Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2011.04.36

E. A. Myers, The Ituraeans and the Roman Near East: Reassessing the Sources. Society for New Testament Studies, Monograph Series 147.   Cambridge/New York:  Cambridge University Press, 2010.  Pp. xv, 216.  ISBN 9780521518871.  $95.00.  

Reviewed by Justin Winger, University of Michigan (


The Ituraeans are one of those ancient peoples that got a bit of a raw deal from history. Most who study the eastern Mediterranean in the Hellenistic and Roman periods probably only know them as the people who were forcibly circumcised and converted to Judaism by the Hasmoneans in 104 or 103 BCE. Those whose scholarship is focused on the more “canonical” Roman Empire likely recognize them as an otherwise unknown people with superb archery skills.

As a consequence of their peripheral status in the extant sources, the Ituraeans have rarely been the subject of intensive scholarly inquiry. When they have Myers writes, the Ituraeans have been vilified as brigands, thieves, and robbers, assumed to have lived in places for which there is no evidence of their presence, or included under the blanket category of “Arabs.” She would like to right this injustice by placing them in their proper Semitic context and reassessing the evidence for them without the blinders and prejudices that have been provided by the history of classical scholarship.

Myers's proposal is a good one, all the more so because she takes a multidisciplinary approach. She investigates textual evidence (ch. 2), archaeological evidence (ch. 3), numismatic evidence (ch. 4), and epigraphic evidence (including Roman military tombstones and diplomas – ch. 5). She takes up the question of “the Ituraeans and identity” (ch. 6) and she investigates “the Ituraeans and history” (ch. 7), including the special problem of writing history in the face of “an absence of material evidence on which a cultural identity might be constructed.” (p. 168). Included at the end of the book are two appendices: one describing two small archaeological finds that “offer some insight into the cultural milieu Ituraeans inhabited” (p. 176), and the other a catalog of inscriptions relevant to the Roman auxiliary units.

I have two major concerns about this book’s methodology as it goes about “reassessing the sources,” as the subtitle says. First, though Myers's analysis of primary literary sources consistently brings modern scholars into dialogue with each other, she rarely engages in a critical analysis of the sources themselves. For example, Myers's approach to Josephus's description of the forced circumcision and conversion of the Ituraeans to Judaism at the hands of the Hasmonean Aristobulus I is to divide it into two questions: (1) Did the Hasmoneans forcibly circumcise the Ituraeans, and (2) Is another of Josephus's accounts – one about Aristobulus's brother Antigonus receiving armor and military decorations in Galilee – a reference to Hasmonean conquest of the Ituraeans? (War 1.76; Ant. 13.308-310; there is no mention of the Ituraeans in these passages.) The entirety of Myers's argument against the forced circumcision of the Ituraeans consists of the statement that “Stern has argued against the forced Judaization of the Ituraeans in the Galilee…,” and “[Freyne] states: ‘The hypothesis of enforced Judaization of the Ituraeans has been developed by modern scholars to fill the gap, but without sufficient basis either in the literary or archaeological evidence…,’”1 concluding simply, “I am inclined to agree with Freyne, and for the following discussion I consider the circumcision question to have little bearing on the question whether this happened or not” (pp. 26-27). As for “the question whether this happened or not,” her position is less clear, but she seems to conclude that the Hasmoneans never conquered the Ituraeans, for two reasons. First, the Ituraeans were not in Galilee: “Since Josephus does not place the Ituraeans in the Galilee, the issue need not be a problem or considered as fact” (p. 27); “there is no explicit evidence the Ituraeans were moving into [the Galilee], and these passages in Josephus provide no support for such conclusions. Whether or not they eventually ‘conquered’ these territories is yet another problem as yet unresolved” (p. 28). Second, she seems to have concluded that all modern authors who think that the Hasmoneans conquered the Ituraeans derive their opinions from a conflation of Josephus's two stories about Antigonus receiving armor and military decorations, mentioned above (see, e.g., p. 60). Nothing further is said of Josephus's explicit statement that Aristobulus “made war against Iturea, and added a great part of it to Judea, and compelled the inhabitants…to live according to the Jewish laws,” nor of Josephus's quote of Timagenes via Strabo that Aristobulus “added a country to them, and obtained a part of the nation of the Itureans for them” (Ant. 13.318-319). My concern is not with whether or not Myers agrees with Josephus, but with how she treats the primary sources, and this example is characteristic of the approach taken throughout the book.

