Monday, January 19, 2015


Nathanael J. Andrade, Syrian Identity in the Greco-Roman World. Greek culture in the Roman world. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013. Pp. xxiii, 412. ISBN 9781107012059. $110.00.

Reviewed by Christine Shepardson, University of Tennessee, Knoxville (

Version at BMCR home site


Andrade's book is a welcome contribution to the growing collection of scholarship that integrates methodological sophistication and academic rigor in its study of Roman Syria. As Andrade writes in his Preface, the "main interest" of his book is "to show how idioms and practices in circulation among various Near Eastern societies were domesticated by Greek communities and embedded in Greek practice" (xvii). Although the book is not an easy read, it makes a significant contribution to scholarship, not only by re-reading textual and material evidence but more importantly by changing how scholars think and write about Syrians in antiquity.

The book consists of an introduction, conclusion, eleven chapters arranged thematically and roughly chronologically in three sections, and a useful collection of maps. The Introduction provides a valuable overview of the book. Some readers may find the twenty-one page chapter-synopsis excessive, but although it leads to some redundancy, it also provides a thorough introduction to the work's complex method and arguments. "Parts I and II stress how Syrians could create both Greek and 'barbarian' cultural expressions that deviated from classical expectations," while "Part III maintains that Syrians expressed a consciousness that classical Greekness was an artifice that could be de-constructed or displaced by alternative forms" (240).

One challenge raised by the book for some readers will be Andrade's writing style, which is learned but dense. In an effort to engage with a wide range of theorists, including "Bourdieu, Bakhtin, Butler, Foucault, Lacan, and various post-colonial thinkers" such as Homi Bhabha (2n6), Andrade writes, for example, of "discursive and performative fields" (3) and of "signs" that "are pregnant with polyvalent, unstable, and 'multiform' significances" (2). While this allows for a sophisticated and nuanced argument, his concentrated usage of specialized vocabulary may obfuscate his meaning for some readers. Ironically, the book also repeats its main points more than necessary. Although this is not the most desirable way to address concerns about clarity, at least it ensures that readers will follow the key claims.

Part I, on "Greek poleis and the Syrian ethnos" from the second century BCE to the first century CE, begins with Chapter 1 on Antiochus IV. Antiochus poses an interesting case study, Andrade demonstrates, because he broke with the Seleucid tradition that "Greek citizenship generally belonged to ethnic Greeks" (44). Coins issued in the Near East under Antiochus IV exhibit local iconographic traditions alongside or transformed by Greek iconography, what scholars traditionally describe as "creolization, hybridity, the Middle Ground" (38). Rather than stress the dilution of an immutable "Greekness," Andrade counters that these coins represent "innovative forms of Greekness" (53). This, alongside his "establishment of a Greek politeia in Jerusalem" reveal that Antiochus allowed "the incorporation of local ethnicities into Greek civic communities" in ways that had never happened before (55). While Andrade argues that Antiochus' experiment ultimately failed, the changes that Antiochus implemented facilitated later redefinitions of "Greekness" under Roman rule (65).

Chapter 2 examines "the Near East" from 63 to 31 BCE, particularly through some of the work of Cicero, who spent time as the provincial governor of Cilicia. This study demonstrates that while Romans allowed for the possibility of people from a variety of ethnic origins becoming "Greek," Romans often wrote about this acquired "Greekness" as a theatrical performance that was "culturally illegitimate" (72). Antiochus I of Commagene is Andrade's prime example, a local leader who expressed his authority at the sanctuary of Nemrud Dağ in terms that his subjects saw as a regional expression of Greek authority, but that Cicero disparaged. Nevertheless, it was, Andrade argues, Rome's "patronage of 'imitation' Greek cities… that facilitated Syria's integration into Rome's provincial landscape" and later allowed Syrians "to advocate the legitimacy of their Greek and Roman performances" (93).

Chapter 3 concludes Part I with a study of "Syrian Greeks of the Roman Near East" from 31 BCE to 73 CE. Andrade studies "client dynasts" such as Herod, these dynasts' adaptation of Roman cultural markers, and the potential for local discord that this created, such as many Jews' increased isolation from these new cultural expressions. While this case study is relevant, Andrade's treatment of Judaism lacks the sophistication of his other material, and where followers of Jesus fit into the picture is left largely unexplored. This chapter does raise interesting points about the evolution of the category "Syrian," concluding that "many Syrians of diverse ethnic and social affiliations… cast themselves as Greek citizens and members of the Roman imperial Syrian ethnos" (112). Nevertheless, while Andrade consistently challenges the false polarity of "Greek" and "Syrian," he is less careful with the category of "Jews," which he continues to place in opposition to "Greeks," even as he expands the latter category to include a variety of local ethnicities (115). His central point, however, remains: "Instead of ambiguously referencing hybridity, creolization, and terms that similarly index the amorphous space between immutable binary traditions, one can discuss the reconstitution of Greekness and Syrianness as intersecting categories that shared many of the same polyvalent symbols" (119).

Part II, "Greek collectives in Syria (first to third centuries CE)," consists of four chapters, two that study the region's cities more broadly, and two case studies, of Palmyra and Dura-Europos. Chapter 4 shows how "Greek poleis of Roman imperial Syria constituted performative and discursive frameworks" that allowed non-Greeks to engage with and reshape symbols of Greek culture (127). Urban writers' discrimination against "peasants," for example, facilitated "the social cohesion of ethnic Greeks and Syrians" who shared urban Greek citizenship (136). This reshaping of Greekness allowed a new variety of ethnicities and traditions to become "Greek" in a non-classical definition of the term. Chapter 5 continues this argument through a study of "the epigraphic documents and monumentalized spaces" of Antioch, Apamea, and Gersasa (150). These two chapters show that Roman Syrians "transformed how Greekness was constituted and who could participate in Greek citizen discourse and performance," particularly through the structures of Syria's Greek poleis (170).

