Sunday, October 13, 2019


Benjamin Henri Isaac, Empire and Ideology in the Graeco-Roman World: Selected Papers. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2017. Pp. ix, 372. ISBN 9781107135895. £90.00​.

Reviewed by Conor Whately, University of Winnipeg (

Version at BMCR home site


Over the past few decades, one of the most perceptive scholars of Rome and its empire has been Benjamin Isaac, who has waded into contentious debates like Roman racism and the multi-cultural character of the Roman world, and the degree to which the Romans engaged in strategic thinking. The seventeen chapters of this book, like Isaac's previous publications, focus on Roman military affairs, ancient prejudice and racism, and the Roman Near East.1 The dominant, underlying theme of the essays is the problem of anachronism both in terms of evidence and scholarship, and most readers should find something of value in this rich collection.

The book has a substantial introduction in which Isaac introduces each chapter; thereafter, he identifies some avenues for future research. In the first chapter Isaac examines the concept of eternal Rome, the first traces of which do not emerge until Cicero in the first century BCE. The empire could be eternal in the works of early imperial-era authors, but not the emperor. Later, Rome, the city, itself became eternal, with "eternal city" emerging as a synonym for Rome. At the same time, beginning in fourth-century Latin literature and inscriptions, the emperor himself could be styled aeternus.

Isaac discusses the relationship between allegories, personifications, and symbols and imperial victory in chapter two. His main argument is that most later commentators—after the Renaissance—have tried to understand earlier, Roman victory ideology using anachronistic contemporary experiences. This has led to misunderstandings of Greek and Roman imagery, particularly when conquered entities, like Gaul, are said to be abstract entities in Roman eyes, which Isaac argues they were not. In the course of his discussion, Isaac does raise interesting questions, such as why the large-scale battles between Greeks and Persians in the early fifth century BCE were reduced to scenes of individual combat on the Parthenon metopes.

The third chapter explores the varied forms of violence committed by the Roman military. In part, it is meant to explore the same questions as raised in R. MacMullen's 1963 book, Soldier and Civilian in the Later Roman Empire in relation to preceding periods of Roman history. Using the literary evidence, Isaac highlights a number of interesting practices, including Pilate's employment of disguises when suppressing unrest in Jerusalem. Isaac also looks at the role of soldiers as a police force and as judges. In the course of his discussion, he highlights the dynamic between soldiers and civilians in a speech in Juvenal's sixteenth satire, and Pliny's notices (Ep.10.45; 46; 120) about the use of diplomata when using the imperial post.

Technological determinism, or the lack thereof, in ancient Rome, especially as it applies to the military, is the subject of chapter four. Indeed, science did not mean the same thing in Rome that it means to us today. For Isaac, the Romans learned by experience rather than by scientific study, and this is no less true of the military. We see evidence of this in the works of the surviving military handbooks, which do not espouse methodical or scientific approaches to combat; moreover, there was no education system in place that might compensate for this deficiency.

Turning to chapter five, Isaac discusses the applicability of Wallerstein's core-periphery dynamic to the ancient world. Isaac argues that one issue in much scholarship is a clear lack of familiarity with Wallerstein's work, despite the widespread use of this model. He also holds that core-periphery was not a notion with which Greeks and Romans were familiar, nor is it one that works especially well in the ancient Mediterranean context. Isaac also touches on the "micro-ecologies" of Horden's and Purcell's The Corrupting Sea (Oxford, 2000), and ultimately argues that anyone interested in questions of empire should consider the various human connections that existed, particularly cultural ones.

The confusion that arises when looking into the inconsistent naming practices in the Roman Near East is the subject of chapter six. The concepts of ethnos and natio in particular are not as straightforward as they are often made out to be. In his discussion, Isaac looks into the history of the names Syria, Assyria, and Coele-Syria; Palestine-Judaea; Hebraioi; and Arabs/Arabians. In second century CE texts, for instance, important aspects of Syrian identity include language, culture, and clothing. In many of these cases too, we find that what had initially been a Roman administrative term, such as Palestine, later become an ethnic name. If there is any theme that runs through all these names, it is a general lack of consistency in their application.

In chapter seven, Isaac looks at select views of provincial intellectuals in the Roman Empire. Inhabitants of provincial cities in the Near East put great stock in being considered Hellenic. At first glance, it is not clear whether Hellenism in their understanding is an ethnic label or a cultural/linguistic one. What a closer examination of the extant ancient literature reveals is that while culture can be an acquired thing, one's character is innate or inherited. Indeed, in Isaac's reading of these texts, birth is a much more important factor than culture.

Proto-racism is the subject of chapter eight. Isaac addresses three points: first, whether proto-racism was common in antiquity; second, the potential close links between slavery and prejudice; and third, racism, slavery, and imperialism. Along the way, he covers a wide range of ancient views including environmental determinism; the heredity of acquired characters; form of government; and autochthony and pure lineage. He also discusses the links between these and ancient slavery and imperialism.

Following from the eighth, the ninth chapter explores views of the barbarian in Graeco-Roman literature. The first mention of a barbarian comes in Homer's Iliad at 2.867 when the Carians are called barbarophonoi. Isaac works through the references to barbarians in the Greek and Latin literature before concluding that barbarian was a much simpler concept to the Romans than the Greeks, with clear shifts in understanding over time. Among other things, Isaac observes that for Romans a barbarian was quite clearly anyone who was not Roman, and that barbari was the usual term for non-Romans in descriptions of warfare.

