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 the dramatic stand made by the Jews at the fortress of Masada in AD 74; the disastrous uprising between 132 and 135 resulted in the rebuilding of Jerusalem as a Roman city. Britain, too, was to cause trouble from time to time. But provincial populations as such rarely rebelled once they had been incorporated into the imperial system. The “barbarian” invaders who made things difficult for the Romans from the late second century onward were usually only too ready, given the chance, to assimilate into the Roman armies or settle on Roman land.

In the eastern Mediterranean, the Romans inherited a part of the world that had been cosmopolitan for centuries, with Greek serving in most cases as the lingua franca of culture and administration. But the long-held idea that there was, especially in the case of Egypt, a Greek-speaking elite in the Hellenistic period and later, sharply distinguished from a native majority, has been fundamentally challenged in recent years.1 Rather, the Greek culture, urbanism, and customs which the conquests of Alexander the Great and his successors spread in the Near East penetrated other cultures only to a limited extent and were themselves influenced by local conditions. On Alexander’s death monarchies were established under his successors and their descendants—the Ptolemies in Egypt, the Seleucids from Asia Minor through Syria to Babylonia and further east. But a patchwork of smaller entities, of which the kingdom of Herod the Great in Judaea was one, greeted the Romans after the Battle of Actium in AD 31, when Julius Caesar’s great-nephew Octavian, soon to style himself Augustus, found himself master of the East.

Anyone approaching this subject would do well to have a good sense of geography, as Millar does, and his capacity to handle countless local variants. Even after centuries of Seleucid and Roman rule, great differences remained between one region and another, and between individual cities and territories within a single provincial region. As late as the century of Muhammad, the coastal cities of Palestine, with their Phoenician antecedents and long period of Hellenization, still differed very much from the villages of the Golan, and yet againfrom the ten “Greek” cities of the “Decapolis,” most of them in modern Jordan.


This local variation was far greater in the first century AD, when the Nabataean kingdom still existed, with its capital at Petra, to be replaced in AD 106 by the creation of the Roman province of “Arabia” (confusingly not the Arabian peninsula itself). How did the local inhabitants in all these places view themselves? We can only answer the question by looking at the evidence of a region, an area, a city. Even then the ambiguities are manifold, and language is no sure guide. Even within the same family, Greek, Roman, and Egyptian names might be adopted side by side: a certain Marcus Aurelius Apion, the son of Philippos, had four children by his two wives, whose names between them included Greek, Roman, and Egyptian elements. The adoption of new single names with the spread of Christianity—Thomas, say, or Isaac, or Paul—imposed a new identifying factor only to gloss over others. Throughout the Roman Near East translators and interpreters had a field day.

Like the Ottoman Empire and its Islamic predecessors, the Roman Empire exercised its influence in a multiplicity of ways, many of them indirect. In the earlier period, up to the beginning of the third century AD, when all inhabitants of the Empire were declared to be citizens, it could be advantageous for a local man to gain Roman citizenship (and thereby acquire a Roman name). Patronage and self-interest also worked in the reverse direction: whole cities, such as Palmyra, Antioch, or Edessa (modern Urfa in eastern Turkey), might be granted special status by imperial favor, a change which affected not only their future relations with the Empire and with one another but also the lives of their citizens.

But the degree of assimilation varied greatly in accordance with the particular history of each city or region. The Decapolis cities around the northern and eastern shores of the Sea of Galilee, which included Philadelphia, modern Amman, and Gerasa/Jerash, fell within the new Roman province. So did Scythopolis (modern Beth Shean), one of the largest and most impressive archaeological sites in modern Israel. Yet even earlier, these cities, with their Greek-style institutions, were embracing the cult of the Roman emperors, the symbol of the new regime. Even in the 20s BC, a priest of the imperial cult at Jerash was among the townspeople who contributed to the construction of a new temple of Olympian Zeus. As Fergus Millar shows in what amounts to a panoramic treatment of the whole region, the large number of public and private inscriptions that survive from the period of Roman rule in the Near East reveal a remarkable collage of local variants. And despite the mass of available evidence already in existence, new discoveries change the picture all the time.

