Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2018.04.24 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2018.04.24

Michal Marciak, Sophene, Gordyene, and Adiabene: Three 'Regna Minora' of Northern Mesopotamia between East and West. Impact of empire, 26.   Leiden:  Brill, 2017.  Pp. xv, 581.  ISBN 9789004350700.  $184.00.  

Reviewed by David Woods, University College Cork (


This book is a result of research funded by the National Science Centre in Poland and conducted at the University of Rzeszów from 2012 to 2015. It does exactly what the title suggests, discussing the geography and history of the three neighbouring regions of Sophene, Gordyene, and Adiabene in northern Mesopotamia during the period from about 200 BC to about AD 600. There is no single, overarching argument, and the result is essentially a reference work for anyone interested in the development of these regions. Many of the chapters have already been published in a variety of academic journals during the period from 2011 to 2016. However, the journals were sometimes relatively obscure, and it is good to have revised versions of the original papers drawn together to form a larger, coherent whole. The author draws upon a wide range of literary sources in a number of languages, primarily in Greek, Latin, Syriac, and Armenian. He also draws upon a wide range of material sources and the latest archaeological data. The result is an indispensable tool for anyone interested in the geography and history of northern Mesopotamia.

Following a short introduction, the main body of the book is divided into three parts dealing with Sophene, Gordyene, and Adiabene in that order. Each part is then divided into three chapters dealing first with the historical geography of the region, then its cultural landscape, and finally its political history, always in that order. The result is a total of nine chapters followed by a tenth chapter setting the political and cultural development of these regions within a broader regional context. There follows an extensive bibliography of primary and secondary sources, followed by 78 mainly colour figures including maps, photographs of coins, reliefs, ancient ruins, and various topographical features. The volume concludes with indices of geographic and ethnic names, personal names, and references to primary sources.

The chapters devoted to the historical geography of the three regions follow the same format in each case. They proceed chronologically through a variety of literary sources in order to analyse what they have to say about the geography of the region under discussion, with the emphasis very much on reconciling often contradictory or ambiguous accounts concerning the borders of the region. Hence there is a lot of discussion of what exactly is meant by this or that mountain or river. Most of the literary sources are either directly concerned with geography themselves or include a significant amount of geographical information as they describe a Roman military campaign in the region. Because the three regions under discussion are neighbouring regions, the same relatively small group of sources tend to be discussed in each case, such as the geographies of Strabo and Ptolemy, and the accounts of various military campaigns by Plutarch, Tacitus, Cassius Dio, and Ammianus Marcellinus.

The chapters devoted to the cultural landscape follow the same basic format in each case once more. The emphasis is very much on questions of ethnicity and religion. Various categories of evidence are interrogated in order to determine the extent of Greek, Iranian, Armenian or other influences in the region. The analysis begins with literary sources, usually the sources already discussed in the preceding chapter. It then deals with epigraphic evidence, numismatic evidence, onomastic data, and the archaeological evidence, although not always in that exact order. The section analysing onomastic data deals first with toponyms, including the name of the region itself and of all the major settlements within it, and then with anthroponyms, analysing the names of the secular rulers first, then the names of any known ecclesiastical figures, mostly bishops, before finally including a few names falling outside of these two groups.

Finally, the three chapters devoted to the political history of the three regions proceed with a straightforward chronological survey of the political history of each region. However, the emphasis is very much on developments up to and including the fourth century AD, and relatively little is said about subsequent developments in the fifth and sixth centuries AD. There are some important differences between the chapters dealing with the various regions, so that they do not parallel each other to the same extent as the three chapters devoted to historical geography do, or the three devoted to the cultural landscape. For example, the chapter on the political history of Adiabene includes a discussion of the cognomen Adiabenicus as used by several Roman emperors of the 3rd and 4th centuries AD, while there was no equivalent cognomen in reference either to Sophene or Gordyene.

