BMCR 1994.05.17

1994.05.17, Millar, Roman Near East

, , The Roman Near East, 31 B.C.-A.D. 337. London: Harvard University Press, 1993. xxix, 587 pages : maps ; 24 cm. ISBN 9780674778856. $45.00/stlg35.95.

There can surely be no-one in the field of ancient history unfamiliar with Fergus Millar’s works. The Emperor in the Roman World and The Roman Empire and Its Neighbours are acknowledged classics, and have become standard student textbooks over the last twenty-odd years. If this volume fails to follow its illustrious predecessors into such a position, it will largely be the fault of undergraduate courses being slanted towards other aspects of the Roman world rather than any failing in this excellent work.

Indeed, The Roman Near East may eventually change the perceptions of teachers and students, since one of the major themes of M.’s work is the centrality of the Near East to the military structure of the Roman Empire, certainly from the time of Trajan onwards. Not only were there the three emperors, Elagabalus, Alexander Severus and Philip the Arab, who came from the Near East (one might further include Caracalla and Geta, whose mother was from an important Near Eastern family), but perhaps more importantly there were the many emperors and pretenders who were in the Near East when they made their bid for the principate, from Vespasian to Diocletian.

It is perhaps best to begin this review, as M. does his book, with a brief discussion of the boundaries, temporal and geographic, that M. has set himself. Geographically, M. has more or less restricted his definition of “the Near East” to the Fertile Crescent from Gaza to Dura-Europus. This is perfectly reasonable; by the Roman period Egypt and Anatolia are rather different in character to the Fertile Crescent (and in any case, M. was no doubt aware that Stephen Mitchell was working concurrently on a volume on Anatolia). Dura in the east forms the limit because it was, with exception of a couple of outposts, as far down the Euphrates as a permanent Roman presence penetrated (though Babylonia is treated in the epilogue to the work).

The chronological bounds are a little more puzzling. Beginning with the final victory of Rome over the Hellenistic world at Actium makes perfect sense, but why end with the death of Constantine? As M. himself notes (xii), he could have stopped either with the treaty with Persia of 298 or 299, or with the death of Julian in 363 and its consequences (he draws a significant amount of information from Ammianus Marcellinus anyway). “As it is,” M. says, “the book deliberately stops just when two related but separate major developments in religious history began”, those being Constantine’s conversion to Christianity and the ascetic movement. But by going to the death of Constantine, M. perforce must cover the beginning of the first development. Were he a lesser writer, this might not matter, but as it is M. has whetted the reader’s appetite for the events to come in the fourth century, only to then reach the end of the story he is telling.

The volume is divided into two sections. The first (“Empire”, 27-222) is a diachronic account of the changing face of the Roman Near East. This is largely a military history; not in the sense of being an account of campaigns and battles fought—M. largely omits such specific details, which are well enough covered elsewhere—but rather the reader is presented with an account of the changing nature of the Roman military structures in the Near East. Given the military nature of the empire and provincial administration, at least until the reforms of the Tetrarchy, this is a reasonable, and perhaps the only, method of tackling the Roman Near East, and as M. notes in his epilogue (526-7), the prime mover in any process of “Romanization” of the Near Eastern provinces was the army. Thus M. traces the evolution of Rome’s military policy from one of potential intervention from bases in Syria during the Julio-Claudian period through to the emergence of what might well be termed a “desert frontier” in the Tetrarchy, which M. characterises as a number of fortified communications lines, directed as much against a nomadic presence on the steppes of the Arabian peninsula as against Sassanid Persia.

