Monday, March 16, 2020

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Thursday, February 13, 2020


Ine Jacobs (ed.), Asia Minor in the Long Sixth Century: Current Research and Future Directions. Oxford: Oxbow Books, 2019. Pp. viii, 245. ISBN 9781789250077. £38.00.

Reviewed by Andreas Külzer, Austrian Academy of Sciences, Division of Byzantine Research (

Version at BMCR home site

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

Especially in the first millennium, Asia Minor was one of the core regions of the Byzantine Empire, a distinctive peninsula with countless resources that were important for the prosperity of the state and its capital Constantinople. The sixth century on the other hand, the period of transition from late Antiquity to the early Middle Ages, belongs to the often discussed research topics in academic literature. The combination of both subjects, the geographical and the chronological one, in a single book title will surely arouse curiosity among academics; many scholars will have a look at this book. To say it in advance: they will not be disappointed, even high expectations are met. All in all, the present collection of thirteen essays written by historians and archaeologists on different aspects of the subject is a distinguished one.

The editors Hugh Elton and Ine Jacobs start their informative Introduction (1–8) with general methodological considerations concerning the aspects of space and time: The subdivision of history by using the category "Centuries" is sometimes problematic because of its randomness, people must be aware of the teleological aspects in their analyses. The inclusion of Thrace and the empire's capital Constantinople into the term Asia Minor is correctly justified with realities of the Byzantine administration (1, 3). Assignments and groupings of the thirteen essays follow; the editors present some interactions between single articles. Most of them, six in number, are dealing with the well documented area of the diocese Asiana in the west of Asia Minor. One of them is the following text, written by Inge Uytterhoeven, "A change of appearance. Urban housing in Asia Minor during the sixth century" (9–28). It is concentrated on settlements in Western Anatolia, among them the cities of Sardis, Hierapolis, Ephesus and Sagalassos, but also the rural area in between. In these spaces, the urban elites built luxurious residences during the fourth and fifth centuries AD, spacious and well decorated. From the sixth century onwards however, a good number of these houses changed their character, in the countryside as well as in the cities. Their aristocratic atmosphere was debased, they lost their exclusiveness and most of their decoration elements when craft businesses and taverns were set up in parts of these buildings. Henceforward, members of the lower classes lived side by side with aristocrats. This seems to be an interesting insight into the social history of that period and the former understanding of private and public space. Regardless of collecting the material, the value of this essay lays in its deep analysis. The change in space was not a single phenomenon but a supra-regional one, common in vast landscapes in Western Anatolia.

The essay of Ine Jacobs, "Pagan-mythological statuary in sixth-century Asia Minor" (29–43) deals also with aspects of public space: using the example of Sagalassos, the author emphasizes the fact that even in the sixth century pagan statues were existent in different parts of the city. Despite of all the well-known destructions, several statues survived during that time, some of them Christianized by adding appropriate attributes, some of them still reused in another context. Revisions and relocations of statutes were common. I agree with the author's statement that statues were not only a passive element of city decoration. Quite the opposite, they own an active function in urban space, even if this is difficult to realize nowadays. This applies not only for Sagalassos and Pisidia, where our knowledge is rich due to the excellent excavations and the various archaeological discoveries, but also for other cities in Asia Minor (esp. 29, 39–40).

In his article "Sixth-century Asia Minor through the lens of hagiography: ecclesiastical power and institutions in city and countryside", Efthymios Rizos underlines the importance of Asia Minor for the formation of the literary genre of hagiography (45–61); various works have been written here, many settlements, cities and villages are mentioned in the texts. There is no better documentation of rural life in late Antiquity; places like Sykeon in Galatia or Sion in Lycia became famous thanks to hagiography. Important is the observation that the main characters of the vitae were city-based bishops during the fourth and fifth centuries; in the sixth century however, the situation changed and the founders of monasteries, often based in the country-side, became the leading actors in the texts. The author's ease of handling the sources is impressive; reading of this essay is exciting and informative.

The article of Kristina Terpoy, "Studying Asia Minor in the sixth century. Methodological considerations for an economic analysis" uses three case studies in Isauria / Cilicia, in Lycia and in Northern Asia Minor to visualize that economic analyses of late Antique Anatolia at large are possible, regardless of dissimilar contemporary sources, miscellaneous research situation and regional differences that, however, do not count as a whole (63–78).

The essay of Emanuele E. Intagliata, "Forgotten borderlands. Northeastern Anatolia in the sixth century and its potential for frontier studies" focus on the wide but mountainous and in late Antiquity less inhabited landscapes of the diocese Pontica (79–90). The text is dedicated to the Byzantine defense system in so-called Tzanica, an area located by Procopius of Caesarea in the east of modern Trabzon. Just one of the seven fortresses mentioned by the historian can be identified assuredly. A lot of academic work remains to be done, as the author stresses out correctly. However, the Viennese research project Tabula Imperii Byzantini, dedicated to historical geography of the Eastern Mediterranean, will start its work in the region in the year 2020 and should help to clear the picture.

The essay of Hugh Elton, "The countryside in southern Asia Minor in the long sixth century" is dedicated to the wide area between Lycia in the West and Cilicia in the East (91–107). Using various data, written in a pleasant and erudite style, the text emphasizes the massive changes in the countryside due to Christianization and, later in the seventh century, due to the raids by Persians and Arabs. The importance of the Justinianic plague in the 540ies was obviously smaller for the countryside than for the coastlines, but the last word in this discussion is not spoken yet. The author's statements can be confirmed by the comprehensive books of Hild, Friedrich and Hansgerd Hellenkemper, Kilikien und Isaurien. Vienna: Austrian Academy of Sciences 1990, and Hellenkemper, Hansgerd and Friedrich Hild, Lykien und Pamphylien. Vienna: Austrian Academy of Sciences 2004, both with more than a thousand pages, providing further details concerning the villages and local centers in the countryside.

