Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2010.05.47

Joonas Sipilä, The Reorganisation of Provincial Territories in Light of the Imperial Decision-making Process: Later Roman Arabia and Tres Palaestinae as Case Studies. Commentationes Humanarum Litterarum 126.   Helsinki:  Societas Scientiarum Fennica, 2009.  Pp. vi, 328.  ISBN 9789516533745.  €30.00 (pb).  

Reviewed by Björn Anderson, Minnesota State University Moorhead (

A universal model is a risky thing. Archaeologists, anthropologists, and historians have long been leery of formulating general explanations for historical or cultural developments. Nevertheless, Joonas Sipilä has taken the bait and risen to the challenge. In The reorganisation of provincial territories in light of the Imperial decision-making process: Later Roman Arabia and Tres Palaestinae as case studies, Sipilä subjects the management of Roman provinces to an analytical model based on Qualitative Comparative Analysis (QCA), and argues that provincial administration is logical and even proactive. The model is meant to be both diachronic and empire-wide in application, and is certainly an ambitious project. It is, on the whole, a worthwhile and thought-provoking read.

The introductory chapter of the book, which frames the analysis, offers the necessary theoretical and historiographic background. The key concept of rationalism is problematized and subdivided into categories based on cognition theory: instrumental vs. expressive, normative vs. communicative. Satisficing behavior, in which the decision-maker adopts the easiest or quickest solution that meets minimum results, is also discussed as a plausible Roman form of determination. In some cases (expressive rationalism), the end result is less important than the action itself, as the very performance of the decision may send a desired message- even if the outcomes are not optimal, they are nevertheless rational. Sipilä argues that all these forms of rationalism were applied in different contexts in the Roman Empire.

The second chapter, "Roman Administration of the Provinces- Structure and Constraints" offers an overview of the broad issues involved in Roman administration. It is not intended as a primer on the structure of rule, but rather an exploration of what the emperors knew about their provinces and how they knew it. Sipilä focuses on three major issues in the course of the chapter: the imagining of the Empire the eyes of the elites, the problems encountered in acquiring accurate knowledge of the provinces, and the role different subsets of the ruling elite played in shaping policy. There is a lengthy (20 page) discussion of geographical knowledge, which covers maps, itineraries, boundaries, frontiers, and the speed of communication.

Chapter Three, "Dominant Factors and Issues Affecting Imperial Decision-Making" discusses four more elements that contribute to the formation or restructuring of provinces: a) climate, geography, demography, and peoples, b) economy and taxation, c) military issues, and d) religious issues and the rise of Christianity. Each of these factors figures into his model of analysis presented in the following chapter. The focus is again on how these issues tie into imperial administration; discussion of Christianity, for example, is largely devoted to the role played by bishops in shaping provincial policy. Throughout the chapter, Sipilä shows sensitivity to variability in practice and regional diversity. His brief discussion of cultural identity (pgs. 66-69) is elegant and well-founded.

The fourth chapter, "Administering the Provinces- Patterns of Action" is the heart of the book. In it, Sipilä proposes a universal, diachronic model through which imperial decisions about the creation or division of a province can be analyzed and explained. Seven critical factors are proposed as metrics: 1) the frontier status of a province, 2) whether or not the formed province had a precursor, 3) the military strength of the province to be divided, 4) the closeness of the divided province to the imperial center, 5) internal unrest in the province, 6) religious tension, and 7) economic significance. They are then measured according to Qualitative Comparative Analysis (QCA). In brief, QCA is a means of evaluating limited datasets which are otherwise too small for meaningful statistical analysis. In a QCA model, a series of contributing factors are made variables and queried for presence or absence in each case. The resultant Boolean matrix allows for comparison of the interaction of the factors within the dataset and provides potential explanations of causality.

Sipilä constructs a series of truth tables to measure the impact of these factors. First, the factors are plotted in a Boolean matrix for each province of the empire (excepting Iudaea/Syria Palaestina and Arabia). Thus a frontier province would have a value of 1 for the first factor, an interior province a value of 0. The matrix is analyzed and condensed into a series of configurations using QCA in order to evaluate whether or not any particular factors emerge as dominant. The results are impressive. Provinces on the frontier, for example, were more likely to be reorganized according to the status of precursor formations such as military areas of responsibility or procuratorial regions, presumably owing to the difficulty in acquiring up-to-date intelligence on their current status. Likewise, provinces with strong military presences were never combined with economically significant ones during a reorganization, presumably because this would give the new province too much power overall. The decision-making process, argues Sipilä, was one of balancing the particularities of these factors with imperial priorities on a province-by-province basis. The results may indeed be variable depending on the situation, but the process itself remained largely intact.

