BMCR 2005.06.21

Roman Syria and the Near East

, Roman Syria and the Near East. Los Angeles: J. Paul Getty Museum, 2003. 472 pages : illustrations (some color), maps ; 25 cm. ISBN 0892367156 $55.00.

In early May of 1920, the newly-appointed director of the Oriental Institute at the University of Chicago arrived at the ruins of Dura Europus, a small, fortified site overlooking the Euphrates in what is today eastern Syria. After the nearly three hundred mile automobile journey from Baghdad (which “occupied an entire week”), James Henry Breasted and his British hosts were relieved to reach their destination safely. Their efforts would be richly rewarded. A single day of excavation in one of the site’s numerous ruined temples produced extraordinary new evidence for the scope of Roman civilization in Syria. Beneath the sand covering the Temple of the Palmyrene Gods, Breasted’s team found a set of vivid inscribed frescoes: “To our surprise a small scene in which a Roman tribune was depicted at the head of his troops, engaged in the worship of what looked like three statues of Roman emperors painted on the wall. There was the tribune’s name written before him in Roman letters: ‘Julius Terrentius, tribune.'”1 Breasted and his British colleagues were surprised to find such explicit markers of Roman rule on the banks of the Middle Euphrates. Over the next fifteen years (1922-1937), the ruins at Dura would yield many more treasures to its French and then American excavators, sparking a dynamic new era in the study of the “Roman Orient.”

Scholarship on the Roman Near East has come a long way since the pioneering studies of Dura Europus and other “caravan cities” by Breasted, Franz Cumont, and Mikhail Rostovtzeff. The book reviewed here offers an excellent benchmark of that progress. Kevin Butcher’s Roman Syria and the Near East (hereafter, cited as RSNE) systematically surveys the history and archaeology of the Near East under Roman rule. Readers of BMCR may recall that Butcher is not the first to attempt such a synthesis in recent years. Major monographs by Benjamin Isaac (1990), Fergus Millar (1993), Warwick Ball (2000), and Maurice Sartre (2001) — to name only the most obvious — have likewise attempted to summarize and interpret the mass of empirical data now available for the region.2 Butcher, an archaeologist based at the American University in Beirut, is unusually well qualified to contribute to this burgeoning field. His comprehensive study complements and, in many respects, surpasses other recent overviews of the Roman Near East.

Butcher organizes his narrative in ten chapters divided into four parts. Part I, Grand Narratives (chaps. 1-2), surveys the political history of Roman power in Syria from Pompey’s annexations (64-63 BC) to the Arab victory at the Battle of Yarmuk (637 CE). Butcher keeps his narrative succinct and crisp by foregoing any detailed discussion of the primary sources or modern scholarship. By focusing on large-scale political history, especially relations between Rome and Persia, he reviews seven centuries of Roman history in less than fifty pages. His notes make clear, though, his enormous debt to his predecessors, not least Fergus Millar and Maurice Sartre. The most original observations in this section of the book often hinge on numismatics, a field in which Butcher has often published before. His account demonstrates, for example, that people on both sides of the Roman-Parthian border carefully monitored the ideological messages on coins.3 Fine black-and-white photographs illustrate other key points. For example, a panoramic view of the Roman bridge over the Cendere River in southeastern Turkey exemplifies the pattern of road construction, initiated under the Flavians, that would become one of the most visible and significant markers of Roman rule. Butcher’s photo shows, on either side of the bridge, the columns erected by the four chief cities of the province of Commagene; their Latin inscriptions proclaimed to all passing viewers the cities’ allegiance to the emperor Septimius Severus and his family. It would be difficult to find a more striking illustration of the infrastructure of Roman rule.