The rich information originating from these volumes is incorporated into the following essay, written by Angela Commito and dealing with "The cities of southern Asia Minor in the sixth century" (109–141). While urban development in the seventh century is a matter of intense academic discussion, the situation in the sixth century seems to be quite clear. The author underlines in her erudite and well-documented text the importance of sacral buildings and fortification walls as dominant monuments in urban landscapes, furthermore the importance of spoliation. The different city plans added to the text enable the reader to follow her argumentation easily. For sure, this is one of the best articles in a marvelous collection.

The following article by Hugh Jeffrey, "Aspects of sixth-century urbanism in western Asia Minor" leads to one of the most important landscapes of the Byzantine Empire, provided with various central market towns like Ephesus, Miletus, Sardis or Hierapolis (143–165). In close interaction with its predecessor, the text refers to the development of Christian ecclesiastical architecture, including, among others, references to the church of St. John in Philadelphia, modern Alaşehir, and the so- called building D in Sardis. Both structures were important for the further development of church building in Anatolia. Synagogues like the ones in Sardis or in Priene were usual components of the urban landscapes; the author underlines also the importance of bathhouses or private residences. At this point, a connection is established to the above mentioned essay by I. Uytterhoeven. The author succeeds well in illustrating the numerous phenomena in a comparatively short text.

James Crow starts his essay "Constantinople in the long sixth century" (167–180) with a clear definition concerning the "long sixth century," which he dates comprehensibly from the beginning of the reign of Emperor Anastasius I in 491 until the great siege of Constantinople by Persians and Avars in 626 (167). Skillfully, the author highlights aspects of the city's history, including the impact of the progressive Christianization on the local building stock. Concerning this article it should be emphasized again that complicated issues such as urban development are presented in a compact and well-balanced manner. The incorporated academic literature is rich and adequate, merely concerning the hinterland of Constantinople one could add Külzer, Andreas, Ostthrakien (Eurōpē) . Vienna: Austrian Academy of Sciences 2008; concerning the harbors Daim, Falco, Die byzantinischen Häfen Konstantinopels. Mainz: Roman Germanic Central Museum 2016.

To round out the volume, three regional studies are added at the end: Owen Doonan, "Industrial agriculture, intensification and collapse in Sinope and its territory during the late Roman / early Byzantine periods" (181–195) refers to an important settlement in the diocese Pontica; Andrew Wilson, "Aphrodisias in the long sixth century" (197–221) and Beate Böhlendorf-Arslan, "The glorious sixth century in Assos. The unknown prosperity of a provincial city in western Asia Minor" (223–245) are dealing with urban centers in the diocese Asiana. All of these settlements are different in structure, design and interaction with the surrounding areas.

As mentioned in the beginning, the book is a distinguished one; the individual essays are well-informed and erudite. Each is referenced with an individual, mostly exhaustive bibliography. Some additional thoughts: an overview of the articles at the end of the book, which might have served to introduce the whole topic, would have been useful but is missing. The lack of a general index is regrettable; it makes it more difficult to use the valuable information within this important essay collection. Furthermore, a compilation of the Future Directions mentioned in the title would have been welcome. In its current form, the aspects have to been worked out from the individual articles; they are therefore particular and topical. A summary from a more global perspective, similar to the Introduction, would have been nice. However, these remarks are not intended to reduce the fundamental value of this remarkable book.

Authors and titles

Chapter 1. Introduction
Chapter 2. A change of appearance. Urban housing in Asia Minor during the sixth century. Inge Uytterhoeven
Chapter 3. Pagan-mythological statuary in sixth-century Asia Minor. Ine Jacobs
Chapter 4. Sixth-century Asia Minor through the lens of hagiography: ecclesiastical power and institutions in city and countryside. Efthymios Rizos
Chapter 5. Studying Asia Minor in the sixth century. Methodological considerations for an economic analysis. Kristina Terpoy
Chapter 6. Forgotten borderlands. Northeastern Anatolia in the sixth century and its potential for frontier studies. Emanuele E. Intagliata
Chapter 7. The countryside in southern Asia Minor in the long sixth century. Hugh Elton
Chapter 8. The cities of southern Asia Minor in the sixth century. Angela Commito
Chapter 9. Aspects of sixth-century urbanism in western Asia Minor.
Hugh Jeffery
Chapter 10. Constantinople in the long sixth century. James Crow
Chapter 11. Industrial agriculture, intensification and collapse in Sinope and its territory during the late Roman/early Byzantine periods. Owen Doonan
Chapter 12. Aphrodisias in the long sixth century. Andrew Wilson
Chapter 13. The glorious sixth century in Assos. The unknown prosperity of a provincial city in western Asia Minor. Beate Böhlendorf-Arslan
(read complete article)


Emanuela Bianchi, Sara Brill, Brooke Holmes (ed.), Antiquities Beyond Humanism. Classics in Theory. Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press, 2019. Pp. viii, 310. ISBN 9780198805670. $100.00.

