BMCR 2001.08.32

Rome in the East. The transformation of an empire

, Rome in the East : the transformation of an empire. London: Routledge, 2000. 1 online resource (xix, 523 pages) : illustrations. ISBN 020315942X. $100.

Ball’s work represents an ambitious attempt to highlight the influence the East exerted upon the Roman empire. To Ball, this influence is of paramount importance: “More than anything else, the story of Rome is a story of the East more than of the West: a triumph of the East” are his concluding words (p.450). Ball is reacting in particular to Fergus Millar’s The Roman Near East, 31 B.C.—A.D. 337 (Cambridge, Mass., 1993), a work which he feels places undue emphasis on the Roman and Greek presence in the Near East. Ball’s work concerns the same region as Millar’s, i.e. modern Syria, Jordan, northern Iraq, and to some extent Israel and Palestine; his coverage, however, extends up to the seventh century A.D. and reaches back to the pre-Hellenistic period as well. Within the Roman period, Ball focuses especially on the Severan dynasty, which he sees as in large measure responsible for the “orientalising” of Rome (p.443).

A broad assessment of the work may usefully be offered before a detailed analysis is undertaken. On the positive side, the core of the book, chapters 5-7 (pp.149-397), is an extremely useful overview of the Roman presence in the Near East, lavishly illustrated. Both the cities and the countryside are considered, and the bibliography is up to date (to 1998). As someone who has spent a long time working in the region, Ball is at his strongest in arguing for the influence of Near Eastern architectural forms on Roman, e.g. in the colonnaded streets so typical of Roman cities in the East, as well as in the form of temples (and the gods worshipped). This large section of the work—a book in its own right—can undoubtedly be recommended as a stimulating assessment of the East’s impact on the Romans and vice versa.

Two significant general problems with the work must be highlighted, however. First, there is the issue of methodology. Ball is keen to stress the role of the East and easterners in the Roman empire but fails to define his terms (“Roman”, “Syrian” etc.) adequately. To be fair, Ball is aware of the dangers of retrojecting modern notions of nationalism (e.g. p.443), yet he finds it hard not to make contrasts between Syrians and Romans. This is a serious problem with the whole work: on p.2 Trajan is characterised as a Spanish emperor, while Caracalla and Geta are described as “half-Punic, half-Syrian”. Elsewhere we read that “Septimius Severus, the Punic North African, conquered Rome; Hannibal could rest in peace” (p.407); Severus’ dynasty is described as “Phoenicio-Syrian” (pp.415, 416). A final outstanding example may be cited: “What is important is what [the Emperor] Philip meant to the Arabs themselves: that one of their own number could aspire to the world’s highest office and succeed. It forms as much a landmark in the Arabs’ self-awareness as it did in the Roman awareness of them as more than merely tent-dwellers” (p.418). Given that the Roman perception of tent-dwelling Arabs shows no sign of becoming less prejudiced and hostile after the third century (cf. e.g. Ammianus Marcellinus XIV.4.1 and Procopius, Wars I.17.48), Ball’s statement might strictly be correct, for it is difficult to see any trace of increasing self-awareness among the Arabs after Philip’s reign, but this is clearly not what he intends. Furthermore, Millar notes ( The Roman Near East, pp.530-1) that the earliest source to refer to Philip, the Thirteenth Sibylline Oracle, refers to Philip as being from Syria (rather than Arabia). The overarching problem remains, however, one of definition. To what extent did a Syrian consider himself or herself to be a Syrian? How compatible was this with being Roman? These questions of identity and self-definition have been much discussed by scholars recently (cf. e.g. J. Hall, Ethnic Identity in Greek Antiquity [Cambridge, 1997], P. Amory, People and Identity in Ostrogothic Italy, 489-554 [Cambridge, 1997], M. Goodman, ed., Jews in a Graeco-Roman World [Oxford, 1998], R. Miles, ed., Constructing identities in late antiquity [London, 1999], G. Greatrex and S. Mitchell, Ethnicity and Culture in late antiquity [London, 2000]), and the failure to take into account any such scholarship is a serious flaw in Ball’s work. Given that Millar ( The Roman Near East, ch.13.1) does wrestle with the question of a Syrian identity and what such a thing might be, Ball’s refusal to come to grips with the issue is all the more remarkable.

