Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2014.04.22 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2014.04.22

Andreas J. M. Kropp, Images and Monuments of Near Eastern Dynasts: 100 BC-AD 100. Oxford studies in ancient culture and representation.   Oxford; New York:  Oxford University Press, 2013.  Pp. xx, 497.  ISBN 9780199670727.  $185.00.  

Reviewed by Matthew P. Canepa, University of Minnesota (


Images and Monuments of Near Eastern Dynasts: 100 BC-AD 100 marks an important advance in the study of the art and architecture of the late Hellenistic eastern Mediterranean and Near East as well as the impact of Rome’s expansion and domination of these regions. It is unique in its combined scope, depth of research and chronological focus. The time period within which Kropp has chosen to work allows him to focus on the major developments at the core of the book yet still consider the artistic, architectural and historical precursors and regional afterlives. Kropp explores a wide and diverse group of images and structures, and successfully presents and analyzes both the common dynamics and varieties of cultural backgrounds and responses of these dynasts. The book focuses on ruler representation, architecture and cult among “the six major players of this period, the Kommagenian, Emesan, Ituraean, Nabataean, Hasmonaean, and Herodian dynasties.” The book provides a wide trans-regional ideological context for phenomena that have often been presented simply as independent regional idiosyncrasies or speed bumps on the road to Romanization. As Kropp points out at the beginning, this period was so creative because many of these regions had no recent precedents. The strength of this book is that it successfully analyzes each kingdom individually yet consistently puts them into dialogue to elucidate the larger interlocking complex of artistic and political strategies.

The book is a revised and expanded version of the author’s 2007 University of Oxford DPhil thesis. While it benefits from a thesis’s depth of bibliography and field research, it is clear that the process of revision was extensive, and the present work is mature and impressively clear piece of scholarship. Images and Monuments of Near Eastern Dynasts is organized into six chapters. Rather than proceeding chronologically or regionally, the main chapters each deal with a different topic: portraiture, palatial architecture, tomb monuments and royal cult. Kropp structures each chapter internally according to dynast. This directs the analytical focus of the book towards the broader issues, while allowing the author space to consider the development of individual royal agendas and responses to Rome. By necessity the treatment of each dynasty is not even, as not all dynasties produced the same quantity of material and their creations did not all survive to the same degree.

Chapter 1, “Methods, dynasts, and kingdoms,” provides an historical and methodological introduction, and is organized into five sections. In ‘Context and the Viewer,’ the author provides a very brief methodological discussion suggesting that he intends to ask similar questions and examine a similar range of evidence as Zanker’s classic Power of Images in the Age of Augustus. The section on ‘Client Kingship’ carefully critiques the term, situates it within the main historiographical debates and qualifies his own use of it. In the next two sections, Kropp provides a survey of the ‘Geography of the Near East’ and the Roman conquest of the eastern Mediterranean and Near East (‘Roman Conquest with Leftovers’). ‘Kingdoms, Sites, and Peoples’ is the most substantial section and introduces the cultures and political histories of each of the kingdoms. He notes that, while many of the kingdoms surveyed used Aramaic, nothing like a ‘pan-Semitic’ identity ever coalesced around this lingua franca or around any common cultural practices. In a subsection the author critically examines the ancient and modern category of “Arab,” situating himself within scholarship that views the term as a social category of people who live in the wilderness as pastoralists and merchants, and maintaining that there was no such thing as an ‘Arab’ identity until Islam.1

Kropp’s control of Hellenistic and early Roman art is evident throughout the work and he successfully and reliably engages and integrates scholarship on a wide range of cultures and regions. Kropp is most comfortable in dealing with those dynasts within the wider Aramaic-speaking Near East, which, indeed, occupy the majority of the book’s attention. Kommagene differed markedly in its cultural, political and linguistic history, as did the style of kingship of its first-century sovereign, Antiochos I Theos. Kropp correctly characterizes Kommagene under Antiochos I as exceptional among the kingdoms. Contrasting with the other dynasts, Persian genealogy and Iranian religious practices played a central role in Antiochos I’s of strategy of legitimation, even if the ‘Persian’ cult practices were reimagined or outright invented.2

Chapter 1’s overview also touches on the legacy of the Seleukid Empire. Many of these dynasts ruled over lands that emerged from the wreckage of the Seleukid Empire and some, such as the Orontids, claimed Seleukid blood. These dynasts selectively engaged aspects of this Seleukid legacy in recombination with local traditions, influences from Ptolemaic Egypt, and, of course, Rome. In this regard, those regions, like the Hauran, that were largely unaffected by Hellenistic culture, stand in marked contrast. The other important point that Kropp brings forth, which is central to his later analyses, is the remarkable diversity of these kingdoms and dynasts, which range from relatively wealthy and geopolitically savvy players like Kommagene under Antiochos I or Herodian Judea, to more politically diffuse regions or groups, like the Hauran or the Nabataeans. Kropp emphasizes that, other than ancient, distant overlords, most regions had no immediate royal precedents to drawn on. They filled this void with an eclectic group of ancient traditions and inventive new solutions. This is important because it underscores how the Roman advance demanded that each of these regions solve a similar range of problems concerning legitimacy. It also illustrates how they engaged, contributed and manipulated a common repertoire of forms and approaches, creating a larger field of competition in the process.