Reviewed by Colin C. Smith, University of Colorado—Boulder (

Version at BMCR home site

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

According to the traditional narrative, humanism begins in the Renaissance as a return to the distinctly Greco-Roman conception of the primacy of the human subject. While this view is not entirely misguided, an overcommitment to it entails the danger of missing the senses in which the human subject for the ancients is not primary, but instead is positioned within a broader continuum that also includes inorganic matter, nonhuman animals, and the gods. Thus conceived, humans are but one among the beings and forces within the agential cosmos, which is itself possessed of the same nous that characterizes the human.

In Antiquities Beyond Humanism, scholars working in and among philosophy, classics, political theory, and comparative literature explore a series of topics regarding the interactions between ancient thought and the turn enacted through contemporary posthumanism and new materialism to consider this neglected aspect of ancient thinking. To be sure, the book is of significant interest to those who study subjects in continental philosophy like psychoanalysis, feminist theory, queer theory, and object-oriented ontology. But this excellent volume also should be read by those with broader interest in antiquity, as it demonstrates ways in which the ancient texts continue to be of the greatest value to promising new movements in contemporary thinking.

The book is an installment in Oxford University Press's Classics in Theory series, in which critical theory is brought to bear on classical studies. Having begun as the conference "Posthuman Antiquities" at New York University in November 2014, the volume includes an introduction, and thirteen further chapters divided between three sections. The authors touch on subjects taken from throughout Greco-Roman antiquity, including Homer, the Presocratics, Attic tragedy, Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, the Stoics, Hellenistic poetry, and Ovid. Indeed, the scope of ancient subjects covered is among the book's many virtues.

In the Introduction, the editors begin by reviewing the putative influence of antiquity on Renaissance humanism, before turning to consider the historical interpretations undergirding the recent posthumanistic reception of antiquity, including the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century German neo-humanists, E. R. Dodd's The Greeks and the Irrational (1951) and its reception among the postwar French classicists influenced by structuralism, the feminist turn among classicists in the 1970s and 1980s, the critical theories of Foucault, Deleuze, and Guattari, and the complicated role of the ancients in recent critical feminist thinking represented by figures like Elizabeth Grosz, Judith Butler, and Luce Irigaray.

Part 1 is titled 'Posthuman Antiquities?' and includes four chapters through which this very possibility is interrogated. It begins with Adriana Cavarero's "The Human Reconceived: Back to Socrates with Arendt." Cavarero takes up a very different conception of posthumanism than that which will follow in later papers, by focusing on the totalitarian eradication of human subjectivity represented by Nazi posthumanism. She addresses Hannah Arendt's view that so-called 'Platonic metaphysics' inaugurates the "abstract ontology" that "prevents the metaphysical tradition from thinking a 'pure' concept of politics" and thereby finds its conclusion in the radical evil of Nazi posthumanism (34-5). She distinguishes this from Arendt's conception of Socrates and his imperative to 'know thyself' as it offers a critical response to the social conditions that allow for banal evil represented by Eichmann, by indicating the wonder (to thaumazein) of human plurality. Ramona Naddaff continues the discussion of Socrates with "Hearing Voices: The Sounds in Socrates' Head." Naddaff is interested in Socrates' daimonic voice, particularly with regard to the way it connects Socrates with the more-than-human realm of the divine. Socrates contains both himself and an 'other,' understood as a divine moral legislator beyond merely human rationality, and thus Naddaff situates the philosopher as the paradigmatic posthuman. Next, Michael Naas writes in "Song and Dance Man: Plato and the Limits of the Human" on the Athenian Stranger's odd separation in the Laws of the human from the nonhuman through the notions of singing and dancing. Naas argues that the human conceived as a zōion echon mousikēn kai choreian implies the distinctly human share of the greater cosmic order represented by music and dance, with music and dance acting as the kinds of measurement through which humans respond to the structure of nature. In "Tragedy and the Posthuman," Miriam Leonard considers Greek conceptions of the human and the monstrous through Attic tragedy, and especially its depiction of Oedipus. Leonard uses the psychoanalytic theory of Freud and Lacan, along with some Nietzschean concepts, to conclude that Oedipus is "both a pharmakos — a sacrificial animal — and a tyrannos — a divine king" (92). Oedipus thus is more and less than human, capturing the sense in which Greek tragedy indicates the larger spectrum of possibility in which the human is positioned.

Part 2 includes four chapters dealing with 'Alternate Zoologies,' or the fluidity among categories of living beings and natural forces. The first is Sara Brill's "Aristotle's Meta-Zoology: Shared Life and Human Animality in the Politics", which considers Aristotle's political and biological thought. Brill concludes that the human condition entails a radical intensification of non-human animal sociality, leading to an account of the political as the place (topos) in which the 'living-together' (syzēn) of human life (bios) unfolds. Kristin Sampson argues in "Sounds of Subjectivity or Resonances of Something Other" that the meaning of 'voice' (phōnē) is broadly conceived as a natural force in Homer before later becoming tied to the human individual in thinkers like Plato. Sampson bases this thesis on the notion of 'corporeality without body,' or the view (influenced by Bruno Snell and Hermann Fränkel) that the Homeric subject "has" neither body nor soul but instead is a kind of corporeality that lacks an underlying entity or substance. Sampson unpacks this compelling account through a consideration of voice broadly, a thorough review of its appearances in the Homeric texts, and a subsequent comparative discussion of the role of voice in Plato's Protagoras. In "Shared Life as Chorality in Schiller, Hölderlin, and Hellenistic Poetry," Mark Payne addresses a kind of poetic mediation between the human and non-human realm that he calls 'chorality' by considering some works of Schiller, Wordsworth, and Hölderlin alongside the Hymns of Callimachus and the Homeric "Hymn to Delian Apollo." Payne argues that chorality represents a kind of self-recognition through participation in a chorus, made possible through intersubjectivity and expanded sociality (141). Concluding the section, Giulia Sissa offers in "Apples and Poplars, Nuts and Bulls: The Poetic Biosphere of Ovid's Metamorphoses" a discussion of the principles of change, flux, and stability at play in the speech of the character Pythagoras of Samos. From this, Sissa develops an account of the cosmos as the space in which that which is present remains despite losing its identity, or what she calls a posthuman kind of becoming. Sissa unpacks this with close reference to the notion of food and the kind of anthropocentric vegetarianism for which the Pythagoras character advocates.

