Mysterious family affair on the dark fringes of the greatest empire the world had ever known

The Middle East under Rome
January 6, 2006

Some time in AD267 or 268, the man who had defeated the Persian king Shapur and saved Rome's governance of the Near East lost his life. The many sources that give evidence on Septimius Odaenathus's death are far from being unequivocal: was he murdered? Did he die in an accident? Who, if anybody, was responsible for his death?

Undisputed is the uniqueness of Odaenathus's career, from a local clan chief in Palmyra to the leading figure in the Great Game between Rome and Persia. In 260, when the Roman Emperor Valerianus was taken prisoner by the Persian King Shapur, he filled the power vacuum, won a series of battles and put the Persian capital Ctesiphon under siege. No doubt Odaenathus was the man of the moment: he had turned Palmyra, his native city, from a commercial metropolis in the desert into a veritable political power on the fringes of the Roman Empire.

Likewise exceptional were the events in the aftermath of his death: Odaenathus's widow Zenobia claimed the imperial purple for herself and for her underage son Vaballathus. Mother and son were defeated by the Emperor Aurelian in 4, but only after several years of fierce combat.

For 15 years, Palmyra was one of the focal points of imperial politics. Its short stand on the stage of world history cannot be explained in conventional terms: striking is Palmyra's ascent to great power under Odaenathus, puzzling its apogee and collapse under Zenobia. What gave the metropolis in the desert the military potential to overcome the Persian threat? How could a single family turn the Roman colonia into a virtual principality? And what was the motivation behind Zenobia's grasp for world power? Did she aim at establishing an Arab empire? Or was her revolt no more than an "abortive claim to the empire" (as argued by Fergus Millar)?

Whoever wants to understand the political semantics of the Palmyrene episode, has to explore the jungle of cultural traditions and identities in the Roman Near East, a continuum stretching (at least) D'Alexandre à Zénobie (the original French title of Maurice Sartre's The Middle East under Rome ), from Alexander the Great to Zenobia. Hence, the French title sounds like a promise, a reminiscence of French historical scholarship. It evokes an interest in structure rather than events, in the longue durée rather than in a short-winded narrative historiography. Continuity is one major issue in the continuing debate about the cultural affiliation of Rome's eastern provinces, and filling the documentary lacuna of Hellenism (which is, as far as the Near East is concerned, literally a Dark Age) is still a principal aim of epigraphers and archaeologists working in the field of the Roman Near East.

This abridged English edition covers the political history from the Roman conquest of Syria (64BC) to the early 3rd century AD, then turns to some structural aspects of culture and society and closes with the events leading to the collapse of the Palmyrene "empire". Sartre was certainly not well advised when he followed Glen Bowersock's suggestion to shorten the book by focusing exclusively on the Roman part of the whole story and deleting the chapters on Hellenism altogether. Not only does the truncated text refer repeatedly to thrown-out chapters, but what remains of D'Alexandre à Zénobie cannot keep up with Kevin Butcher's Roman Syria and the Near East , to say nothing of Millar's The Roman Near East . Whereas both Butcher and Millar ask straight questions (concerning cultural identity in the eastern periphery of the Roman Empire) and then, although using different methods, give different but quite straight answers, Sartre neither raises any questions nor does applies any methodology to the abundance of material he discusses. The result is a learned, highly readable and even entertaining volume, but if history, as has been said, is located somewhere between explaining and understanding, this book fails to be a historical one.

Sartre's portrayal of the Roman Empire as a monolithic political formation and of its actions as the outcome of deliberate political strategy is inconsistent with recent research. In such a conception, cities such as Palmyra, Edessa, Dura-Europos or Hatra get "incorporated into the Roman Empire"; they figure either as "parts" of the Roman Empire or not. The very notion of empire, however, suggests (in contrast to that of nation-state) that there was a broad frontier zone of settlement and conquest in which it was not at issue whether a city belonged to Rome but to what extent. The Romans had no consistent strategy how to operate in this twilight of political and cultural ambiguity, as is witnessed by the cases of so many client principalities (not "principates", as the translation puts it) first annexed and then restored, in several instances more than once.

The intricacies and imponderabilities of frontier diplomacy fail to appear in Sartre's version of the region's political history; and neither does the complexity of cultural identity in the respective chapters on the economic, social and religious structure of Rome's eastern provinces. For Sartre, acculturation results generally as the alternative to "Hellenisation" and "resistance": local communities either became Greek or retained the "stamp of Semitic context", at most covered with a spurious veneer of Hellenism.

The author is a superb connoisseur of the Roman Near East's material culture. Accordingly, the book provides a splendid survey of the area's exciting epigraphic record. It discusses, for instance, the political nomenclature of Palmyra in much detail. But for Sartre, nomenclature reflects facts, not discourse. Consequently, Palmyra qualifies as a "Greek city", just because it had institutions with Greek names. It escapes Sartre that we know little to nothing about their operations, and his claim that the Aramaic versions of bilingual inscriptions were translations from Greek originals is doubtful.

No less questionable is Sartre's concept of "Arabness", which he continuously uses to define a single, clear-cut identity group, as though the Arabs of the Jebel Sinjar were identically equal to the Arabs of the eastern Jazirah (from which the "Kingdom of the Arabs" borrowed its name); the Arabs of Nabatea to those of the Arabian Desert and South Arabia, or the Arabes who populated, according to the geographer Strabo, the Bekaa Valley in present-day Lebanon. Zenobia's son Vaballathus did not claim imperial status as an "Arab" as suggested by Sartre.

But even the harshest criticism should duly acknowledge that the book is useful in many respects. It opens up an immense wealth of evidence, heretofore inaccessible to many ancient historians and archaeologists, and illustrates the often-neglected importance of the Middle East for classical history and culture. The scholarly community, as well as many students, will benefit from this.

Michael Sommer is lecturer in ancient history, Liverpool University.

The Middle East under Rome

Author - Maurice Sartre
Publisher - Harvard University Press
Pages - 665
Price - £25.95
ISBN - 0 674 01683 1

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