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Cultural Mobility

August 22, 2014

There's a saying that "All roads lead to Rome." This was true in the ancient world, simply because the converse was true, that all roads led out of Rome. The reason for this is because the Romans built the roads to connect their empire. US President, Dwight D. Eisenhower, did the same thing when he championed construction of the US Interstate Highway System.

The highway system, authorized by the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956, was seen as a defense measure. Nowadays, laws like that would be passed using the excuse "think of the children," instead. After all, children need to visit Grandma wherever she lives, don't they? The Interstate Highway System has facilitated mail and package delivery, and it's been the engine that stocks our supermarkets and "big box" stores. My only complaint, aside from all the traffic, is that many of these highways are toll roads.

The origin point of the Roman roads was the Miliarium Aureum (golden milestone), erected in the Forum at the center of Ancient Rome. All distances were measured relative to that point. Rome was the center of civilization, so all things cultural could be seen as radiating from that point. You were thought to be less and less cultured the farther you were from that point.

Milliarium Aureum (Golden Milestone)

Remains of the Milliarium Aureum (Golden Milestone) in central Rome.

(Via Wikimedia Commons.)

Today, the population of the Earth is much larger than it was in antiquity, and the modern city of Rome, with a population of slightly more than 2.8 million, doesn't even make the list of the most populated cities. The chief purveyors of modern culture, artists, composers, and scholars, were faced with funding problems in the past, just as scientists are today. In those times, they needed to go where the money was; namely, to the locale of their patron.

Because of the need to emigrate to where the money was, intellectuals have died in a place different from their birthplace. Even today, tradesmen rarely venture far from their birthplace, while their college-educated neighbors often need to depart for greener pastures that are sometimes on the other side of the continent.

Researchers from the University of Texas at Dallas, the Eidgenössische Technische Hochschule (ETH, Zurich), Northeastern University (Boston, MA), the University of Miami (Coral Gables, FL), Indiana University (Bloomington, Indiana), Harvard Medical School (Boston, MA) and Dana-Farber Cancer Institute (Boston, MA), and the Central European University (Budapest, Hungary) have used this idea to map the migration of culture in the world throughout the ages.[1-4]

Data mining has emerged as a way to gain useful information from extant datasets, and this study uses this technique to look at cultural movements over the last two millennia. The research team compiled the birth and death locations of 150,000 historical figures who lived in the period of 1069 BC to the present, although they chose a starting period of the first century AD for the analysis.[1-4]

Data were obtained from several large datasets, such as Freebase, containing about 120,000 individuals, the General Artist Lexicon of more than 150,000 individuals, the Getty Union List of Artist Names, the Winckelmann Corpus, and Allgemeines Künstlerlexikon.[2-3]

The analysis shows, for example, that prior to 1500 Paris was the only cultural center in France, while there were many cultural centers in Germany.[4] Although the growth of cities differ from one to the other, the distribution of birth-to-death distances was fairly constant over the last eight centuries.[1]

The median distance between birth and death locations changed from about 133 miles (214 kilometers) to about 237 miles (382 km), between the 14th century and 21st century.[3] Surprisingly, since funding is an important factor in cultural activities, the cultural hubs were not necessarily economic hubs.[2-3]

As Rome declined in its status as cultural capital of the world in the late 18th century, it was overshadowed by Paris.[2] The study found that two distinct cultural regimes emerged at that time. There was a "winner-takes-all" regime in which a single city, like Paris, dominated culture in its country, and another, "fit-gets-richer" regime in which many cities in a country competed with each other for its region's intellectuals. In that case, there were fewer intellectuals in each of these cities.[2]

Figure caption

European cultural mobility visualization snapshots for 1045 (left) and 1498 (right). Rome's bright ember traveled quite far in that span of just 450 years. (Screen captures of a YouTube video, copyright 2014, Maximilian Schich and Mauro Martino, http://www.cultsci.net.)[5)]

Maximilian Schich, an author of the study and an associate professor at the University of Texas at Dallas, says,
"A large amount of multidisciplinary expertise was necessary to arrive at the results we found... The paper relies on the fields of art history, complex networks, complexity science, computational sociology, human mobility, information design, physics and some inspiration from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Systems_biology.[3] In the next five to ten years, we'll have considerably larger amounts of data and then we can do more and better, address more questions."[2]
The research was funded by the German Research Foundation, the European Research Council, and the University of Texas at Dallas.[3]

Figure caption

United States cultural mobility visualization snapshots for 1809 (left) and 1995 (right), showing the decrease in East Cost dominance. (Screen captures of a YouTube video, copyright 2014, Maximilian Schich and Mauro Martino, http://www.cultsci.net.)[6)]


  1. Maximilian Schich, Chaoming Song, Yong-Yeol Ahn, Alexander Mirsky, Mauro Martino, Albert-László Barabási, and Dirk Helbing, "A network framework of cultural history," Science, vol. 345, no. 6196 (August 1, 2014), pp. 558-562.
  2. Groundbreaking research maps cultural history, Northeastern University Press Release, July 31, 2014.
  3. History of Culture Visualized through Art History, Physics, Complexity, University of Miami Press Release, July 31, 2014.
  4. Dan Vergano, "Big Data Reveals How Cities Beckoned the Brainy for 2,000 Years," National Geographic News, July 31, 2014.
  5. Maximilian Schich, "European historic mobility 0 to 2012 CE," YouTube Video, July 31, 2014.
  6. Maximilian Schich, "North American historic mobility 1620 to 2012 CE," YouTube Video, July 31, 2014.

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