Part 3, 'Anthro-Excentric,' comprises five papers on non-human forces and their emergent and interactive senses. In "Hyperobjects, OOO, and the Eruptive Classics—Field Notes of an Accidental Tourist," James I. Porter considers the relationship between the contemporary movements like OOO (object-oriented ontology) and speculative realism, and ancient thinking as represented by Heraclitus, Empedocles, Seneca, and Lucretius. After offering a crisp and helpful review of the contemporary theory, Porter turns to the ancient texts to argue that "ancient selves are ongoing emergencies, ongoing experiments in living on the edge and in extremis, the aim of which is to find an ethical relationship not in the first instance to one's self, but rather to the blank contingency and indifference of the world in all its absolute and irrevocable necessity" (203). Also dealing with emergence, Emanuela Bianchi argues in "Nature Trouble: Ancient physis and Queer Performativity" for a conception of nature (physis) in ancient thinking as an emergent performativity on the model of Butler's thinking, albeit not framed with reference to the human as in Butler. Bianchi argues instead that nature on this model is a performative field of coming to be and passing away, and is furthermore queer insofar as the non-human entities composing nature "continually play hide and seek, withdraw and manifest, to and with one another, and to and with us" (229). Bianchi draws on a wide range of theorists including Butler, Irigaray, John Sallis, and, more critically, Grosz and Karen Barad, to develop her account.

In "On Stoic Sympathy: Cosmobiology and the Life of Nature," Brooke Holmes offers a rich and thorough discussion of the role of sympathy in Stoic metaphysics. She describes sympathy for the Stoics as a kind of "film of becoming" that makes possible and organizes the web of causes binding together the whole of Nature (240). Holmes draws on modern thinkers like Deleuze and Grosz while also working closely with the ancient texts to develop her view of Stoic sympathy as speaking to the double perspective of living beings insofar as they are open to external change from without and yet possessed of internal nature and mindfulness. Holmes' argument for sympathy as a superordinate cosmic principle will certainly be of much interest to anyone working on the Stoics. In "Immanent Mmateral: Figures of Time in Aristotle, Bergson, and Irigaray," Rebecca Hill offers a new account of the notion of time in Aristotle as constituted in a meaningful way by difference, which both chronos and kinēsis necessarily entail, and with close reference to gender. Hill conceives of this not as a challenge to the traditional view of the connection between time and motion in Aristotle's thinking, but instead as an account of a more primordial understanding on which it depends and that has meaningful similarities to the understandings of time found in Bergson and Irigaray. Claudia Baracchi's chapter "In Light of eros" concludes the section and the volume. Here Baracchi considers eros as a cosmic principle that undergirds and precedes scientific knowledge (epistēmē) and discourse (logos). With reference to key passages in Aristotle's Metaphysics and Plato's Symposium, Baracchi interprets eros as a principle of creation and destruction that indicates a kind of androgyny capable of jointly sustaining creation and destruction.

Among the volume's many virtues, I am struck in particular by the boldness among all authors in staking out interpretively ambitious stances that offer great potential reward. At times I found myself wanting some authors to go into more depth with some of the ancient texts they cite to show exactly how they take a given point to be at play therein. Ultimately, the book offers occasion to rethink human positioning in light of the horrific errors regarding self-conception in our own time by returning to the ancient view of the interconnected cosmos in which the human is merely a part, and one materially dependent on the whole.

Authors and titles

1. Introduction / Emanuela Bianchi, Sara Brill, and Brooke Holmes

Part 1: Posthuman Antiquities?
2. The human reconceived: back to Socrates with Arendt / Adriana Cavarero
3. Hearing voices: the sounds in Socrates' head / Ramona Naddaff
4. Song and dance man: Plato and the limits of the human / Michael Naas
5. Precarious life: tragedy and the posthuman / Miriam Leonard

Part 2: Alternative Zoologies
6. Aristotle's meta-zoology: shared life and human animality in the Politics / Sara Brill
7. Sounds of subjectivity or resonances of something other / Kristin Sampson
8. Shared life as chorality in Schiller, Hölderlin, and Hellenistic poetry / Mark Payne
9. Apples and poplars, nuts and bulls: the poetic biosphere of Ovid's Metamorphoses / Giulia Sissa

Part 3: Anthro-Excentric
10. Hyperobjects, OOO, and the eruptive classics – field notes of an accidental tourist / James I. Porter
11. Nature trouble: ancient physis and queer performativity / Emanuela Bianchi
12. On Stoic sympathy: cosmobiology and the life of nature / Brooke Holmes
13. Immanent maternal: figures of time in Aristotle, Bergson, and Irigaray / Rebecca Hill
14. In light of eros / Claudia Baracchi
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Patricia A. Rosenmeyer, The Language of Ruins: Greek and Latin Inscriptions on the Memnon Colossus. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018. Pp. xix, 262. ISBN 9780190626310. $90.00.