Chapter 6 examines the city of Palmyra and its construction of a distinctly un-classical form of Greekness that reflected a significant continuity with local "Near Eastern" traditions that preceded Roman rule. Andrade usefully challenges academic representations of Roman Palmyra as having "a superficial layer disguising a truly 'oriental' essence" (209), and insists in contrast that "the Palmyrene civic council and citizen body produced and expressed an innovative form of civic Greekness" that scholars should recognize as such (210). Chapter 7 focuses on Dura-Europos, where Romans also granted "Greek" status to people of varying local ethnicities. Andrade argues that this in turn "stimulated new types of people to become insiders of Greek civic orders in ways that transformed the types of Greekness that could be performed" (240).

While Parts I and II provide important examples of Andrade's thesis through a focus primarily on a handful of examples from material culture, Part III (Chapters 8-11) shifts to a literary analysis of the works of Lucian of Samosata. Andrade shows an impressive breadth of expertise in his survey of material and literary culture over a wide span of time and space, but Part III seems the most comfortable and is the easiest to read.

Chapter 8 lays the foundation for the following chapters by framing "the socio-cultural context that Lucian, Syrian Christian writers, and Palmyrene insurgents confronted" (245). Andrade persuasively argues that Roman perceptions of the "barbarian" ethnicities of the Roman Near East worked hand in hand with a redefinition and revaluation of classical Greekness in the Second Sophistic to ensure that only classicizing models were recognized as legitimate expressions of Greekness in the second and third centuries (247). Such understandings by default "relegated the Near East to its margins," even if "many Syrians were descended from Greeks or cultivated Greek cultural characteristics" (251). This in turn left Syrians open to charges of deceit for performing versions of Greekness from the margins.

Chapters 9 and 10 argue that Lucian actively critiqued such Roman categories and stereotypes (260), "writing back" from the periphery (288). In Chapter 9 Andrade focuses on Lucian with brief references to Justin Martyr and Tatian, showing how each challenged stereotypes of Syrians and sophists as uncultured and cultured, respectively. This is done most productively through Andrade's study of the term doxa, translated here as an "'appearance' of reality that… often obscures or distorts knowledge of the real or true" (262-3). These Syrian authors argued that "sophists deceptively generated classical models and 'origins' [of Greekness] through their performative acts" (277). This in turn allowed Syrians to critique "the performance of a sophistic Greek culture and the centrality of its classical forms, as stabilized and staged by Roman power" (287), undermining its normativity.

Chapter 10 is a careful analysis of Lucian's On the Syrian Goddess, which likewise represents "the binary of Greek subject and Syrian spectacle… as a doxa" that masks the real similarity between these two apparent opposites (291). Andrade's thoughtful analysis suggests that Lucian's text "renders boundaries between 'Greek' and 'barbarian' categories incoherent, and it maps how Syrian culture integrated Greek idioms and intersected with Greek culture," thereby challenging Roman narratives that denigrated and marginalized Syrians" (292). Andrade concludes that Lucian's text "stages a meta-doxa through which the author interrogates and examines the production of cultural categories that sophists created through performance. It maps how Syrians produced (As)Syrian culture by cultivating Greek idioms, and it shows how they could constituted 'Greek' and '(As)Syrian' as intersecting, shifting categories expressed by the same signs and not possessing clear, coherent boundaries" (312). Chapter 11 argues that as Roman Syrians continued to perform locally colored versions of Greekness, they "increasingly located Syria as the center of a Greek and Roman imperial landscape" (316). Palmyra's third-century zenith under Zenobia is Andrade's example par excellence.

The book shows "how diverse performances of Greekness (with Syrianness and Romanness) were in antiquity" (343). One of Andrade's most important contributions, although it is somewhat surprising that he does not engage with Edward Said's work, is his warning to scholars against following ancient sources that classify "the Roman Near East's inhabitants as 'other' to contrast them with classical proto-westerners" (343). Rejecting academic descriptions of Roman Syria that highlight its "creolization, hybridity, bricolage," Andrade reminds readers that Syrians "realigned and reconstituted what could be experienced as pure or authentic categories" (344). Roman Syrians were not a less authentic hybrid of Greekness and local traditions; they were a new expression of Greekness, redefined but recognizable and as legitimate as any other.

Andrade's book offers an important correction to scholarship that perpetuates a false stability for a classical notion of "Greekness" and represents Syrians as necessarily non-Greek. The book also brings theoretical sophistication to scholarship on Roman Syria. On the other hand, it relies on disparate test cases such as an inscription or a coin to generalize much more broadly, usually about Roman Syria and sometimes about "the Near East," a category that could use better definition. Andrade's discussions of Jews and Christians lack his characteristic nuance in comparison to his facility with a wide range of other topics; and while his integration of sophisticated methodological concepts is laudable and will change academic conversations for the better, the unnecessarily dense writing will impose some limits on the book's audience. These concerns aside, the book is of great importance in both its method and its content for the study of Roman Syria and the surrounding region from the Seleucid period through the early Roman Empire. Scholars will benefit a great deal from Andrade's impressive contribution to, and reshaping of, these ongoing discussions.

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