The second major criticism of the work is its unevenness. Once Ball extends the scope of his argument beyond the architecture of the Near East, one senses that he is on less familiar ground: there are many passages, for instance, recounting Rome’s wars in the East, drawn essentially from the ancient sources without much, if any, reference to recent work on the events. At one point (p.466 n.305) he acknowledges not having been able to take into account a book published in 1995, which implies that these sections were completed earlier and not revised in the five years before publication. Even among books published before 1995, Ball’s reading is rather selective and contains odd omissions. No mention of (e.g.) G. Fowden, Empire to Commonwealth (Princeton, 1992), a work similar in scope to Ball’s, which would certainly have been of use to him; D. Potter, Prophecy and History in the Crisis of the Roman Empire (Oxford, 1990); M. Sartre, L’Orient romain (Paris, 1991), a work which anticipates several of the points made by Ball (see pp.313-14, 490-7); or any of the recent volumes of the Cambridge Ancient History. Ball’s bibliography includes items not actually cited anywhere in the text (e.g. G. Greatrex, Rome and Persia at War, A.D. 502-532 [Leeds, 1998]) while at the same time omitting some which are (e.g. J.F. Matthews, The Roman Empire of Ammianus [London, 1989]).

Below, the book is considered in more detail. Because Ball’s work is so wide-ranging, certain aspects of it will come in for more comment than others: it is inevitable that the bias of the reviewer’s interests will be reflected in the criticism. More will be said about political and military matters than architectural or religious, about which other commentators are better placed to judge. Given that, as has already been noted above, the core of the work is based upon the architecture of the Near East, the following section may therefore give an unduly negative impression of the book.

Chapter 1 provides an introduction to the work, in which Ball makes clear his wish to “redress the balance by writing from the Near Eastern perspective” (p.2): hitherto, he feels, works have had an unduly Eurocentric perspective. Millar’s book clearly emerges as Ball’s main target, although Ball rather exaggerates the extent of Millar’s preoccupation with the Graeco-Roman presence. However, Ball is on firmer ground in pointing out the limitations of the types of evidence considered by Millar—above all the epigraphic record. Ball rightly notes the problems with such a form of evidence and argues that it is vital also to turn to the material evidence in assessing the Roman and Greek impact on the Near East (pp.3-5).

The second chapter is entitled “Historical background”. This chapter is particularly unsatisfactory and gives the impression of hasty work. Statements such as “no attempts [by the Romans] were made at gaining worthwhile intelligence [concerning the Parthians or Persians]” (p.9) are sweeping and certainly untrue for the whole period from the Republic to the seventh century A.D.: a glance at A.D. Lee, Information and Frontiers (Cambridge, 1993), ch.4—a work omitted from Ball’s bibliography—would show otherwise. Ball’s emphasis on Roman ignorance and aggressiveness towards the Persians is heavily based on the work of Isaac (especially The Limits of Empire [Oxford, 1992]) and overstated. The lack of “any soundly thought-out strategy or war aims” (p.9) is only apparent to one who already accepts that the Romans initiated most of the wars with the Parthians and Persians—a very doubtful proposition, at least in the case of the latter. Concerning Roman knowledge of the Parthians, discussed on p.12, the interesting paper of R.M. Schneider, “Die Faszination des Feindes: Bilder der Parther und des Orients in Rom” in J. Wiesehöfer, ed., Das Partherreich und seine Zeugnisse (Stuttgart, 1998), pp.95-146 needs now to be taken into account: contrary to what Ball argues, the Romans do appear to have been interested in the Parthians, even if their knowledge and portrayal of them was not always accurate.

