Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2017.07.43 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2017.07.43

Daniëlle​ Slootjes, Michael Peachin (ed.), Rome and the Worlds Beyond Its Frontiers. Impact of Empire, 21.   Leiden; Boston:  Brill, 2016.  Pp. xii, 262.  ISBN 9789004325616.  $132.00.  


Reviewed by Katheryn Whitcomb, Franklin and Marshall College (kwhitcom@scarletmail.rutgers.edu)

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[Authors and titles are listed at the end of this review.]

Part of the Impact of Empire series, this volume comprises a collection of twelve essays derived from a workshop held in New York in June of 2013.  The title of this volume is aptly chosen to reflect both the diversity of the contributions as well as the fluid nature of defining what is “inside” and “outside” the boundaries of the Imperium Romanum. In general, the major strength of this volume is in the stimulating conversation and debates that each contribution will undoubtedly provoke. Especially appreciated is the attention paid by a number of contributors to regions and/or avenues of comparison not often explored with reference to Rome. The quality of the individual contributions varies widely, however, (more on this below) and there are some general flaws that detract from the value of the whole. For example, there are a number of spelling, grammar, and editing mistakes (one chapter footnote refers to a non-existent bibliography). The reader would have benefitted from a comprehensive bibliography for the volume. As it stands, bibliographic material can only be found in the footnotes of each chapter and these vary widely in style and form. Also, some kind of biography, albeit brief, for each of the contributors would be a welcome addition.

Following an introduction by the editors, the volume is organized into three sections: Politics & Military; Politics, Economics, & Society; and Material Culture and Culture. The introduction explains that the aim of the entire volume is to examine identity and identity formation from the perspective of interactions between those within and those beyond Rome’s frontiers. The scope of the volume is (and was intended to be) expansive, both geographically and chronologically, but common themes are said to bind all of the essays together. These themes are identified as: Who is an insider/outsider? How were these categories of identity fashioned and/or recognized? What are categories or standards for measuring inside and out in the Roman world? What are the repercussions when inside and outside come into contact?

In the first chapter of this volume, Toni Ñaco del Hoyo and Isaías Arrayás-Morales assess the political and military strategies employed by Republican authorities in the regions of Pontus and Thrace during the decades following the Gracchan crisis. This essay provides an impressive array of primary source evidence, but ultimately leaves the reader without a strong sense of the strategies used by the Republican authorities or their success during the wars with Mithridates. Gil Gambash gives a thought-provoking examination of Rome’s long-standing ambivalence towards Britain in the late Republic and early Empire, while seeking to explain a century of atypical imperial inaction with regard to the island. He focuses particularly on a reexamination of the term mare nostrum and the role of Ocean in defining the boundaries of the known Roman world. Lukas de Blois’s contribution investigates why the long and dangerous conflict between Rome and Persia during the middle of the third century CE arose, asking: what was the character and aim of Persian actions? and what was the impact of the Persian wars on Roman imperial power? This essay provides a concise argument and useful analysis of a dramatic period in Roman imperial history, offering much food for thought for historians of the third century crisis. In the fourth chapter, and the final one of the first section, Stéphane Benoist looks at the process of constructing an imperial discourse through various perceptions (both internal and external to the Roman Empire) of imperial power and the princeps. This piece provides valuable analysis of the lasting impact that Augustus’ relationship with Parthia had on the continuing construction of imperial identity, but ultimately encompasses too great a scope chronologically (the first five centuries of the Principate) and geographically to tackle the main focus of the essay adequately.

Dan Hoyer’s piece opens the second section of the book and examines difficulties inherent in defining what is inside and outside the Roman Empire through two case studies: the formation of the Gallic Empire and the revolt of the Gordiani in North Africa. This essay is one of the high-points of the volume, drawing on theoretical frameworks from sociology to understand better the divergent experiences of these two regions during the period of the third century crisis. Wim Broekaert’s and Wouter Vanacker’s essay expands the horizons of the volume to include Roman interactions with the Garamantes in North Africa. This chapter makes an important contribution in revisiting and revising the role that nomadic tribes played in facilitating trade between Roman settlements and peoples far beyond the frontier. The Garamantes reappear, along with a number of other peoples in contact with Rome, in the chapter on technology transfers by Günther Schörner. Using several case studies ranging from the adoption of the Roman-style hypocaust systems found in modern Slovakia and the Fezzan to pottery workshops and lead production in Germany, this essay draws on recent studies in the field of science and technology to illustrate the multi-faceted nature of technology transfers. Particularly fruitful is the discussion of technology as a kind of artifact, and thus another means by which we can increase our understanding of social functions and relations in the ancient world. Anne Kolb and Michael Speidel further expand the geographical scope of the volume to include China in their discussion of perceptions of the Roman Empire from beyond its eastern borders. Although this essay makes a valuable contribution by including sources not often discussed by historians of Rome, there is little analysis of these sources, and the findings that Rome was viewed by some as an aggressor and by others as a friend do not seem particularly revelatory. The practice and evolution of hospitium in the Roman world are examined by John Nicols in the next and final chapter of this section. This essay raises some interesting points about the nature and function of hospitium in the Roman times, but the main conclusions regarding the evolution of hospitium are based on rather cursory evidence.

