BMCR 1995.02.02

1995.02.02, Mitchell, Anatolia: Land, Men, and Gods in Asia Minor

, Anatolia : land, men, and gods in Asia Minor. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1993. 2 volumes : illustrations, maps (some folded) ; 29 cm. ISBN 9780198140801 $69.00.

Stephen Mitchell’s Anatolia immediately takes its place as one of the best books about the eastern Roman empire, more accessible and friendly than the voluminous but scattered writings of Louis Robert, more theoretical than T.R.S. Broughton’s Roman Asia Minor, more analytical and chronologically extensive than D. Magie’s Roman Rule in Asia Minor, and more focused and comprehensive than A.H.M. Jones’The Greek City and Cities of the Eastern Roman Provinces, to mention only some of the other great books about Asia Minor under Roman rule. These two folio-sized volumes contain thousands of up-to-the-minute footnotes, eighteen excellent maps, and sixty-five photographs of vistas, sites, monuments, inscriptions, and coins, as well as over a quarter of a million words of text. Amazingly enough, it is all very readable; even more amazing is that it is all worth reading.

The title is a bit of a misnomer, however, since the main focus of the book, as of most of Mitchell’s earlier publications, is primarily the region of Galatia in central Asia Minor and secondarily its immediate neighboring regions of Lydia, Phrygia, Pisidia, Lycaonia, Isauria, Cappadocia, and Pontus. This emphasis on central Asia Minor immediately distinguishes Mitchell’s book from many other books about Roman Asia Minor, which have often stressed either the numerous cities and their urban society in the most Hellenized and hence most Romanized provinces in western Asia Minor, or the role of the army on the frontier along the upper Euphrates river in eastern Asia Minor. With Mitchell’s volumes the interior highlands and mountains of Asia Minor finally start coming into focus as important, and intriguing, components of the Roman empire.

The subtitle for Volume 1 is “The Celts and the Impact of Roman Rule.” This first volume begins with the invasion of the Celts during the early third century B.C. and extends through the invasions of the Roman armies and the imposition of Roman rule to the invasions of the Goths and Persians during the mid-third century A.D. The first section of this first volume discusses the Celts in Anatolia in three extensive chapters. Much of this discussion is straightforwardly encyclopedic: the chronology and nature of the Celtic invasions, the settlements of the Celts in the region thereafter known as Galatia, their relationships with the kingdom of Pergamum and then with Roman commanders, the development of hereditary leadership within the Galatian aristocracy, the nature and consequences of Pompey’s administrative reconfiguration of central and eastern Asia Minor, the details of the extensive manipulation of eastern dynasts and kings by Marcus Antonius and then again by Octavian. The most interesting of the discussions in this section is the chapter (4) on the ethnography and settlement of the Celts in Galatia, in part because it is more speculative and suggestive. In order to reconstruct the competitive ethos of Celtic chieftains in Galatia Mitchell uses the well-known observations of Posidonius about Celtic society in pre-Roman Gaul. On the basis of onomastic evidence he suggests that the indigenous Phrygian population was transformed into slaves by their new Celtic overlords. He uses a passage from Caesar’s Gallic War to support his argument that Celtic religion survived even though the Celts adopted indigenous cults, and epigraphical evidence to suggest that Celtic remained a viable spoken language well into the later Roman empire, especially in districts in northern Galatia where few inscriptions have been found. The evidence of archaeology encourages suggestions about the location of the settlements of different Celtic tribes in Galatia, their subsequent expansion and contraction, and their inability to develop the urbanized culture and political centralization that had begun to appear among Celtic tribes in pre-Roman Gaul. These comparisons and suggestions are very illuminating, not because they are necessarily correct, but because they provide a consistent interpretive framework for central Asia Minor during the pre-Roman period that new evidence, whether inscriptions or archaeology, can now confirm or modify.

The second section of the first volume includes ten chapters on the impact of Roman rule. Some of these chapters again provide extensive but fairly straightforward exposition. One chapter (5) discusses the mechanics of provincial administration (and hence should be read with the two appendixes at the end of Volume 2 about the shifts in provincial boundaries); another chapter (6) surveys the military campaigns under Augustus that led to the pacification of the western Taurus Mountains in Pisidia, southern Galatia, and Isauria; another chapter (8) analyzes the importance of the imperial cult and its priesthoods for local aristocrats, primarily at Ancyra; another chapter (9) provides information about military garrisons along the roads, the expensiveness of building roads, and military recruitment; and still another chapter (13) discusses changes in provincial society during the third century, in particular the use of soldiers to collect taxes. Other chapters are more topical and synthetic, and in them Mitchell often applies models that were developed with other provinces in mind, and sometimes modifies those models on the basis of evidence from central Asia Minor. These chapters discuss cities and urban life (7, 12), estates and rural life (10, 11), and the connection between cities and the countryside in terms of the nature of the ancient economy (14).

