Fergus Millar, "Communal and Cultural Identities," chpt. 6 of his The Roman Near East, 31 BC - AD 337, Harvard University Press, 1993, pp. 225-235.

A social and economic history of the Near East in the Roman period cannot be written. None of the conditions for such a history are present. Though good descriptions of the geology and (in very broad terms) the ecology of the region are available, nothing is clearer than the fact that in this area above all we cannot speak of constant or enduring patterns of social and economic life. To take only the crudest and most obvious variables, the extent of cultivation along the margin of the steppe and the heights reached by regular settlement in the very large mountainous zones have both varied widely according to political and military circumstances. The most important factor of all has been simply the presence or absence of political stability and of effective policing. Even within the present century the area under cultivation and marked by regular settlement has expanded immensely within the modern states of Syria, Israel and Jordan. Conditions have thus changed dramatically within the period covered by modern archaeological and epigraphic researches; and precisely those books which are fundamental to the understanding of the region in antiquity may set their discoveries in a context which, while valid over half a century ago, bears no relation to the conditions prevailing now.

Take for instance the wonderful account of the antiquities of the Hauran contained in Maurice Dunand's book on the museum at Soueida, published in 1934 - one of the most impressive presentations of the art and archaeology of a sub-region from anywhere in the Empire. Some things are of course unchangeable, for instance the black basalt of the region, which was perforce the medium in which a striking local variant of Graeco-Roman sculpture and architecture had to be expressed. But the situation described in Dunand's preface belongs in another world: a French company encamped in the Roman theatre of Bostra and then annihilated in the Druse uprising of 1925; the museum beginning life in that same year as an open-air enclosure outside Soueida. The photographs show the museum in a rolling, barren landscape, with a few one-storey houses beyond it. Nothing would prepare the reader for the substantial modern town of today (nor for the fact that the Jebel Hauran, entirely inhabited by Druse, is now officially called Jebel Arab).

Though archaeology, in the Hauran above all, has made immense strides since then, modern historical circumstances have meant that the detailed archaeology of (for instance) farming, animal husbandry, the means of human subsistence, the exchange of food and manufactured objects and of the products of longer-distance trade has not arrived at anywhere near the stage at which a strictly economic interpretation of the history of the region could be written. If standing remains can be surveyed and mapped, some sites excavated, and objects and inscriptions collected, that is as much as can yet be expected. Even in those respects many of the more mountainous regions remain unknown territory to historical research, as do many areas which lie too close to the boundaries of modern states.

This book can thus make no pretence whatsoever to present a social or economic history of the region. Desirable as such a work might be, it cannot begin from a coherent body of knowledge-or even any serious hypotheses about the economic history of the area-or locate within that the major social formations visible in our fragmentary evidence, the nature of their communal life, their role within the wider Greek-speaking world and their relation to the Roman Empire.

Instead the book presents a map of surface appearances, of communal and cultural identities as seen and expressed by both insiders and outsiders. That has at least the advantage of relying above all on explicit statements in words, preserved on inscriptions, in perishable documents and in literary works, which at a certain, and important, level cannot be falsified. If, as we have seen, the latest known document from Dura-Europos presents the place as 'Koloneia of the Europaioi of [Seleukos] Neikator, the sacred and inviolate and autonomous', that piece of self- representation remains a historical fact even if we could prove that the place had not been founded by Seleucus Nicator in the early Hellenistic period, or was not entitled to the status of colonia. Similarly, if Heliodorus, the author of the novel Aethiopica, finishes his work by identifying himself as an 'Emesene Phoenician', we may well want to discuss why he should have chosen to describe himself in this way; but we cannot argue away his own self-representation, or presume to prove that the people of Emesa were 'really' Arabs.

That is not to say that such self-identifications are not liable to be completely misunderstood in the modern world. Take the case of Tatian, the second-century author of a composite version of all four Gospels called in Greek Diatessaron, of which a fragment in Greek was found at Dura-Europos. He also wrote an Address to the Greeks in which he describes himself as 'he who philosophises in the manner of barbarians, born in the land of the Assyrioi, educated first on your principles, secondly in what I now profess'. Does he mean to say that he came in reality from 'Assyria', that is, from an area (Adiabene or Babylonia?) east of the Euphrates? Was he in origin therefore a Syriac or Aramaic-speaking 'Oriental' from outside the Roman Empire? Not at all. 'Assyria' and 'Assyrioi' were common terms for Syria and its inhabitants; which is why, like so many other people from that area, he had a name which is in origin Latin, with an extended ending, and transliterated into Greek. Another, closely comparable, 'Assyrian' of the second century was the satirist Lucian, that is, 'Loukianos' from Samosata in Commagene. The education which Tatian, like Lucian, had received in Syria was Greek, and the 'barbarian philosophy' which he practised was Christianity.