Chapter ten looks at the relationship between Romans and nomads in the fourth century with a view to filling a gap in his book The Invention of Racism in Classical Antiquity. The emphasis is on fourth-century literature, especially Ammianus Marcellinus, though Isaac also touches on the views of Julian, Zosimus, and Jordanes. Therein, we find the plenty of evidence for environmental racism, outlandish origin stories, and the regular characterizing of nomads, regardless of their origins (Huns and Arabs, for example), as a "category apart" (p. 241).

In chapter eleven, an extended review article of Gruen's Rethinking the Other in Antiquity, Isaac considers the multi-cultural character of the ancient Mediterranean.2 In particular, Isaac examines Gruen's claim that antiquity was "different in kind from all that followed in terms of social acceptance" (p. 242), he argues that Gruen glossed over the differences between Greek and Latin sources, and concludes that Gruen's take is too utopian. For instance, Isaac sees Tacitus' views on the Jews as far more negative than Gruen does. On the other hand, there are points where the two agree, including, notably, over the limited role of autochthony and indigenous origins in Roman thinking.

The twelfth chapter focuses on the use of Latin in the cities of the ancient Near East, especially Syria, Judaea/Palestine, and Arabia. Here Isaac asks whether Latin might ever have been more than the language of government in the region, which means tracking down those instances where the language was used outside of official circumstances, like its use as a "super high language" (p. 261) in the army. In that vein, Isaac identifies some Latin inscriptions that concern non-Roman gods at Heliopolis-Baalbek, to give one example. That said, in many places Latin is little used: soldiers did have an impact on some sites with respect to the use of Latin, but in many places the language had little political or social resonance (p. 284).

Antisemitism in antiquity is the focus of chapter thirteen. He opens with Hellenistic Egypt, which had a long history of interactions between Greeks and Jews, and for which the sources are hostile. In the next section, on the Romans, Isaac notes that they too were often hostile, with one principal reason being the perceived proselytizing of Jews in Rome. The exclusive monotheism, dietary restrictions, the Sabbath, and circumcision all draw censure. At the end, he gives five clear answers to important questions surrounding antisemitism amongst Greeks and Romans, which address, in Isaac's eyes, how the hatred felt towards Jews differed substantially from that felt towards other non-Greek and non-Roman groups (p. 303).

Isaac investigates Roman religious policy in the Bar Kokhba revolt in chapter fourteen, and he addresses the question of whether we should see the conflict as religious in nature or more akin to a local rebellion. This chapter, which follows in part from the previous one, touches on Roman attitudes to foreign religions: for Isaac, these were acceptable, so long as they were, to the Romans, morally acceptable.

Eusebius' Onomastikon is used as a means of looking for the presence of Jews, Christians, and other groups in the cities of the Near East in chapter fifteen. One of the principal questions that Isaac asks is whether the different groups, pagans, Jews, and Christians, lived together in villages or separately. Using the Onomastikon, Isaac notes that we cannot corroborate that evidence with what we find in the archaeological record. Indeed, one particularly thorny issue is that Eusebius wrote before Christianization took a firm hold in Palestine, which makes the analysis inconclusive.

Frontier defence is the subject of chapter sixteen, with a particular emphasis on the presence of fortifications along the Wadi Arabah, which runs from the Dead Sea to the Red Sea. Isaac draws on a wide body of evidence, including the Peutinger Table, though also an inscription from Yotvata, which was the best watered site in this part of the desert. What he concludes is that there was a north-south road constructed that we should connect to the transfer of the legio X Fretensis to Aqaba near the end of the third century/beginning of the fourth (CE).

In the last chapter, seventeen, Isaac sets out the changing fortunes of the border city of Hatra, and four episodes in particular: Trajan's siege in the early second century during which he himself was injured; Septimius Severus' siege in 197/198; the siege/s of Ardashir, and its later occupation by Rome by 229; and finally the city's capture by the Persians in 240. Despite the Sasanian attacks, Isaac does not see them as any more aggressive than the Parthians. Isaac also draws comparisons between Hatra and the cities of Batnae and Palmyra, which, like Hatra, were on important routes and lay between two imperial powers.

For the most part, Isaac's chapters are perceptive, thought-provoking, and convincing. He deftly deploys a wide range of evidence, both literary and epigraphic, though he also makes judicious use, where appropriate, of the artistic and documentary material, such as the column of Marcus Aurelius and the Abinnaeus archive. Yet, there are occasionally issues that might elicit closer consideration, like his discussion of images of Roman victory. Isaac is right to stress the problems with trying to understand an earlier period, here the Classical, using the experiences of later ages, the present, and he might well be right that Greeks and Romans (generally speaking) did not understand personification and allegory in the same way as we do. Yet it is fair to ask whether a Roman viewer would truly see the scenes on something like the column of Marcus Aurelius as depictions of reality, especially when they looked upon the strange deity that is meant to depict the "Rain Miracle".3 In other cases, the reader might be left wanting more, a result of the relative brevity of some chapters. For instance, in his chapter on proto-racism, Isaac connects imperialism with decline and degeneration, an interesting concept, but one that needs more support than is provided.

Ultimately, anyone interested in imperialism, the Roman military, Graeco-Roman racism, and the Roman Near East will find much of value in this book. It is one of the strengths of this collection and Isaac's work in general that it provokes important reappraisals of fundamental aspects of the ancient Mediterranean world. Whether you agree with all of them or not, his suggestions and close readings of the evidence force you to question many long-held assumptions.


1.   BMCR 1990.01.12, BMCR 2004.06.49.
2.   BMCR 2011.08.24
3.   For more discussion, see BMCR 2009.09.15.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.