BMCR 2023.05.16

Im Land der räuberischen Nomaden? Die Eigenherrschaften der Ituraier und Emesener zwischen Seleukiden und Römern

, Im Land der räuberischen Nomaden? Die Eigenherrschaften der Ituraier und Emesener zwischen Seleukiden und Römern. Göttingen: Vandenhoeck and Ruprecht, 2022. Pp. xxxix, 443. ISBN 9783949189159.



Scholarly interest in the Late Hellenistic and early Roman Near East remains high. Even though the region’s political instability continues to impact archaeology, our knowledge of the ancient Levant and its hinterland keeps expanding at an impressive speed. The increasing amount of information has resulted in a vast output of archaeological, numismatic, and epigraphic studies over the last decades and allows historians ever more precise reconstructions of the societies, cultures, policies, conflicts, and developments in this region.

Yet there is still a lot we do not know, especially when it comes to smaller states. Largely because of the Syrian Civil War, Emesa, under modern Homs, and nearby Arethusa, close to Al-Rastan, the two principal settlements of the Kingdom of Emesa, remain unexcavated. The situation in neighbouring Ituraea, which was split into three dynasties, is even worse: the two smaller ones, around Abila (in Wadi Barada) and Arca (at Tell ‘Arqa), are hardly known, and the capital of the largest one, Chalcis on the Libanon, has still not been located. This challenging situation did, however, not stop Julia Hoffmann-Salz from writing her habilitation thesis at Cologne on the Ituraeans and Emesans, which has now appeared in revised form as a monograph with Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht. She traces the development of both groups from their beginnings to the incorporation of both areas into the Roman province of Syria in the 1st century AD. This is a feat for which many researchers will be grateful, considering that only thirteen years ago the best reconstruction of Emesan history was a three-page sketch by Andreas Kropp.[1]

As she makes clear in the introduction, Hoffmann-Salz has one main goal: in contrast to older research, she sets out to demonstrate that neither the Emesans nor the Ituraeans were nomads who only settled in the region in the course of the 1st century BC — a view that is still held by many researchers.[2] She attributes this notion to the emergence of Emesans and Ituraeans as identifiable groups in the context of the late Seleucid Empire, which is often equated with decline, and, more importantly, from the derogatory depiction of both peoples in ancient literature, which obscures their long history in the region and their strong local networks. Though the nomadic origins and nature of the two peoples are still a matter of debate, the author rightly emphasises that the negative connotations of this interpretation have been out of favour for a while, in particular thanks to E.A. Myers’ The Ituraeans and the Roman Near East. Reassessing the Sources (Cambridge 2010). Its publication marked the starting point of greater interest in Ituraea and Emesa, as attested by the contributions of Kropp,[3] Konrad[4] and Hoffmann-Salz herself.[5]  In Im Land der räuberischen Nomaden, she aims to bring together the different strands of research.

In Chapter 2, Hoffman-Salz analyses the political situation in the late Seleucid Empire. Using up-to-date research, the author demonstrates that the Seleucid kings encouraged strong local autonomy in the region, allowing the elites considerable room to pursue their own goals as long as they remained loyal to the monarchy. During the endemic civil wars that dominated the last decades of the kingdom, the use of force and the switching of sides became ever more attractive for such actors like Ptolemy, son of Mennaios, the first Ituraean ruler. The author succeeds in painting a vivid picture of the mechanics at play in Greater Syria during the late 2nd and early 1st century BC, during which both the Emesan and Ituraean dynasties were established, though some descriptive passages on Seleucid history could have been shortened.