Reviewed by Felipe Rojas, Brown University (

Version at BMCR home site

Publisher's Preview

Enta geweorc is an Old English poetic collocation used to describe the traces of dilapidated monumental architecture in the landscape of Early Medieval England. Those words—which mean "work of giants"—offer a glimpse into how the material remains of Roman Britain (perhaps specifically the ruins of a monumental bath) were understood by some of the inhabitants of the island long after the fall of the Roman Empire.1 They also provide a distant analog to the types of evidence and themes Patricia A. Rosenmeyer examines in this rich and rewarding book. The Language of Ruins will be of interest to classicists studying topics as diverse as Roman antiquarianism, ancient pilgrimage and elite tourism, and the reception of Homer and Sappho in the first few centuries AD. The book also has much to offer those working on Egyptomania, the cross-cultural understanding of ruins, and the entanglement of vernacular and learned as well as ancient and modern discourses about antiquities.2

Monumental ruins around the world have often provoked wonder among later generations of interpreters. Occasionally, those ruins have incited awestruck visitors to carve textual records of their presence on them. The inscribed ruin with which this book is concerned is one of a pair of colossal anthropomorphic statues in a necropolis of Egyptian Thebes (modern Luxor), originally erected in the fourteenth century BC to commemorate Amenhotep III. From at least the first century BC, that statue was understood by Greeks and Romans as a memorial not to an Egyptian pharaoh, but rather to the Homeric hero Memnon, a mythical king of the Ethiopians who was killed by Achilles in Troy. The so-called "Colossus of Memnon" bears an archive of ancient interpretations of the statue's significance in the form of 107 Greek and Latin inscriptions, carved in the first three centuries AD. Evidently, that statue attracted as much attention in Roman antiquity as it has since European explorers, antiquarians, and scholars began to write about it and illustrate it in the early eighteenth century AD.

In Chapter 1, Rosenmeyer describes the statues in Thebes, the ancient literary sources that mention them (including those dealing with the origins of the speaking ruin), and the ancient inscriptions carved on that statue's legs.3 As both the inscriptions and the literary sources attest, many different people traveled far specifically to visit the Colossus. Visitors were there also to audit, as it were: to examine with their ears as much as with their eyes. In 27 or 26 BC, an earthquake seems to have damaged one of the colossal statues, somehow generating the physical conditions under which it produced a howl or shriek when heated by the sun's rays. The sound ceased at some point in the late second or third century AD, perhaps as a result of imperial intervention.4

In Chapter 2, Rosenmeyer considers the motivations of the various foreign visitors who left their mark on the colossus. Most of those people were military and administrative officers (including eight prefects of Egypt). A few of them registered the presence of their wives and children; some of those wives (including Hadrian's spouse Sabina) left inscriptions of their own. So did sophists and poets (including women who wrote in different archaizing styles). Rosenmeyer teases differences between intellectual and religious, or secular and sacred motivations, but clear-cut distinctions are anachronistic. She also probes the visitors' yearning to be present in all their individual specificity by calling attention to the insistence with which many of them recorded the time of day at which they heard Memnon's wondrous voice (pp. 27-33).

In Chapter 3, Rosenmeyer ponders "How to converse with a statue". The common, yet contradictory drive to experience what others had already experienced (i.e., Memnon's voice), and to do so in a way that was at the same time intensely personal is repeatedly attested in the inscriptions. This chapter demonstrates that Memnon and his visitors were mutually constitutive. In Thebes, dialogue with the past occurred viva voce. Successive performative visits by a diverse array of people animated broken rock; the sound of that rock made the visit worthwhile for foreign travelers. Memnon's voice turned those travelers into witnesses of the divine—or at least of the vividness of the traces of the Homeric (or Egyptian) past. Rosenmeyer marshals the inscriptions that attest to the challenge and the excitement of dialogue with the ruin. This chapter will be of particular interest to scholars thinking about the unstable ontological status of certain statues in classical antiquity. The author's discussion of the various ways ancient visitors engaged in conversation with Memnon deserves readers beyond classics. The evidence is remarkably explicit and abundant. It is easy to imagine embarking on comparative exploration with cultural traditions elsewhere in the world in which matter was—and sometimes still is—alive. 5

Homer was a lens through which to interpret the material remains of the past for travelers throughout the Greek and Roman worlds. In Chapter 4, Rosenmeyer explores how different people used the Homeric texts to make sense of the colossus. Especially valuable is her emphasis on the social range of Homeric interpreters. She surveys the many inscribers who wrote or commissioned inscriptions that engaged with Homer and also the various ways in which those engagements happened. Many people invoked Homer through lexical archaisms or the use of short epic phrases. But one of them, the poet Arius, borrowed four Homeric lines whole-cloth and rearranged them in an epigraphic cento. The heterogeneous intertexts allow Rosenmeyer to shed light on the inscribers' self-positioning with respect to both the ruin and Greek literary tradition. As she shows, Arius purloined Homeric lines to animate the speaking statue of an epic hero, and also to present himself as a living Homeric poet.

