BMCR 2020.11.35

Baalbek-Heliopolis, the Bekaa, and Berytus from 100 BCE to 400 CE: a landscape transformed

, Baalbek-Heliopolis, the Bekaa, and Berytus from 100 BCE to 400 CE: a landscape transformed. Mnemosyne supplements. History and archaeology of classical antiquity, volume 426. Leiden: Brill, 2019. Pp. xiv, 343. ISBN 9789004400580 €160,00.

The book offers a valuable overview of the history and archaeology of Berytus (modern Beirut) and the northern Bekaa, which in the Roman imperial period formed the Colonia Iulia Augusta Felix Berytus. Its sub-centre Heliopolis (Baalbek) was later separated from Berytus as an independent colonia in AD 194. The chronological frame spans from the late Hellenistic period when the area was dominated by the declining Seleukid Empire, with small kingdoms like Judaea, Emesa, and—for the area studied—the Ituraean tetrarchy emerging. After the conquest of Pompey these became client kingdoms and subsequently part of the Roman provincia Syria. The end date AD 400 was chosen in order to separate the study from the book of Linda Jones Hall, Roman Berytus. Beirut in Late Antiquity (London 2004).

Simone Eid Paturel discusses her topic along the leading question defined in the first, introductory chapter: was the establishment of the Roman colony Berytus in 15 BC an intrusion of Latin culture into the Near East? In the second chapter she describes the research history and methods. The research history is almost comprehensive, but some important works are missing, including Robert Fleischer’s Artemis von Ephesos und verwandte Kultstatuen aus Anatolien und Syrien (Leiden 1973), which provides fundamental conclusions on the cult images of the Heliopolitan gods. Apart from that, the bibliography ends in 2016, so that recent publications on the sanctuary of Jupiter Heliopolitanus in Baalbek along with those on a domestic insula and the hippodrome in Berytus are missing.[1] For literary sources, she mentions Flavius Josephus as the most important one, which doubtless is true—yet Josephus deserves a more critical view. Most of his text cannot be controlled by other sources, and it is obvious that he interpreted events and facts with bias in order to fit his view of the history of Judaea.

For the methodology, Paturel discusses various approaches to ancient religion, settling on one that draws on recent post-processual archaeological theory. This part contains some misunderstandings of ancient religion, which is implicitly discussed from the view of modern monotheistic book religions. For example, the author uses “religion” and “cult” as interchangeable terms (p. 35). As a second method she uses landscape archaeology.

The third chapter opens the discussion of the history of the pre-Roman period in the area of study. The author focusses on the Ituraean principality which ruled over the Bekaa since the early first century BC with Chalkis (Mejdel Anjar?) as its capital. Ituraea became a client kingdom of Rome after Pompey’s conquest in 64 BC and may at times have included the Phoenician cities along the coast. The fourth chapter gives an overview on pre-Roman Berytus. Here a crucial question is whether Strabo’s (16.2.18-20) description of the heavy destruction of Berytus by Tryphon in 140 BC is historically correct, especially the statement that it was only reconstructed under the Romans with the foundation of the colonia in 15 BC, which would imply a hiatus of more than a century. The archaeological evidence from Beirut yet shows more of a continuity, although this topic still needs more research.

Berytus then became the only certain colony of Roman veterans settled in the East. It was exceptional for its enormous size, including the mountains above Berytus and the northern Bekaa down to Heliopolis-Baalbek. According to Paturel, the reason for this exceptional creation was that the Ituraeans were not reliable as client kings but were perceived as bandits. Therefore, the Romans deposed the Ituraean tetrach Zeonodoros in 24/23 BC and used most of his territory for the creation of the colonia. The colonia Berytus thus initially had the main scope of controlling and securing the formerly Ituraean area.

The fifth chapter is devoted to pre-Roman Baalbek and the Bekaa. For Baalbek, in accordance with the results of the Baalbek project of Margarete van Ess and Klaus Rheidt, Paturel rejects the former view of Ragette and others of cult continuity in the sanctuary of Jupiter from the Hellenistic period or even prehistoric times.[2] The tell on which the Jupiter sanctuary was erected had been a settlement from the Neolithic to the Hellenistic periods, and the ‘Hellenistic’ phase of the Jupiter temple has now been revealed as being of a later date. The masonry of the preserved T-shaped podium is identical with that of Herod’s terrace walls for the Temple in Jerusalem, indicating that Herod was involved in the erection of the Jupiter temple in Heliopolis. Paturel argues that Herod’s engagement in Baalbek is only plausible in the period between the deposition of Zenodoros and the foundation of the colonia, i.e., between 24 and 15 BC. Yet, since Herod donated monumental buildings in Berytus and other cities like Antioch, his activity has the same plausibility after 15 BC. The planned erection of a T-shaped temple similar to the Temple in Jerusalem, but otherwise unique in the whole Roman Empire, remains a theory which cannot be proved because the project remained unfinished and the temple most probably was never built. Lohmann in his recent publication prefers the idea of a smaller temple on a terrace with towers on the T-shaped extensions.[3]

The sixth chapter deals with Roman Berytus. Paturel describes the colonnaded main streets of the city, two decumani and the cardo maximus, the Roman forum, the public buildings like baths and a hippodrome (whose interpretation here has been superseded by new research), and the sanctuaries. Here the Roman gods—which one would expect in a Roman veterans’ colony—are a small minority among the preeminent local Semitic gods. It is clear that the Hellenistic city was enlarged, and the veterans in Berytus would likely have settled in the extension of the city.

