BMCR 2005.05.58

A Companion to the Ancient Near East. Blackwell Companions to the Ancient World

, A companion to the ancient Near East. Blackwell companions to the ancient world. Ancient history. Oxford: Blackwell Pub, 2005. 1 online resource (xix, 504 pages) : illustrations, maps.. ISBN 1405137398 $124.95.

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The Blackwell Companions to the Ancient World, of which three have so far been published, are divided in to two sections, “Ancient History” and “Literature and Culture”. While the volume under review is ascribed to Ancient History, it contains an entire Part devoted to Culture which includes a chapter on Literature. All other volumes in the series (listed on p.ii) are essentially concerned with the Greek and Roman worlds. This review will first address the concept of the Companion, followed by comment on the form of the volume and the selection of topics. Finally I will make some selective remarks that are intended to convey the flavour and quality of the essays. It will be understood that the broad range of subjects covered in the book make it impossible for this reviewer to treat every chapter equally, and any attempt to do so would be unfair to the authors.

To begin, I should say that I enjoyed reading this volume, learning much in the process. To review it has involved, therefore, a certain degree of self-indulgence in spending time reading about subjects that are often tangential to my own focus. It is doubtful if many professionals or students will read this tome from cover to cover, but many will find specific chapters of interest, both for insights into their own specialities and for challenging overviews of related fields. Students will find stimulating introductions to a wide range of subjects, not treated in encyclopaedias or dryer standard works such as the Cambridge Ancient Histories, on which to hone their own critical faculties.

Who is this Companion for? Publication of the entire series is, of course, a publishing venture with the result that the volumes are compiled principally for commercial reasons rather than academic ones. This must be a good thing in that it provides a vehicle by which academics can reach out to wider audiences, thereby offering opportunities to promote study of the ancient world. We should thus be grateful to the contributors for having taken the time and trouble to write these chapters and, more importantly, for sharing their thoughts and insights. The volume, according to the publisher’s blurb is “designed for an international audience of scholars, students and general readers”. It emerges that the intended readership is western in outlook. This emphasis is made clear in the last Part, “Heritage of the Ancient Near East” which might have been better titled “Western Heritage of the Ancient Near East”. Here several contributors specifically address problems associated with an understanding of the Ancient Near East from modern western perspectives. This focus is articulated in Steven J. Garfinkle’s interesting chapter on “Public versus Private in the Ancient Near East” in which the modern Western distinctions between public and private aspects of economy are shown to be inappropriate for understanding the Ancient Near East. One wonders whether readers in much of the Middle East today would find similar differences. Little of this book is intended for a Middle Eastern audience, some of which might learn as much about western attitudes to the Ancient Near East as about the Ancient Near East itself.

This is not a “Companion” to a specific book. In addition to the recommendations made by the editor, most readers would find an atlas of the Ancient Near East a helpful, if not a necessary, accompaniment.

Let us consider the contents. The volume is divided into five Parts of equal length: I The Shape of the Ancient Near East, II Discourses on Methods, III Economy and Society, IV Culture, V Heritage of the Ancient Near East. There is a collective bibliography that runs to 58 pages, in addition to, and perhaps more usefully for a general audience, recommendations for further reading at the end of each chapter. The volume, as its title and the parts suggest, approaches the Ancient Near East from an historical (rather than an archaeological) perspective with heavy reliance on ancient written sources. Illustrations, two inadequate maps aside, are restricted to the chapters that deal with architecture, three plans, and art, eleven pictures. There are a total of 32 chapters written by 30 authors. The editor, Daniel C. Snell, has himself contributed three, including the final short overview, and co-authored a fourth. The Ancient Near East is taken to focus on Mesopotamia and adjacent regions, including Iran and Anatolia, it firmly embraces Egypt while Greece and the Aegean get the occasional mention. This is a traditional, broad and diverse geographical sweep. Chronologically, the range extends from Neolithic to Roman times. An underlying assumption is that a unity exists above this diversity which is not only comprehensible but is an useful and stimulating, not to say brave, approach. The subjects of the individual chapters might not, however, convince the newcomer that such unity over time and space is real. Justification is claimed by the editor on the grounds that the West has traditionally had a good understanding of an Ancient Near East, and, in a brief final chapter, he highlights some parts of the Ancient Near Eastern legacy that have influenced the Western world.

The editor must have had great difficulty in deciding what topics to include, and what to leave aside. The volume’s emphasis is on society and culture rather than on history. Chronological difficulties, thankfully, get hardly a mention. The final choice of subjects would have been not unrelated to which potential contributors agreed to write, as well as who declined. Each chapter is of very similar length, indicative of strict word limits of around 15 pages imposed on contributors. Further, each chapter is subdivided into sections, generally of convenient coffee-break size. Doubtless the editor had to exercise a firm hand in the attainment of such conformity.

The results are somewhat mixed. Egypt, for example, gets only one chapter to itself; and that, by Ann Macy Roth, is on “Gender Roles”. Sally Dunham’s chapter on Ancient Near Eastern Architecture excludes Egypt while Ancient Near Eastern art is reduced to one chapter restricted to Mesopotamia. Gary Beckmen’s fascinating chapter on “How Religion Was Done” makes the claim that everyday Hittite practices can be taken to represent those of the entire Ancient Near East, (with the exclusion of Egypt). The task of writing definitively on the Art, Architecture, Languages, Religion, or any of the other 32 Ancient Near Eastern topics found between these covers in a mere 15 pages required both courage and academic discipline.