In Chapter 3, the author traces the origins of what she calls the Eigenherrschaften of the two peoples. While she does not elaborate on the term, its meaning as “self-ruled (areas)” is neutral enough to cover all phases of Emesan and Ituraean history. And, in fact, Hoffmann-Salz does not shy away from discussing the statehood of the Eigenherrschaften, since she seeks to prove that they were not foreign nomads. To this end, she first outlines the territories of the Ituraean and Emesan fiefdoms. Drawing on the most recent archaeological data, she presents her results in two helpful maps. Subsequently, she takes a broader look at greater Syria and finds a common trend of increasing settlement in the countryside in the mid Hellenistic period. Hoffmann-Salz makes the convincing point that the Ituraeans and Emesans originated in a landscape populated by diverse groups of Aramaic farmers, Hellenistic katoikoi and semi-nomadic mountaineers. In the second part of the chapter, she attempts to reconstruct their early history, speculating that a military group called Itu’u, who were settled in the Beqaa Valley by the Assyrians, may have been the forefathers of the Ituraeans. Since most Ituraean towns lay along the Ptolemaic-Seleucid border, the pharaohs might have deployed the (former) Itu’u as border guards in the 4th and 3rd centuries BC. Next she points to references to Arabs in the region as clues to Ituraean presence, and rightly criticises older authors who automatically equated Arabs with nomads. Hoffman-Salz  handles the diverse literary, archaeological, epigraphic, and numismatic sources with aplomb and her deliberations are always insightful. Nevertheless, the reviewer takes issue with one central argument: in this chapter, Hoffman-Salz assumes that individuals or groups in later Ituraea/Emesene who are designated as Arabs by ancient writers may be representatives of these peoples. However, in Chapter 6 she demonstrates that the Ituraeans were never explicitly called Arabs, which undermines the method used here, while not diminishing the merits of the rest of the investigation.

In Chapter 4 Hoffman-Salz recreates the history of the Ituraean dynasties at Chalcis, Arca and Abila as well as that of Emesa as precisely as possible. These developments have never been covered in this much detail before and she does so with an impressive command of both ancient sources and modern scholarly debates. The same can be said about Chapter 5 on the structure of Emesan and Ituraean rule, which follows the same aim of proving that they were not nomadic brigands. The author successfully challenges the ethnographic topoi of Strabo and Josephus and reinterprets archaeological data to demonstrate that both groups engaged in organised agriculture and created further revenues from mining and trade. Many of her conclusions are inevitably built on slender evidence and not everyone will agree,[6] but she has exhausted the existing information and presents the reader with a well-argued case.

New ground is covered in Chapter 6, which considers the ethnic identity of the Ituraeans and Emesans. Hoffmann-Salz initially frames her work within discussions of ethnicity in antiquity before narrowing her perspective to the ancient ‘Arabs’, to highlight the fact that even the literary sources did not always equate Arabs with nomads. Helpful comparisons with other ‘client states’ illustrate how ethnic identity could be constructed by authorities from above, which she applies to her own cases: the Ituraean elites tried to forge a new identity with Syrian, Mesopotamian, Hellenic, and Roman elements to present themselves as the rightful rulers of the heterogeneous people under their sway (256–291). Though she establishes that the Ituraeans were never described as Arabs by Greco-Roman authors while the Emesans often were, her analysis shows that the Emesans largely followed the same multicultural approach as their neighbours in the creation of a new identity. Hoffmann-Salz further develops these ideas in Chapter 7, which concentrates on practices of legitimation. The investigation of coins, possible building policies, and marriage diplomacy strengthens the hypothesis that in everything they did, the dynasts generously combined existing practices and traditions from different cultures in an innovative way. A comparison with the Nabataeans, Hasmoneans, and Herodians indicates that in each of these ‘states’, the elites actively promoted such identities, resulting in new and unique combinations that served to justify their positions.

