BMCR 2005.02.45

Roman Berytus: Beirut in Late Antiquity

, Roman Berytus : Beirut in late antiquity. London and New York: Routledge, 2004. 1 online resource (xxiii, 375 pages) : illustrations, map. ISBN 0203499077 $95.00.

Proponents of the para-religious doctrine of intelligent design seem to me to overrate significantly the intelligence at work in shaping our world, giving preference to a creator who shares important characteristics with Rube Goldberg. A genuinely intelligently designed planet, for example, quite apart from offering less comically inefficient modes of mammalian reproduction than we now have, would have given us more places like Beirut. The number of places on the planet with great harbors and great hinterlands, the two great conditions predisposing to prosperity and peace, can be counted on uncomfortably few fingers. In the western Mediterranean, Carthage is very nearly alone, while in the east, the concentration around what used to be thought of as the Levant is a fact of continuing historical importance. But if Alexandria, Caesarea, Tyre, Antioch, Smyrna, Ephesus, and Byzantium all had their advantages, none had quite the combination of beauties that Beirut could offer: a spectacular site, a natural harbor lending itself to artificial enhancement, enough good land nearby to feed itself, and access to trade routes that could send and receive commodities of high value.

Linda Jones Hall offers in 180 pages of narrative and an equal body of annotation, appendix, and bibliography a serviceable and workmanlike survey of Beirut’s development and place in the late antique world. The emphasis falls on the years between the Severans (whose Syrian patriotism made them patrons of “Romanization” in that part of the world) and Heraclius, thus roughly 400 years, the time during which Beirut was the home of the most distinguished traditions of legal scholarship and education to exist outside the capital cities of Rome and Constantinople. The Greek rhetorician Libanius in the fourth century CE, who could surely have been a somebody in the dog-eat-dog trade of empire had he chosen to be, sniffed instead at the vulgar professionalism of the Beirut students and their devotion to what was only the second most elegant language in the Mediterranean world. But that legal prestige, combined with advantages for trade (moving goods back and forth across the water and into Syria and beyond) and tourism (capitalizing on its position on the coast road that led increasing numbers of tourists to lands they thought holy), made Beirut prosperous and distinctive and long-lived. Had it not suffered the disastrous earthquake of 551, from which late sixth-century rebuilding efforts seem to have evoked only a shadow of its former self, it might well have persisted as a place of economic and social power even under new post-classical regimes.

As it turned out, it was not until a more modern set of forces brought the Eurasian northwest and southeast into contact again that Beirut in the last century became a cosmopolitan point of prosperity and interchange. The disasters of the 1970s had as gruesome an effect as the earthquake of 551, but the rebuilding of the city continues apace and post-9/11 forces are giving it new lease on life as a point of cultural contacts. The modern history and its interruptions mean that the bulk of the most substantial scholarship on the city and its history is Francophone, especially the work of J.-P. Rey-Coquais, but it is worth reporting that the city and country are indeed now again destinations for the prudent and studious traveler. (The great site of ancient Heliopolis, modern Baalbek in the Beqaa Valley, is a trickier business and needs to be approached prudently with an exact eye to current political and military events, but richly repays the classical traveler — this reviewer on the right in this image.)

Hall’s book integrates and synthesizes generations of scholarship without offering fresh primary source material. It is dependent on a limited body of textual sources, in particular, some of which recur often enough to distract, such as Zacharias of Mytilene’s Life of Severus, the 6th century zealot who made the Monophysite brand of Christianity into a functioning church of its own, an achievement still visible today in that part of the world. Jones has collected and arranged the knowable about ancient Beirut with assiduity and care and the book is well-arranged for the scholar who would consult it and accessible for the one who would read it straight through.