In the opening chapter of the first part, “Historical Overview”, Mario Liverani provides a masterful summary from what he continues to call the “Urban Revolution” down to c. 330 BCE. The earlier period, “From Sedentism to States, 10.000-3000 BCE” by Augusta McMahon is, perhaps oddly, placed second. There follows “The Age of Empires, 3100-900 BCE” by Mark Chavalas and “World Hegemony, 900-300 BCE by Paul-Alain Beaulieu.

The specialist who might expect that Part II, “Discourses on Methods”, would contain up-to-date overviews of theoretical approaches will not be fully satisfied. Marie-Henriette Gates, in “Archaeology and the Ancient Near East: Methods and Limits”, documents what she sees as a growing division between archaeology and history, ending with a well-timed plea for their reunification. Gonzalo Rubio’s chapter on ancient languages is somewhat unbalanced in its coverage and descriptive in its approach. The editor concludes the section with a contribution on “The Historian’s Task” which, incidentally, provided him with an opportunity to explain his approach for the entire volume.

Part III, “Economy and Society” is the longest, with chapters on “The Degradation of the Ancient Near Eastern Environment” by Carlos E. Cordova, “Nomadism Through the Ages” by Jorge Silva Castillo, “Mesopotamian Cities and Countryside” by Elizabeth C. Stone, “Money and Trade” by Christopher M. Monroe, “Working” by Davis A. Warburton, “Law and Practice” by Bruce Wells, “Social Tensions in the Ancient Near East” by John F. Robertson, “Gender Roles in Ancient Egypt” by Ann Macy Roth, “Royal Women and the Exercise of Power in the Ancient Near East” by Sarah C. Melville, and “Warfare in Ancient Egypt” by Anthony J. Spalinger. Part IV, only a little shorter, is devoted to Culture: “Transmission of Knowledge” by Benjamin R. Foster and “Literature” by Tawny L. Holm. Then follow chapters on Mesopotamian Architecture, Art, Medicine, Cosmology, Divine and Non-Divine Kinship, and the practice of religion by Sally Dunham, Marian H. Feldman, JoAnn Scurlock, Francesca Rochberg, Philip Jones and Gary Beckman respectively. The coverage is uneven and the errors that have crept in must be the responsibility of the editor. One such error is the statement by Wells on p.184 that nine Law Codes are known, “seven in the form of cuneiform on clay and two from the Hebrew Bible”. Yet on pp.294-6 Feldman not only discusses but illustrates the famous stele of Hammurabi.

The final Part, “Heritage of the Ancient Near East” is perhaps the most challenging in that it takes on major themes that are of immense importance to the contemporary western world. Here the volume is at its most successful in that it makes a strong attempt to demonstrate relevance. Daniel C. Snell takes on a rarely discussed issue, “The Invention of the Individual”. Some might quarrel with the term “Invention” which it seems safe to assume the author has purposely chosen after considerable deliberation. It might be asked if the recognition (or “invention”) of the individual, whether or not it took place in either the Renaissance or the Enlightenment, has much to do with the place of the individual in the Ancient World. The core of the discussion, however, centres on the degree of separation between individuals and the groups to which they belong. Snell claims to perceive “a trend away from corporate punishment toward individual punishment” which he thinks “may have derived from the growth of the power of the state”. The second issue is that of individual self-consciousness, not least with relation to Ancient Near Eastern religious beliefs. One senses that Snell has more to say on these subjects, and we can hope for a fuller treatment in the future.

Henri Limet writes on “Ethnicity”. Some will be disappointed that discussion of this hot topic is restricted to Mesopotamia. In Limet’s view ethnicity is clearly linked to origins and is defined by both self-definition and definitions of others (who are seen as being different). Any relationship between “nationalism” and ethnicity is dismissed as belonging to the recent past and thus not relevant to study of the ancients. Place, religion and language are rightly seen as central elements of ethnic identities in this historian’s approach, which bypasses archaeological concerns about the relationships between material culture and ethnicity.

Garfinkle’s chapter on “Public versus Private”, already mentioned, concludes that the Ancient Near East was characterised by both institutional and non-institutional households and that growing tension between them cannot be directly compared with modern concepts of public versus private economies. This discussion restricts concepts of public and private to the economic sphere, ignoring such issues as public and private space and buildings, public and private expressions of worship, or other forms of public and private behaviour.

In “Democracy and Freedom” Matthew Martin III and Daniel C. Snell are concerned with the extent to which Ancient Near Eastern ideas about freedom, particularly individual freedom, have come down to us. Here there is some overlap with Snell’s earlier contribution on the individual. Despite their valiant effort, the authors have little success in convincing this reviewer, and perhaps themselves, that, with the special exception of the Hebrews, in this sphere the Ancient Near East has had significant or tangible influence on the modern world, as can be distinctly discerned in the overwhelming influence of ancient Greece.

“Monotheism and Ancient Israelite Religion”, by S. David Sperling, is the only chapter devoted to the Levant. Here we find a balanced and restrained view which makes an excellent starting point for newcomers to the subject while providing a useful overview for students in related fields. Doubtless some with deeply held beliefs will find cause for displeasure, but it is not they who are addressed.

Peter T. Daniels has written the liveliest chapter in this volume, “The Decipherment of the Ancient Near East”. If Sperling is rightly cautious, not to say diplomatic, Daniels has no fear of expressing his opinions; but of course far lesser passions are aroused by decipherment than by belief. Daniels concludes that the philologist’s role begins rather than ends with decipherment since the “main occupation is making sense of texts after they have been deciphered”.

In the final chapter, “Legacies of the Ancient Near East”, the editor presents “a hodge-podge, not necessarily making a coherent whole”. That succinctly sums up the entire volume under review.

[[For a response to this review by Gonzalo Rubio, please see BMCR 2005.06.19.]]