BMCR 2007.12.15

Barbarische Bürger: Die Isaurier und das Römische Reich

, Barbarische Bürger : die Isaurier und das Römische Reich. Millennium-Studien ; Bd. 8. Berlin and New York: De Gruyter, 2005. xii, 411 pages : illustrations ; 25 cm.. ISBN 3110188996. €72.90.

The title of this work would probably have made most Romans happy, though it might not have been as well received in Isauria. Isaurians certainly had a bad reputation in antiquity and the fifth century historian Zosimus (1.69) mentioned a certain ‘Lydius of Isaurian birth, having been raised in the habitual banditry’. Even though they were the bad lads of southern Anatolia there are paradoxes to be explained and the central question for Feld (p. 1) is how Isaurian bandits could threaten Jerusalem at the start of the fifth century and provide an emperor at the end. Other paradoxes include the spectacular site of Alahan (once described by Forsyth as ‘a Christian Delphi’) which lies in the middle of Isauria, Basil of Seleucia (the provincial capital) whose works grace the pages of the Patrologia Graeca, and bishop John of Claudiopolis who was sent off by Justinian to Rome in the sixth century as an imperial agent. So the Isaurians were as good builders, Christians, and Romans as they were bandits. They have been the focus of plenty of articles but no books until now. Feld’s book covers four major eras of Isaurian interaction with Rome: banditry during the Roman Republic, the creation of the Roman province, the era of what he terms the ‘great raids’ in the late third and fourth centuries, and lastly the period of Isaurian power in the late fifth century when one of their number, Zeno, became emperor. There are appendices on fourth and fifth century governors, and on Isaurian raids. As the title suggests, this is very much a work of traditional political, administrative, and military history. Feld covers all the major events in appropriate detail, with full citation of primary and secondary sources, and has written a solid introduction to Isauria and its relationship to the Roman Empire.

Feld’s approach to the relationship between the Isaurians and the Empire is perhaps best characterised by the section on Romanization of Isauria (102-118). If we are to understand ancient Isauria, a remote and difficult region even now, then the questions of the impact of the Roman state on it is surely worth discussing. Here, Feld avoids theory (though is well aware of recent work (103n7)) and concentrates instead on traditional indices of roads, veterans, and urbanisation. Similar conservatism comes with the suggestion of a lack of indigenous names (38) in the fifth century. This may be in part the result of the small number of late antique inscriptions, but it also depends on assumptions like Zeno being a Greek name. However, like Conon and Longinus, Zeno seems to be especially common in Cilicia and Isauria, suggesting it is a Greek version of a local name, not an adopted Greek name. The work thus makes an interesting contrast to other approaches, e.g. recent work on late Roman Cappadocia by Raymond Van Dam with a much greater stress on the role of religion, on the Balkans and Italy in the sixth century by Patrick Amory with more emphasis on the role of politics in ethnicity, or on Roman Anatolia by Stephen Mitchell, with a much greater use of archaeological evidence.

Defining Isauria was and is difficult as the constant restructuring of Roman administrative units shows (72-101). Feld provides a clear statement of what the primary evidence says. More maps might have helped following the description (and the only map unfortunately has no contours). Unpacking this complexity depends on balancing many contradictory pieces of evidence. As an example, the identification of cities in the Isaurian Decapolis (28-32) is a tricky topic and the identity of Titiopolis as Kalin Ören, Domitiopolis as Katranli, Neapolis as Güneyyurt and Dalisandus as Sinabic, could all be contested. These identifications often have significant consequences. Feld (like others) suggests that Sapor in 260 went up the Calycadnus valley as far as Lycaonia (121), though this interpretation needs to be set against the Persian king’s failure to mention the destruction of other cities in the Calycadnus Valley. Sapor did claim to have sacked Domitiopolis, but where was it? Feld suggests that it was at Katranli (29). Since Sapor could only have reached Katranli via Germanicopolis or Claudiopolis, we must either believe that Domitiopolis may not be at Katranli or both that his army bypassed these cities and that he did not claim to have sacked them. Resolving these sorts of complexities would be much easier with maps. Germanicopolis itself is described both as being founded as a veteran colony under Tiberius (104 and 149) and as a foundation of Antiochus IV of Commagene (28, 80) although there is no evidence presented for it being a Roman colony. Most of these debates are acknowledged in the notes, but the text tends towards traditional readings. The Latin phrase ‘Cilicia aspera’ is several times used to describe geographical areas (75, 80, 65n57) although this phrase was not used in antiquity. The Greek Kilikia Tracheia was used, but turning it into Latin creates false ideas of how the Romans saw their world.

