BMCR 2001.06.16

Roman Edessa. Politics and Culture on the Eastern Fringes of the Roman Empire, 114-242 CE

, Roman Edessa : politics and culture on the eastern fringes of the Roman Empire, 114-242 CE. London/New York: Routledge, 2001. 1 online resource (xiii, 204 pages) : illustrations, 1 map. ISBN 9781134660636 £45.00/$75.00.

Some years ago in a television quiz in Britain, the question was asked ‘Which was the world’s first Christian state?’ A correct answer was awarded to ‘Armenia’, but strictly speaking it should have been ‘Edessa’. Such is the general ignorance of Edessa that one even wonders whether the correct answer would have been acknowledged.

To be fair, Edessan Christianity is more controversial than Armenian. But the above anecdote does at least underline just how much Edessa has long deserved far broader publicity. This book, therefore, is to be greatly welcomed and will go far towards fulfilling such an acute need (although at a price of £45/$75 for a slim book—just 200 pages and 15 black-and-white photographs—the publishers seem to be doing their best to ensure that it does not!). Few people outside academic circles are even aware of the existence of Edessa, let alone of its importance to early Christianity. Not since J.B Segal’s seminal work in 1970 has there been such a major book on Edessa. Professor Ross is to be congratulated, therefore, for his comprehensive study of the history, culture and intellectual life of Edessa and his assessment of its remarkable importance, not only for the history of Christianity but in the movement of ideas between East and West generally.

The book focuses on the period from when Edessa first came under the influence of Rome as a client kingdom until its monarchy finally disappeared in the mid-third century when it was absorbed directly into the Empire. During this crucial period Christianity took root in the kingdom and flourished, although Judaism and various older Edessan religions and Gnostic sects continued to be widely practiced. The first chapter summarises the historical background of Edessa, in particular its Graeco-Macedonian setting and the events behind its eventual absorption into the Roman Empire. His conclusion (p. 28) to this chapter forms a particularly appropriate comment on the importance of this absorption to Rome: ‘When the Roman emperors won the tug-of-war over Edessa and its territories, they obtained a sizeable and wealthy addition to the empire, with a vibrant and multifaceted cultural identity.’

Chapter 2, ‘The coming of Rome’, is a careful reconstruction of the history of Edessa and the complex politics of Roman eastern expansion, based on literature and inscriptions. Much of the historical evidence is very fragmentary and the author has been thorough in sifting through the diverse sources to piece together a coherent narrative. The central core of the book is Chapters 3 and 4, ‘From kingdom to province’ and ‘A king in Rome’s service’, where Edessa and its relations with Rome are discussed in detail. The relationship of the Severan emperors in particular to Edessa was one of the most important in the history of its relations with Rome, and Ross—along with others—is right to emphasise this peculiar relationship. But the question has not been raised as to why this relationship was so peculiar, whether there was more to it than just Rome-Edessa politics. After all, not only was Edessa Arab but the Severan dynasty itself was the only ruling one of Rome that incorporated a major Arab element—indeed, two of the emperors, Elagabalus and Alexander, were wholly Arab—through its links to the family of another former Near Eastern client kingdom, Emesa. Furthermore, the Emesan dynasty always had a policy of forging dynastic links, a policy that Julia Domna actively pursued after her marriage to Septimius Severus by bringing prominent Near Eastern families (mainly her own) to Rome. The elaborate family and tribal alliances of other prominent Near Eastern families, such as the Palmyrenes or the Tanukh or the Edessans themselves, form an essential background to the understanding of Near Eastern politics under Roman rule. While no such links are known between the Edessan and Severan monarchies, the question must nonetheless be examined as to why relations between the two ‘Arab’ dynasties, the one Roman the other Edessan, went beyond just power politics. There is some discussion of tribalism at Edessa (pp 62-3), but the intimate, indeed fundamental, connections of the Severan emperors to the Emesene tribe are not even mentioned. Edessa’s loyalty to the person of the Emperor Alexander Severus is rightly emphasised, but the relevant fact that Alexander himself was in any case a local and an Arab is ignored (indeed, when Alexander returned to the East as Emperor the locals looked upon him as a god).

