Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2007.01.14

Fergus Millar, Rome, the Greek World, and the East. Volume 3: The Greek World, the Jews, and the East. Edited by Hannah M. Cotton and Guy M. Rogers.   Chapel Hill:  The University of North Carolina Press, 2006.  Pp. 552; ills. 4, maps 3.  ISBN 0-8078-3030-5.  $70.00 (hb).  ISBN 0-8078-5693-2.  $29.95 (pb).  

Reviewed by Hagith Sivan, University of Kansas (
Word count: 2975 words

[Articles included in the volume are listed at the end of the review.]

At the risk of being banal, I daresay that to do justice to the stunning breadth of Millar's scholarship a review may require as many pages as the collected articles themselves. Each article tackles a big topic; each encounters a controversy; and each offers penetrating insights into much discussed issues.

The third and final volume of the eminent historian's prolific output demonstrates, if proof were needed, the vast scope of Millar's erudition, his impressive familiarity with a huge array of ancient sources, and his uncanny ability to draw wide ranging conclusions from a handful of pertinent epigraphical, legal or literary testimonies. Neatly divided into three parts, each consisting of six reprinted articles, the collected essays (hereafter RGE III) embrace three large themes: 1. The Hellenistic world and Rome, 2. Rome and the East, and 3. Jews and Others. Since the principle of arrangement was to group articles according to chronological order of the material and not of the man, the result does not perhaps do full justice to the development of Millar's own views on the subjects under consideration. Nor is it clear what is meant by "Jews and others" or why Millar's reflections on the Maccabean revolution (see below) and the book of Daniel (highlighting the shift from Hebrew to Aramaic; the link between apocalyptic literature and the Maccabean revolt; and the emergence of apocalyptic as a critical strain of Jewish response to crisis) are assigned to the first (rather than the third) division;1 his presentation of the trial(s) of Jesus to the second (rather than the third) division; or Millar's analysis of Dura Europos under Parthian rule to the third (rather than the second) division. Admittedly, the mysterious workings of a sharp and well informed mind do not necessarily lend themselves to convenient classification.

Historiography and its varieties (or vagaries) feature prominently in Millar's work. Ingeniously, he juxtaposes Polybius and the biblical Daniel as representatives of a new vision of universal-imperial history. He uses the Gospels, esp. John's account of Jesus' death, to explore history as biography and biography as history; and he examines the appearance of Latin in bi-lingual and tri-lingual inscriptions within a cultural melting pot that had to come to terms with the presence of Rome precisely when it achieved a symbiosis that established the dominance of Hellenism.

Millar tackles large themes with the same meticulous attention he lavishes on a single inscription. Whether he discusses caravan cities or the Roman colonies of the Near East, he invariably presents an enviable mastery of a huge array of disparate sources and periods and asks penetrating and provocative questions. Were cities like Petra or Palmyra 'caravan' towns, which exclusively owed their existence to long-distance trade, gathering and distributing merchandise from all over the known world? Palmyra, perhaps. Petra, perhaps not. The latter has become a subject of intense excavations in recent years which suggest that Roman Petra, situated on the Via Nova Traiana, retained its position as a major emporium till the third century when the trade axis shifted either north (Persian Gulf-Mesopotamia-Armenia-north Syria) or south (South Arabia-Ethiopia-Red Sea).2

When measuring the impact of Rome in the Near East through the establishment of coloniae, Millar continues to pursue questions of cultural identity in a region where cities continued to mint their own coins till the third century. How far, then, did the horizons of 'Romanization' extend when a city gained the coveted status of a colonia or was forcibly converted into one (as was the case of Jerusalem)? Not very far, seems the answer, since most of the coloniae became practically indistinguishable from their hellenized surroundings, each with their own distinct (hi)story.

One theme that runs through many articles is that of Hellenization -- to what extent was the Near East after Alexander "Hellenic" or "indigenous"? How deep did Hellenization run? In 1978, in an expanded review of Hengel's Judaism and Hellenism (RGE III, pt. 1, ch. 4: "The Background to the Maccabean Revolution: Reflections on Martin Hengel's "Judaism and Hellenism"), Millar, a member of the team that revised Schürer's monumental work, History of the Jews in the Time of Jesus Christ, (setting, in the process of revision, new standards of excellence of what a revision should entail), questioned some of Hengel's basic assumptions regarding the meaning and scope of "Hellenization" in Judaea in the third and the second centuries BCE.3 One question that looms large in this context is that of the nature of the Jerusalem's Temple cult on the eve of the Maccabean revolution (167-164 BCE).

