Thursday, April 7, 2011


Hannah M. Cotton, Robert G. Hoyland, Jonathan J. Price, David J. Wasserstein (ed.), From Hellenism to Islam: Cultural and Linguistic Change in the Roman Near East. Cambridge/New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009. Pp. xxx, 481. ISBN 9780521875813. $125.00.

Reviewed by Christian H√łgel, University of Southern Denmark (

Version at BMCR home site

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

When reviewing this marvelous book, it is difficult not to take into account the erudite presentation of its contents by Fergus Millar in his introduction to the book. Millar gives both a general characterization of the fields of study found in the book and an assessment of the individual contributions (18 in all; see below). In his view, the book confirms four tendencies in the evolution of the study of ancient history: the focus on documents (as opposed to transmitted texts), the shift to the eastern Mediterranean or Near East (including Egypt and Turkey), its interest in Hellenism from the time of Roman occupation (with less interest in earlier Hellenism from Actium and onwards), and finally – and most importantly perhaps – the primary focus on language. The main part of Fergus Millar's presentation then continues to discuss language issues (is bilingualism an accurate term or should we rather speak of dual-lingualism, etc.). I shall not go through Millar's assessment of the many and rich contributions, but my review and comments on the contributions of the book owe much to Fergus Millars's thought-provoking assessments.

The title of the book – From Hellenism to Islam. Cultural and Linguistic Change in the Roman Near East – may encourage the reader to expect a chronological exposition.Though the contributions altogether make up such a chronology, not all texts take us from Greek (or Roman, which in many cases is a difficult distinction) to Islamic/Arab culture or language. This would in fact hardly be possible. Some fields have not yet been studied enough to allow for such expositions, while others, though definitely belonging to the large picture of the Near East from Greco-Roman to Islamic times, may be short-lived or pertain to parallel developments rather than occupying a central place within the topic covered by the book. The many regions, ethnicities, languages, scripts, and cultures discussed also make it impossible to follow them all through the total chronology outlined in the title. The contributions that make the best attempt to bridge the passage from Greco-Roman to Islamic culture are those on the continuity of Nabataean law (contribution no. 6; see the index below), on the practice of transcription – the writing of texts in the script of another language (no. 10), on Jewish magic (no. 13), on Greek inscriptions in the transitional phase (no. 15), on the rise and decline of Coptic (no. 17), and on the (scant, but interesting) survival of Greek and Roman features in Christian Egypt under Muslim rule (no. 18). On the other hand, some contributions actually give – even if brief – comprehensive expositions of a particular topic, e.g. Jewish epigraphy in Asia Minor and Syria (no. 8), religion and language in Dura-Europos (no. 9), Syriac inscriptions in Edessa (no. 11), Samaritan writing (no. 12 as well as nos. 15, 17, and 18, already mentioned). Other contributions focus on very specific topics, the study of which depends (almost) exclusively on inscriptions: the fine analysis of the legal status of the threptoi, i.e. those 'nurtured' by someone else than their natural parents (no. 4); the study of the 'confession inscriptions' from Lydia and Phrygia (no. 5); and the excellent demonstration of the survival of Nabataean law in later Arabic law after the Muslim conquest as seen in the special rights given to (paternal) uncles in cases of inheritance (no. 6). Some papers offer excellent methodological discussions. . Issues of methodology appear in the first two contributions, both of which discuss the use of Latin in inscriptions in the eastern provinces of the empire but disagree to some extent on the position of Asia Minor (see e.g. footnote 7 in Isaac [no. 2]). Central methodological observations are also crucial to the contributions of Ameling (on the classification of epigraphic material), Bohak (on the difficulty in dating magical texts), and Richter (e.g. on why so-called Coptic writers would turn to Arabic). Comparative material from outside the Near East is adduced in only a few cases, most importantly by Hoyland, who argues for considering the Arab groupings on par with the western 'barbarian' kingdoms/proto-states of the Goths and Franks. Despite its multi-faceted nature, however, the editors have succeeded in creating a very informative whole. This volume offers a broad chronological view of the Near East and its plethora of ethnicities, languages, and scripts.,

The quality of the contributions is uniformly outstanding.The individual papers discussed below are those which deserve special attention and those whose arguments perhaps require additional comment.

In his contribution, Seth Schwartz notes the peculiarity of the epigraphic material from Jerusalem in the century before the destruction of the temple (37 BCE – 70 AD), namely the absence of inscriptions reflecting euergetism (private benefaction for public benefit). In fact, most inscriptions are simply funeral inscriptions that include only the name of the deceased. In order to explain this, Schwartz takes a close look at the works of Josephus, noting that in the Jewish Wars Josephus downplays Jewish cultural distinctiveness whereas in the Antiquities and Against Apion it is overstated. Still, Schwartz concludes that the works of Josephus support taking the epigraphic material as evidence of cultural difference between Jews and others. According to Schwartz, the mechanisms of public benefaction worked in Jerusalem, and for Jews in general, only in combination with various displays of piety (and with the exclusion of, e.g., gladiatorial games). The conclusions deduced from Josephus are very convincing, whereas the ex silentio argument of the epigraphic material seems somewhat less plausible. .