The next three chapters (Chapters 2 to 4) each focus on one artistic or architectural category (royal portraits, palaces and tombs), while Chapter 5, ‘Kings and Cults,’ synthesizes a range of evidence to reconstruct and compare the differing approaches to the royal cult. In Chapter 2 Kropp expertly situates the portraiture and architecture of these regions within the broader developments of Hellenistic and early Roman art and architecture, yet provides compelling cultural and political interpretations for the motivations that inspired departures and innovations. As they provide the bulk of evidence, Kropp’s analysis of the palaces of the Tobaid, Hasmonaean and Herodian palaces stand at the core of Chapter 3. In the section ‘Deciphering Royal Rhetoric,’ Kropp emphasizes the importance of display and performance in Hellenistic kingship and royal architecture, and situates the creations of the client kings within the larger traditions of Hellenistic kingship. Chapter 4 surveys the wide range of funerary monuments these dynasts created and their eclectic appropriations of Ptolemid, Seleukid, Roman and even Persian traditions. It should be noted that the period and sites under discussion form a much greater body of evidence than the earlier Hellenistic period. Here as elsewhere, Kropp makes prudent use of the sources and avoids the circular arguments that often confound studies of this material.

Chapter 5 considers the extent to which new Greco-Roman artistic, architectural and cultic practices were mere trappings with no appreciable impact on the meaning of the cult sites, and considers the extent to which these new mediums carried—or were the product of—new cultural identities and messages. Setting himself apart from certain Francophone and German traditions of scholarship, Kropp asserts that new artistic and religious forms did indeed have the power to convey new meanings, especially in commenting on the patrons’ cultural and political connections. He contrasts his approach, however, with those traditions of Anglophone scholarship that observe an ‘historial amnesia’ in the Roman Near East. He argues that the architectural and artistic forms could bear new meanings but did not absolutely determine religious or cultural identities. Similarly, new artistic and architectural forms did not obliterate ancient traditions. Kropp emphasizes that most new temple architecture accommodated local cultic practices, and that clear continuities appear in ritual practice if not in historical discourse. Again, Kommagene and its cults under Antiochos I formed an exception among these kingdoms. Not only was it the only kingdom to engage Iranian religions, it was the only one to produce a genuine royal cult, albeit short-lived and confined to a single ruler.

Chapter 6 summarizes his conclusions for each kingdom and emphasizes the incredible creativity and innovation of the period. Kropp underscores the importance of local cultural context for the ultimate success of each ruler’s program. The book engages theoretical debates only sparingly, and the author is restrained in offering extended analysis of the impact these royal creations had on the populace, on other dynasts and on the wider culture of power. This is certainly something that remains for later work, both on the part of the author and future scholars, but this book establishes a solid foundation for such future research. The author is admirably methodologically self-aware at critical points and offers several important insights. In characterizing his approach to images and monuments as ‘cultural practice,’ he is on solid methodological ground. Following a much more sophisticated approach to sculpture than discretely stylistic or semiotic approaches, Kropp offers an integrated approach that also emphasizes the objecthood of portrait sculpture and its spatial impact. Analysis of palatial architecture considers the architecture’s role in role performance, though this could be greatly and productively expanded. Since the book deals with problems of cross-cultural interaction, consideration of this material would have benefited from an engagement with the theoretical and methodological debates of the sort dealt with by Michael Dietler in his Archaeologies of Colonialism (Berkeley: 2010). Though Kropp’s book lacks the same theoretical depth and grounding, the author adopts many of the same approaches to the problems at hand. I would look forward to reading future work by the author that contributes to these larger debates in archaeology.

Oxford University Press invested in the book’s production and it has paid off. One the major strengths of the book is its extensive illustrations, including 137 photographs and site plans, four maps and a 30 page analytical table presenting the coinage of each dynasty. The author demonstrates a deep knowledge of the numismatic evidence, and the analytical tables in will be a useful short reference to the reader as well as a useful research tool as they provide a convenient entry into the comprehensive catalogs.

Images and Monuments of Near Eastern Dynasts should be in every research library. It is priced beyond the range of a book that one could assign for an advanced undergraduate course, which is unfortunate because it would serve quite well as such. I hope that we will see this in paperback for this reason. In sum, this is an admirable piece of scholarship that will provide the foundation for much future work.


1.   This characterization is valid for the period Kropp studies and he is correct to approach it thus. However, his historiographical summary would benefit from engagement with recent advances in our understanding of the role of the Roman and Sasanian Arab clients (Jafnids, Nasrids, and Hujrids) in transforming and Arab identity, especially Greg Fisher’s Between Empires: Arabs, Romans, and Sasanians in Late Antiquity (Oxford: 2011).
2.   Kommagene appears to lie outside Kropp’s core of expertise; however, his treatment of the royal art and architecture of Antiochos I is sound on all important points. Yet Kropp’s assertion that the majority of the population of Kommagene belonged to the same Aramaic-speaking cultural continuum as the others is based solely on ‘Semitic’ names on stele from Zeugma, and should be modified to take into account the deep and archaeologically well-attested roots of native Anatolian traditions in the region (23n116 and 358n94).

Read comments on this review or add a comment on the BMCR blog

Read Latest
About BMCR
Review for BMCR
Support BMCR

BMCR, Bryn Mawr College, 101 N. Merion Ave., Bryn Mawr, PA 19010