The chapter offers an outline of relations between Rome and the Parthians and Persians from the third century B.C. to the reign of Heraclius—an ambitious task, accomplished in only 21 pages. Unsurprisingly therefore, the coverage is patchy. Ventidius’ campaigns are passed over altogether, perhaps to emphasise Mark Antony’s failures. Ball sees the eastern part of the Roman empire as becoming ever more important in the wake of Trajan’s campaigns in the East (p.16): “Rome looked increasingly to the East: as the only place where real expansion still lay open, as a natural heart of their own empire, as an alternative to Rome as the capital” (p.17). Certainly Antioch came to enjoy a considerable prominence, but Ball’s other statements here are typical of the somewhat sweeping judgements he comes to make: what basis he has for some of his assertions is unclear. Attention is drawn to both Avidius Cassius and Pescennius Niger (p.18), the former of whom, according to Ball, provided the precedent for an “eastern” Roman emperor. It is hard to see how the brief reign of this usurper can have helped the cause of “easterners” in bidding for the principate; and the vagueness of Ball’s use of such terms does nothing to clarify the discussion.1 Ball’s discussion of Roman concepts of monarchy (p.21), in which he rightly sees the influence of eastern kingdoms, is undermined by his assertion that Pompey was the first commander to be hailed by his troops as imperator, whereas in fact that honour belongs either to P. Cornelius Scipio Africanus or to L. Aemillius Paullus, at least a century earlier.2

Ball’s treatment of the third-century Sasanian attacks on the Roman East is also weak, vitiated in large measure by his failure to use the important work of D. Potter (noted above). Undue emphasis is placed on the rather obscure Mariades episode, which is built up into a situation in which “the common folk—the native Syrian population—welcomed the Iranians as deliverers once more” (p.23, cf. p.448). Too little is known of the episode for certainty; and it is also the case that local leaders, such as the equally obscure Uranius Antoninus and the Palmyrene ruler Odaenathus emerged as energetic defenders against the Persians.3 On the same page the Sasanian king Bahram II is mistakenly called Bahram Gur; in fact, Bahram Gur was Bahram V, and one wonders whether Ball’s description of Bahram II as “a great warrior king” might be better applied to Bahram V than II. Given the absence of two basic works on Sasanian history from Ball’s bibliography, A. Christensen, L’Iran sous les Sassanides (Copenhagen, 1944) and K. Schippmann, Grundzüge der Geschichte des sasanidischen Reiches (Darmstadt, 1990), such confusion becomes understandable. Further errors emerge over the following pages. The assertion that the Romans contributed money to the defence of the Caucasian passes against the Huns is hard to substantiate (p.26).4 The claim that “the archaeological evidence from the Syrian countryside, furthermore, suggests Iranian support for the local economy and protection of the villages, quite contrary to the picture of destruction that the western sources imply”, referring to the sixth century A.D. is baffling: the century was punctuated by repeated Sasanian invasions on the Roman Near East, in which cities were sacked and populations deported. In the words of one recent scholar, “It is difficult to avoid the conclusion … that the wars of the sixth century played the decisive role in eliminating the Greek-Syrian Christian civilisation from the parts ( sic) of Syria I and II by the first quarter of the seventh century.”5 M. Whitby’s important monograph, The Emperor Maurice and his historian (Oxford, 1988) is absent from Ball’s consideration of late sixth century Romano-Persian relations, while on pp.28-9 we read of a recapture of Antioch by Heraclius in 634; the correct date is 628.

