Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2014.01.47 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2014.01.47

Peter F. Bang, Walter Scheidel (ed.), The Oxford Handbook of the State in the Ancient Near East and Mediterranean. Oxford handbooks.   Oxford; New York:  Oxford University Press, 2013.  Pp. xii, 555.  ISBN 9780195188318.  $150.00.  

Reviewed by D. T. Potts, Institute for the Study of the Ancient World, NYU (


It is one thing to work on states (as opposed to “the state”), or “complex societies” in the parlance of anthropologists and anthropological archaeologists, but quite another to write about them using abstract, analytical categories that move beyond simplistic schematization. Indeed, many scholars have worked on states of varying sizes and shapes, without ever addressing “the state” in an abstract sense, or even “their state” in terms that move beyond summaries of historical sequences and analyses of relevant archaeological and historical sources. Since the Renaissance, there have been so many studies of “the state”, and so much ink spilled by political and social theorists, that it may seem overly bold for an ancient historian or archaeologist to go where the likes of Hobbes, Mill, Marx, Weber and many others have tread, yet this has not stopped them and there is a plethora of literature by anthropologists, anthropological archaeologists and others that has already gone over many of the arguments underpinning the present collection, as cogently discussed by Walter Scheidel in his introductory chapter to this stimulating volume.

The present collection of eighteen essays is unusual in a number of respects, perhaps most obviously in the geographical parameters chosen by the editors. If one looks at the first and last chapters, the collection seems conventional enough, spanning the periods from the earliest Mesopotamian states to the first Islamic empire, but on closer examination, the reader will find that Carthage and the Germanic successor states of the Roman empire are included as well. Many states, of course, existed at one time or another between the Straits of Gibraltar and the steppes of Central Asia, but it would be unwieldy, not to say impossible to cover them all in a single volume. Thus many worthy candidates have been excluded. Nevertheless, the range of states (and empires) covered in this work is broad and should serve to open the eyes of specialists to examples they might never think about when working on “their” particular state.

Aside from the inclusion or exclusion of a particular case, there are at least two potential problems with a work of this sort. The first is that precisely those specialists who might benefit from broadening their perspectives on ancient states will instead head straight for the chapter that concerns their own research the most, looking to see what one of their colleagues has to say and thereby ignoring those chapters from which they could in fact learn the most. This is almost inevitable, but will lead to some degree of disappointment. The source of potential disappointment has nothing to do with the quality of the contribution. Rather, it is clear, though by no means an inevitability, that authors, whether instructed to do so or not, will feel a responsibility towards their readers to summarize a good deal of plain history in order to set the stage for whatever overarching observations they may have wished to make on their particular state. This is excellent for students, but less interesting for specialists. In many cases a large proportion of a chapter (e.g. Gojko Barjamovic’s on “Mesopotamian empires”) is simply devoted to a summary of political and social history that will be familiar to anyone with more than an undergraduate-level exposure to the subject. This is where the disappointment arises for specialist readers, i.e. other academics. And of course, this begs the question, for whom was the book written? The answer is of course clear, and it is not one’s colleagues, but rather, a larger, educated readership including, though not limited to, students and colleagues from ancillary fields (and secondarily non-specialists with a serious interest in the topic). Unfortunately, surveying the history of a state, which in many cases is actually a multi-dynasty empire spanning several millennia, invariably takes space away from potentially more interesting observations. Yet plunging into a discussion of a particular state, as though the reader were familiar with all of the political, military and social history of that state, would make the chapter almost unintelligible to all except specialists in that subject. Hence, the difficulty of making a collection like this of use to both specialists and colleagues from allied fields as well as students, should not be underestimated.

If, however, the specialist reacts with a measure of disappointment because he or she finds nothing particularly new or controversial in the chapter of greatest relevance to his or her field, the obvious antidote is to turn to the rest of the book. At once, the summaries of historical sequences are no longer liabilities, but rather positives for the Sumerologist who wishes to learn something about Byzantium, or the Egyptologist interested in finding out about Sasanian Iran. This is, in my view, the great strength of a work of this sort. Although my own inclination was to head straightaway for the chapters on Mesopotamia and Iran, these are bound to provide me with less stimulation than those on Carthage, the Germanic successor states, or Jewish states. And thus, for readers of this review, the recommendation is clear: read those chapters which do not concern your own area of expertise, and you will be treated to clear, competent studies of states from which you stand to learn a great deal. Forget the chapters that treat your own field of study. From these you stand to learn far less.

Every reader will find cases here that interest him or her more than others, or perhaps raise issues about which they simply haven’t thought before. Following my own prescription to look at what I know the least, I would recommend the set of studies on Greece, beginning with the Bronze Age (John Bennet) and moving through the independent city-states (Mogens Herman Hansen) to multi-city states (Ian Morris) and the concept of the Greek koinon (Emily Mackil). As a Near Eastern specialist, used to thinking about Mesopotamia, Iran and their non-state neighbors, this offers an interesting suite of inter-related essays that offer a window onto a different kind of world than one finds in the Near East. Similarly, if read together the essays on the Roman republic (Henrik Mouritsen), the monarchy (Peter Fibiger Bang), Byzantium (John F. Haldon), and the Germanic successor states (Ian Wood) are similarly instructive for those whose specialties lie elsewhere.

Finally, despite my own admonition to read those chapters concerned with the states with which you are least familiar, I cannot refrain from recommending those that in fact do concern my own areas of expertise. The chapters on Egypt (Joseph G. Manning), the ancient Near East (Steven J. Garfinkle), Mesopotamia (Gojko Barjamovic), Anatolia (Trevor Bryce), the Jewish states (Seth Schwartz), Iran (Josef Wiesehöfer) and the first Islamic empire (Chase Robinson) are, as one would expect from such an array of fine scholars, exemplary and will serve those who read them well.

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