The book falls into two parts, in support of Hall’s preferred interpretative framework, of which more below. Opening chapters on the geographical setting (a single map shows Beirut and the cities and roads of the Levant, but an additional map showing the local geography would have been very welcome) and economic base are followed by a series of historical sketches: first, of the political position of Beirut in the Roman world from its establishment as a colonia (on the base of a long-settled Phoenician and Hellenistic community) under Augustus to its advance to full urban status under the Severans; second, a study of what can be known of the history of the physical fabric (“the built environment” Hall calls it) of the city; and third, the history of the provincial organization of Syrian and Phoenician communities in late antiquity. Four further chapters contain what Hall regards as the heart of the book’s contribution, an analysis of the “self-identification” of Beirut natives according to (1) the ‘paganism’ of many, (2) the ‘Christianity’ of others, (3) the participation in the legal community of practice and education of some, and (4) the work and status of the artisan community. What is notably missing is any successful attempt to capture the overall social configuration of the community, a task made more difficult (undoubtedly) by the nature and limits of the surviving evidence. We know almost nothing of the local curia and thus almost nothing of how it responded to the changes that overcame late antique cities in the fifth and sixth centuries. What is distinctive about Beirut, indeed, is that the importance of trade (constant in the place from Phoenician times forward) has the effect of making the city less “typical” of Roman cities in that it does not offer a story of landowners who become city aristocrats and dominate the city by their base in the country; nor again did the city depend on soldiers and courtiers. It is striking that we know so few names of local aristocrats over time and that the names of powerful individuals associated with the city are often not clearly associated with a Beirut upbringing. The telos of the story of any late antique city is the movement to domination by Christian bishops, who might stay around for twenty years, and the increasing interference of Constantinople manifested through imperial appointees who would come and go on short terms. What is missing in the case of Beirut is a baseline of what the society was like in a presumed status quo ante time of local aristocracy and power. Though at one point Hall suggests she will point forwards to the further transmogrification of the city under Islamic domination, that promise remains unfulfilled.

The material in these chapters is sometimes redundant (as when the same anecdotes from the same saints’ lives recur in different contexts) and offers rather a series of vignettes than a connected narrative. The generous use of sub-headings and a good index assist the reader in navigating the material, but the touch is never particularly light and it is good that the continuous narrative has been kept moderate in scope, then abundantly annotated. Some topics are summarized in a few words that turn out to be simplifications of the contributions of other scholars (e.g., Lane Fox, Momigliano and Brown), so it is important to track topics of interest through the notes to be sure of the base on which the text’s summaries are erected. The popularity of Aphrodite and the beauties of some artistic remains “certainly reflects a world not yet obsessed by revulsion toward physical desire”, she says, footnoting there “Brown (1988)”, which is a mightily schematic way to dismiss Peter Brown’s Body and Society and the nuances of its evidence and argument.

Hall’s chief interpretative instrument is not sufficiently well-examined or expressed to be persuasive. She focuses her interest on what she speaks of as the “self-identification” (and in at least one place the “self-identity”) of the peoples of Beirut. This explains her attention to ‘pagans’, Christians, lawyers, and artisans, but also allows a fair amount of schematic mention of Syrians, Phoenicians, Hellenes, and Romans. This is an area where attention to what sober historians often dismiss as “theory” would be helpful, though at least Hall might have hoped for the good fortune to have seen Benjamin Isaac’s The Invention of Racism in Classical Antiquity (Princeton 2004) before she wrote. In general, her interpretation assumes too much essentialism (that is, if you write Syriac, you thereby embody a strongly held and easily characterized non-Roman identity) and too much unilateralism (a Greek is a Greek, a purple-dyer is a purple-dyer, and never the twain do meet, intermarry, or carry multiple identities and cultural allegiances around at the same time). She can point to a family in which a silk-maker named Samuel has a son named Candidus, thus a Jewish family with a Latin name engaged in a fundamental local trade, but simply points to it and moves on. In matters of religion, she can tell the difference easily between ‘pagans’, Christians (some of whom are ‘orthodox’), and Jews, which puts her at an advantage over a great many of the people of whom she writes.

The great virtue of this book is indeed that it does not force-fit evidence to interpretation, and so it is more than possible to suspend judgment on the interpretative argument I have sketched here, or even to reject it, and still find much of value in the book. The richness of eastern Mediterranean life in late antiquity comes through on almost every page, well and sometimes vividly presented. The author’s vision has succeeded in capturing a domain of historical experience and rendering it accessible to scholarly readers concisely and clearly.