In Chapter 5, "Sapphic Memnon", Rosenmeyer deals mostly with the poems of Julia Balbilla, who visited Thebes as part of Hadrian's retinue in November 130 AD. Balbilla's poems are famous because they are written in an artificial Aeolic dialect, using Sappho, rather than Homer, as a literary compass. Those inscriptions have received more attention than any others on the colossus. Much energy has been spent opining about their aesthetic value. Whatever twentieth and twenty-first century scholars may think about Balbilla's verses, the poems are fascinating cultural artifacts. Her inscriptions, along with those of the poet Claudia Damo and a handful of other inscriptions on the colossus, provide valuable insight into how Roman women interacted with ruins, with Greek and Roman literary culture, and with conflicting historical traditions. Although Rosenmeyer is right in claiming that most of the inscriptions are concerned only with the Greek interpretation of the colossus, Balbilla's texts furnish incontrovertible evidence that multiple memory horizons coincided and clashed at the site. Balbilla herself records conflicting traditions about the honorand of the statue, some of which she learned from "[Egyptian] priests who knew stories of old" (poem 29 line 4).

In Chapter 6 Rosenmeyer turns to texts written by seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth-century European travelers and intellectuals. She draws connections and contrasts between ancient and modern interpreters and interpretations and detects a major shift in the attitude of early modern visitors towards the colossus with respect to that of their predecessors. Europeans wanted to appropriate antiquities and, paradoxically, to abduct those antiquities from Egypt so as to "literally bring them 'home'" (p. 203). This chapter also extends into more recent periods several themes treated in earlier chapters. The debate about the implications of a once vocal—indeed animated—statue gains new relevance in the early modern period when different intellectuals were themselves preoccupied with the existence of sophisticated, and potentially deceitful automata.

The Language of Ruins's principal contribution is subjecting the entire inscriptional corpus on the colossus—and not just choice portions of that corpus—to critical analysis. For a study of inscriptions carved directly on an archaeological ruin in Egypt, however, the book is unapologetically philological and centered almost exclusively on foreign (i.e., Roman and later European) understandings of that ruin. Egyptians of any period are almost totally absent. But as Balbilla's poem 29 shows, Egyptian perspectives were available to ancient visitors as they are to anyone who visits the site now. A few ancient commentators explicitly note that the noise the statue emitted may have been due to local priests who intentionally manufactured a miracle (pp. 10-11).5 Rosenmeyer's reliance on texts is in some ways unobjectionable. She is, after all, a philologist. But the colossus has existed in many media. The early modern desire to collect can only be very partially explored through the written record. Key manifestations of that desire are missed by focusing exclusively on words; the instruments whereby European travelers captured their archaeological prey were very often drawings, photographs, and rubbings.6

Rosenmeyer largely subscribes to the trope of oblivion and rediscovery of the statue. The end of classical antiquity results in cultural amnesia (p. 176) followed by sudden anamnesis with the advent of the "intrepid European explorers" (p.169). Oblivion and rescue are at best myopic tropes, even if they are foundational to the disciplines of classics and archaeology. Absolute indifference for the colossus or other material remains of the past must be demonstrated. What did people think of the statue in the many intervening centuries? How did locals explain its origins and meaning? If vernacular discourses about antiquities in countries such as Greece and Italy have often been ignored by classicists, neglect has been more extreme in Muslim lands and it deserves redress. The statues in Thebes were never lost or forgotten (except by the authors in whom classicists are usually interested). The people who lived and continue to live by those statues have always known of their existence and have had not only their own explanations of the meaning and significance of those monuments, but also their own manners of interaction with them and their own strategies of interpretation. What's more, local and foreign traditions are rarely fully separate—perhaps they cannot be. When in the mid-nineteenth century the American Arabist Edward Joy Morris visited the monument, he noted the following: "There are no modern inscriptions, but there is a kind of traditionary record of the former vocality of this statue still lingering among the Arabs, for they call it Salamaat, or the statue that bids good morning."7

Rosenmeyer concludes with a suggestion that the inscriptions on the statue continue to speak "the universal language of ruins". And yet, as this very book shows, there is no such thing, but rather a babel of tongues about the traces of the past. Not all speakers recognize each other as interlocutors. Indeed not all of them recognize "ruins" as valid indices of the past 8. Rosenmeyer should be commended for breathing life into all the Greek and Latin inscriptions on the colossus. I hope her book also inspires her readers to resuscitate other Memnons, both in Thebes and beyond.


1.   The words are part of an eighth or ninth-century poem known as "The Ruin". A scholarly edition of that poem can be found in Philip Krapp and Elliot Van Kirk Dobbie (eds.), The Exeter Book, New York: Columbia University Press, 1936, pp. 227-229.
2.   See, for instance, Alain Schnapp et al. eds. World Antiquarianism: Comparative Perspectives, Los Angeles: Getty Research Institute, 2013, and Alain Schnapp, Ruines: essai de perspective comparée. Collection, Lyon: Presses universitaires de Lyon, 2015.
3.   The inscriptions have been available since they were edited by André and Étienne Bernard, Les inscriptions grecques et latines du colosse de Memnon Paris: Institut français d'archéologie orientale, 1960.
4.   Since the nineteenth century, Septimius Severus has been associated with restoration efforts that either silenced the statue or were prompted by its sudden muteness. In "The Miracle of Memnon," Bulletin of the American Society of Papyrologists 21, no. 1 (1984): 21–32, Glen Bowersock raised the intriguing possibility that the restorer may have been the Palmyrene empress Zenobia.
5.   See, for example, Stephen D. Houston, The Life within: Classic Maya and the Matter of Permanence. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2014.
6.   Visual documentation extends the life of the statue well beyond the academic realm. See, e.g., Clipper ship Memnon.
7.   Morris, Edward Joy. Notes of a Tour through Turkey, Greece, Egypt, Arabia Petræa, to the Holy Land: Including a Visit to Athens, Sparta, Delphi, Cairo, Thebes, Mt. Sinai, Petra, & c.: By E. Joy Morris. Philadelphia: Carey and Hart, 1843, quote on p. 90.
8.   For ruins (or the lack thereof) in China and among the Inca, see Hung Wu, A Story of Ruins: Presence and Absence in Chinese Art and Visual Culture. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2012, and Steve Kosiba, "Ancient Artifice: The Production of Antiquity and the Social Roles of Ruins in the Heartland of the Inca Empire." In Benjamin Anderson and Felipe Rojas (eds.), Antiquarianisms: Contact, Conflict, Comparison, Oxford: Oxbow, 2017, pp. 72–108 (on which see BMCR 2018.06.04).