Nevertheless, the Ituraeans of Chalcis are singled out in the Conclusion for strongly emphasising the Greco-Macedonian over indigenous elements to distinguish themselves from the dynasty at Arca and from the Emesans. The idea doubtlessly helps to reinforce Hoffmann-Salz’s main argument: neither Emesans nor Ituraeans were foreign, nomad brigands, but originated among the local elites who used their networks to build their own Eigenherrschaften in the period of Seleucid collapse. The Emesans were ultimately more successful in this enterprise than the Ituraeans, but Hoffmann-Salz’s book reminds us not to underestimate or dismiss any of these entities, nor to view late Seleucid history solely as a story of decline. Although some readers may criticise Hoffmann-Salz for being inconclusive at times when she goes through the different opinions in scholarship, this is understandable: as long as Emesa, Arethusa and Chalcis have not been excavated, some questions simply cannot be answered, and Hoffmann-Salz is far more confident than Myers in drawing conclusions.[7] Whereas Myers concentrated on the Ituraeans and was especially interested in their role as Roman auxiliaries, Hoffmann-Salz focuses on the genesis of the Ituraean and Emesan Eigenherrschaften in the context of overall developments in greater Syria and the Levant. Her analysis will have to be considered by every future work on the area, not least because she has exhausted the existing sources and literature. The bibliography encompasses all relevant titles in an impressive number of languages, and the text itself seemingly went through a very thorough revision since the reviewer could only find very few errors.[8]



[1] Kropp, Andreas, “Earrings, nefesh and opus reticulatum: Self-Representation of the royal house of Emesa in the first century AD”, in: Facella, Margherita and Ted Kaizer (eds.) Kingdoms and Principalities in the Roman Near East, Stuttgart 2010, 199–216 (214–216).

[2] E.g., Konrad, Michaela, “Die Klientelkönige von Emesa: Identität und identitärer Wandel im Spiegel der materiellen Quellen”, in: Hartmann, Udo, Frank Schleicher, and Timo Stickler (eds.), Imperia sine fine? Der römisch-parthische Grenzraum als Konflikt- und Kontaktzone, Stuttgart 2022, 173–220 (176).

[3] Kropp 2010 (see n. 1); Kropp, Andreas J. M., Images and Monuments of Near Eastern Dynasts, 100 BC–AD 100, Oxford 2013.

[4] Konrad, Michaela, Emesa zwischen Klientelreich und Provinz. Identität und Identitätswandel einer lokalen Fürstendynastie im Spiegle der archäologischen Quellen, Rahden (Westfalia) 2014; and Konrad 2022 (see n. 2).

[5] Hoffmann-Salz, Julia, “Zenodoros, Tetrarch der Ituräer — und Räuberhauptmann?”, Historische Zeitschrift 311, 3 (2020), 573–602; Hoffmann-Salz, Julia, “The Ituraeans as a Hellenistic Dynasty. Working the Middle Ground in Hellenistic Syria”, in: id. (ed.), The Middle East as Middle Ground? Cultural Interaction in the Ancient Middle East revisited, Vienna 2021, 101–116; and Hoffmann-Salz, Julia, “Lysanias, Tetrarch der Ituräer, als Klientelherrscher Roms im römisch-parthischen Grenzraum”, in: Hartmann, Schleicher, and Stickler 2022 (see n. 2), 221–241. Further, the Emesan kings are one of the examples for ‘provincial monarchs’ in Ish-Shalom, Tal A., “Provincial Monarchs as an Eastern Arcanum Imperii: ‘Client Kingship’, the Augustan Revolution and the Flavians”, in: JRS 111 (2021), 153–177.

[6] She speculates, for instance, that Samsigeramus and Iamblichus of Emesa as father and son split their loyalties between Caesar and Pompey in the 40s BC to preserve all options, but Strab. 16.2.10 leaves no doubt that both supported Pompey’s commander Caecilius Bassus while he was in the region (176–177).

[7] See Justin Winger’s review of Myers’ book:

[8] Every citation from an ancient source that the reviewer checked was correct. Only a few typos or oversights appear in the text: p. 29 Antiochos IV. “geattete” (ein Privileg) should be “gestattete”; on 173 Trakondimotos should be Tarkondimotos; on 180 42 v. Chr. appears instead of n. Chr. and on 376 she writes “einen seleukidischen Funktionsträger” instead of “ein seleukidischer Funktionsträger”.