Millar ponders whether the clash that ushered in the Maccabean revolution, and an independent Jewish state, was the result of internal dissension between Jewish proponents of "traditional" Judaism and Jewish supporters of Hellenism, or rather the unwitting outcome of Seleucid change of policies vis-à-vis non-polytheistic minorities in their realm? The answer, bound to remain ambiguous and controversial, seems to reside in individual scholars' emphasis on the Greek (Hengel) or un-Greek (Millar) nature of the Jewish community in the third and second centuries. It is curious, however, that although Antiochus IV forged closed links between himself and Zeus Olympius, no attempt was made to impose the cult throughout Seleucid territories with the apparent exception of Jerusalem.4 The fact that we do not have the work of the so-called "Hellenizers" but only the opinions of hostile contemporaries renders difficult the very understanding of the affiliation between "Hellenism" and its Jewish proponents. Was there an organized Jewish party which consistently espoused values deemed aberrant by, if not abhorrent to, Jews? The discussion is important because the Maccabees provided generations of Jews, and Christians with a prototype of 'religious', even 'national' leadership heading a just insurgency against oppressors.5 Thus the analysis of the Temple cult in Jerusalem highlights the role of the Temple as a rallying point of 'nationalism', anticipating the second major Jewish "revolution", that of Judaism itself following the erasure of the Temple in CE 70.

A similar emphasis on the relatively minimal impact of Hellenism-post-Alexander on the Near Eastern cultures that came under the dominance of Alexander's heirs continues to animate Millar's research on the Phoenician cities ("A Case-study of Hellenisation", pt. 1, ch. 2, first published in 1983). The question, again, relates to the difficulties involved in a precise evaluation of the changes which occurred as the Near East passed from Persian to Hellenistic hands. The criteria of judgement, pace Millar, rest on the continuous use of local languages and religious traditions and on the evolution of the cities as communities (p. 39). In the case of the Phoenician cities it seems that their hellenization had started long before Alexander, thus rendering rather difficult any modern assessment which insists on the novelty of Hellenization-post-Alexander.

According to at least one ancient source (1 Macc 1.1-9), Alexander and his heirs brought nothing but evil to the lands which they conquered. This is the prelude to another inquiry into cultural identities in a region that had been characterized by stunning cultural diversity ("The problem of Hellenistic Syria", pt. 1, ch. 1, first published in 1987). One problem facing modern historians is the absence of tangible evidence of "hellenization" in Syria of the Hellenistic period (p. 28), compounded by scarce testimonies of the presence, depth and diffusion of non-Greek cultures (p. 29) in either the Achaemenid or the Hellenistic period itself. The question therefore remains: what does fusion of cultures mean when so little is known of the cultures themselves?

I find especially fascinating the journey Millar takes in the footsteps of Alexander's ephemeral presence in areas that quickly shook off his successors but not their cultural imprints ("Looking east from the classical world"). In a way this article is a fitting conclusion to decades of reflections on Rome's great neighbor/rival, Parthia = Sasanid Persia. Like a detective, Millar carefully maps the presence or absence of Greek from Iran to central Asia and northern India, pondering along the way topics such as Zoroastrianism, and the very existence of a "silk road" that brought Chinese ware to the west. Perhaps the most poignant allusions are made to sites, no longer accessible, which have become familiar to all news viewers in the past five years -- such as Kandahar (= Alexandria in Arachosia) where Greek inscriptions proclaiming Buddhist tenets were found (p. 309-311).

