language.

    Unless one lives in a bilingual region, the second language most non-English speaker on this world learn is English.
    And even that caveat is often nor true, it is for example not uncommon to see German-speaking Swiss and French-speaking Swiss talk to each other in English — their best second language respectively.

    1. “Easy to learn” or other utilitarian advantages have nothing to do with it.”


      I don’t disagree with that and there are historical reasons for why English is so widespread. I was speculating in a future sense since many see this as “The Chinese Century” and that may well be true. However, I do think that if it is, it won’t be so because people start to learn Mandarin or other Chinese dialects. The may indeed gain economic hegemony, but I think culturally English will hold sway simply because it is now ubiquitous ad also because Chinese is so hard for Non Asians to learn. When the “syllable” “MA” for instances can have variable meanings due to inflection, that is hard for someone not brought up in the language to grasp and master.

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