Monday, April 24, 2017


Ted Kaizer (ed.), Religion, Society and Culture at Dura-Europos. Yale classical studies, 38. Cambridge; New York: Pp. xxii, 310. ISBN 9781107123793. $99.99.

Reviewed by Graeme Clarke, Australian National University (

Version at BMCR home site

[The Table of Contents is listed below.]

This handsomely produced and richly indexed set of essays originated from a colloquium held at Durham University in 2008. Its focus is on aspects of life in the small town of Dura-Europos on the west bank of the Middle Euphrates on the fringes of the Roman Empire, especially during its last century of occupation as a Roman fortress town before its destruction in the course of the 250s CE, the period from which we have the best evidence. Its first two centuries of life as a Greek town are unfortunately largely lost as foundation debris and one chapter only deals specifically with life at Dura-Europos for the long period when it was effectively under nominal Parthian control (c.100 BCE – 165 CE): "Dura-Europos: A Greek Town of the Parthian Empire," by Leonardo Gregoratti. Even so, there are problems enough in trying to delineate a society which was so culturally diverse, literate in a wide range of languages and dialects (but with Greek dominating), and devoted to an astonishing array of divinities, including a community of (not strictly orthodox?) Jews and a conventiculum of Christians. Border-town Dura-Europos may have been, but its destruction enables us to recover, as nowhere else, the rich texture of multi-cultural life on the periphery of the high Roman Empire.

The book opens with a brisk overview of the site, its history of excavation and the coverage of the volume itself by the editor, Ted Kaizer, followed by Gregoratti, who attempts to recover aspects of the governance of Dura-Europos and its Hellenised substrate during its Parthian phase. This is followed by J.A. Baird with a fine chapter (involving much archival work) on the significance for recovering everyday life of the often overlooked "small finds" (dress, textiles, footwear, jewellery, grooming instruments etc.), examining how far they were freighted with gender and ethnic identity and the implications of their find-locations, all adding to the rich complexity of being Roman in the third century.

Michael Sommer then confronts the methodological crux: how to map the stunning cultural diversity of Dura-Europos. As case studies he selects the Jewish community and its choice of synagogue wall-paintings (reflecting at the same time a sense of both accommodation and difference), and the legal options for women in the region in negotiating their business dealings (with their pragmatic choice of appealing either to local or to Roman law). It makes Dura-Europos "an ideal case-study in the cultural set-up of the Roman empire's periphery" (p.67). Lucinda Dirven follows with a detailed and important chapter on "The Problem with Parthian Art at Dura", re-evaluating the (diverse) stylistic characteristics of Dura's wall-paintings over time and re- assessing the sculptural traditions of Dura, Palmyra and Hatra. Her conclusion is that Dura (so far as our available evidence suggests) owes much to Palmyra artistically and that Palmyra itself owes much to "a meeting of Roman and Greco-Semitic art" (p.87). A detailed discussion then follows by Maura K. Heyn on the interpretation of a fresco (damaged in its upper register) from the "temple of Bel", in which it is argued that the theme is Dionysiac and that the discovery of Ariadne on Naxos by Dionysus is depicted (though not all elements of the fresco are thus accounted for).

The role of women in the religious life of Dura-Europos is the theme of the chapter by Jean-Baptiste Yon, specifically the study of the feminine names on the steps in the sanctuaries of Artemis, Atargatis and Azzanathkona. Yon rightly points out the narrow time-period of these inscriptions ("something of a fashion", pp.112-3) when the sanctuaries were going through a period of monumentalisation, and the emphasis of the connexion of these women to their husbands or fathers as well as the overriding dominance of masculine names in these sanctuaries generally.

The so-called "Temples" of Dura-Europos and the functions of the multiple rooms in their complexes are then analysed by Julian Buchmann. He rightly queries the pure assumption that these rooms were for the exclusive use of priests and that those rooms with benches (sometimes multiple in number) were for ritual banqueting only, and emphasises sensibly the likely multi-functional uses to which these rooms were put. Tommaso Gnoli follows with a detailed examination of the frescoes and especially the two cult reliefs in the celebrated Mithraeum of Dura-Europos. In particular he speculates on the significance and possible origins of the unique (largely cosmological) imagery in the upper and larger relief and postulates Iranian influence, concluding: "It is the astonishing flexibility of this god that makes it so difficult for us to seize the 'personalities of Mithras' in the total absence of religious texts" (p.143). That, frustratingly, applies for so much of our understanding of religious sentiment in the ancient world.