A tribute to Menahem Stern, assassinated by an Arab in the Valley of the Cross on his way to the campus of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, provides a platform for an essay on early depictions of, or rather references to, "Arabs"/"Saracens"/"Ishmaelites" in Jewish and Christian sources ("Hagar, Ishmael, Josephus and the Origins of Islam") between the first and the fifth centuries CE.6 Millar traces the convoluted and imaginative route that led Jewish and Christian historians to provide the Arabs of their time with mythic, in this case biblical ancestry. Oddly enough, it was a pagan historian, Molon, quoted by Eusebius, who first forged a link between the son of Hagar, Abraham and the Arabs of classical antiquity. The most elaborate treatment of the Arabs-Saracens as "Ishmaelites" is found in Josephus' biblical exegesis, an ingenious recreation of the genealogies provided in the book of Genesis. In the early fifth century CE, another historian, Sozomen, a Palestinian by origin (from Gaza), provided an equally fanciful etymology of "Saracens" (descendants of Sarah), the same people who originally bore the name "Ishmaelites", descendants of Ishmael.

The question that hovers over this inquiry remains: how did Islam adopt this very affiliation between Arabs and Ishmaelites? There are references in the Quran to Jewish tribes around Mecca about whom nothing further is known. Were they converts from paganism to Judaism and the vessel through which Islam absorbed this crucial identification? Did it somehow infiltrate through the Judaizing kings of Himyar who, however, had already lost their kingdom by the early sixth century? Or did Mohammedan Islam originate not in the Hijaz but rather in the territories conquered by the Moslems? A handful of Arabic inscriptions from the Negev (southern Palestine) which date to the first century of Islam (seventh-early eighth) hint at the existence of an Arab monotheistic creed that was neither Judaism nor Christianity nor yet Islam. It may be best described as proto-Islamic.7 Controversial as this provenance is bound to be, a Syria-Palestinian context might account more readily than the Hijaz for the transmission and adoption of biblical ancestry by the Arabs in late antiquity.8

Speculations aside, the first Christian source to link the biblical Ishmael with the Muslims, the people of the land of the South, was Ps. Methodius in a work written in 692. He was closely followed by the so-called Gospel of the Twelve Apostles.9 Jewish apocalypse picked the link probably already in the 640s. One verse version of the perennially popular 'Book of Zerubbabel' pitted 'Edom' (= Rome) against Ishmael (= Muslims).10 Neither the anonymous 'paytan' (poet) nor Ps. Methodius seems likely to have borrowed the concept from Josephus.

Two articles, written within a dozen years of each other (1992 and 2004), deal with the Jewish Diaspora in the eastern Roman provinces in late antiquity. Typically, and provocatively, the first ("The Jews of the Graeco-Roman Diaspora between Paganism and Christianity, AD 312-438") begins with a funerary inscription from Sicily which refers to "patriarchae", perhaps the Jewish patriarch who resided in Palestine, perhaps local officials. The questions the inscription launches have bedeviled the study of the Jewish communities in late antiquity -- what was the nature of the Jewish Diaspora? Did the Jews of the West use Latin in the synagogue as did the Sicilian who commemorated his wife's death, and if so, which version? Did all Jews rally around the Palestinian patriarch? Did they all share a common Judaism of sorts, perhaps rabbinic, perhaps of a different type? What, indeed, was the nature of the links between Palestine, a vibrant center of Judaism in late antiquity, and the Roman Jewish Diaspora on the one hand, and the Babylonian-Sasanid one on the other? How homogenous was the Diaspora, at least in the Roman empire?

The evidence is varied and baffling. There is a corpus of imperial laws addressed to both eastern and western officials and a corpus of ecclesiastical canons.11 Yet, the relations between legal theories and theologies on the one hand, and realities on the other, remain a problem. To what extent do laws and canons reflect a stereotypic Jew, one remote from reality but cast in the mold of contemporary Christian rhetoric? There are episodes, such as the forced conversion of the Jews of Minorca (CE 417), which are solely known from Christian sources. These indirectly attest the links not between Palestinian and Diaspora Judaism but rather between Palestinian Christianity and the ecclesiastical establishment throughout the empire -- the persecution of the Minorcan Jews was ignited by the arrival of relics of St. Stephen which Orosius had brought from Palestine. Then there are scattered references in various writings, all of them by non-Jews. Even more tantalizing is the fact that when Jews are allowed to speak they do so through Christian pens, either in the shape of "debates" or an "autobiography".12 There are excavated synagogues, the vast majority of which are known from the eastern provinces, especially Asia Minor, which bespeak of wealthy Jewish communities but send ambiguous messages regarding the nature of their allegiance to the Palestinian patriarchs or to rabbinic Judaism. Some, like the synagogues in Stobi, Apamea and Gerasa, were destroyed in order to make room for a church. Others, like the one in Sardis, continued to operate till the seventh century. And there are inscriptions, once again mostly from the eastern provinces, which reflect an astonishing diversity of communal interests.13 Yet not a single piece of literature is known to have been composed by a Jew living in the Roman Diaspora of Late Antiquity.14 This conclusion stands in stark contrast to the prolific output of the Babylonian Jewish Diaspora. Last but definitely not least, there is of course Palestine, with its distinct history in late antiquity.15