These questions of personal and communal self-representation are crucial, if only because the relevant names and identities might change and evolve so profoundly. Tatian was at some point a pupil, perhaps at Rome, of another man from a Near Eastern province, with a transliterated Latin name, that is, Justin Martyr: or, as he presents himself in the Apology which he addressed to Antoninus Pius, 'loustinos, son of Priskos, son of Bakcheios, of those from Flavia Neapolis, belonging to Syria Palaistine'.  Every element in his self-identification is a product of rapidly changing circumstances under the Empire: the Latin names of his father and himself, the name of his city, and the name of the province to which it belonged. The village of 'Mamortha' or 'Mabartha' in Samaria had become the city of 'Flavia Neapolis' in 72/73, and its Greek coinage had begun under Domitian. (Josephus had evidently been anticipating when he mentioned Vespasian, on campaign in 68, as passing 'the place called Neapolis, but Mabartha by the natives [epichorioi]'.)  'Syria Palaestina' had replaced 'Judaea' as the name of the province only after the Bar Kochba war of 132-135.

Such a transformation raises in particularly acute form the question of what such an instantly created Greek city really 'was'. Justin is in fact unusual among writers in Greek, whether pagan or Christian, originating from the Near East, in reflecting so much of the local history, culture and languages of his native region: the Bar Kochba war and the destruction of Jerusalem; the nefarious careers of two magicians originating from Samaritan villages; the original Hebrew meanings of words like 'Jesus' and 'Israel'; and 'the language of the Suroi', or what we would call Aramaic. In converting to Christianity Justin had of course, like everyone else, simultaneously embraced a historical tradition enshrined in texts originally written in a Semitic language; and this would have been so irrespective of his local origins. Nonetheless, as a man of pagan origin, born perhaps about AD 100, from the recently formed Greek city of Flavia Neapolis, he is aware of three separate non-Greek groups present in his native region: Jews, Samaritans and 'Syrians'.

Justin and the city from which he came thus represent a special case. But even in the case of much longer established 'Greek cities', their names, constitutions and formal public identities as Greek cities, while important facts in themselves, must leave open the question of the cultural roots and personal identity of their individual citizens, and their relation to the surrounding world of villages.

Even for the modest first step of surveying the public nature of the communities we find in the various sub-regions of the Near East, the evidence is often simply non-existent. We know for instance that at the northern limit of the region, in the western part of Commagene and just below the Taurus Mountains, there was a city which the geographer Ptolemy calls Germanikeia (Germanicia), and whose coins, also of the second half of the second century, label its inhabitants as 'Kaisareis Germanikeis'. It is normally located at present-day Maras in southern Turkey. Its Latin-Greek name had clearly been given to it to honour a member of the Imperial house, perhaps Germanicus during his visit in AD 18/19, when Commagene had been temporarily part of the province of Syria. But Gaius (37-41), Claudius (41-54) and Nero (54-68) each had 'Germanicus' as part of their full official names, and the city might equally have been a royal foundation, by the last king of Commagene, Antiochus IV (AD 38-72).  If so, it was a parallel to the succession of royal foundations by the Herodian dynasty. In each case both the conception that what should be created was a 'Greek city' and the Imperial names used to denote the new community are significant features of the social and cultural map of the whole region. But the almost complete lack of local evidence (other than a few coins) and even of passing allusions in literary sources means that we cannot attach any real meaning to the creation of the city of Germanicia in its more immediate context.  We are hardly much the wiser in learning from brief later quotations that the third-century Roman historian Asinius Quadratus, who like Cassius Dio wrote in Greek, referred to 'Germanikeia' in his Parthica, as he did to places and peoples in Armenia, to a village called Tarsa down the Euphrates from Samosata and to 'Thelamouza', a fort on the river.  At least some of his 'Parthian History' narrated the war fought by Lucius Verus in the 160s. We might therefore, if the work had survived, have gained some extra insight into routes and geography in this little-known area. But it is not until the writings of Theodoret, bishop of Cyrrhus in the fifth century, that we can find even passing allusions to places in this region which come from someone closely involved in it. Even in his case his only allusion to 'Germanikeia' simply records that it was a city on the borders of Cilicia, Syria and Cappadocia, whose bishop managed under Constantine to get himself improperly translated to the see of Antioch.

