Egypt in Late Antiquity
The Roman Near East, 31 BCAD 337
In his account of Arabia, the life of Muhammad, and the rise of Islam in The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Edward Gibbon (who died two hundred years ago last year), debated two topics which are at the forefront of our own consciousness: the relations of Islam, Judaism, and Christianity, and the supposed nature of Arabs in comparison with those of Greeks and Romans. In his characteristically urbane manner, he demurred at assumptions based on ethnic stereotypes, and thus, to put it in modern terms, at “orientalizing” views of the peoples of the Near East. The perspicacity of Gibbon never fails to impress; indeed one of the features of each of the two books reviewed here is to deconstruct (and thereby refute) such Orientalizing conceptions.
Roger Bagnall’s fascinating Egypt in Late Antiquity demolishes in passing the notion of a local Coptic culture in Egypt that is easily separable from the Greek culture, while Fergus Millar’s The Roman Near East, 31 BC-AD 337 puts its considerable weight and energy behind the emphatic denial of any “Arab” or “Semitic” ethnic identity during this period. Both books are related to an increasing body of work among ancient historians on the nature of Roman imperial rule in the eastern Mediterranean, its relation to local cultures, if such can properly be defined, and ultimately (though neither of these books deals with that period directly) to the conditions which helped to create the Islamization of the Near East and the antecedents of the Arab world as we know it today.
Millar’s book deals with the period from Augustus, the first Roman emperor (31 BC–AD 14), to the death of Constantine the Great in AD 337, and covers an enormously wide geographical sweep, from modern Syria south through Lebanon, Israel, and Jordan to the borders of Egypt, taking in, to the east, parts of the region that is now eastern Turkey and Iraq. Bagnall’s, in contrast, is limited to Egypt itself, a province exceptional not only for its Pharaonic past but also for the extraordinary richness of the historical evidence yielded from scraps of papyri preserved in its cemeteries and rubbish dumps. Bagnall also carries the story forward, through and beyond the fourth century AD. He can therefore draw on the ample evidence we have of the Christianization of Egypt, including the archaeological remains of numerous and often impressive monasteries, such as the Pachomian foundations at Tabennisi on the Upper Nile, or the famous White Monastery near Sohag, home of the redoubtable fifth-century abbot Shenoute of Atripe. But each writer is concerned with the interaction of imperial power and provincial subjects, and the possible definitions of group identity—language, religion, culture—provide a constantly recurring theme in both books.
There was no nationalism as such in the ancient world, although there were cases of rebellion against imperial rule. The Jewish uprising of AD 66 resulted in the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in AD 70 and …