According to Millar the history of the Jews of the west has yet to be written, if such an enterprise is at all possible (p. 435). The history of the Jews of the eastern provinces, including those of the Palestinian provinces, appears to fare better but it, too, is essentially a patch work. Imperial legislation indicates growing intolerance. Narratives such as the conversion of the Minorcan Jews, and the physical evidence of the erection of church atop synagogues, point to violent and virulent conflicts. The response of Diaspora communities to an increasingly hostile environment cannot, however, be measured through similar narratives. A glimpse at the domain of the dead suggests that Jews deliberately avoided biblical phrases favored by Christians, at least when they selected commemorative words to grace the tombstones of relatives.16

A dozen years later Millar returned to the subject of the Jews, roughly in the same period. ("Christian Emperors, Christian Church, and the Jews of the Diaspora in the Greek East, AD 379-450").17 His aim was "to sketch the main elements of religious co-existence, competition, and conflict, between Christianity and Judaism ... in the Greek East (minus Palestine)" (p. 459). Juxtaposing legal, archaeological and literary evidence Millar suggests that these all project the presence of Jews but in a way heavily tinted with hostility (p. 483). This is hardly a controversial proposal although the sources are markedly one sided, the product of Christian theologians, ecclesiastical historians, and hagiographers. I am less certain of Millar's assertion that in spite of "a significant contrast between Holy Land and Diaspora ... there is no basis for the assumption of a fundamental division" (p. 480). Neither differences nor divisions are clarified but in the absence of an up-to-date comprehensive analysis of Diaspora Judaism, in its broadest sense of both Roman and Persian, the matter is far from clear.

The collection ends with Millar's own reflections on the teaching of ancient history, and with a suggestion. Why not offer a sequence of ancient history with the Levant/Eastern Mediterranean as its focus? Such a focus would indeed provide a perfect counterbalance balance to the exclusively "western" emphasis that has shaped textbooks for so long.

The index is not only minimal but erratic, including, besides a handful of conventional entries, items such as "Droysen's idea of fusion", "Historical reading of canonical texts", and "Millar". It is, alas, hardly a fitting ending for the product of a magnificent mind.

List of the articles and their original date of publication:

Part 1: The Hellenistic World and Rome

The problem of Hellenistic Syria (1987)

The Phoenician cities: A case-study of Hellenisation (1983)

Hellenistic history in a Near Eastern perspective: The book of Daniel (1997)

The background to the Maccabean revolution: Reflections on Martin Hengel's "Judaism and Hellenism" (1978)

Polybius between Greece and Rome (1987)

The Greek city in the Roman period (1993)

Part 2: Rome and the East

Reflections on the trials of Jesus (1990)

The Roman coloniae of the Near East: A study of cultural relations (1990)

Latin in the epigraphy of the Roman Near East (1991)

Paul of Samosata, Zenobia and Aurelian: The church, local culture, and political allegiance in third century Syria (1971)

Caravan cities: The Roman Near East and long distance trade by land (1998)

Looking east from the classical world: colonialism, culture and trade from Alexander to Shapur I (1998)

Part 3: Jews and Others

Porphyry: Ethnicity, language and alien wisdom (1997)

Hagar, Ishmael, Josephus and the origins of Islam (1993)

Ethnic identity in the Roman Near east, AD 325-450: Language, religion and culture (1998)

Dura-Europos under Parthian rule (1998)

The Jews of the Graeco-Roman Diaspora between paganism and Christianity, AD 312-438 (1992)

Christian emperors, Christian church and the Jews of the Diaspora in the Greek East, AD 379-450 (2004)

Author's epilogue: Re-drawing the map?