The chapter lacks a general discussion of the city plan: was Berytus a planned city with a regular street grid according to the standard of a Roman colonia, and how far did colonization change the Hellenistic city plan? Answering this question is still a desideratum in the archaeology of Beirut and could not have been solved by the author. Since the scattered and mostly preliminary publications on the excavations in Berytus all concentrate on their respective excavation area, it was indeed not yet possible to reach the aim of this chapter to provide the desired synthesis of Beiruts’s urban history. Correctly, Paturel characterizes Berytus’ grandeur, with large bath complexes and sumptuous use of Egyptian red and grey granite for the colonnaded streets.

The seventh chapter deals with the sanctuary Deir el-Qalaa in the mountains above Berytus, emphasizing the commanding position. The characterization of this extraurban sanctuary of Berytus as exceptional compared to cities like Sidon and Tyre overlooks that Sidon did indeed have the extraurban Eshmun sanctuary. In the Bekaa valley, large-scale surveys are missing, so that the area of Niha and Hosn Niha, where recent surveys provide good evidence, was chosen as a case study. Both are villages which presumably had a mixed population of indigenous people and Roman veterans, both with a large sanctuary in their centre. The temples, like those of Deir el-Qalaa, combine features of Roman architecture with local characteristics like stairs to the roof, and are dedicated to Semitic deities. The same applies to Baalbek described in the ninth chapter, with the exception of the “Temple of the Muses” which dates to the Augustan period and, as pseudoperipteros on a podium, shows a distinctly Italian-Roman architecture. The development of the sanctuary is described according to the results of the recent German Baalbek project.

The tenth chapter, “Life in the Colonia from Epigraphic, Numismatic, and Iconographic Evidence,” provides the most important results of the study beginning with useful statistics of the inscriptions which are roughly half Latin and half Greek. Important is the observation that the earlier inscriptions of the first and second centuries AD are almost entirely Latin, which shows indeed an intrusion of Latin culture in the otherwise Greek-dominated East. It is followed by a discussion of the ‘Heliopolitan triad’ of Jupiter, Venus, and Mercury. Paturel argues against the view of Seyrig, Hajjar and others who saw a fixed triad;[4] she convincingly shows that this is a modern construct. She prefers the definition of a more flexible “divine constellation” (p. 259). Since these three deities had their own sanctuaries and were not venerated together in one temple like the Capitoline triad in Rome, this is certainly correct, although the differentiation between both concepts itself might be more a problem for modern scholars than for ancient inhabitants of Berytus and Heliopolis. Paturel is also right in rejecting the concept of a syncretism of Jupiter and Helios, in favour of seeing Jupiter Heliopolitanus as the interpretatio Romana of a local Semitic god. The question of imperial sponsorship remains; there is only very scarce evidence for the dedication and financing of the public buildings in Berytus and Heliopolis. The scale of the temple of Jupiter Heliopolitanus (not the largest temple of the Roman Empire, which was instead the temple of Hadrian in Tarsus) makes imperial engagement more than plausible.

The eleventh chapter deals with the temples and the landscape using GIS-generated intervisibility viewsheds. It shows that the Baalbek temples were visible from far, while the temples of Niha and Hosn Niha were almost hidden in the little valley. The conclusion that this (in)visibility was deliberate seems less convincing. This could just as well mean that visibility was not a major criterion for placing the sanctuaries.

The twelfth chapter provides a conclusion. For the leading question whether the colonia of Berytus was a Latin intrusion in the Near East, the answer is that it is not, but rather “synergistic with the Hellenistic past” (p. 293), with a mixed population of indigenous people and veterans in the city of Berytus as well as in the Bekaa villages like Niha and Hosn Niha. In order to characterise the peculiarity of the colonia Berytus, a comparison to a more typical Roman colonia (for example, Timgad) would have been helpful.

Formally, careful copy-editing would have improved the text which has a large number of typographical errors and mistakes in the Latin terms. For the discussion of the archaeological sites, the figures provide few photos and almost no plans, which makes it difficult for the reader to follow the arguments. The place names on the maps are so small that they are barely legible. For a volume of the renowned Mnemosyne supplements, and regarding the price of the book, good copy-editing could have been expected.

To sum up, the book provides a very useful overview of the history of Roman Berytus including the Bekaa valley, which before could only be gained by extensive reading of the scattered literature. The gaps of this survey are not in the responsibility of the author but due to the lack of research and should be taken as desiderata for future research. Thus, the book is highly recommended for every scholar interested in the late Hellenistic and Roman Levant.


[1] Daniel Lohmann, Das Heiligtum des Jupiter Heliopolitanus in Baalbek. Die Planungs- und Baugeschichte, Rahden 2017; Reuben Thorpe, The Insula of the House of the Fountains, Beirut, Archaeology of the Beirut Souks 3, Berytus LVII-LVIII, 2017-2018; Hans Curvers et al., “Der Hippodrom von Berytos. Vorbericht über die Ergebnisse der Arbeiten 2012 bis 2015,” Marburger Winckelmann-Progamm 2015-2016, 147-217.

[2] F. Ragette, Baalbek (London 1980), 27-28; M. van Ess and K. Rheidt (eds.), Baalbek – Heliopolis. 10.000 Jahre Stadtgeschichte (Darmstadt 2014), 24-31.

[3] Supra, n. 1.

[4] H. Seyrig, “La triade Héliopolitaine et les temples de Baalbek,” Syria 10, 1929, 314-356; Y Hajjar, La triade d’Héliopolis-Baalbek vol. 1-3 (Leiden 1977/1985).