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Sabine R. Huebner, Papyri and the Social World of the New Testament. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2019. Pp. xv, 192. ISBN 9781108455701. $24.99 (pb).

Reviewed by Brent Nongbri, MF Norwegian School of Theology, Religion, and Society (

Version at BMCR home site


I can still recall the thrill I felt as an undergraduate the first time I encountered a dusty copy of Adolf Deissmann's Light from the Ancient East.1 Here were the texts of actual ancient papyri and inscriptions put into conversation with early Christian literature, illuminating not only the vocabulary of the texts but also the social world in which ancient Christians lived. And it had so many great pictures of papyri, ostraca, inscriptions, and more! But as I returned to the book over the years, my enthusiasm waned a bit. Deissmann's romanticism and orientalism did not age well, the peculiar theological axes he was grinding became more prominent with repeated readings, and at 467 pages of text (never mind indices), the book was cumbersome. But what if there was a streamlined, up-to-date, and methodologically sophisticated effort to bring the papyrological record to bear on the understanding of the social world of early Christians? And what if it was written by a trained historian instead of a theologian? And what if, on top of all that, it was just as well illustrated as Deissmann's book?

Enter Sabine Huebner's Papyri and the Social World of the New Testament. This engaging book offers a series of case studies showing what can be gained when a specialist in the field of ancient history, particularly in papyrology, turns to texts and questions that are typically examined within the framework of New Testament studies. Huebner sets out to study "common people … individuals of lower social classes" in the hopes of shedding new light on the world of the New Testament, a world that New Testament scholars "fail to properly set into context" because they are, according to Huebner, "generally unaware of the latest research on the periods and social strata with which they are concerned" (2-3).

An opening chapter introduces the main body of evidence Huebner employs, the papyri of Roman Egypt. An efficient overview of the rise of Christianity in Egypt is followed by a short but convincing argument that the documentary remains that have survived from Roman Egypt generally reflect the social reality of the Roman world more widely. That is to say, the Egyptian evidence can illuminate other areas of the Roman world where written evidence of everyday life is less plentiful, particularly Galilee and Judea.

Having laid that groundwork, chapter 2 turns to an analysis of P.Bas. 2.43, a papyrus letter recently identified by Huebner as the earliest surviving Christian document. The letter is obviously Christian, as it closes with a distinctively Christian formula—"I pray that you fare well in the Lord," the last word of which (κυρίῳ) is abbreviated in the typical Christian fashion (κω, a so-called nomen sacrum). In a forthcoming edition of the papyrus, Huebner will argue on prosopographical grounds that the letter came from Theadelphia in the Fayum and was written in the 230s, decades before the next earliest surviving Christian documents.2 The contents of the letter thus give us a tantalizing glimpse of some Egyptian Christians outside Alexandria at a relatively early period. We find that this particular group of Christians ran in fairly elite circles, as the letter is concerned with the gymnasiarchy and the city council.

The third and densest chapter proposes an ingenious new solution to the old problem of the Augustan census mentioned in Luke 2:1-2. Huebner sets the narrative in Luke in the context of what we can know about different kinds of censuses taken in the early imperial period. By charitably assuming that the author of the gospel was not ignorant of basic historical facts, Huebner proposes that what was being described in Luke 2:1 was not the provincial census taken when Quirinius was governor of Syria in 6 CE (which is mentioned by Josephus as the cause of an uprising). Instead, Huebner begins by pointing to two passing comments of early Christian authors. First, Justin Martyr states that the birth of Jesus took place when Quirinius was a procurator (ἐπίτροπος, Apol. 1.34). Second, Tertullian states that Jesus was born just after the census of Sentius Saturninus, who, according to Josephus, was the governor (ἐπιμελητής, ἡγεμών) of Syria from 9-6 BCE (Tert. Adv. Marc. 4.19; Jos. Ant. 16.10.8, 17.1.1). Huebner thus suggests that Luke must be referring to an otherwise unattested "client state census" under Herod that took place at the same time as the Roman imperial census of 8 BCE, when Gaius Sentius Saturninus was the governor of Syria. In this scenario, Quirinius would be the lower official that actually carried out the census, the prefect (that is to say, the office typically designated in papyri by substantive participial forms of the Greek term ἡγεμονεύω).3 The solution resolves the tension with our other source for the birth of Jesus, namely the Gospel according to Matthew, which places the birth of Jesus during the reign of Herod the Great. It also places the census in a period when both Nazareth and Bethlehem would have fallen under a single jurisdiction (which was not the case in 6 CE). With regard to the problem of Joseph travelling to Bethlehem "because he was descended from the house and lineage of David," Huebner again turns to an early Christian commentator, this time John Chrysostom, who argued that Joseph (and Mary) must have been "citizens" (πολῖται) of Bethlehem and only temporarily resident in Nazareth (In diem natalem PG 49 col. 351). Huebner finds such a scenario reasonable in light of the movements of people mentioned in surviving papyrus census returns from Egypt: "Luke's description seems thoroughly realistic if one accepts that his intent was to leave his readers with the impression that Joseph's family was originally from Bethlehem and owned some property there" (42).4 Huebner's reading is both plausible and intriguing even if this class of census (the "client state census") is not terribly well attested.