Chapter 3 is entitled “The Princely States: Near Eastern kingdoms under Roman protection”. In it Ball surveys the various kingdoms of the region, including those of the Arabs, Nabataeans, Emesenes, Jews and others. Ball emphasises their influence on the Romans as well as the Arab nature of all of them (save the Jews). The chapter offers brief narratives concerning the kingdoms, often with little reference to secondary material, and a consideration of their impact on the Romans. In the case of Emesa, Ball stresses the impact of the cult of the Sun god at Rome under Elagabalus, as well as making the interesting suggestion that the temple complex at Baalbek/Heliopolis should be identified with the temple of the Emesene Sun-god (pp.37-47). Ball then turns to the Jews, offering an account of Jewish relations with Rome up to the Jewish revolts in the first and second centuries. He underlines the links between the Jews and the Parthians but perhaps exaggerates the likelihood of support for the former coming from the latter: the Parthian king Vologaeses even offered Vespasian a force of cavalry to help crush the Jewish revolt (Tacitus, Hist. 4.51).6 Ball moves on to consider the Nabataeans, noting some interesting possible links between Nabataean and Iranian religion (p.68). His account of Palmyra tends towards the romantic, and he places too much reliance on certain primary sources (e.g. Zosimus); however, he rightly shies away from portraying Zenobia’s uprising as some sort of nationalistic revolt (pp.83-4). The remaining part of the chapter deals first with Edessa and then with the Arabs—the Tanukh and then the Ghassanids. His account of Mavia’s uprising (pp.98-100) rather overestimates its impact, while his narrative of sixth-century events (p.102) is confused. Ball also exaggerates the extent to which the Ghassanids were involved in the construction of Sergiopolis/Rasafa; certainly the site was an important pilgrimage centre, but it is hard to see on what grounds the construction of the cisterns (for instance) can be directly attributed to the Ghassanids (p.103).7

Chapter 4 is entitled “Rome East of the frontiers”. Ball considers both Roman military campaigns into Persian/Parthian territory (usually unsuccessful) as well as other means by which Romans penetrated eastwards—e.g. as prisoners of war or through trade. He contrasts the treatment of prisoners by the two powers: whereas the Romans had no general policy for captured prisoners, the Iranians “protected[ed] and encouraged[d] the separate identity and culture of their captives” (p.122)—rather a positive gloss on the mass deportation of peoples, some of whom, at least in the late sixth century, preferred to undertake a mass break-out to return to their homelands (Theophylact Simocatta III.5.1-7). But Ball’s downbeat assessment of Roman involvement in far eastern trade, whatever items may be turned up in India and elsewhere, is salutary, as is his attack upon exaggerated claims made for the Silk Route (pp.138-9). Here, ironically, Ball is in agreement with the scepticism of Fergus Millar in his recent paper “Caravan Cities: the Roman Near East and long-distance trade by land” in M. Austin, J. Harries and C. Smith, eds., Modus Operandi. Essays in honour of Geoffrey Rickman (London, 1998).

As has been noted above, chapters 5-7 form the core of the work. Chapter 5 considers “The Towns and Cities” of the Roman Near East. Here Ball is at pains to show how limited the Roman impact on the region was; it was, as he points out, a region with a long history of urbanism before the Romans (and Greeks) arrived (p.156). A survey of the various cities of the East, and in particular their lay-out, backs up his case. Ball is on firmer ground here in his attacks on Millar, e.g. in the case of Amman/Philadelphia (pp.191-3). Slips remain, however: Khusrau I Parviz ( sic) is said to have sacked Apamea in 540 (p.161). In fact, Apamea handed over much wealth to Khusro I (Anushirwan) in 540, but was not sacked until 573. More unsatisfactory is the section on “The Phoenician Coast” (pp.170-9), where problems of identity come to the fore. Here we find Josephus, Eusebius, Procopius, Ammianus, Libanius and Malalas (and others) appropriated to a rather dubious “Phoenician historiographical tradition”. Millar’s much more cautious exploration of what sort of Phoenician identity there may have been under the Romans must be preferred to Ball’s.8