Mitchell stresses that much of the Hellenization of these interior regions was in fact due to the policies of urbanization promoted by various Roman emperors, starting already with Augustus, who established cities such as Ancyra as well as several military colonies near the Taurus Mountains. Yet there were also limits on imperial support for urbanization, since Mitchell argues that in Cappadocia annexation as a province had the opposite effect; there so much of the land was confiscated as imperial estates or as public land that the establishment of cities was not encouraged. The expansion of urban society and culture had several predictable consequences for larger cities in central Asia Minor, even if the evidence is sometimes scarce. One was the rewriting of history as cities appropriated traditional Greek myths and invented new legends and rituals to explain their origins. Another was an increasing emphasis on public buildings, funded either by the cities or by private benefactors; and another was an increase in the number of agonistic festivals. But two of Mitchell’s suggestions about urban life will deserve further consideration. One is a claim about social transformation, that “in the third century agones took over the role of public building, and provided the best demonstration of the civic status and pretensions of a community” (1:199); the other is the hint that many smaller cities in central Asia Minor did not wish, or were unable, to finance much urban construction or many festivals and games.

Mitchell’s discussion of the rural economy is outstanding. He starts, appropriately enough, by describing the soil and the climate, the most important factors influencing agrarian life and the underdeveloped economy of the ancient world. These two factors had effectively divided the central plateau of Asia Minor into two zones, one dominated by sedentary agriculturalism, the other by pastoralism. But under Roman rule, especially from the second to the fourth centuries, villages spread over the plateau and their inhabitants switched to cereal cultivation. Often these villagers were working land that belonged to others, either local municipal elites or absentee landlords or the emperors themselves. The best regional example of patterns of landholding is, predictably, Galatia, and Mitchell provides a finely nuanced discussion of changes in landowners, different means of exploitation, and the tempo of imperial acquisition: “The first century AD had been an age of individual opportunity, the second was one of imperial consolidation” (1:158). His analysis of rural society is equally impressive. It includes discussions of the diet of rural dwellers, the survival of native languages, the nature of small communities, and the diversity of local cults. Villages may have represented a rural society that strongly contrasted with the urban life of cities, but in central Asia Minor cities seemed to carry less significance than elsewhere in the empire: “villages were, from first to last, the bedrock of communal life in Asia Minor” (1:170).

Mitchell’s chapter on taxation and the economy is an excellent attempt to insert the evidence from central Asia Minor into larger models about the nature of the Roman economy in general. He suggests that since most peasants lost much of their available surplus through rents, taxes, or extortion, “comparatively little coin moved out of the cities into the countryside” (1:255); hence, “Large parts of central Anatolian society were not integrated into the monetized economy of the wider Roman world” (1:245). He also argues that much grain was transported from the plateau to the coast, most likely as a form of taxation in which the high costs of transportation overland were included as part of the tax liability. Some of this grain perhaps went to feed Rome, and much of it probably went to supply the troops along the lower Danube, the upper Euphrates, or the middle Euphrates frontiers, all regions connected to central Asia Minor by a complex system of roads. One implication of these arguments about limited monetization and taxes paid in commodities is that the important changes in taxation between the early empire and the third century were only in scale and intensity: “The mechanics of tax collection were militarized, but the underlying principles of exaction in kind remained the same” (1:253).