Chapter 5 deals with the pre-Christian culture and religion of Edessa, in particular the balance between Hellenistic and Semitic elements. Hence, Ross notes quite rightly (p. 94) how religious comparisons with Dura Europos, of similar Graeco-Macedonian foundation, are invalid because of the continuity of older Semitic religion at Edessa as opposed to the stronger Hellenistic influence at Dura. Indeed, any discussion of Edessa must always return to religion as its prime focus, and to the unique position that Edessa played in religious interactions all over western Asia. In Chapter 6 the peculiar nature of Edessan religion forms a background to the development of Christianity there, much of it focussing on the person and beliefs of Bardaisan, who dominated Edessan intellectual and religious life in the late 2nd and early 3rd centuries. Bardaisan is rightly put into the religious context of Edessa itself (pp 119-22), although Bardaisan’s interest in India is also recognised, with Edessa’s relevance both in the Indian mission to Elagabalus and the apostle Thomas’ apocryphal mission to India mentioned in a footnote. There is a good account of Gnosticism and its origins in Neoplatonism (pp. 123-127). The author stresses its main origin in Hellenistic Judaism but minimises the Zoroastrian element—the importance of Zoroastrianism as an important background to Edessan religion is perhaps generally underplayed, particularly in view of its survival in neighbouring Anatolia. But this is a minor point: Chapter 6 is an excellent summary of religion and Christianity at Edessa, rightly emphasising the lack of real proof for the conversion of Abgar VIII.

As usual, it seems invidious to point out shortcomings, but a few minor ones call for comment, mainly concerned with the design of the book rather than its scholarship. The combination of Harvard system and footnotes is confusing and makes for unnecessarily difficult reading. A good master plan of Edessa/Urfa ought to have been one of the main priorities of the study, but figure 5.5 simply uses Segal’s older plan, reproducing it poorly with no attempt at updating or improving it. Quoting Latin and Greek authors in the original, without translations, severely limits the broader appeal that Edessa deserves. Quoting Aramaic and Syriac authors only in translation on the other hand limits its even-handedness.

Despite the claim made in several places to incorporate archaeological evidence, much of it is ignored. For example in citing the ‘archaeological evidence’ for the extent of Edessan territory in the Severan period (p. 26), only the numismatic evidence (footnote 28) is used. No account is taken of the extensive new archaeological work and syntheses that have been carried out relating to the region of ancient Osrhoene (e.g.: L. Marfoe, ‘The Chicago-Euphrates Archaeological Project 1980-1984: An Interim Report’, Anatolica 13, 1986, pp. 37-148; T. J. Wilkinson, ‘Extensive Sherd Scatters and Land-Use Intensity: Some Recent Results’, Journal of Field Archaeology 16, 1, 1989, pp. 31-46; Bartl & Hauser, eds, Continuity and Change in Northern Mesopotamia from the Hellenistic to the Early Islamic Period, Berlin 1996, to name but a few at random—this list is by no means comprehensive. The fieldwork of the Chicago Oriental Institute in particular stands out, but there are also all the archaeological studies related to the massive Turkish economic regeneration project in the region (the ‘South-East Anatolian Project’). Such work provides information that is vital to an understanding of ancient Edessa: land-use, settlement patterns, environment, rural versus urban wealth and expansion, etc. Intensive surveys in the Urfa region, for example, have revealed a dramatic rural increase in the ‘late Roman/Byzantine’ period, marked not only by an increase in settlements but also in intensive cultivation made possible by artificial field fertilisation (Wilkinson in Marfoe op.cit., pp. 38-46)—the importance to Roman Edessa of such studies is obvious. Even if there have been no new archaeological studies of the city of Urfa itself (and is it certain there are none, at least in Turkish?), no city exists without its hinterland, and it is a pity that this has not been incorporated.

In fairness, the shortcomings of historians in using archaeological data fully as a resource may sometimes be traced to the archaeologists themselves, who so often do not present their results in a way that can easily be used by other scholars outside their discipline. This book remains a very solid contribution to the study of Rome’s place in the Near East and of the resulting two-way cultural flow. But the true character of Edessa, the importance of its legacy and importance of this book, perhaps cannot be conveyed better than in the author’s own words at the end of Chapter 6:

The message conveyed by the remnants of early Syriac literature and by the evidence for early Edessan Christianity is similar to that of art and archaeology: Edessa lay open to influences from all directions, and it adopted and incorporated them into a synthesis that is neither purely ‘Greek’ nor purely ‘Oriental’. It can only be called Edessan.