Wednesday, November 17, 2010


Version at BMCR home site

Michael Blömer, Margherita Facella, Engelbert Winter (ed.), Lokale Identität im Römischen Nahen Osten: Kontexte und Perspektiven. Oriens et occidens 18. Stuttgart: Steiner, 2009. Pp. 340. ISBN 9783515093774. €64.00.

Reviewed by Ilaria L.E. Ramelli, Catholic University of the Sacred Heart, Milan

Table of Contents

This is a dense and interesting book, resulting from a 2007 conference with the same title (Münster, 19-21 April). Out of ten essays, nine are in German and one, Kropp's, is in English, and each is equipped with a bibliography. Being multidisciplinary is a conspicuous feature of this volume, which brings together contributions from the fields of archaeology, ancient history, numismatics, and history of religions.

Blömer analyzes some stelae bearing representations of local weather deities in northern Syria, especially from Commagene, in the Roman imperial era. Many pictures are appended to the article, and one stela is even an inedito. The iconography on these stelae conforms to that of ancient Near Eastern weather deities. A connection is indicated with the worship of Jupiter Dolichenus, who, in spite of his widespread cult, was locally only one among many deities. Haider studies religious representations in Assyria in Hellenistic and Parthian times, especially in the cities of Assur and Nineveh/Ninos. He shows that, while these cities were very close to one another, their religious systems developed in quite different ways from the Hellenistic period onward. Indeed, Assur kept its local deities well into the Parthian age, whereas the pantheon in Nineveh shows a clear Hellenization because of its Macedonian-Greek elite. However, Hellenistic and Parthian influences on architecture and religious iconography are detectable even in Assur. An interesting document on the religious background of Assyria in the Parthian age, to which I would like to refer in this connection, is the Chronicle of Arbela, which goes on into the Persian age, but begins in the Parthian. It is rich in notable details, which have not yet been studied in the depth they would deserve.1

Hartmann deals with the thirteenth of the Oracula Sibyllina and the two-fold perspective that it expresses, Syrian and Roman. The redaction of this composition can be dated to the middle sixties of the third century CE, and can be attributed to a Syriac Jewish author of the Diaspora. Hartmann thus studies how the redactor conceived his double cultural identity, as both a Roman citizen and a Syrian, and differentiated himself from the "barbarians.". The Roman identity emerges in his care for the Roman Empire and his worry about what will happen to it, whereas the Syrian identity seems to be reflected in the thesis, suggested by him, that local Eastern powers will be able to protect the empire from external enemies such as the Persians. Kropp investigates how Near-Eastern client kings of the early imperial period (Julio-Claudian era) paid a large tribute to the cult of Roman emperors; the essay is enriched, at the end, by many maps, photographs, and plans. The specific object of the paper consists in four temples devoted to the imperial cult, four Augustea, resulting from archaeological excavations. Three of these were built by Herod the Great, at Samaria Sebaste, Caesarea, and Panias (the place from which, according to legend, Addai came, the apostle to whom the evangelization of Edessa is ascribed). The fourth Augusteum in the Roman Near East, not promoted by Herod, was in Qalaat Faqra, on Mount Lebanon. A comparison between Herod's three temples and the temple at Faqra is instructive: while the former display Roman models in their architectural features, the Faqra temple has no such features; it is a tower without Greco-Roman elements. Local identities were preserved even in the adoption of the imperial cult. Knopp also notes that architectural evidence for Augustea in the Roman Near East beyond these four cases is lacking. His plausible explanation, which follows Price's conclusions, is that the Roman imperial cult elsewhere was performed in temples consecrated to other gods. I observe that if such imperial cultic monuments are not extant for all of these client kings, this is probably because not all of them decided to build this kind of religious monuments out of loyalty to Rome. Indeed, sources such as Tacitus and Moses of Chorene attest that some client kings in the Near East in the Julio-Claudian age, such as Abgar Ukkama and Izates of Adiabene , raised suspicions in the Romans concerning their loyalty.2

Lichtenberger examines the case of two Phoenician cities, Tyre and Berytus, and their cultural identity. These cities in fact seem to have been culturally pluralistic already in pre-Hellenistic times, so that it is difficult to determine what their "Phoenician" identity was in the Roman imperial age, given that such "identity" had always been composite. The difficulty is not eased by the paucity of the archaeological evidence. Numismatics can help to some extent, showing that from the Severan age onward the Phoenician past was emphasized on coins. This could imply an intention to strengthen local identities vis-à-vis Rome. Millar's study focuses on representations of the Near East in Libanius. This outstanding rhetorician is an interesting case study, given the important political role he played in his city and region in the fourth century CE. According to Millar's analysis, Libanius seems to have regarded the Roman Near East as a Greek territory with Greek cities, characterized by a definitely Greek culture.