1.   J. C. Reeve, Trajectories of Near Eastern Apocalyptic (Leiden 2006).
2.   Z. T. Fiema, "Roman Petra (AD 106-363)", ZDPV 119 (2003), 38-58.
3.   L. L. Grabbe, Judaism from Cyrus to Hadrian (Minneapolis 1992), 148f. for an overview of Hengel's thesis and the responses it evoked.
4.   K. Rigsby, "Seleucid Notes", TAPA 110 (1980), 233-54.
5.   R. W. Thomson, "The Maccabees in Early Armenian Historiography", JTS 26 (1975), 329-341, for one example.
6.   See now J. Retso, The Arabs in Antiquity (London 2003).
7.   Y. D. Nevo, "Towards a Prehistory of Islam", Jerusalem Studies in Arabic and Islam 17 (1994), 108-141.
8.   The literature on the origins of Islam is nearly endless. In 1977 appeared two studies that had far reaching impact, P. Crone and M. A. Cook, Hagarism: The Making of the Islamic World; and J. E. Wansbrough, Quranic Studies: Sources and Methods of Scriptural Interpretation. A year later Wansbrough published The Sectarian Milieu: Content and Composition of Islamic Salvation History. Wansbrough's legacy was the subject of a special issue of Method and Theory in the Study of Religion 9 (1997). See also R. G. Hoyland, Seeing Islam as Others Saw It: A Survey and Evaluation of Christian, Jewish and Zoroastrian Writings on Early Islam. Studies in Late Antiquity and Early Islam 13 (Princeton 1997).
9.   G. J. Reinink, "Ismael, der Wildesel in der Wuste. Zur Typologie der Apokalypse des Pseudo-Methodius", BZ 75 (1982), 336-44; idem, "Ps.-Methodius' Concept of History" in Cameron/Conrad, The Byzantine and Early Islamic Near East. I. Problems in the Literary Source Material (Princeton 1992) (Workshop on Late Antiquity and Early Islam), 149ff; and H. J. W. Drijvers, "The Gospel of the Twelve Apostles", ibid.
10.   H. Sivan, "Palestine between Byzantium and Persia (CE 614-619)", in La Persia e Bisanzio. Atti dei convegni Lincei (Rome: Accademia nazionale dei Lincei, 2004), 77-92; and eadem, "From Byzantine to Persian Jerusalem: Jewish Perspectives and Jewish-Christian Polemics", Greek, Roman and Byzantine Studies 41 (2000), 277-306.
11.   A. Linder, The Jews in Roman Imperial Legislation (Detroit 1987); idem, The Jews in the Legal Sources of the Early Middle Ages (Detroit 1997).
12.   O. Limor and G. Stroumsa (eds.), Contra Iudaeos (Tubingen 1996). The best known "autobiography" is the Doctrina Jacobi, composed in CE 634. For edition and commentary, G. Dagron and V. Déroche, "Juifs et Chrétiens dans l'Orient du VIIe siècle", Travaux et Mémoires 11 (1991), 17-273.
13.   See now Inscriptiones Judaicae Orientis, 1. Eastern Europe 2. Kleinasien 3. Syria and Cyprus (2004)
14.   For possible exception, R. Shepard Kraemer, When Aseneth Met Joseph. A Late Antique Tale of the Biblical Patriarch and his Egyptian Wife, Reconsidered (New York 1998).
15.   See my Palestine in Late Antiquity (OUP, forthcoming).
16.   S. Fine and L. V. Rutgers, "New Lights on Judaism in Asia Minor during Late Antiquity: Two Recently Identified Inscribed Menorahs", Jewish Studies Quarterly 3 (1996), 1-23.
17.   I have not been able to read Millar's most recent contribution to the world of Late Antiquity, A Greek Roman Empire. Power and Belief under Theodosius II (408-450) (Sather Classical Lectures) (Berkeley 2006), now reviewed in BMCR 2006.12.35.

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