Rome in the East: The Transformation of an Empire

Article excerpt

WARWICK BALL. Rome in the East: the transformation of an empire. xx+523 pages, 162 b&w plates, 129 figures. 2000. London: Routledge; 0415-11376-8 hardback 65 [pounds sterling], US$100 & Can$150, 0-415-24357-2 paperback 19.99 [pounds sterling], US$32.95, Can$49.95.

This is a major work and an ambitious one. Its aims are described on the dust jacket as follows: `the story of how Near Eastern civilisation, most of all Christianity, came west to transform Europe. Rome in the East presents a comprehensive and coherent study of the history, architecture and archaeology of the Eastern provinces of the Roman Empire, of Roman penetration beyond the frontiers, and of the ensuing interchange that brought about Rome's own transformation.'

The author gives an account based on his own special expertise: the architectural remains in the Near East, their analysis and reconstruction. Undoubtedly, a text-book or survey of the architecture of the Roman Near East is highly welcome, for there exists no such work. The interest in recent decades in the field has resulted in a number of historical syntheses, but anyone interested in reading about the material remains throughout the region needs to work his way through the professional literature: specialist books and articles. Ball provides a systematic and professional discussion of the architecture of the cities, the villages in the countryside, various kinds of structures (public buildings, funerary monuments, etc.) and a great quantity of drawings and photographs which could not be found in any other book, so far. No review would be fair that fails to start with an expression of great appreciation for this part of the author's effort.

It is not meant to be a mere textbook or work of synthesis, however, for it is a publication with a mission, even a polemic one. Polemic works are intended to stimulate discussion and are a legitimate form of scholarly publication so long as the style and argument are academic rather than personal. It is therefore regrettable that the present work too often shows signs of emotional hostility towards the works it criticizes, notably Millar's Roman Near East. While the author is certainly right in emphasizing the long tradition, still quite strong, of disparaging the East, the response should be a considered and careful study of the complexities of ethnic identity and acculturation. In view of the western bias of much scholarly work published so far, Ball has chosen to write from an eastern perspective, using the material remains as a source. It is the great merit of the book to show strong regional traditions and influences in the architecture of the Near East of the Roman period but, apart from this, Ball simplifies too much. The reader feels that he is witnessing a sort of contest between eastern and western patterns in which the East is constantly victorious. The Roman East is truly and essentially eastern and Hellenization is a mere veneer, we keep being reminded. It certainly is true that architecture is an essential ingredient of any great culture, but so are literature and other intellectual pursuits. One of the most original Greek authors of the 2nd century AD was Lucian of Samosata in Syria. Some of his best pieces make fun of Greek and Roman snobs who fail to acknowledge him as a social and intellectual equal. Libanius of Antioch, one of the most significant Greek authors of the 4th century, would have been surprised to learn that his Greco-Roman culture was a mere veneer hiding his true eastern identity. Libanius, Josephus, Ammianus and several others would have been quite taken aback to find themselves described as part of the Phoenician historiographical tradition -- a tradition, moreover, about which we know in fact nothing. We cannot ignore the presence of so many active intellectuals steeped in Greek culture in the Near East, Antiochus of Ascalon, Nicomachus of Gerasa, Flavius Boethus from Ptolemais-Acco, to mention just a few. …