One of the most interesting developments in recent years has come from the still partial publication of a collection of documents involving a village on the southern shore of the Dead Sea during the years immediately before and immediately after the creation of the province of Arabia in AD 106. The published documents are in Greek, but reveal, even when they do not actually translate or transcribe, the influence of Latin legal language. One is a marriage contract between two Jewish families, written in Greek by a scribe, but dated by the Roman consuls and signed by the parties concerned in Aramaic.

A striking personality emerges from these documents—a Jewish woman called Babatha with a number of family problems to resolve, in particular the need for a legal guardian for her son Jesus by her dead first husband. In the course of much dispute, requiring judgment on the matter by the town council of Petra, she found herself summoned to appear before the Roman governor, whereupon she promptly issued a counter-petition. An extraordinary amount can be learned from these documents about the legal relations of Jews and others, the different ways language was used for such public purposes, and the accessibility of Roman law. But Babatha’s story also vividly shows the sophistication and energy with which a local citizen might fight for her family interests, and the possibilities which evidently existed, for the better-off at least, to make use of the system and take matters all the way up to the Roman governor.

However, some of the hazards inherent in the subject can be seen from another text, this one a famous inscription from the year AD 328, in the reign of Constantine, and coming from Namara, east of the Jebel Hauran. The language is Arabic, the script “basically Nabataean,” but here agreement ends. The inscription commemorates a certain local ruler, Imru’l-qais, whose sphere of influence is claimed to have extended as far south as Najran (southern Yemen). Was he in some sense “king of all the Arabs,” as many scholars take the text to mean, and if so, what does that mean, and what is the nature of his connection, also apparently attested, with the Romans? Millar is very cautious, refusing to see here any clear evidence of the origins of the Arab tribal formations who were to become important later as the allies of the Romans and the Sasanians respectively in the frontier wars between the two empires in the pre-Islamic period. But from the fourth century the term “Saracen” is commonly used in the Greco-Roman sources in a general sense for actually or potentially threatening groups from the plains.


Millar’s book ends before these developments and so does not deal with the immense prosperity that came later to many parts of the region during the period before the wars between the Romans and the Sasanians of the sixth and seventh centuries and the penetration of Byzantine Palestine and Syria by the followers of Muhammad. Other scholars have wanted to see even in the earlier period, among the linguistic shifts and juxtapositions, evidence of a specifically Arab culture and consciousness spreading through the tribal groups that moved to the settled zone in the years before the establishment of Islam. But Millar insists that this is to read backward to find what the earlier evidence, ample though it is, does not contain. In the accounts written during the Empire we find that the more-or-less nomadic tribes who from time to time posed a military threat were described as “Saraceni” or, less often, and in the Jewish/Christian tradition from Josephus onward, “Ishmaelites,” the descendants of Hagar and Ishmael. In its earliest usage, “Arab” in fact means simply “beduin.”

Both books call into question deeprooted notions of ethnicity. They do so by bringing the apparatus of modern scholarship along with a fresh perspective to the mass of available original sources, especially documents. What Millar has to say is paralleled in the case of late Roman Egypt by Bagnall’s criticism of the romantic idea of Coptic Christianity as the religion of the “simple” native-Egyptian populace, essentially different from the Hellenism of the elite. This assumption has been widely shared among scholars, and it pervades many books today. It conjures up a whole “Coptic culture,” with corresponding qualities of Eastern exoticism, and can be found not only in writing about the development of the monastic movement in Egypt but also in evocations of Egyptian nationalism as a factor that facilitated the Arab conquest. But the term “Coptic” can properly be applied in this period only to a linguistic phenomenon, not to culture, and still less to an ethnic group. Bagnall shows that far from being the natural mode of expression of the general populace in late Roman Egypt, Coptic—a script, not an independent language—was invented in a bilingual Greek and Egyptian setting in the third century AD in order to provide a means of writing down contemporary spoken Egyptian, something hitherto impossible.