Even more than the preceding contributions, Nicole Belayche steps, into the ongoing discussions concerning Romanisation.In an effort to identify Roman influence on religious life in Palestine in the second to fourth century, Belayche's paper goes through a set of parameters (public figurative language, 'verbal' language, language in religious matters), and eventually confirms her thesis, namely, that "what one may define as 'Roman' religious practices in a bicultural empire were practices of Romans." Such statements, which may run the risk of being tautological, could also be confronted with the complex question of who, precisely, is Roman. In what sense are, for example, settled veterans Romans? The discussion nevertheless offers an excellent selection of cases for a discussion on Romanisation and many good observations.

Ted Kaizer offers a very clear analysis of the interplay between language and religion in Dura-Europos, leading to a discussion of the languages used by various parts of the city's population and of its assumed 'mixed culture' (i.e. Greek and Semitic). The paper begins with a discussion of languages used by individual religious groups (Jews, Christians, pagans). After some historical observations on the shift from Parthian to Roman domination, it is suggested that the general lack of Middle Iranian and Semitic languages under Parthian rule seems to support the general use of Greek in Roman times, although some instances of Latin and Aramaic are also found. The actual use of Greek and a Semitic language seems, however, to be restricted to the communities of Palmyreans, Hatrenes, and – perhaps – Safaites living in the city. Thus, after discussing the Greek/Semitic denomination 'Dura-Europos', Kaizer concludes that "'only seldom did this [growth in cosmopolitan cultural and religious elements] result in what could properly be called the mixed culture of a Greco-Semitic civilisation'" (p. 249). Thus, the expectations of Cumont and Rostovtzeff do not seem to have been met.

Ernst Axel Knauf offers a very brief suggestion as to the origins of the wealth of the Benei Hezir: estates somewhere in an area under Nabataean rule (thus accounting for the Nabataean architectural features on their tomb). His paper even suggests a location for the Moabitic Kanzireh (arguing from the Canaanite form of this toponym). The support for the suggestion, however, seems exiguous.

Leah Di Segni gives a very informative and clear exposition of the survival of Greek as an epigraphic language from the late Byzantine into the early Islamic period. Singling out Greek as the most important language of inscriptions from her selected area (the three Palaestinae, Arabia, and southern Phoenice,), she follows its use and decline up to the eighth century. Her focus is primarily on church inscriptions (there are few other Greek inscriptions in the later period). Noting a remarkable shift in the distribution of urban and rural building inscriptions (before Justinian urban inscriptions dominate; after Justinian, rural), Di Segni suggests reasons for and implications of this phenomenon. As well, she provides detailed discussions of possible reasons for shorter periods of reduced building activity. Lastly, she addresses the use Greek in Islamic inscriptions (e.g. the inscription from the bath house of Hammath Gader set up by Mu'awiya). Di Segni's contribution is a splendid study that conforms in every manner to the aims of the book.

This is an impressive and very readable publication. Anybody interested in the Near East during this period should explore the fascinating material presented and discussed, not least for the many methodological advances it offers for the study of epigraphic material. This is a tour de force of a new branch of scholarship coming into its own. No typos were found and only one false attribution (the Expositio Totius Mundi is wrongly indicated as source on p. 53). The editors are to be congratulated.

Table of Contents:
Fergus Millar: "Introduction: documentary evidence, social realities and the history of language," 1-12
1 Werner Eck: The presence, role and significance of Latin in the epigraphy and culture of the Roman Near East, 15-42
2 Benjamin Isaac: Latin in cities of the Roman Near East, 43-72
3 Seth Schwartz: Euergetism in Josephus and the epigraphic culture of first-century Jerusalem, 75-92
4 Marijana Ricl: Legal and social status of threptoi and related categories in narrative and documentary sources, 93-114
5 Angelos Chaniotis: Ritual performances of divine justice: the epigraphy of confession, atonement, and exaltation in Roman Asia Minor, 115-153
6 Hannah M. Cotton: Continuity of Nabataean law in the Petra papyri: a methodological exercise, 154-174
7 Nicole Belayche: 'Languages' and religion in second- to fourth-century Palestine: in search of the impact of Rome, 177-202
8 Walter Ameling: The epigraphic habit and the Jewish diasporas of Asia Minor and Syria, 203-234
9 Ted Kaizer: Religion and language in Dura-Europos, 235-254
10 Jonathan J. Price and Shlomo Naeh: On the margins of culture: the practice of transcription in the ancient world, 257-288
11 Sebastian Brock: Edessene Syriac inscriptions in late antique Syria, 289-302
12 Dan Barag: Samaritan writing and writings, 303-323
13 Gideon Bohak: The Jewish magical tradition from late antique Palestine to the Cairo Genizah, 324-342
14 Ernst Axel Knauf: The Nabataean connection of the Benei Hezir, 345-351
15 Leah Di Segni: Greek inscriptions in transition from the Byzantine to the early Islamic period, 352-373
16 Robert G. Hoyland: Arab kings, Arab tribes and the beginnings of Arab historical memory in late Roman epigraphy, 374-400
17 Tonio Sebastian Richter: Greek, Coptic and the 'language of the Hijra': the rise and decline of the Coptic language in late antique and medieval Egypt, 401-446
18 Arietta Papaconstantinou: 'What remains behind': Hellenism and Romanitas in Christian Egypt after the Arab conquest, 447-466
Index: 467-481

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