Much the same indeed applies to Cyrrhus itself, a substantial Greek city first attested in the Hellenistic period. Not only was it the focus of a large and fertile area, which has never been explored for ancient remains, but, lying on the river Afrin which runs down to the plain of Antioch, it was on the route from Antioch to the Euphrates at Zeugma, and the station of a Roman legion as early as the reign of Tiberius. The surviving remains-of walls, the acropolis, bridges, a temple and two churches, as well as a vast theatre, 115 m in diameter-make clear that it was a considerable urban centre. But until we come to the writings of Theodoret himself, we have virtually no evidence to illuminate the social history of the city or the very extensive area of villages attached to it. For our whole period, therefore, we have to admit that there  is no means of access to the life and culture of this northern part of the Syrian region. It is not even possible to say what language, if any, other than Greek was spoken there.

It must be accepted that even on the most superficial level the evidence of all kinds is inadequate, discontinuous and very erratically distributed. If the works of Josephus provide a unique density of narrative information, not just for Judaea but for the surrounding area and even for places like Antioch --  or even a brief glimpse of Palmyra --  there is no comparable view from any contemporary living in the second, third or fourth century. The nearest parallel is provided by the works of Eusebius of Caesarea. Nor do we have any continuous history of any one city until we come to the Chronicle of John Malalas, written in the sixth century; in intention a Christian world chronicle, it nonetheless comes close to being a history of his native Antioch. Yet its account of this period, which certainly contains a mass of valuable information is also riddled with misconceptions, above all about the relation of city to the Roman state and the Emperor.

Any attempt to grasp the nature of culture and social formations in the region has to depend largely on representations by contemporaries, whether in literature (and if so whether by outside observers or by insiders), in formal public documents such as inscriptions and coins (the most deliberate of symbols of public identity), in perishable documents (of which the number discovered is now rapidly increasing) or as embodied in building and artefacts. It is useless to complain of the obvious inadequacy of the evidence available. For it lies in the nature of our access to the past (as indeed to the present) that it is wholly dependent on the means of information which happen be available.

Pessimism is in any case unjustified. For, first, the evidence, though grossly inadequate, is nonetheless very extensive in total volume. Second, a vast range of evidence securely located in space and time is available to us. It can thus be set, with all due caution, against the varied and impressive landscapes of the region. However dependent we are on the accidents of the 'epigraphic habit', on the interests of our literary sources and on the further hazards modern discovery and excavation, it is still possible both to compare the various sub-regions with each other and to see how the visible and surviving manifestations of the culture of each change over time. Of course we cannot always distinguish between a change of interest in our sources and a real change in society and culture. For instance, biographical portraits of fourth-century Christian hermits immediately take us down to social levels, and to geographical contexts in the countryside and the steppe, which earlier literature hardly touches. We will not always be able to tell whether the social patterns revealed were new or are only now revealed to us. Had there, for instance, always been 'Saracens' in the Negev, and thus well within the 'frontier' of the Empire as it appears on the map? Or had the process of 'beduinisation', which Werner Caskel suggested took place during the Imperial period in Arabia proper, beyond the frontier, been matched by a growth of nomadism within? We can say only that they are visibly present, in a way not paralleled before, in the pages of Jerome's Life of the hermit Hilarion. At all events we cannot deny the significance of the ascetic movement itself, which began in the first few decades of the fourth century and represented a revolution in Christian values. The hermits, by the nature of the symbolic postures which they adopted, were to be found by the faithful out on the fringes of settled and cultivated land, on mountains or on the edge of the steppe. Thus Theodoret, in describing the career of a hermit of the early fourth century named Julianus, begins by describing the geography of Osrhoene: 'in this province there are many large and heavily populated cities, and a countryside which is largely inhabited, but also largely uninhabited and desert'; Julianus chose the edge of the desert.