The same concern holds true with respect to Myers's analysis of the other main primary source, archaeological data. A certain type of pottery, initially called “Golan Ware,” was later renamed “Ituraean Ware” by archaeologists because they found it primarily in areas assumed to have been controlled by the Ituraeans. Myers argues that this assumption is based on an overly simplistic interpretation of ancient texts (see, e.g., pp. 48-53; 57ff) and proposes that this pottery (as well as other finds assumed to be Ituraean because of a connection to the pottery) cannot be so quickly assumed to be Ituraean. Disappointingly, though, her reasoning – which ultimately leads her to decide that all of the archaeological data from the Hermon and Golan cannot be trusted for Ituraean studies – goes no deeper than to conclude that “the texts are open to interpretation. It is still inconclusive as to how assured we can be in terms of Ituraean control of territory” (and therefore the archaeological finds should not be associated with the Ituraeans – p. 101, my emphasis). There is no reference to questions such as the degree to which trade patterns might have affected the dispersion of material evidence, nor longstanding archaeological and anthropological debates about the equivalency between “pots and people.” Furthermore, although she chides archaeologists for uncritically accepting Josephus’s and Strabo’s words at face value, she takes the very same approach with archaeological and epigraphic data. One of the book’s conclusions is based solely on one archaeologist’s suggestion that an Aramaic-language inscription from a temple site 13 miles east of Byblos (i.e., in “Phoenician territory”), but written in a script that is unlikely to be Phoenician, is evidence of Ituraean presence and political organization in that area at least a century earlier than previously thought (p. 130).

My second concern is that Myers's goal of seeing the Ituraeans in a more positive light than many modern scholars have (e.g., pp. 3-4, 41, 114, 161, 171) has led her to conclude that we can know almost nothing about the Ituraeans. The book tends to be overly focused on critiquing the secondary literature and pointing out how much we cannot say about the Ituraeans: we cannot say anything about Ituraean culture, ethnicity, or identity (chapter 6, esp. p. 130, as well as pp. 29, 122, 154, and 175); we cannot say whether or not Ituraeans ever inhabited the Galilee (though it seems unlikely – e.g., p. 28); we cannot say whether or not they ever inhabited the Golan or the region around Mt. Hermon (though it is probably unlikely – see chapter 3, esp. p. 55); we cannot say whether or not they are identifiable in the archaeological record (chapter 3, esp. p. 101, but repeated on pp. 53, 55, 63, 64, 77, 79, 81, 167-8); and we cannot say whether Heliopolis, Baalbek, or some other site was the Ituraean cult center (e.g., p. 161). Note that the arguments are not that the Ituraeans did not inhabit the Galilee and Golan, have a cult center, are not identifiable in the archaeological record, etc., but simply that we should question those who have suggested these conclusions. Given that Myers seems much more interested in deconstructing modern arguments about the Ituraeans than in a nuanced analysis of the primary sources, I have to wonder if there is not more than can be said.

Those two concerns aside, Myers's critical analysis of modern scholarship about the Ituraeans is sweeping and tenacious. She forces us to read the texts closely, regularly asking questions such as “Why, we must ask,…is the Transjordan included [in the modern interpretation of War 1.76] when there is no mention by Josephus?” (p. 28) and reminding us that “the important point…is not to assume what we cannot know” (e.g., p. 154). She problematizes a simple relationship, often repeated in the literature, which has been assumed to exist between a specific body of ceramics and a people group. She dismantles the arguments that the Ituraeans were of Arab origin or were a nation of thieves, robbers, and brigands. She shows that past scholars are correct in arguing that the Ituraeans had established a principality within the southern Biqa’ valley by the middle of the first century BCE (p. 77, 101, 129, 159, 173) and that the Ituraeans were settled and politically organized by ca. 200 BCE (pp. 130-131).

In addition, Myers's quest to “question some of the prevailing ideas regarding the Ituraeans” (p. 4) has produced what is, to my knowledge, the only history of scholarship of the Ituraeans in existence (ch. 1). It has also resulted in a book-length conversation among those who have studied the Ituraeans that is guided by Myers's truly commendable interdisciplinary vision of how the question of Ituraean identity should be attacked. This diversity of inquiry is one of Myers's greatest contributions. Rather than confining her archaeological analysis to Shimon Dar’s well known survey of the parts of the Hermon and Golan,2 as is nearly always done, she looks past modern political borders to excavations, surveys, and discoveries from modern Lebanon and Syria. Rather than simply quoting Josephus and Strabo, she discusses Apuleius, Cicero, and Eupolemus. Rather than searching for the Ituraeans only in inscriptions from the southern Levant, she has cast a wide net and compiled a list of Roman military inscriptions related to the Ituraean units from as far away as Gaul. And although there are only two Ituraean coins from known archaeological contexts, she has successfully gleaned information about the Ituraean principality from those in private collections.

Those looking for a survey of Ituraean material culture and primary texts (including coins and inscriptions), or those wanting an up-to-date history of scholarship on this enigmatic people, would do well to consult Myers's wide-ranging yet comprehensive study.


1.   Menahem Stern (Greek and Latin Authors on Jews and Judaism. 3 vols. Jerusalem: Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities, 1974-1984, I: 225-6) and Sean Freyne (Galilee and Gospel: Collected Essays. Tübingen: Mohr Siebek, 2000, 128-9).
2.   Shimon Dar, Settlements and Cult Sites on Mount Hermon, Israel: Ituraean Culture in the Hellenistic and Roman periods. Translated from the Hebrew by M. Erez. BAR International Series 589. Oxford: Tempus Reparatum, 1993. See also Dar, History of the Hermon: Sites of the Ituraeans (תולדות החרמון: אתרים של היטורים). Tel Aviv: ha-Qibbutz ha-me’ukhad, 1994 (Hebrew).

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