Chapter Four focuses on the Isaurian raids of the late third and fourth century, a topic well (if not exhaustively) covered by others. Feld covers the causes of Isaurian banditry in detail, suggesting it was the result of an interaction of political and economic factors (206). The discussion prompts the questions about whether Isauria was really different from anywhere else in the empire. Similarly the suggestion of profound changes between the early and the late Empire (200-206) could be carried through further. An interesting question is how much this is an artefact of the sources and how much reality. What conditions would have led to more banditry in the fourth century. Rougé had great problems with Isaurian behaviour in the fourth century, and suggested ( REA 68 1966, 301) that they were autonomous. Rougé’s concentration on banditry ignores other evidence such as the epigraphy, urban development, trade and exchange, bishops, which locate the region firmly in the empire. Feld thus rejects this proposal as ‘radical’ (102, n3) (though he seems more sympathetic at 149). There is also the identity issue. Just as in the first century BC all eastern Mediterranean pirates become Cilicians, so in late antiquity all Taurus bandits become Isaurians. Feld sometimes falls prey to the over-interpretation of his sources. Malalas (13.38) describes the Isaurian Balbinus attacking ‘the city of Anazarbus, Eirenopolis, and Castabala, cities of Cilicia’ which become in Feld’s text the ‘Isaurian and Cilician cities’ (154 and n72). Although there were two Eirenopoleis, one in the province of Cilicia II and one in Isauria, for Balbinus to be anything except an east Cilician bandit seems unlikely. Like the discussion of a third century inscription from the village of Ovacik in Pisidia (134-136), the relationship of this event to Isauria would be clearer with more maps. The same vagueness applies to the raiders of 354, described by Ammianus as attacking in turn Side, Laranda, and then Anemurium (141), an interpretation favoured by other commentators though at odds with the reality of the Taurus. A similar optimism applies to the raids of 404-405 (169-170), Feld’s starting incident. Jerome claimed (Ep. 114) that the Isaurian raiders threatened Jerusalem, Phoenicia, and Galilee. The lack of mention of any Isaurians south of the Amanus in other sources is more likely the result of Jerome’s hyperbole rather than an unprecedented raid on Palestine. John Chrysostom, who did suffer from these same bandits, seems less moved. And as with Balbinus, it seems likely that this particular group of ‘Isaurians’ came out of the Amanus, not out of Isauria.

The fifth and last chapter concentrates on fifth century power struggles. Here the book is driven by the reign of Zeno, and is divided into domestic problems, religion, and foreign policy. The result is much more about Zeno the emperor than about Zeno the Isaurian. The prosopography is sometimes very confident, e.g. an Aetius mentioned by John of Antioch fr. 211.4 is identified with an Aetius buried at Corycus ( MAMA 3.511) based only on their names (261). Isaurian nationalism is fully dealt with, but there is no detailed discussion of ethnicity, for example, despite the enormous recent literature. This is especially unfortunate with respect to the closing sections of the work when Feld appears to lose interest after the reign of Anastasius, covering this in a few pages. Having spent much time talking about how much impact they had during the reign of Zeno and twice quoting Schwartz on how the capital had had its fill of Isaurians, it would have been interesting to see how they adjusted to the sixth century. Their role in the army is acknowledged (340-341), but the ecclesiastical material, covered fully under Zeno, is now ignored so the letters of Severus of Antioch are not exploited and we do not get to hear of the engaging Musonius of Meloe.1

It would be a pity, however, if my focus on minutiae obscured the numerous points of wider interest. One of the major challenges to a modern understanding of Roman Isauria is the lack of archaeological work. Until the 1990s, Isauria was known only from some excavations and epigraphic safaris. Since then, two large surveys (Rough Cilicia, Göksu), and a host of excavations (Kilise Tepe, Nagidos, Kelenderis) and smaller surveys, have added to our knowledge. Feld has a good knowledge of the older archaeological material, but in the future some of his conclusions will need to be modified as more archaeology is published. As one example, from dated inscriptions we know of a group of mid-late fourth century constructions (Anemurium, Isaurian Eirenopolis, Antiochia, and Corasium) (155-159), but it would be worth considering how these relate to other fortifications which cannot be as closely dated, e.g. the walls at Corycus, Sebaste, Diocaesarea, Dagpazari, and the newly discovered urban settlement at Alahan (Elton et al. JRA 19, 2006).

In conclusion, this is a solid collection of primary and secondary material concerning the relationship of the Isaurians to the Roman Empire between the first century BC and the early sixth century AD. Feld’s starting question of how Isauria could provide both bandits and an emperor provides a strong framework for this clearly focussed analysis.


1. Frend, W.H.C., ‘Isauria. Severus of Antioch’s problem-child, 512-518’, Überlieferungsgeschichtliche Untersuchungen, ed. Paschke, F., (Berlin, 1981), 209-216; Elton, H.W., ‘Ecclesiastical Politics in Late Antique Isauria’, Wolf Liebeschuetz Reflected: Essays presented by Colleagues, Friends, and Pupils, eds. J.F. Drinkwater and B. Salway, (London, Institute of Classical Studies, 2007), BICS Supp. 91, 77-85.