Chapter 6 turns to “The Countryside”, where, as in chapter 5, Ball provides a wealth of illustrations. The chapter is largely devoted to the so-called “dead cities” of the Limestone Massif of Syria. To explain the growth and prosperity of these settlements in late antiquity, Ball argues for a shift from the cities to the countryside. His portrayal of late antique cities—badly built, filled with slums, and subject to mob rule (p.233)—is overdrawn, but the point is an interesting one. Here Ball is clearly aware of recent work, although he does not take it fully into account. Tate, cited by Ball, has noted that urban and rural expansion go together in the first to third centuries; hence there is no necessary opposition between the two.9 Concerning the expansion of the dead cities in the fifth and sixth centuries there is some confusion: Ball rightly sees a downturn in the sixth century, yet states that “there seems to be little evidence for substantial decline following the Iranian invasions of the 540s”. This leads him to the bizarre suggestion that the Sasanians “supported the local infrastructure” (p.231). Given that Ball has already described the massive deportations carried out by the Sasanians, it is unclear what sort of support is indicated: the withdrawal of massive amounts of labour, together with the destruction of cities and countryside, hardly seem to constitute support. Other explanations for the downturn should have been canvassed, such as those put forward by Tate—e.g. overpopulation, the effects of wars or greater taxation.10.

Chapter 7, “Imperial Veneer: Architecture and the resurgence of the East”, is the longest in the book—150 pages. In it Ball methodically goes through all the various types of building or monument which adorn the cities of the East, showing how much they owe to earlier constructions in the region (as opposed to Graeco-Roman models). Even in the case of certain features which would naturally be associated with the Greeks or Romans, such as grid-plan cities, he is able to find native precedents: the Phoenicians, he notes, used grid-plans in some of their cities in North Africa (p.248). Colonnaded streets, he argues, were the equivalent of the forums of the west, where they are very rarely found. In his section on defensive architecture, Ball argues less convincingly that the Romans acquired the idea and the techniques of building long walls (such as Hadrian’s Wall) from the East (p.315). Concerning temples, Ball is on firmer ground, arguing that their siting and design both owe far more to eastern traditions than to Graeco-Roman; and he is right to point out that the absence of Semitic inscriptions, e.g. at Baetocaece, should not obscure this point (pp.318-25). In the domain of Christian architecture, Ball concedes that churches tended to be built more in a western style (the basilica form) but argues that other ecclesiastical buildings, such as martyria, were more influenced by eastern forms (p.359). On occasion, Ball may overstress the influence of Iranian models (e.g. p.359, pp.390-4), but on such points art historians must be the arbiters.

In the eighth and final chapter, entitled “Transformation of an empire” Ball draws his threads together. Because the chapter is so wide in scope, inevitably Ball succumbs to the temptation to make sweeping generalisations and broad statements. He sees the Severan dynasty as being the key to the transformation of the Roman empire. To Julia Domna and her family in particular he assigns a prominent position (pp.405-7). The sections which follow are rather unsatisfactory: they describe the reigns of the Severan rulers in apologetic fashion, while offering judgements on individuals, such as Julia Domna being “not bad-looking” (p.411). The dynasty, presented as “Phoenicio-Syrian” (pp.415-16), is seen as marking the apogee of eastern power in the Roman empire. The problem of ethnic labels and identities is passed over entirely. Much is made of the introduction of the solar cult in Rome by Elagabalus (pp.412-13), interpreted by Ball as a visionary act by the young ruler anticipating the popularity of the cult under Aurelian. He fails to take into account, however, the extent to which the cult had been transformed already in Emesa and the way in which western preconceptions of what oriental cults were may have themselves influenced the workings of the cult, both at Emesa and at Rome.11 The spread of eastern influence is illustrated by the case of Lepcis Magna (pp.419-31), whose embellishment under Septimius Severus undoubtedly owed much to models from the Near East. The following section, concerning the diffusion of Christianity and the degree to which it was influenced by eastern religions, is rather too general and impressionistic: this is not Ball’s field of expertise (nor the reviewer’s), as he himself admits (p.490 n.153). Ball concludes the work by arguing for greater attention to be paid to the eastern character of the Near East: the region maintained its own character throughout the Roman occupation, he points out, and the epigraphic evidence is misleading (p.447).

