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Connecting Ancient and Modern Times

In this year's Balmuth Lectures, Oxford archeology professor Andrew Wilson will compare the economic challenges faced by the Roman Empire and those we face today.

Medford/Somerville, Mass. [02.23.09] When Andrew Wilson began preparing his talk on "Economic Growth and Contraction in the Roman World" for the Department of Classics' annual Balmuth Lectures, the global credit market hadn't yet crashed.

"The whole economic contraction and recession part of it had suddenly become a lot more topical," notes Wilson, professor of the archeology of the Roman Empire at the Institute of Archaeology at Oxford University and co-director of a major Oxford research initiative on the Roman economy. R. Bruce Hitchner, professor and chair of the classics department, agrees.

"Many of the realities of the ancient economy have lessons for us in the modern economy in the sense that there may be limits in the type of growth we experience since the recent economic downturn," says Hitchner. "Andrew Wilson's lecture may be useful for people to get a perspective on the origins of the way we think about the economy and how we address the coming reality of limits on growth, which the Romans had to confront all the time."

Wilson will deliver the fourth installment of the lecture series on Feb. 23-26, and is expected to address economic institutions, technology, labor and mass production, and the supply of money. The lecture series is named in honor of the late Miriam Balmuth, professor of classics and the main force behind the creation of an interdisciplinary archeology program at Tufts, who passed away in 2004.

Pre-industrial societies, of course, experienced economic growth and contraction in a much different fashion than the industrialized world today.

"It's interesting to see how in the absence of certain key things like fossil fuels and electricity and computers, if you're dealing with a more restricted set of energy sources but potentially a set of more renewable energy sources, what limitations and restraints are imposed on the economy," says Wilson.

However, there are also many parallels, which include management of conquered lands and colonization schemes, transportation infrastructure and communications, and a common Mediterranean currency and the advent of the euro.

"There are always resonances between the ancient world and the modern," Wilson says. "It's interesting to see what we can learn from the past, in what ways ancient societies were like ours and what many and quite radical ways they were not."

Of the lessons that the Roman Empire has to offer the world today, Wilson says a key one is to not overstretch capacity.

"We can see the Roman state overextending itself through the course of the second century in terms of what the Roman public expected the state to be doing, in terms of public building and development in addition to protection and security," says Wilson. When the state ended up prioritizing military spending over civic spending shortly before the middle of the third century, he explains, public building stagnated.

On a positive note, the history of the Roman Empire does tell us that great civilizations can survive great crises. In the year 88 B.C., after King Mithridates' invasion of Asia Minor, the loan and credit structure in Rome collapsed.

"While it caused a severe crisis, it didn't bring about the end of the Roman world," says Wilson.

Still, it serves as a cautionary tale that economic growth is not a sure bet, and what is gained can be lost. Wilson considers it a salute to Roman innovation that it took nearly a millennium to recover all that the Romans had accomplished-in terms of long-distance trade, merchant shipping, scale of mining and mechanization, the use of water power and other advances-after the empire divided in the late third century.

"Although in the 20th century we were on the whole used to unflagging economic growth, what the Roman world shows you is that even very sophisticated and successful economies can collapse, and in a sense that point has just been made for me with the credit collapse."

The Balmuth Lectures will be held Feb. 23-26 at 7:30 p.m. in the Cabot Intercultural Center, room 206.

Profile by Georgiana Cohen, Office of Web Communications. Some material courtesy of Tufts Office of Public Relations.

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