Part II, Organizing Space and Time (chaps. 3-4), describes the formation of Roman provincial government in the East. Chapter 3, “Political Entities,” opens with a series of five sketch maps, charting the evolution of provincial boundaries from Augustus to Justinian. Butcher’s account reminds us that the annexation of the eastern client kingdoms was a gradual, sporadic process, extending over two and a half centuries. The Romans’ promotion of “centralized, strongly hierarchical organizations” (p. 79), both during and after the annexations, strengthened urban centers throughout the region. To place these cities in perspective, Butcher juxtaposes on the same scale the defensive walls of the region’s ten leading cities and graphs the relative length of their principal colonnaded streets (figs. 28, 30). Such comparisons, in conjunction with the evidence from coins and epigraphy, highlight the constant efforts of local communities to assert their position in the “pecking order” of civic honor. Roman policies also bolstered a trend — already established under the Seleucids and the Herodians — for cities to act as epicenters for the propagation of Greek language and culture. Chapter 4, “Time and Motion,” underlines the challenges involved in uniting cities within a single administrative system. Roads not only had to be built, but also maintained against the forces of nature. Travel, under the best of circumstances, remained slow and laborious: a journey from Aleppo to the coast normally took three days, and a Roman official in the reign of Constantine needed eighteen days to travel from the eastern Egyptian Delta to Antioch (p. 131). Even after the imposition of Roman rule, regional cities maintained a bewildering variety of local customs, such as totally different names for the months. Butcher explains concisely and clearly the overlapping Greek, Roman, and Near Eastern calendars that co-existed down to the late Roman period.

Part III, Production and Consumption (chaps. 5-6), examines the economic foundations of the Roman Near East. Chapter 5 (“Exploiting the Available”) guides readers through the region’s many different foci of industrial and agricultural production, from the fish-sauce factories of the Phoenician coast to the olive presses of the interior. In each case, Butcher’s account provides vivid insights into everyday details of production (explaining, for example, how one procures purple dye from murex shells), without bogging down in the particularities of archaeological publication.4 The famous architectural remains of the “Dead Cities” region of North Syria are presented as evidence for the economic vitality of Antioch’s rural hinterland during the late Roman period. Recent studies in the Chalcide (in the eastern steppe) and the Hauran (in southern Syria) have documented a parallel pattern of vigorous rural expansion based on olive production, viticulture, and animal husbandry. The socio-economic unit at the heart of this expansion was the village, composed of independent farmers, “with no formal plans, no roads or streets,” and very few identifiable public buildings other than churches (p. 159). Chapter 6, “Portable Antiquities,” explores the circulation of commodities that linked villages to cities, and cities to other parts of the Roman Empire. Long-distance trade sharply increased under Roman rule, despite the absence of a universal currency and the high cost of transport — with land transport costing an estimated twenty-five to sixty times more than sea transport (p. 183). Butcher summarizes the evidence for the increased circulation of a wide range of goods, including pottery (amphorae, coarse and fine wares), glass, marble and other stones, textiles, and not least, coinage. Annotated bibliographies linked to each section provide excellent guidance for readers interested in particular types of products.

The book’s final section, part IV, The Construction of Communities, is its longest and most complex. It consists of four chapters (“Public Values,” “Impure Genres,” “the Pious World,” and “The Military.”) with over one hundred photos, diagrams, and maps. Butcher considers first the social and cultural underpinnings of urbanism in the Roman Near East: the different types of city, citizenship and urban finance, territorial boundaries, the symbolic representation of cities, urban plans and the dominant urban architectural forms (walls, colonnaded streets, agoras and other open spaces, and buildings for entertainment and assembly). While emphasizing the impact of Greco-Roman models, Butcher does not discount the deep roots of Near Eastern urbanism.5 Avoiding the simple dichotomies of some previous scholarship, he catalogues the “impure genres” created by the spread of Greco-Roman culture in the Near East. Here too, Butcher organizes his argument by typology, investigating the distinctive regional styles in tomb architecture, sculpture, mosaic, and (in one of his most innovative sections) modes of personal dress and adornment. His argument studiously avoids any simple equation of style with meaning. While modern scholars can parse the different cultural “influences” behind a particular piece of art, this process of dissection may tell us little about “what the whole meant to contemporaries” (p. 332). Roman rule clearly hastened the advance of Hellenism throughout the region. In both Judaea and Arabia, Greek became the dominant language of administration almost immediately after annexation. Aurelian’s capture of Palmyra in 272 precipitated a sharp decline in Semitic inscriptions both in the city and (although the chronology is less certain) the surrounding steppe (p. 275). The growing popularity of Hellenic forms certainly needs to be understood against the backdrop of Roman imperialism. On the other hand, it would be a mistake to argue, as some recent scholars have (see esp. Ball, Rome in the East), that Hellenism was essentially a “façade masking another reality” or an “influence that somehow contaminated the cultural ‘purity’ of traditional identities” ( RSNE, p. 332). The elasticity of Hellenism allowed for myriad variations, as local Near Eastern elites adopted and adapted its artistic conventions.