it is often just such a narrative of the establishment of a hermit which itself reveals the existence of the large villages which were characteristic of the whole region, and in some cases the significance of the rural cult-centres located near them. For instance, further on in his account of the hermits of Syria, Theodoret describes how Asterius, a young man of good family, founded what was to become a monastery 'in the countryside round Gindarus-this is a very large village (kome) placed under the control of Antioch'. The place, modern Genderesse, situated near the river Afrin, was probably in origin an early Hellenistic settlement; but its only earlier significant mention in our sources comes from Strabo, reflecting the unsettled condition of the first century BC: to him Gindarus was a polis, the acropolis of the district called Cyrrhestice and a natural stronghold for robbers. The large settlement (polis or kome?) of Gindarus had thus always been there. The complete silence about it is broken only thanks to the literary record of the two great historic changes which mark the limits of the period studied here: the Roman imposition of order over a large part of the world as known to Strabo, and the beginnings of the monastic movement. It is only the latter which takes us close to the rural world of the Near East. Theodoret again provides what is perhaps our only picture of a rural sanctuary in the territory of the little town of Gabala, which lay on the coast some 30 km south of Laodicea. Some 7 km from the town was a shrine for the worship of 'demons', whom the country-people had to appease with constant sacrifices to avoid harm to themselves, their asses, mules, cattle, sheep and camels. A hermit named Thalelaios then took up his station exactly there, nullified the power of the demons and was later assisted in destroying the temenos and substituting for it a shrine to some Christian martyrs.

However many isolated insights into the life of the region we may be able to accumulate, we will not necessarily be able to construct out of them any meaningful history. Moreover, it has already been conceded that a true social and economic history of the region is still wholly out of reach.  But at a different level three lines of approach are feasible. One has already been exploited: to survey the progressive stages by which large parts of the Near East came under Roman direct rule, and to raise some initial questions about the nature of the Roman impact on them. Second, there is the question which the story of the imposition of Roman rule itself serves to raise: the nature of the different political formations and social groupings which the Romans encountered. For instance, the political map of the Near East under Augustus was dominated by kingdoms. But by the early second century all those west of the Euphrates had disappeared. What was the significance of that disappearance, and did the kingdoms leave no legacy behind them, in terms of monuments, of traditions or of group identities or loyalties which might be capable of reactivation? If, as seems clear, they left very little trace, why was that so, and what other forms of communal or personal identity were more significant?

Third, even our fragmentary and erratic evidence can yield some meaning, or potential meaning, when different sub-regions are compared. Take for in- stance the linguistic history, or rather histories, of the region, involving the complex interplay of Greek, Latin and a series of Semitic languages. As else- where, Greek words were readily transliterated and absorbed into Latin, and Latin into Greek. But in the Near East we can see how Latin words could pass through Greek to be absorbed by transliteration into Semitic languages. So centurio could become kenturion in Greek, as in the New Testament (for instance in Mk 15, 3 9), and then QTRYN' or QTRWN' I in Palmyrene and QNTRYN' in Nabataean; colonia could become koloneia in, Greek, and QLNY' or QLWNY' in Hebrew, Jewish Aramaic, Palmyrene and Syriac.

The interplay of languages can also be viewed from quite different perspectives. One major question is whether the oral use of at least one Semitic language was in fact characteristic of all the sub-regions of the Near East without exception. In most areas it is beyond doubt. But some question must persist as regards Commagene, from Germanicia in the west to the Euphrates in the east, and over the north-Syrian tetrapolis, with the major early Hellenistic foundations of Antioch, Seleucia, Laodicea and Apamea.

What is certain at least is that these two areas have not so far produced any examples of formal public inscriptions (for instance, communal decrees, statue-bases, dedications or epitaphs) in a Semitic language. This fact might be regarded as insignificant (a mere product of a conventional association of Greek with the epigraphic habit), if it were not for the presence of such inscriptions in all the other areas; notably in the territory of Palmyra, which directly bordered on that of Apamea. If we cannot draw a map of the distribution of spoken languages, we certainly can draw provisional maps of the distribution of languages as inscribed.

Any such map would be a complex one, for it would have to allow for the co-existence of inscriptions in different languages-for example, Greek and Latin, especially in Berytus and Heliopolis, or Greek and one or more Semitic languages (as for instance in the ossuary-inscriptions from Judaea). But it would also have to reflect a different phenomenon, systematic inscriptional bilingualism, especially in Palmyra, where a large proportion of the inscriptions are in both Greek and Palmyrene. A few Palmyrene inscriptions are even trilingual, in Greek, Palmyrene and Latin.