The second, far longer, section (“Regions and Communities”, 223-488) is a synchronic study of the various regions of the Roman Near East (Syria, Phoenicia, Mesopotamia, etc.). It would, however, be a mistake to characterise the division of the book as being between “military” and “social” history. For M. is at pains to tell the reader that “a social and economic history of the Near East in the Roman period cannot be written” (225). Rather what M. presents the reader with is a survey of the most important pieces of evidence for the Roman Near East, and what conclusions can and, importantly, cannot be drawn from the material. It is more a history of language, of the process by which, at least in the area west of the Euphrates, the Greek language (or perhaps better the “Graeco-Roman” language, for M. constantly demonstrates that the Greek of the Near East includes many terms which are either translations or straight borrowings from Latin) and the culture that was attached to it came to be all-pervasive, even down to village level; despite the survival of Semitic names (and some hints of Semitic religion), only two communities, the Jews and the Palmyrenes, in any serious fashion retained their pre-Roman languages.

Caution is M.’s watchword; he very rarely goes beyond what can definitely be said on the basis of whatever piece of evidence he is dealing with at the time. So, where Kennedy and Riley are pretty certain that the Roman fort at Ertaje is the outpost attested in contemporary documents as Biblada, 1 M. is prepared to go no further than saying that it “may be” (133); the information in the Historia Augusta ( Septimius Severus 9.5) that Flavia Neapolis had displeased Severus by taking the side of Pescennius Niger (which does not contradict any other evidence) is noted, but due to the nature of the source not necessarily taken seriously (124).

The book, not surprisingly, is long, but very densely written; hardly a word is wasted. Even where the structure of the works forces him to go over the same material twice, M. often finds a new angle from which to approach. And even if it were not full to the brim of erudite scholarship, the volume would be worthwhile as a bibliographic exercise in its own right. For, with the exception of works which appeared too recently to be noted, such as Richard Stoneman’s Palmyra and its Empire, most of the modern literature is included in the footnotes, and most importantly, the publications of all the primary source material are drawn together (note especially the three useful appendices, collecting the inscriptions of the Tetrarchic land surveys and the documentation for the Bar Kochba revolt and the history of Roman Edessa).

This leads to the main criticisms of the volume, which are of its format rather than its content. Inevitably, a work such as this is going to be as much consulted on individual topics as it is read cover to cover, and so full cross-referencing to other relevant passages is necessary, and are provided. Most of these references, however, are made not to pages, but to sections of chapters. Since these are on average twenty pages in length, it is frustrating to have to search through all this to find the two paragraphs that are actually relevant, a frustration increased on the infrequent occasions when the cross-reference is incorrect.

Nor is the reader using this work as a reference volume helped too much by the indices. The general index is a little too general for this reviewer’s liking, often omitting places or characters mentioned only at one or two points. The indices of literary sources and of documents are even more brief, making no attempt at completeness; the former, for instance, lists only one reference to the frequently-cited Historia conscribenda of Lucian (and that does not actually refer to the work’s first mention) and omits entirely the same author’s de Syria dea, which is also often cited in the text. These two indices are quite out of keeping with the otherwise very high scholarship of the work (compare the very full indices in The Emperor in the Roman World).

These, however, are the only serious faults with the book (together with the typesetter’s regrettable habit, among other minor slips, of reducing Greek text to gibberish—e.g. 325 n. 20 and 420 n. 23—, for which M. can hardly be held responsible). Otherwise, this is a clear and quiet presentation of the history of the Roman Near East. A review of this length cannot possibly do justice to all that is thought-provoking in the work (for instance, pages could be written on the single subject of M.’s first-rate use of Josephus and Eusebius as social historians of the Near East); I shall conclude with one last comment.

One of M.’s themes is the obliteration by the Graeco-Roman culture of all that had gone before, so that most areas of the Roman Near East retained no memory of their pre-Hellenistic history. It is therefore ironic that the one culture that retained a sense of its own history, that of the Jews, ultimately through its offshoot Christianity absorbed that same Graeco-Roman culture. This seems to be implicit in M.’s subtext, but of course he is too careful a scholar to impose himself upon the evidence in this way. By and large, he lets his material speak for itself. As a result, it will be impossible for anyone to write about the Roman Near East in the future without seeing what M. lets that evidence say.

  • [1] D. L. Kennedy & D. Riley, Rome’s Desert Frontier from the Air (London, 1990), 224-5.