Indigenous Near Eastern traditions proved most resilient in the realm of religion. In chapter 9, “The Pious World,” Butcher emphasizes the fiercely local nature of ancient polytheism. Here again, numismatic evidence proves fundamental, since many Syrian cities continued to mint their own coins into the mid-third century. Ironically, these small bronze coins often provide our best evidence for the identity of the gods worshipped in the monumental temples built in their honor. The coins also illustrate the complex mix of indigenous and Hellenic traditions that shaped the articulation of civic piety. For example, the cities of Bostra, Emesa, and Seleucia Pieria (the port of Antioch) all issued coins depicting baetyls, i.e., a stone cult object representing a deity (figs. 156.1-3). But the gods depicted by these spherical or oblong stones are in each case different: Elagabal at Emesa, the Nabatean Dusares at Petra, and Zeus Casius at Seleucia (clearly labeled with a Greek inscription). Near Eastern cities may have emphasized the particularity of their gods, precisely because of the threat to local identity posed by the homogenizing effect of Hellenism. Butcher closes his account of polytheism with a long and valuable analysis of the great temple of Jupiter at Heliopolis (Baalbek in northern Lebanon). An awkward transition follows, as Butcher backtracks to sketch the history of Judaism and Christianity in the Roman East. His overview is, as ever, well researched and reliable, though not particularly original. He seems to find his own interpretative voice again when he turns to the topic of Christian architecture.

The book’s final chapter (chap. 10) surveys the role of the military in Roman Syria. Butcher’s account is lucid and efficient, identifying the central issues of recent scholarship on the Roman army without attempting to solve them all. He concedes that there are “few certain answers to the question of whether the Roman army can be credited as a key factor in the assimilation and ‘Romanization’ of Syria” (p. 405). His survey nevertheless shows how the abundant corpus of military documents, art, and architecture can be used to investigate the complex range of interactions between soldiers and civilians. The wall painting discovered by Breasted’s team at Dura Europus epitomizes the difficulty of interpreting this evidence. The painting shows the tribune Julius Terrentius, standing in front of two rows of soldiers, making sacrifice before the statues of three armed and haloed figures (fig. 189). Many scholars have identified these figures as the trio of Palmyrene deities, while others have argued, more plausibly in my view, that the statues represent the three emperors of the year 238 CE (Balbinus, Pupienus, and Gordian III). Significantly, RSNE comes to a stop, rather than a grand conclusion. Its brief epilogue describes, without drama or sentimentality, the Arab conquest of Syria during the late 630’s. Rather than mourning the ‘end of Classical civilization’ in Syria, Butcher looks forward to the emergence of “a new and confident culture” under the Umayyads who “inherited and shaped as their own” the legacy of the Roman Near East (p. 426).