Chapter 4 turns briefly to three literary papyri, the surviving copies of the Gospel according to Mary, a text that depicts Mary as the one in possession of secret knowledge who teaches the other disciples. This functions as an entrée into an exploration of the status of women in Christian communities in Egypt. Although women played important roles in monastic settings, there is no evidence for female clergy in Egypt despite a wealth of papyrological documentation for clerics. This differs from the situation outside Egypt, where evidence exists for a female presence in church hierarchies. Huebner posits two possible explanations for this phenomenon: the relatively late spread of Christianity in the Egyptian countryside and the influence of Demetrius, bishop of Alexandria from 189 to 232, whose proto-orthodox views likely left little space for women in positions of power within the church. Yet, Huebner points out the well documented circulation in Egypt of certain Christian literary texts that depicted women in positions of power shows at least an interest in alternative views among some Egyptian Christians.

The fifth chapter gathers the evidence for what we can know about carpenters in the Roman world. Census returns suggest carpenters typically had a small household (unlike farmers, who required extended families to help with agricultural labor). Papyri and ostraca also give the impression that carpenters were mobile, following construction work where it led. They could have periods of apprenticeship that lasted up to six years. Because Jesus is depicted in the gospels as being able to read, Huebner notes that ancient readers of the gospels would have assumed he had a decent education, further implying that Joseph must have been reasonably financially successful. Huebner places carpenters generally in the class of "craftsmen," not especially highly regarded in Roman society but considerably better off than unskilled day laborers.

Chapter 6 again takes its starting point from the opening of the Gospel according to Luke, specifically Mary's trip from Nazareth to Judea (1:39), which prompts Huebner to ask what we can know about ancient travel. The main motivation for travel was trade and state-sponsored movement of goods, but other occasions for travel noted in the papyri include festivals, birthdays, sicknesses or deaths in the family, and court hearings. Huebner also notes evidence for women in particular travelling in connection with births, often to assist a friend or relative. Travel by foot was common. For those with means, donkeys, wagons, and boats offered greater speed and comfort, but the weather and bandits were an ever-present threat to travelers. For travel lasting more than a day, the best option was staying with networks of friends, but commercial inns were also available.

In the final full chapter, Huebner returns to shepherds, asking what we can know about this profession. She points out that while scholars have studied the image of the shepherd in ancient mythology and literature, the lives of actual shepherds have remained obscure. Despite limited space for pastures in Egypt, the papyri do record the presence and activities of shepherds in the Roman era. Declarations of sheep and goats show that owners of herds would either hire shepherds individually or pool resources to share a shepherd. The hired shepherd (νομεύς) was distinct from the rather rarer case of an owner of a herd acting as a shepherd (ποιμήν). To judge from declarations of livestock, the typical herd in Roman Egypt was about 80 to 100 animals, consisting of mostly sheep with a few goats. The work of the shepherd included leading animals to grazing areas, making sure they were secure at night, and handling the birth of new animals. According to surviving account books, shepherds were quite poorly paid. Shepherds also appear with some frequency in petitions, often being accused of grazing herds on someone else's fields.

In a short "Afterword," Huebner reiterates the need for students of the New Testament to pay greater attention to the quotidian history of the lower classes, among whom were the earliest followers of Jesus. On the other hand, she also admonishes ancient historians to make better use of early Christian sources.

Huebner brings an impressive array of sources together to recontextualize several figures and passages from the gospels from different angles. Yet, the book remains very readable. The 27 color images and 8 well-labelled maps nicely enhance the text. Despite the title of the book, Huebner for the most part limits her discussion to the gospels (the book might more accurately be called Papyri and the Social World of Jesus), and this leaves the door open for future studies taking a similar approach to the more urban settings of other New Testament texts, like the Pauline letters. Given the fruitful results of Huebner's work on display here, I hope such future studies appear sooner rather than later.


1.   Adolf Deissmann, Light from the Ancient East: The New Testament Illustrated by Recently Discovered Texts of the Graeco-Roman World (rev. ed.; trans. Lionel R. M. Strachan; New York and London: Harper & Row, 1927).
2.   Sabine R. Huebner, "P.Bas. II.43 R," in Sabine R. Huebner and W. Graham Claytor, Isabelle Marthot-Santaniello, and Matthias Müller (eds.), Papyri of the University Library of Basel (P.Bas. II) (Berlin: de Gruyter, forthcoming).
3.   Huebner may overstate her case here in claiming that "Luke certainly does not call Quirinius a governor" (46). Both the noun ἡγεμών and the verb ἡγεμονεύω seem to translate a variety of Latin words indicating positions of authority ranging all the way from princeps down to praefectus, and including legatus and praeses provinciae. See the sources gathered in Hugh J. Mason, Greek Terms for Roman Institutions: A Lexicon and Analysis (Toronto: Hakkert, 1974), 51-52.
4.   This point about Bethlehem as Joseph's hometown finds further strong support in Stephen C. Carlson, "The Accommodations of Joseph and Mary in Bethlehem: Κατάλυμα in Luke 2.7," New Testament Studies 56 (2010), 326-342.

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