The subtitle for Volume 2 is “The Rise of the Church.” This volume corresponds to the third section, which has the same title and consists of five chapters. Because the journeys of St. Paul included cities in Pisidia and Lycaonia, “The story of Christianity in Anatolia begins at the beginning” (2:3). The first chapter (15) of this section analyzes Paul’s visit to Antioch in Pisidia. Mitchell suggests that Paul took his Roman name in honor of Sergius Paul(l)us, the proconsul of Cyprus whom he converted to Christianity, and that he later visited Antioch in Pisidia because it was the proconsul’s hometown. Paul’s journeys are hence another indication of “the nexus of culture and power that joined the provincial aristocracy to the Roman governing class” (2 :86) in the Greek East. The next chapter (16) recreates the religious environment by discussing the many local pagan cults, in particular those for Zeus, various Mother Goddesses, and Men; the Jewish communities, which included in addition many sympathetic “God-fearers”; the various early Christian communities, especially in Phrygia, a region well documented through inscriptions that indicate how early Christianity had already splintered into various groups, most notably the Montanists, that distinguished themselves by differing doctrines and practices; the oracles of Apollo at Claros and Didyma; and the ostensible similarities in doctrines and values among pagans, Jews, and Christians. Christianity of course eventually came to dominate, and in a long chapter (17) Mitchell analyzes its rise and impact. He explains the prominence of bishops such as Gregory Thaumaturgus by invoking a change in values among local municipal elites, who from the mid-third century tended to disengage themselves from civic responsibilities by promoting their standing instead through imperial service. He also concedes that the spread of Christianity was uneven in central Asia Minor. For Cappadocia Mitchell stresses the importance of rural shrines and country bishops; yet it is the writings of the Cappadocian Fathers that provide the most extensive evidence for urban society in the later fourth century. Ancyra remained enough of a center of classical culture that the emperor Julian hoped it would lead the way in opposing Christianity, especially since its Christian community was in such disarray through conflicts over doctrinal orthodoxy. In some areas in Paphlagonia, Phrygia, Bithynia, and Lycaonia the Novatians and other heretics were perhaps stronger than the orthodox Nicene church. This enormous variety within Christianity reappears in Mitchell’s chapter (18) about monasticism.

The final chapter is a bit unexpected, in part because it is an extended commentary on a single text, the Vita of Theodore of Sykeon, that Mitchell notes is particularly important for “its detailed and unselfconscious depiction of life in rural settings” (2:130) in Galatia during the late sixth and early seventh centuries. This chapter is also unexpected because in his attempt to explain Theodore’s involvement in so many eases of spirit possession and exorcism Mitchell for the first time proposes the use of comparative material from anthropology by hinting at an interpretation in terms of “a series of symbolic acts” or “a means of communication” (2:147, 148). For a book that has made religious cults such a central concern these suggestions are as welcome as they are belated. These hints should imply that the illness of possession was a reading of and hence a text about an underlying social or cultural disorder; that the ritual or drama of exorcism represented Theodore’s reading of that text, and was hence another text in its own right; that the composition of a Vita about Theodore involved a reading of that text of exorcism; that Mitchell’s reading of the Vita is yet another interpretive text and hence open to further exegesis … but unfortunately Mitchell’s rather austere focus on empirical realia seems to have prevented him from taking seriously the implications of his own suggestions by fully elaborating them.

For all its magnificence Mitchell’s book cannot be taken as the last word on all these subjects, for several reasons. He himself admits that the archaeology of central Asia Minor is “at a very primitive stage” (1:243). There are more inscriptions to publish or interpret (or, sometimes, just locate in the voluminous writings of Louis Robert). The writings of the relevant church fathers need more study by scholars familiar with Roman history and society, rather than primarily with Christian theology. But by making so much material about Galatia and its neighboring regions so accessible, a book this impressively comprehensive and meticulous and sensible should only inspire others to take up the issues Mitchell poses about Roman Asia Minor. 1

  • [1] Here are the few slips I noticed: Vol. 1: 69 n.72, “appears” for “appear”; 91, col. 1, line 7, “at” for “fat”; 93, col. 1, line 12, “know” for “known” ; 113, col. 1, line 40, “,” for “;” ; 141 n.205, “Nyssa” for “Nysa” ; 144, col. 2, line 37, “308” for “368” ; 230, col. 2, line 23, “This” for “this”; 236, co1. 2, line 18, “Damasus” for “Damasias”; 237, col. 1: between lines 29 and 30 a line or more is missing. Vol. 2: 45, co1. 2, last line, “and” for “or”; 48, col. 1, line 30, “from” for “fom” ; 59, col. 1, line 37, “370s” for “380s” ; 67, col. 2, line 7, “362” for “363”; 69, col. 1, line 2, “370” (or perhaps “369”) for “361”; 69, col. 1, line 31, “Licinius” for “Diocletian” ; 69 n. 102, “19.8” for “8.8”; 70 n. 115, “sister St Macrina” for “mother St Macrina”; 74, col. 2, line 6, “372” for “370”; 78, col. 1, line 19, “370” (or perhaps “369”) for “371” ; 78, col. 2, line 38, “political” for “politcal” ; 113, col. 1, line 13, “362” for “363”; 159, col. 2, lines 17, 22, “Polemoniacus” for “Polemonianus” ; 161 n.48, “138.2” for “138.8”; 161, col. 2, line 27, “Nyssa” for “Nysa.”