The small but growing number of archives preserved on perishable materials (papyrus or parchment) cannot of course yet yield results which can be plotted on a linguistic map. But they do show that Greek and Syriac could both be used within the same archive; that a single archive (that of Babatha, covering the years from the 90s to the 130s) could contain documents in Nabataean, Aramaic and Greek; and that witnesses to documents in Greek could add their names in Nabataean or Aramaic or Syriac.

In the case of Babatha we are at an important moment of transition, for the archive covers the last decades of the kingdom of Nabataea and the first three decades of the Roman province of Arabia. There is a clear progression, from Nabataean under the kingdom to Aramaic and then (for the main text of each document) Greek in the provincial period. Precisely one of the more important questions concerns progression in time: did Roman rule tend to depress (or in certain areas forbid?) the public or official use of Semitic languages? Or does that question itself embody anachronistic assumptions about the nature and ambitions of the state? But here again comparisons between regions and across time will be suggestive.

Any results of such a comparison must, however, be tentative, For, first, we must allow for the presence of oral bilingualism; that is, the use of different languages in different contexts and to different interlocutors. Such a pattern is perfectly exemplified in Acts, when Paul, after speaking to the Roman tribune in Greek, is represented as turning to address the crowd 'in the Hebrais dialektos'.  It is only unfortunate that we cannot be certain whether Luke means to represent him as speaking in Hebrew or in Aramaic (or even whether he was fully aware of the difference).

Second, and more important, it remains to ask whether the Semitic languages employed in the East were either a necessary or a sufficient condition for the transmission of local cultures or of distinctive, conscious ethnic identities. Language is only one aspect of culture. There are many other questions to be asked about social and political structures, about cities and villages and about gods and temples in the different regions of the Near East. But here again, if our scattered evidence can be made significant at all, it is only by comparison between areas.

Such a survey and comparison can hardly fail to emphasise differences. At the same time these differences have to be seen within the context of two unifying factors. One is the progressive imposition of Roman direct rule, military occupation and taxation. Hence the survey will take the different subregions in roughly the order in which they seem to have been absorbed into the provincial system. Second, however strong the imprint of any local culture may have been, the dominant factor is the absorption of the region within the wider Greek world. Persons educated in the common stock of Greek literature and tradition, and writing in Greek, might come from Petra and Bostra, from Emmaus/Nicopolis or Flavia Neapolis, from Damascus, Emesa, Tyre, Apamea, Antioch, Samosata, Carrhae or Nisibis. An actual map of the origins of known writers in Greek, whether pagan or Christian, would of course be an absurdity. But at the level of a wider popular culture a map really can be drawn of those places which were the location of the named recurrent agones -- musical, theatrical and athletic contests -- which were so important a feature of the communal life of Greek cities. Once again comparison is significant: they are attested as far south as Gaza and Bostra, but no further; at Damascus but not at Palmyra; and up to, but not across, the Euphrates. In that very respect, the status of the public contests put on by its cities, all of the Near East clearly enjoyed no more than a secondary rank within the wider Greek world. By contrast, however, as a perpetual military or frontier zone within the Roman Empire, it was open to an exceptional degree of Romanising influence, from the widespread conferment of the rank of colonia to the popularity of gladiatorial and wild-beast shows.

The social and cultural history of the Near East in this period is no simple matter of a conflict between 'Classical' and 'Oriental'. The various local cultures could find expression in ways which were strikingly different one from another. The most vigorous impulse to urbanisation and the creation and adornment of Greek cities was that due to a king of Judaea, a Jew by religion, the son of an Idumaean father and a Nabataean mother, who was also a Roman citizen. Within a century, or at the most two centuries, of Herod's death both pagan Greek philosophical ideas and Christian theology were to find expression in Syriac. But whatever metaphor we use for the interplay of cultures in this region, every aspect of society and culture was influenced both by Greek civilisation and by the progressive extension of Roman rule. When we have examined the different sub-regions of the Near East in comparison with each other, it will be necessary to ask whether the region as a whole should be seen as part of the 'Orient' or as part of the wider Graeco-Roman world.

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Please answer one of the following questions:
1. What are the components/hallmarks of "communal and cultural identities" in the Roman East? How important was language in the mix?
2. Why should an historian of the Roman East care about "sub-regions"? What are the impediments to such an inquiry?