In sum, RSNE is a first-rate synthesis that will interest anyone concerned with the history, archaeology, and art history of the Roman Near East. This reviewer and his students found it more readable than Fergus Millar’s Roman Near East, and much sounder in its methodology than Warwick Ball’s Rome in the East. Although inappropriate for most undergraduate courses, the book’s density and richness make it an invaluable resource for research and graduate instruction. The book has only a few drawbacks. Its dual system of annotation is unnecessary and confusing; the diligent reader will find the bibliography he needs in the keyword-coded endnotes, but the references are not always as precise as one would like. Readers searching for firm opinions on recent debates may also come away frustrated. After delineating the issues on particular topics, Butcher not infrequently declines to endorse one interpretation over another.6 The sheer size of RSNE also makes it a bit cumbersome to navigate. A shorter version might well have had a greater impact on the field.

These criticisms are, however, minor relative to the overall significance of Butcher’s accomplishment. The book’s publishers are to be commended for allowing Butcher to include so many illustrations, including superb historical maps, architectural diagrams, and a stunning set of color photographs. As suggested above, these images — particularly Butcher’s photographs of regional landscapes and architecture — form an essential complement to his historical narrative. His photographs of Dura Europus, Palmyra, and the “Dead Cities” (among many others) not only testify to the enormous progress of Near Eastern archaeology since the First World War, but also underscore the promise of what remains to be done.


1. James Henry Breasted, Oriental Forerunners of Byzantine Painting. First-Century Wall Painting from the Fortress of Dura on the Middle Euphrates (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1924), 54. For the context of Breasted’s work, see Clark Hopkins, The Discovery of Dura-Europos (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1979), 1-6; and the more critical account by Annabel Jane Wharton, Refiguring the Post Classical City: Dura Europos, Jerash, Jerusalem, and Ravenna (Cambridge/New York/Melbourne: Cambridge University Press, 1995), 15-18, 20-22, 35-38.

2. Benjamin H. Isaac, The Limits of Empire: The Roman Army in the East (Oxford: Clarendon Press; New York: Oxford University Press, 1990), reviewed by D. S. Potter (BMCR 1990.01.12); Fergus Millar, The Roman Near East 31 BC-AD 337 (Cambridge, MA and London: Harvard University Press, 1993), reviewed by Tony Keen (BMCR 1994.05.17); Warwick Ball, Rome in the East. The Transformation of an Empire (London: Routledge, 2000), reviewed by Geoffrey Greatrex (BMCR 2001.08.32). See also Maurice Sartre’s magisterial, 1200-page survey of the Seleucid and Roman Near East, D’Alexandre à Zénobie: Histoire du Levant antique, Ive siècle av. J.-C. – IIIe siècle ap. J.-C. (Paris: Fayard, 2001). An English translation will be published later this summer.

3. Butcher notes, e.g., that “late Seleucid coins and Roman imitations of them appear to have circulated in Parthian Mesopotamia alongside Parthian coins down to the very end of Parthian rule, while their counterparts with portraits of Roman emperors did not” (p. 35). See, on a similar note, p. 37 on the revised dating system used on the civic coins of Antioch and Apamea during the period of Parthian occupation.

4. Butcher, RSNE, 137-38, 171-74, with diagrams of the different types of olive press at figs. 65-7. The chapter also includes brief discussions of Roman building materials and techniques, mining, and timber extraction documented in the “remarkable series of 200 Latin inscriptions cut into the faces of the exposed rock outcrops across the Lebanon range” (p. 178).

5. The layout of the Roman colony of Berytus, for instance, appears to preserve the rectilinear pattern of the underlying Bronze Age city. As Butcher dryly observes, “[T]here is nothing particularly Greek about the grid” (p. 240). Cf. Ball, Rome in the East (n. 2 above), who celebrates every such instance as evidence for the precedence of “Eastern” architectural designs.

6. See, e.g., RSNE, pp. 277-78 on the impact of Hellenism in rural Syria; or p. 347 on the question of whether veterans or locals were chiefly responsible for crafting the syncretistic cult of Jupiter Optimus Maximus Heliopolitanus.