Margherita Facella’s goal in writing this book was to evaluate the historical sources related to the dynasty of Commagene in order to reconstruct its political history. In this goal she has succeeded, and she presents us with a synthesis that skillfully evaluates all literary and epigraphic sources touching on Commagene’s political history and the genealogy of the Orontid dynasty. While she quickly surveys the Hittite through Achaemenid history of the region, the focus of the book is on the fourth century BCE to 72 CE: from the formation of the dynasty to Rome’s permanent annexation of the kingdom. A planned second volume will present a numismatic study and synthesis of scattered evidence relating Commagene’s social and administrative structures.
Apart from her meticulous research into the literary and epigraphic material, what qualifies this book as providing scholarship an important step forward, is her skillful use of archaeological, numismatic, and visual evidence. While writing as a philologically trained historian, Facella provides the reader with an overview of the main lines of archaeological research in the course of evaluating and integrating this evidence into her study. This is particularly important since for the study of Commagene has long suffered from its past place as an outpost of Classical scholarship, hindered by an historical tradition over-reliant on textual sources and stunted by residue of an art historical tradition that could only view the artistic products of Commagene as megalomaniacal curiousities or barbarous departures from a ‘Winkelmann’ canon. While there have been numerous historical and archaeological contributions in the last fifty years that have contributed to this corrective, Facella’s book is the one that provides us with the necessary synthesis and, I believe, will make possible reappraisals in other disciplines as well.
The book is organized into eight chapters, with a short introduction, epilogue, and extensive indices. Chapter one (“La Commagene ritrovata”) provides an historiographical survey which traces the rediscovery of the history of kingdom from Cardinal Henry Noris’ 1689 publication of ‘Annus et Epochae Syromacedonum’ to the recent loss of Commagene’s capital Simocatta and an important portion of the kingdom’s archaeological record to the rising waters of the Euphrates and the South Eastern Anatolian Project (GAP). This historiographical account can stand on its own and could serve as a useful ‘case-study’ in a graduate level historiography class demonstrating how new streams of evidence, interpretive techniques and communities form and shape a topic. Facella takes us through the early numismatic studies to the early exploration of the site of Nemrud Dagi in the 19th century to the 20th century archaeological campaigns of Doerner, Goell and Hoepfner. However, given her book’s focus on political history, debates regarding the place of Commagene in Iranian religion, the development of Mithraism or the impact of stunning new archaeological discoveries such as that of rock-cut Mithraeums near the ancient city of Dolilche are outside the scope of the book and noted only in passing (A. Schütte-Maischatz, Doliche – eine kommagenische Stadt und ihre Götter. Mithras und Iupiter Dolichenus. Asia Minor Studien 52. Bonn: Habelt, 2004).
Chapters two and three (“Contesto geographica e definizione territoriale”) and (“Dai re neo-ittiti agli Achemenidi”) survey the geographical context and historical background of the region; both consider the main textual attestations of the extent of the kingdom, which she puts into dialogue with the relevant archaeological and epigraphic evidence. In chapters three and four (“Il satrapo Orontes”) Facella puts the epigraphic evidence from the hierothesion’s ‘ancestor steles’ into dialogue with the literary sources to reconstruct the place of Commagene in the Achaemenid satrapal system and to evaluae the claimed Orontid and Achaemenid ancestry.
The next four chapters form the core of the book: chapters five (“Gli Orontidi nell’Et di Alessandro e dei Seleucidi”), six (“Il regno di Commagene”), seven (“Antioco Theos”), and (“I successori di Antioco fra Roma e l’oriente”). In these chapters Facella traces the emergence of Commagene as a separate kingdom from the Seleucid empire and Arsacid Armenia, to the careful balancing act Antiochus I maintained between Rome and the Arsacids to its eventual incorporation into the Roman empire. Although she cautions the reader she that she does not intend to engage the artistic and religious developments surrounding Antiochus I’s hierothesia, Facella provides an overview of Antiochus I’s cult innovations and building projects (pp. 250-97) that gives the reader a survey of the scholarly debates that have arisen surrounding the phenomenon.
Although it was outside the scope of her project to tackle the problem of the religion of Commagene, her overview reflects scholarship’s general tilt towards archaeological and religious interpretations that stem from a Mediterranean perspective, due in part to the fact that, since 1979, there are simply many fewer researchers trained and working in ancient Iran. For example, section 6.7 Le ‘due radici’ (pp. 291-94), discounts the Iranian elements of Antiochus I’s religion by anachronistically checking it against ‘orthodox’ Zoroastrian doctrine (which only emerges with the Sasanians), and over-relying on Boyce’s History of Zoroastrianism to represent an essentialized and timeless ‘Zoroastrianism’ (taking for granted such idealist stereotypes as Zoroastrianism being an aniconic religion or abhorring a mixture of funerary and cultic contexts). From the point of view of Iranian studies, Antiochus I’ hierothesia were the product of the Middle Iranian religious and artistic world, rather than Achaemenid religion or late antique Zoroastrianism, and therein lies their true context, syncretic or not. Rather than a critique of the present work, this indicates that there is much to be done in this regard and historians of art and religion working in pre-Islamic Iran will have to step up to provide the necessary corrective.
In sum, due to its indices and bibliography alone, this book will be a welcome resource for students of the Hellenistic kingdoms, Rome and Pre-Islamic Iran. Facella’s writing style is clear and engaging (as much as a non-native speaker can judge). While its heavy annotation and length might initially scare off cash-strapped American publishing houses, a translation into English would be a boon to students interested in this cultural sphere as well as those of us who teach such classes. Since many North American publishers have severely cut back on illustrative material, one hesitates to critique Giardini, nevertheless the size and quality of the illustrations could be better. For a scholarly audience, the figures discharge their basic duties, functioning as sort of black and white ciphers which the scholar can fill in with recourse to his or her own photo archive or better illustrated publications (such as J. Wagner (ed.), Gottknige am Euphrat. Neue Ausgrabungen und Forschungen in Kommagene, Mainz 2000). For an introductory audience, they do not provide enough useful detail nor do justice to the sheer grandeur of the sites.
Such minor critiques aside, this book should be in the collection or acquisition lists of every research library and could be worth the personal investment for those of us who work in closely allied fields; with this auspicious beginning I look forward to Facella’s planned second volume.