Very few would be qualified to review a volume of this depth and range in full detail, and I am not one of those. For example, I cannot comment on the etymologies offered for the names of various kings of Sophene (pp. 80-81) except to say that in a work otherwise composed in English, it might have been more suitable to translate these etymological explanations from German into English. Instead, I will make two quick general observations before turning to a brief examination of two matters where I do have some knowledge or interest, the numismatic evidence and the history of Ammianus Marcellinus.

The first general observation is that the same information is repeated in chapters dealing with the historical geography and cultural landscape of the same region (e.g. pp. 168-69 and 204-5), but perhaps this was almost unavoidable. The second is that the author sometimes avoids providing precise information for no apparent reason. For example, while it is true to say that the GLORIA EXERCITVS series of coins ‘dated to the first half of the fourth century AD’ (p. 230), it is more accurate to say that it dated to the period 330-41.

Turning to the numismatic evidence, one may note that the kings of Sophene struck a very limited coinage in copper (pp. 68-77), as did the kings of Adiabene and the city of Natounissarokerta within Adiabene (pp. 305-12), but no coins seem to have been struck in Gordyene. However, the treatments of the coinages of Sophene and Adiabene are somewhat inconsistent. For example, in the case of Sophene, Marciak reports the exact number of coins (specimens) known for each king, that 8 coins struck in the name of King Samos survive, that 91 coins struck in the name of King Arsames survive, and so on. Yet he does not preserve such information in the case of King Abdissar of Adiabene, and his reference to ‘only one coin struck in the name of King Monobazos I’ leaves one unsure whether he refers to one specimen or to one type of coin. Furthermore, while it is good to be provided with excellent photographs of 6 coins from Sophene (figs. 12-15) and of 2 coins from Adiabene (figs. 62-65), it is frustrating that no information is provided concerning their weight or diameter. Also, it would have been helpful to indicate why Mousheghian and Depeyrot dispute the authenticity of the 2 surviving coins sometimes attributed to King Zariadres of Sophene rather than merely noting this fact (p. 73).1 Finally, one notes that the terms obverse and reverse are sometimes confused (pp. 71, 74).

As for Ammianus Marcellinus, Marciak refers several times to his description of Amida in Sophene (18.9.1-2). However, errors sometimes occur. For example, Marciak interprets Ammianus’ claim that Constantius II wished Amida to be called after himself to mean that it was called Constantinopolis (p. 80), whereas it was actually called Constantia.2 Also, Marciak takes Ammianus’ claim that he scaled a mountain from which one could see even the smallest object up to fifty miles away absolutely literally (pp. 186-87) with no apparent awareness of the controversy concerning this account or the rhetorical tricks that Ammianus may have been playing here.2 Finally, it might have been helpful to explore in a little more detail how and when the Persians apparently regained possession of Gordyene following their loss of it in 298, as neither of the secondary works to which Marciak refers here supports his claim that this happened ‘during the first stage of the war’, even if one could work out what he actually means by this (p. 186, n. 146).

Nevertheless, these are the minor grumbles of a specialist in those areas whose interest has otherwise been piqued by a well-written book drawing together a large amount of information from a vast array of scattered sources. The book is extremely well-structured and indexed, and a joy to use for these reasons. The English is excellent, and typographical errors almost entirely absent (one can only chuckle at the transformation of ‘mainly royal palaces’ into ‘manly royal palaces’, p. 409). Consequently, this book is to be highly recommended to anyone whose research involves the geography or history of northern Mesopotamia.


1.   Furthermore, the various authors cited in the footnotes on the subject of the significance of the letters ΔΣ on the reverses of the coins wrongly attributed to Zariadres and Morphilig surely had some suggestions for the expansion of these letters (pp. 73-74), and it would have been nice to have been told them.
2.   On this, and the controversy surrounding the date of the rebuilding of Amida by Constantius, of which Marciak displays no awareness, he should have referred to the discussion by Burgess referenced elsewhere. See R.W. Burgess, Studies in Eusebian and Post-Eusebian Chronography, Historia Einzelschriften 135 (Stuttgart, 1999), pp. 275-80.
3.   As well discussed by G. Kelly, Ammianus Marcellinus: The Allusive Historian, (Cambridge, 2008), pp. 79-87.

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