There was no single act of creation (several different dialects were in existence from the earliest period). Nevertheless, the written language known as Coptic, with its high proportion of Greek vocabulary and its Greek alphabet, can only have developed in places where Greek was known and used. Bagnall shows that by this time Greek was far more common even in Egyptian villages than has often been imagined; the notion of Coptic identity I have mentioned prevented scholars from recognizing how widely Greek was used. In any case Coptic was a written language originating in an urban environment, created for reading and writing. It was not the language of the illiterate Egyptian peasant. Still less was there a Coptic culture during this period that can be readily distinguished from Greek. On the contrary, as Bagnall points out, Coptic literature and Coptic art alike were the products of commissions from the same city elite which carried on the traditions of Hellenism established under the Ptolemies and continued under Roman rule. G.W. Bowersock makes a similar point in his recent Hellenism in Late Antiquity2 when he argues that it was precisely this “Hellenism,” imported from outside in the first instance and having little or nothing to do thereafter with ethnicity, that itself stimulated and made possible the articulation of local traditions.

The situation is of course not the same with local cultures in the broad geographical region treated by Millar, where we are not dealing with a single phenomenon like the Coptic language but with a whole family of languages and a variety of scripts. There may therefore seem to be more reason to suppose that they share some cultural characteristics distinct from the universal elite culture of the Hellenistic and Roman world that is loosely termed Hellenism. But Millar is as reluctant to accept a common non-Greek or “Semitic” mentality in the Fertile Crescent as he is to find a “Syrian” identity in this period. Contemporaries are notoriously loose in their terminology (which is in itself indicative), and the term “Syrian” as used by them could have a variety of applications, most of which have no precise geographical or cultural reference.

Yet here, too, modern scholars have been reluctant to accept the implications. Perhaps we can only realize quite how fundamental a change of view is represented by Millar’s common-sense approach by picking up almost at random a study of an author of the period who is known to have come from, say, the region around Antioch or Apamea (Syria in the modern sense). Millar cites the example of Numenius, the second-century Neoplatonist from Apamea. For that very reason Numenius is supposed to have had an acquaintance with “Semitic literature” and “Oriental” sources, without further definition of what that might really mean. Even where an existing literary work in Syriac (the dialect of Aramaic associated particularly with Edessa in northern Mesopotamia, which became the vehicle in late antiquity of an important, largely religious, literature) is known to have been translated from a Greek original, it is often simply assumed that the Greek text itself was representative of a special “Syrian” Christianity.

Does the large, and often fascinating, literature extant in Syriac attest to the existence of a “Syriac” Christianity fundamentally “Oriental” and profoundly different from the Christianity of the wider Greco-Roman world? This view too, which is commonly held, rests on assumptions as much as upon argument. As Millar points out, it accepts the idea of a barrier between the Greek on the one hand, and, on the other, the Semitic, Near Eastern, or Oriental, and thereby obscures the tremendously wide variety of experience and expression known in the Christian Mediterranean at large. And how are we to detect the interaction of “Greek” and “Syrian”? “Greek” is not an ethnic designation either: the fifth-century bishop Theodoret from Antioch, bishop of the town of Cyrrhus in northern Syria, wrote exclusively in highly cultivated Greek, though his correspondence reveals a working bishop deeply involved in pastoral and other problems in the rural area surrounding Cyrrhus, where Syriac will certainly have been the usual medium of communication, and his Religious History describes some highly exotic forms of “Syrian” ascetic Christianity. His practice surely supports Millar’s case that Theodoret himself seems to have seen no inherent contradiction between the Greek and Syrian spheres of action.