Oenbrink takes into consideration the funerary monument of Sam(p)sigeramus (Gaius Iulius Samsigeramus) in Emesa, and observes the local identities and external influences it reflects, specifically influences from Rome. This is a good example of how funeral representations functioned as markers of cultural identity. Schmidt-Colinet deals with the iconography of two Palmyrene sarcophagi that exemplify the mix of iconographical elements from different traditions, in this case both Roman and local. Sommer proposes a broad-ranging reflection on the relationship between imperial power and local identities. What in fact he offers is a conclusive essay, and therefore it might have been good to place his piece at the end of the other essays, or at least at the beginning, just after the Preface. The arrangement of the essays in the volume, however, does not seem to follow any content order, but rather an alphabetical order based on the authors' last names. At any rate, Sommer in his fine piece considers how local cultural identities could work and develop in imperial times in the Roman Near East, a heterogeneous area from the linguistic, religious, and ethnic points of view. He especially focuses on the interaction of Roman and local laws and juridical systems, and on representations of myths, which indeed played a remarkable political role as well, both in Rome and in Near Eastern cultures. Finally, Stoll analyzes coins with representations of Centaurs and Tyche stemming from the first half of the third century CE, and endeavors to determine whether they are symbols of civic identity. These coins come from two cities in Northern Mesopotamia, Reshaina and Singara, close to the heavily militarized Eastern border of the Roman Empire, and reflect the political, cultural, and religious environment in which they were made. An interesting trait of these coins is that many signs on them seem to have been (and to have been meant to be) susceptible to a double interpretation, depending on whether they were read in a Roman or in a local, indigenous perspective.

The volume is carefully crafted; only a few typos and inconsistencies are to be found therein (e.g., the reference to Price 1984 in note 33 p. 101 would not seem to find a correspondence in the bibliography appended to the relevant essay). Although the collection is not systematic and the themes chosen by the contributors might appear episodic and somehow scattered (probably all the more so because of their arrangement), this is almost inevitable in a volume of this kind, and the book offers, from different perspectives, several notable examples of how local identities were kept and represented in the Roman Near East. It is also a stimulating work in that it helps illustrate how the Roman Near East, especially in the imperial period, was an incredibly rich crossroad of cultures and religions. This richness may well be exemplified by intellectual figures, too, such as that of Bardaisan of Edessa, a contemporary of Clement of Alexandria and an earlier contemporary of Origen.3


1.   See my Il Chronicon di Arbela, Madrid: Universidad Complutense, 2003, with the review by Giulio Firpo, Aevum 79 (2005) 195-197, and my "Il Chronicon di Arbela: una messa a punto storiografica," Aevum 80 (2006) 145-164, with further references.
2.   The historical sources on them are analyzed in my "Edessa e i Romani tra Augusto e i Severi," Aevum 73 (1999) 107-143; "Abgar Ukkama e Abgar il Grande alla luce di recenti apporti storiografici," Aevum 78 (2004) 103-108; Atti di Mar Mari, Brescia: Paideia 2008, with the reviews by Sebastian Brock in Ancient Narrative 7 (2008) 123-130,, and Judith Perkins in Aevum 83 (2009)269-271; my Possible Historical Traces in the Doctrina Addai?, Piscataway: Gorgias, 2009; "The Biography of Addai," Phrasis 51,1 (2010).
3.   See my "Bardesane e la sua scuola tra la cultura occidentale e quella orientale," in Pensiero e istituzioni del mondo classico nelle culture del Vicino Oriente, eds. Rosa B. Finazzi and Alfredo Valvo, Alessandria: Dell'Orso, 2001, 237-255; "Origen, Bardaisan, and the Origin of Universal Salvation," HTR 102,2 (2009) 135-168; Bardaisan of Edessa: A Reassessment of the Evidence and a New Interpretation, Piscataway: Gorgias, 2009.

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