As the formation or reorganization of a province can be plotted temporally, patterns of decision-making are observable in five separate clusters: the 'formative period' (30 BC- c. 123 AD), the 'crisis period' (169-284), 'Diocletian's reform' (284-313), the 'administrative period' (fourth century), and 'Justinian's reform' (early sixth century). Different factors played a role in each of the periods. In the first, provincial reorganizations seem to mainly correspond with issues of security and stability. During the crisis period, military concerns were again dominant, but economic factors played a significant secondary role in reshaping the provincial map. The greatest number of reforms took place during the reforms of Diocletian, as over fifty new provinces were created during the tetrarchy. These too were mainly motivated by military and economic concern. In the final two phases, however, a measurable change occurs. Military matters were no longer tied to provincial boundaries, and as a result the emphasis on provincial reorganization shifted to economic and religious factors such as the establishment of dioceses. Sipilä notes that the specific subfactors vary widely during the Late Empire, that motivations are more closely aligned to particular local situations.

The remaining four chapters present Arabia and Palaestina as case studies of the model. Both were reorganized in every one of the cluster periods, and we are comparatively well-informed about their overall historical and archaeological records. As a result, Sipilä conducts and in-depth analysis of these provinces (in all their variants) as a means of ground-truthing his model of the imperial decision-making process. Chapter Five, "Background" gives a general historical and ethnographic overview of the region from the Hellenistic period to the tetrarchy. He pays special attention to the cultural makeup of the inhabitants, discussing nomad-sedentary interaction as well as the relationship between Jews and non-Jews. Chapter Six, "Diocletian's reform of Palaestina and Arabia", looks at the reasons for Diocletian's creation of the massive province of Palaestina (which encompasses much of earlier Arabia), and credits the reforms mainly to the frequent revolts that took place throughout Egypt and the Near East in the late third century. The reduction of Arabia to northern Transjordan allowed the legionary commanders to focus on the threat from Syria, leaving Egypt and the Negev to the legions stationed in Palaestina. Economic factors, such as the strategic importance of mines in southern Transjordan, also played a role. Chapter Seven, "Arabia and Palaestina in the Fourth Century" explains the several different reconstructions that took place during the fourth century, during which time the provincial map changed five times. Sipilä notes that while military and economic concerns were again very important, religious affairs played a much larger role. Palestine, after all, was the Holy Land, and occupied a special place in the imagining of the Empire. Dioceses and bishoprics were especially important in light of the prominence bishops enjoyed in the inner circle of elites.

Chapter Eight, "Arabia and Tres Palaestinae from Arcadius to Phocas" is the final period examined in the case study. It documents the historical and religious setting, and notes that frequent nomad raids created instability and a general retraction of controlled territories. Defense of the cities and their major churches became an important concern. Schisms within the church (including the feud between the bishops of Caesarea and Jerusalem) as well as increasing tension with the Jews and Samaritans made ecclesiastical considerations especially significant. Rather than undertake large territorial restructuring of the type seen in the fourth century, however, the imperial center focused on refining the character of administration within the preexisting context. Provincial adjustments were few and generally minor.

The final chapter, "Reflections on Provincial Reorganisations" serves as Sipilä's summary. He reinforces his methodology, stating that through the analysis of the context and consequences of provincial changes we are able to discern significant factors and patterns of behavior. These patterns, when taken as a whole, suggest that imperial administration was more proactive than previously thought. The massive scale of a provincial restructuring is argued to bespeak the influence of imperial policy and is therefore not strictly reactionary.

The monograph is a direct transcription of Sipilä's doctoral dissertation, and it certainly carries this feel throughout the text. Nevertheless, the prose is lucid and clear, and Sipilä does an admirable job carrying the reader through often unfamiliar terrain. Indeed, the model of provincial decision-making aside, it is a worthwhile read simply as an encyclopedic overview of the myriad issues that played a role in Roman provincial administration. His discussion of landscape and geography in Chapter Two could stand alone as a useful publication. The monograph is thoroughly researched, and has nine useful appendices that further clarify the Quantitative Comparative Analysis model.

As for the model itself, Sipilä's employment of cognition theory certainly offers an interesting insight and perspective. He is able to make the QCA model clear and intelligible to the reader. It would have been helpful to clearly state the QCA results in later chapters, however. His discussion in Chapters Five through Eight is largely descriptive in nature, and the reader is forced to flip constantly back to the tables in Chapter Four as the book progresses, looking for the results that correspond with the provinces and periods under consideration. A clear statement of the particular subset of the truth tables used in a specific analysis would make the link between his thematic discussion and the hard data much stronger. As it stands now, the QCA modeling is not clearly integrated into the wider discussion. This is regrettable, as it is in many respects the critical point of his model.

In terms of the viability of the model overall, Sipilä is correct to note the difficulties posed by the immense variability encountered in the data. Whether the QCA results indeed correlate to the specific reasons of decision-making could be called into question in any number of cases. This is, of course, the problem with any large-scale model, and the reader must be willing to accept the fluidity and flexibility within if it is to be effective. Whether provincial decision-making was ultimately proactive or reactive will doubtless continue to be argued, but in any event Sipilä's text is an important contribution to the debate.

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