In conclusion, Ball’s work is both stimulating and useful. In offering an account of the Near East from an archaeological and architectural standpoint, it fills a gap left by Millar’s Roman Near East. But it is written in a somewhat journalistic style and contains not a few basic errors of fact, not to mention typographical slips.12 Overblown and exaggerated statements are frequent: on the final page we read that Constantine founded Constantinople, leading the Romans “away from a crumbling, ramshackle Rome”—the same city which left Constantius II in awe in 357, twenty years after Constantine’s death (Ammianus Marcellinus XVI.10). At the same time, the author’s digressions (e.g. on a Nestorian priest visiting Edward I of England, p.135) and lively style will undoubtedly engage the interest of students. It is therefore a work which deserves a wide readership, but those new to the field must be warned to use it with care.


1. Cf. Millar, Roman Near East, pp.117-18 on Avidius Cassius and the question of his ethnicity.

2. Cf. OCD3, p.750.

3. Cf. Millar, Roman Near East, p.161.

4. See Greatrex, Rome and Persia at War, pp.15-16.

5. F.R. Trombley, “War and society in rural Syria, c.502-613 A.D.: observations on the epigraphy”, Byzantine and Modern Greek Studies 21 (1994), pp.154-209 at p.204.

6. On Josephus and the Parthians see now T. Rajak, “The Parthians in Josephus” in J. Wiesehöfer, ed., Das Partherreich und seine Zeugnisse (Stuttgart, 1998).

7. The important recent work of E. Key Fowden, The Barbarian Plain. St Sergius between Rome and Iran (Princeton, 1999), esp. ch.3 needs now to be taken into account. She is also doubtful about the identification of the building to the north of the site as a praetorium, ibid. pp.149-73.

8. Millar, Roman Near East, 8.4-5. Note esp. pp.277-8, where he is justifiably sceptical about the work of Philo of Byblus in which he claims to be translating a work of the much earlier historian Sanchuniathon of Berytus (accepted at face value by Ball, p.171, and seen as the precursor of the writers mentioned). The whole concept of Phoenician identity, even in their heyday, is a tricky one: their very name is a Graeco-Roman imposition. See A. Kuhrt, The Ancient Near East, c.3000-330 B.C., vol.2 (London, 1995), pp.402-3.

9. G. Tate, “Les campagnes de la Syrie du nord à l’époque proto-byzantine” in Hommes et richesses dans l’empire byzantin, vol.1 (Paris, 1989), p.73. Ball’s bibliography here may now be supplemented by C. Foss, “Syria in Transition, A.D. 550-750: An Archaeological Approach”, DOP 51 (1997), pp.189-269. While Ball shows himself to be aware of some recent guidebooks produced in Syria, he passes over the very useful one by A. Hadjar, tr. P.J. Amash, The Church of St Simeon the Stylite and other archaeological sites in the mountains of Simeon and Halaqa (Aleppo, no date, but post-1992). J. Balty’s contribution in the same volume as Tate’s, “Apamée au VIème siècle”, pp.83-4, makes clear that considerable work was undertaken at the city in late antiquity (despite Ball’s insistence on the decline of the cities).

10. Tate, art. cit., pp.75-6. Cf. Trombley, n.5 above, on the effects of the wars.

11. Cf. Millar, Roman Near East, pp.305-8.

12. Typographical errors, e.g. p.18, 10 lines up, “do” for “to”, p.403, line 12, “Kink” for “King”. Basic errors, e.g. Severus defeats the usurper Albinus in Britain (p.18; in fact, it was in Gaul), p.133, Ammianus Marcellinus placed in the third century. Footnote references are often rather cursory, e.g. at p.24 n.91, the note simply refers to Blockley 1992, rather than any particular passage in the work.