From Hellenism to Islam: Cultural and Linguistic Change in the Roman near East

By Van Dam, Raymond | The Journal of the American Oriental Society, January-March 2012 | Go to article overview

From Hellenism to Islam: Cultural and Linguistic Change in the Roman near East


Van Dam, Raymond, The Journal of the American Oriental Society


From Hellenism to Islam: Cultural and Linguistic Change in the Roman Near East. Edited by HANNAH M. COTTON; ROBERT G. HOYLAND: JONATHAN J. PRICE: and DAVID J. WASSERSTEIN. Cambridge: CAMBRIDGE UNIV. PRESS. 2010. Pp. xxx + 481. $125.

Identity is a flourishing topic in ancient studies. It is also frustratingly indeterminate as a theoretical concept and often inaccessible as a practical attribute for both individuals and communities. Ancient literary narratives are suspect for being "constructed"; even autobiographical accounts can be classified as rhetorical and hence downgraded. As a result, scholars often rely upon indirect indicators. For determining cultural identity, for instance, the use of particular languages might serve as an entryway.

In the Roman Near East multilingualism was common, not only within cities but also among individuals. Given this large palette of spoken and written languages, the choice of a particular language might seem to imply a choice among available identities. Writing and speaking were acts of representation, whether as true confessions of personal commitments or as attempts to influence the behavior of others. The chapters in this book are excellent studies of the possible intersections between languages and identities. These chapters focus on the regions around the eastern Mediterranean from Asia Minor to Egypt under Roman rule, including the early empire and the later empire. Some of the chapters also discuss the post-Roman period and the consequences of the expansion of Arabic under Islamic rule.

One overall conclusion is that the interpretive transition from languages to identities is not straight-forward. The extant data are, of course, all written texts; the chapters in this book focus in particular on inscriptions. This is, first of all, a particularly constrained set of data. According to Hannah Cotton, in an interesting study of the survival of the Nabataean legal system, the "written record is neither self-evident, nor necessarily representative" (p. 159). Cotton nevertheless concludes that aspects of the pre-Roman Nabataean law of persons may have survived at late antique Petra, even though the use of Nabataean Aramaic died out. A second concern is determining the motives behind the choice of languages. One possibility is that the languages used in inscriptions represented spoken languages. Another is that the epigraphical languages reflected political allegiances or social ambitions. Latin, for instance, was not a commonly spoken language in the Roman Near East. Its use in inscriptions was hence more symbolic than pragmatic. According to Benjamin Isaac, "its use implies a declaration of social and political loyalty," "a conscious attempt to differentiate its users from the surrounding Greek or Semitic populations" (p. 66). In contrast. Nicole Belayche, in a fine overview of the impact of Roman rule on religions in imperial Palestine, stresses "the limits of linguistic choices (whether Greek or Latin) as information on active cultural trends" (p. 186). In a study of Jewish diaspora communities in Asia Minor and Syria. …

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