Miguel John Versluys

Innovating objects. The Impact of Global Connections and the Formation of the Roman Empire (ca. 200-30 BC)

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Innovating objects. The Impact of Global Connections and the Formation of the Roman Empire (ca. 200-30 BC)

Up until today, the Roman World is considered one of the most important historical landmarks of our Western, European civilisation. And rightly so. However, our perception of Rome is extraordinarily one-sided and needs to be adjusted. Rome is perceived as a successful imperium that, from the banks of the Tiber and by the hand of powerful generals, conquers and radically changes the world. This VICI project will generate an entirely new understanding of the formation of the Roman Empire, by focusing on both the global context of Eurasia and on objects. Rome, as the capital of a global empire, was packed with monuments and objects that came from the outside, from other cultures. For example, the Egyptian obelisk becomes the symbol of the Roman emperor, squares and public spaces are dominated by Greek architecture, and images of Oriental gods decorate many of the city’s temples. How can we explain this?

Innovating objects. The Impact of Global Connections and the Formation of the Roman Empire (ca. 200-30 BC)

This project examines the historical relation between objects and innovation, by taking the Roman World’s formative phase as example. During this period, the Romans conquered large parts of Europe, Asia, and Africa; in this way, Rome became intensively connected with all parts of the then known world – and was flooded by foreign objects. Whereas previous research approached the Roman World as defined and local, this project will understand Rome in terms of global developments. And whereas previous research focused on the imperialism of generals, this project will focus on objects.

Why objects? We begin to increasingly understand how important things really are. Innovation arises from the influx of objects from the outside – because new objects bring new trade possibilities along with them. By means of new objects, mankind and societies are able to do new things, to innovate.

Consider, for example, the washing machine. The introduction of this object in Dutch society played a significant role in changing households in a practical sense, but also in terms of women’s emancipation.

Or consider a Roman glass flask. This technique of glassblowing was first invented in the 1st Century BC, probably in Alexandria. It meant that less time and materials were needed in order to make glass. Because the Romans import this innovation, an almost industrial manufacture emerges. Glass changes Roman culinary practices. Because of glass, medicine can be stored for much longer than ever before. Because of glass, Roman soldiers can now eat gurkins when- and wherever they are.

Or consider a Greek statue. From 200 BC onwards, Rome is flooded with Greek and Hellenistic marble sculpture. Prior to that time, this type of sculpture was unknown. These statues significantly change the countenance of Roman cities and houses – in a practical sense, as the sculptures needed a place to be exhibited and admired, but also in social and intellectual sense. Rome was now forced to formulate its own identity in the face of a Greek example. Because of these types of statues, museums are created, and we still associate Rome with marble today.


We know that a large amount of this type of innovating objects originates from the eastern parts of the Mediterraneum and the Near East. Therefore, we have selected, in addition to the city of Rome itself, two strategically positioned archaeological key-sites on the border between central and western Eurasia as our main focus. In both cases, unique and endangered archaeological heritage is central to the research. Hence, our methodology approaches objects as globetrotters. This method enables us to apply a varied set of techniques. These techniques focus on provenance analysis and are derived from both the alpha/gamma sciences and the Hard Sciences. This combination proved to be very fruitful within my VIDI; and this VICI project will further expand this interdisciplinary methodology.

Why is it so important to conduct this research NOW? This project develops a new method to study the relation between innovation and objects and, through this, will generate a new understanding of the formation of the Roman Empire. Moreover, the project works with endangered archaeological heritage in a region in turmoil. Therefore, a heritage specialist, together with all team members and our local partners, will ensure valorisation and communication with the public. Ultimately, my project will enable us to place a number of our current world’s most urgent problems in historical perspective. A recent debate in the Volkskrant newspaper, to which I contributed, provides an example.

We struggle with the problems of Globalisation just like the Romans did. That is why we can learn something from their solutions.