The final section of the volume begins with an essay by Blair Fowlkes-Childs on the integration of Palmyrene expatriates into the fabric of city life in Rome. This investigation focuses on (re)evaluating Palmyrene altars in the Transtiberim neighborhood of Rome. She convincingly argues that Palmyrenes may have desired to integrate themselves more fully into Roman life than was previously thought. This chapter provides a useful model for further investigations of this kind. Anne Hunnell Chen delivers an excellent piece of scholarship in her chapter on the potential Sasanian influences on Diocletian’s palace in Split. This essay not only makes a significant contribution to our understanding of the potential messages conveyed by the imperial architecture in Split, but also is well written and makes optimal use of images. The book is concluded by a piece on Scandinavian receptions of Roman numismatics by Nancy Wicker. She investigates how the imagery of 4th century Roman medallions was received and imitated in the north, and thus the impact of empire on Scandinavian visual representation. While the discussion of visual art produced by a society far beyond the Roman frontier is very much appreciated, the analysis of the influence that Roman medallions had on Scandinavian bracteates appears superficial. This admittedly may be due to the number of uncertainties surrounding both the medallions and the bracteates (and/or to the reviewer’s ignorance of Scandinavian bracteates).

Overall, this volume makes a valuable contribution to the field in a few key areas. First, the entire work broadens our understanding of the Roman Empire as a fluid system in constant contact with the worlds and systems beyond its frontiers. This is an important endeavor at a time when trends in scholarship on Rome are focusing increasingly on the reciprocal nature of relationships between Rome and the territories within its sphere of influence. Second, many of the individual contributions also draw on recent scholarship in other fields, such as anthropology, sociology, and science and technology studies, which greatly enhance the theoretical and methodological approaches to the study of Rome and the worlds beyond its frontiers. As noted above, there are some issues that detract from one’s general enjoyment of the book and occasionally provide an unwanted distraction from the argument of an individual piece. Also, given the interrelated material of many of the chapters, it would have improved the work as a whole to have more conversation between the individual contributions, even something as simple as a reference to other chapters in the book that treat similar material. Finally, visual resources, with few exceptions, are not well utilized in this volume. Maps especially would enhance the chapters on trading in North Africa and technology transfers.

Table of Contents

Part I: Politics and Military
“Rome, Pontus, Thrace and the Military Disintegration of the World Beyond the Hellenistic East” by Toni Ñaco del Hoyo and Isaías Arrayás-Morales
“Estranging the Familiar - Rome’s Ambivalent Approach to Britain” by Gil Gambash
“Rome and Persia in the Middle of the Third Century AD (230-266)” by Lukas de Blois
“The Emperor Beyond the Frontiers: A Double-Mirror as a ‘Political Discourse’” by Stéphane Benoist

Part II: Politics, Economics, and Society
“Turning the Inside Out: The Divergent Experiences of Gaul and Africa during the Third Century AD” by Dan Hoyer
“Raiders to Traders? Economics of Integration among Nomadic Communities in North Africa” by Wim Broekaert and Wouter Vanacker
“Transfer römischer Technik jenseits der Grenzen: Aneignung und Export” by Günther Schörner
“Perceptions from Beyond: Some Observations on Non-Roman Assessments of the Roman Empire from the Great Eastern Trade Routes” by Anne Kolb and Michael A. Speidel
Hospitium: Understanding ‘Ours’ and ‘Theirs’ on the Roman Frontier” by John Nicols

Part III: Material Culture and Culture
“Palmyrenes in Transtiberim: Integration in Rome and Links to the Eastern Frontier” by Blair Fowlkes-Childs
“Rival Powers, Rival Images: Diocletian’s Palace at Split in Light of Sasanian Palace Design” by Anne Hunnell Chen
“The Reception of Figurative Art Beyond the Frontier: Scandinavian Encounters with Roman Numismatics” by Nancy L. Wicker
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