The representation of Rome and imperial power in Dura-Europos is the theme of Cristina Marta Acqua's essay, seeking to establish how far this permeated the cultural life not only of the Roman military sector but of the town generally. Her study is enhanced with plans marking those areas with evidence of imperial representation and of their relationship to the possible main thoroughfares through the town from the chief entry in the Palmyrene Gate or the presumed River Gate. Crucial, of course, to this theme is the unresolved question of the Feriale Duranum: was it exclusively a military document or did it include civic festivities? In either case, where were the celebrations held? A fascinating examination by Jacqueline Austin of the mechanics of creating inscriptions and dipinti follows, based on the close examination of two (now lost) dipinti from the principia. She concludes that at Dura at least such official notices and texts were fully executed by clerks within the administrative officia.

A close comparative study of 187 bilingual Aramaic-Greek inscriptions from Palmyra with the 17 equivalent inscriptions from Dura-Europos is contributed by Loren Stuckenbruck: he concludes, as far as the limited evidence allows, that the changing patterns of bi-linguality are similar over time – but one may question his conclusion from this evidence that "…the Palmyrene residents of Dura-Europos, at least linguistically, continued to orientate themselves around and draw from Palmyra as their 'mother city'" (p.189). It is far from established that all those at Dura-Europos who showed themselves literate in the Palmyrene dialect must have hailed from Palmyra itself.

Kai Ruffing provides a convincing and valuable contribution on the economic life in Roman Dura-Europos, emphasizing the stimulus that the presence of the nearly 1,000-strong garrison, and its veterans, with their superior spending-power and their requirements in supplies would have had on the local and regional economy. He rightly points out the lack of evidence that Dura-Europos played any role as a conduit in long-distance trade; rather, its traders and entrepreneurs were active (as in other such towns along the length of the Euphrates) within their region—in the case of Dura-Europos "from the Khabur estuary in the north as far as Eddana in the south" (p.190). Exotic trade goods would have come via the traffic along the Euphrates corridor.

"The Dangers of Adventurous Reconstruction" is the theme chosen by Susan Downey. She concentrates on Frank Brown's imaginative reconstructions of wall-paintings on the back walls of the naoi of Adonis (using only a few of the two hundred fragments) and of Zeus Theos ("a quite audacious restoration of the painted cult image, based on very slim evidence", p.205), as well as his misleading plan of the Citadel Palace (largely lost, fallen down a collapsed cliff-face) and especially the first phase of the Temple of Zeus Megistos. Here Downey's painstaking and brilliant archaeological detective work has established that no such phase existed – leading to the startling conclusion that no sacred building of Hellenistic date has (so far) been located.

The book appropriately concludes with an informative chapter by Lisa R. Brody on "Dura-Europos and Yale: Past, Present and Future", detailing in particular the conservation histories of the Christian paintings and of the Mithraeum and the reinstallation of Dura material in the refurbished Yale University Art Gallery.

This collection of valuable essays demonstrates, if demonstration were necessary, the importance of re-assessing archaeological evidence dug up in the past (and the re-assessment of interpretations placed on it in the past), the importance of the preservation and exploitation of archaeological archives (regrettably this will have to be the case for many sites in Syria for years to come), and the rich potential value of Dura-Europos itself for our further understanding of life in the provincial Roman world.

Table of Contents

1. Ted Kaizer Introduction 1-15
2. Leonardo Gregoratti Dura-Europos: A Greek Town of the Parthian Empire 16-29
3. J.A. Baird Everyday Life in Roman Dura-Europos: The Evidence of Dress Practices 30-56
4. Michael Sommer Acculturation, Hybridity, Créolité: Mapping Cultural Diversity in Dura-Europos 57-67
5. Lucinda Dirven The Problem of Parthian Art at Dura 68-88
6. Maura K. Heyn Gesture at Dura-Europos: A New Interpretation of the So-called "Scène Énigmatique" 89-98
7. Jean-Baptiste Yon Women and the Religious Life at Dura-Europos 99-113
8. Julian Buchmann Multifunctional Sanctuaries at Dura-Europos 114-125
9. Tommaso Gnoli The Mithraeum of Dura-Europos: New Perspectives 126-143
10. Cristina Marta Acqua Imperial Representation at Dura-Europos: Suggestions for Urban Paths 144-164
11. Jacqueline Austin Thoughts on Two Latin Dipinti 165-176
12. Loren T. Stuckenbruck The Bilingual Palmyrene-Greek Inscriptions at Dura-Europos: A Comparison with the Bilinguals from Palmyra 177-189
13. Kai Ruffing Economic Life in Roman Dura-Europos 190-198
14. Susan B. Downey The Dangers of Adventurous Reconstruction: Frank Brown at Europos-Doura 199-205
15. Lisa R. Brody Dura-Europos and Yale: Past, Present, and Future 206-218

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