Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2004.09.04

Axel Gebhardt, Imperiale Politik und provinziale Entwicklung. Untersuchungen zum Verhältnis von Kaiser, Heer und Städten im Syrien der vorseverischen Zeit. Klio: Beiträge zur alten Geschichte, neue Folge Band 4.   Berlin:  Akademie Verlag, 2002.  Pp. 413.  ISBN 3-05-003680-X.  €69.80.  

Reviewed by Clifford Ando, University of Southern California (
Word count: 1034 words

[The editors regret the delay in publishing this review.]

With this work, Axel Gebhardt seeks to write a history of Roman Syria. It is history of a very particular kind. He eschews consideration of administrative, social or religious history in order to concentrate on what he sees as the "higher" import of the military for the development of the province (10). He views his own work as uniting two kinds of inquiry, one focusing on Roman policy and strategy on the eastern frontier generally, the other on what one might call the internal history of the province. In so doing, he deliberately aligns his project with recent (German) work on southeast Asia Minor, which has studied the correlation between city and regional development and overarching Roman strategic interests.

It is, of course, true that Rome situated enormous military resources along its eastern frontier, and for certain types of demographic and economic analysis it would therefore be crucial to consider the logistics of the army in studying the structural development of Syria. Within the sphere of his own interest in cities, Gebhardt identifies four areas of particular concern: their population structure, political history, economic productivity and connection with regional networks of transportation. If at a very general level there can be little doubt that strategic interests will have affected the disposition of the legions and auxiliaries and, furthermore, that the presence of those units will have affected the local population, the nature and extent of any given unit's impact can be very difficult to determine. To write that kind of history would require the wedding of often fragmentary data for very particularized local histories with, presumably, some model for the kind of institution that the Roman army was. It is a formidable challenge.

Gebhardt responds with a book in six parts, four very brief and two extended. After a brief historiographic and historical introduction and a briefer chapter on "topographical and climactic" considerations, he divides the heart of the book into two chapters, the first a chronological narrative of "the genesis of the military province of Syria" from Pompey to Trajan, the second a region-by-region survey of the province in the second century, prior to its reorganization during and after the civil war and Parthian campaigns of Septimius Severus. Two short chapters -- one on the Syrian koinon, the other a conclusion -- close the book.

The structure and aims of the book are in many ways thoroughly traditional, not simply in the division of argument between a diachronic political narrative and a synchronic "geography," but also more specifically in its compartmentalization of Syria: the north Syrian hinterland, the Phoenician cities, the cities along the middle Orontes, and so on. These divisions correspond in some respects to problems and patterns inherent in surviving evidence and the different kinds of stories our sources are prepared to tell, whether they be literary texts, which tend to be imperial in scope, or archaeological and epigraphic materials, which tend to be resolutely local, at least until considered in aggregate. I observe in passing that the effort to unite a history of imperial politics and frontier policy with a history of provincial development is likely to remain abortive so long as those narratives are separately told.

This division of labor between political and regional history is problematic on other grounds, too. One wonders, of course, how such a regime can properly account for the local impact of troop dispositions and movements taken in response to political and foreign policy considerations. But more subtly, it enshrines as a fact on the ground, as it were, that most elusive of near eastern contingencies, the border of Syria itself. By organizing his regional survey around loosely demographic and topographic criteria, Gebhardt endows the people on the land with a kind of anthropological synchronicity, and divorces their history from the history of politics and political boundaries. One senses some of the tension this decision arouses in Gebhardt's vacillation between the terms "border province" and "border zone": it is not without importance that he closes his history just at the moment when a Roman emperor made of the one "Grenzzone" two "Grenzprovinzen."

Severus did more to change the (political) geography of Syria than divide it in two. He also changed the status of numerous population centers, promoting villages to cities, demoting cities to villages, and designating cities as colonies. Tracing the economic and social consequences of such Roman administrative mappings remains an important task for historians of the provinces, and Syria would seem an important test case. Indeed, Gebhardt himself acknowledges that Syria, far from being a self-contained and uniform area, is rather "a patchwork of heterogeneous landscapes with distinct geographic, ethnic, economic and historic profiles" (11). How we are to envision these landscapes without a single plate or map is unclear. Gebhardt's subsequent concentration on cities, moreover, allows little scope for analyzing the difficulties Rome faced in a landscape of villages, and modern work on the north Syrian hinterland, for example, has made little impact here.1

One might likewise ask whether we can still take the impact of the army for granted. It is not simply that Gebhardt focuses on standing units, while the long-term impact of the army must also have lain with its patterns of recruitment and settlement of veterans.2 We should also be asking whether the Roman army so conducted itself in different contexts as to have startlingly varied effects on social and economic life, a problem recently theorized precisely for Syria by Nigel Pollard, the first statement of whose argument is cited but displays little influence here, and whose book perhaps appeared too late to be thoroughly digested.3

This is in some respects a learned volume, with a highly eclectic but useful bibliography. As is perhaps evident, my misgivings lie not so much with Gebhardt's results as with the genre to which he contributes. One has the sense that one has heard his tale before -- the incremental contribution of some datum from a recently published inscription aside -- and if not his story, then one very much like it. A new vision of "provinziale Entwicklung," supported by a more thorough integration of imperial and provincial historiographies, lies in the future.


1.   Absent from the bibliography, for example, are G. Tchalenko, Villages antiques de la Syrie du Nord: le massif du Bélus à l'époque romaine (Paris: P. Geuthner, 1953) and G. Tate, Les campagnes de la Syrie du Nord du IIe au VIIe siècle: un exemple d'expansion démographique et économique dans les campagnes à la fin de l'antiquité (Paris: P. Geuthner, 1992).
2.   See, e.g., I.P. Haynes, "The impact of auxiliary recruiptment on provincial societies from Augustus to Caracalla," in Lukas de Blois, ed., Administration, Prosopography and Appointment Policies in the Roman Empire (Amsterdam: J.C. Gieben, 2001), pp. 62-83.
3.   N. Pollard, Soldiers, cities and civilians in Roman Syria (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2000).

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