One of the important consequences that follows from the line of argument pursued in both books, even though neither author deals with that period, is that the astonishing success of the Arab conquests and the consequent spread of Islam in the seventh century can no longer be easily explained by the failure of an alien Roman or “Byzantine” government in Constantinople to retain the loyalty of the local populations in the conquered eastern provinces. Like the romantic view of eastern Christianity, or the notion of a common Semitic cultural identity, this explanation is still to be found in nearly every textbook. It is true that the religious policies enforced by Constantinople in the sixth and seventh centuries involved coercion of dissenting parties; but Millar and Bagnall show that the opposition between two distinct elements which this view presupposes—between, that is, the Hellenism of the governing elite on the one hand and a local, defined, and native culture on the other—did not exist. Rather, Hellenism and imperial rule actually made possible the crystallization of identities in what had been a fluid and inchoate situation. Individuals and communities alike could be unself-consciously eclectic in juxtaposing elements which to us with our Western (and still perhaps Greco-Roman) perspective too easily appear disparate.

Whatever the Roman empire was, it was never nationalistic. Anyone with the means, and not just those in the great eastern centers like Antioch and Alexandria, could readily acquire the appropriate degree of elite education. Wealth, not ethnic or even social background, was what mattered, since it could buy classical culture, the entrance ticket to the system. The traffic was also two-way: Bagnall demonstrates how far down Greek literacy penetrated even in the village life of the Egypt of late antiquity. Recent discoveries in Jordan have shown that small Christian communities were still commissioning classicizing mosaics for their churches a century or more after the Arab conquest.

The books by Millar and Bagnall, both written from the perspective of Roman historians, are part of a much broader revisionist movement in the academic study of the Near or Middle East that is replete with contemporary overtones. For an earlier period of Greek history some of the same concerns pervade Martin Bernal’s book, Black Athena, and the immense literature discussing it. Older views of the imposition of Greek culture in the Hellenistic period as a result of the conquests of Alexander the Great have been unable to withstand the questioning of archaeologists and historians with a less prejudiced approach to culture and ethnicity. The results of current archaeological investigation of late antique and Umayyad sites in the Near East, especially in Syria, Jordan, and Israel, are beginning to cause Roman and Byzantine historians to look again with fresh eyes at the Near East in the century or so before the Arab conquests; the essential sharing of ideas between specialists in the different relevant disciplines is noticeably on the increase.

Both books, but especially that of Fergus Millar, make it only too apparent how extraordinarily difficult it is to do justice to such disparate and voluminous data, and of such a technical kind. Both take their starting points from an attempt to explain the paradox of Roman rule in the east—it was paternalistic and undoubtedly increasingly authoritarian, and yet at the same time somehow actually stimulating to the development of provincial self-identity. Both books place an emphasis on culture, and on religion as a particularly important component of culture in language and writing. What differentiates the Jews from the rest of the population of the Near East, in Millar’s view, is precisely that they had possessed for centuries sacred writings on the basis of which a distinctive identity could develop. In no other case in these regions, he argues, did anything comparable occur. Rather, in those cases, the sense of identity that did emerge did so only gradually and then often enough as a result of a close interconnection with Greco-Roman culture. Such an emphasis is likely to evoke indignation in some quarters, not least from historians who do not start from this Romano-centric position. But to fall back on professional specialisms is too easy a reaction in a field where genuine interdisciplinary investigation (all too rare and difficult in practice) is the only possible way forward.

Western and post-imperialist historians necessarily have difficulty when they try to explain the real nature of mutual influences between East and West and of colonial and imperial regimes. The Roman Empire provides a prime example of the workings of such regimes, and the study of its cultural mechanisms and those of its subjects is, as Bagnall and Millar have shown, not only highly relevant for anyone thinking about contemporary Middle Eastern or post-imperialist questions in general but also for gaining a better understanding of the history of the Fertile Crescent in other periods. Nor is the inquiry into the past imperial situation limited to that region, as a look at the history of Byzantine and Ottoman dealings with Serbia, Bosnia, and the Balkans in general will immediately show. Nothing could demonstrate more clearly that classical antiquity and ancient history are every bit as contemporary and relevant in their inquiries today as the subject of the fall, or continued existence, of empires was to Edward Gibbon in the eighteenth century.

This Issue

June 22, 1995