This edited volume, the product of a 2015 conference at Tel Aviv University in honor of renowned ancient historian Benjamin Isaac, is far more than the Festschrift it may appear though slightly less than the title might suggest. It makes a valuable if uneven contribution to the burgeoning study of ethnic interactions and identities in the multicultural Roman world, one pioneered by Isaac himself along with several contributors.
The 17 component papers – all in English, many by internationally recognized scholars or Israeli colleagues of Isaac’s, and only two by women – do not purport to offer a synthetic or representative analysis of ethnic pluralism in the Roman empire. The Greek East, the High Empire, and elite male perspectives dominate most papers, with little discussion of gender, slavery, ethnic entrepôts like Egypt and Carthage, or Rome’s geographical empire prior to the Julio-Claudian emperors. Case studies of Roman-Judaic interactions, a concern of Isaac’s unmentioned in the title, occupy the second half of the volume, though it’s here that nebulous borders between ethnicity, religion, and culture come closest to resolving. None of these contributions rock methodological boats, wade into troubled contemporary debates about “decolonizing” scholarship, or dip their toe into recent theoretical advancements regarding race, marginality, and intersectionality in antiquity, much of it spearheaded by younger Anglophone scholars inspired by Black, feminist, and postcolonial thought.
What these papers do offer is kaleidoscopic glimpses into the dynamic interactions among local and global communities, individual and group identities, in sometimes understudied corners of the Roman world, across an impressive array of media. Despite variations in scale, evidentiary and interpretive originality, and engagement with extant scholarship, the papers – usefully divided into four sections, with collective index and bibliography – are of high overall quality and the volume as a whole is as carefully edited and produced as any Cambridge monograph. Though the editors make little attempt at thematic integration beyond a brief introduction by Jonathan Price, they have succeeded in delivering useful if idiosyncratic insights into a topic of increasing interest to classicists and Jewish scholars alike. Rome: An Empire of Many Nations is a worthy tribute to Isaac’s lasting contributions to both fields, one that passes the baton to future contributors.
Part I, on “Ethnicity and Identity in the Roman Empire,” begins with a panoramic meditation by Isaac on what it meant for a multicontinental empire like Rome to have a capital, and what it took (eventually) to move that capital to Constantinople. Isaac explores questions of Roman identity in the negative, via the alarmism and xenophobia that attached to “bad” leaders’ putative efforts to shift Rome’s center of gravity eastward. One wishes only that extant evidence allowed for more particularized analysis of how geographically and temporally diverse audiences reacted to such rumors.
Next, Werner Eck cogently analyzes the imperial senate as a microcosm for Rome’s multinational empire and a mechanism for its strategic, intergenerational integration of leading provincials into the apparatus of governance, offering demographic data on senatorial origins (p. 33) among other contributions. Eck traces the rhetorical, economic and political drivers and consequences of the senate’s changing composition from 40 BCE, when L. Cornelius Balbus became the first “nonethnic Roman” consul (though what does “ethnic Roman” mean?) to the turn of the second and third centuries CE, when senators “whose original homeland was in the provinces” formed a clear majority (though again, what is meant by “original homeland”?).
Under an epigraph from Isaac’s seminal Invention of Racism in Classical Antiquity (2004), Daniela Dueck endeavors analysis of ethnic (as opposed to geographical) proverbs as a kind of “oral archaeology” of stereotypes. The task is an ambitious one, though difficult to execute in this short space – especially because context is essential, as Erich Gruen (among others) has demonstrated in his unpacking of “Punica fides” in Rethinking the Other in Antiquity (2014, p. 115–140).
Rounding out this first section, Brent Shaw explores hybrid identities via the bilingual Latin/palaeo-Tamazight epitaph of a man named Gaius Julius Gaetulus – or Keti, son of Maswalat. By comparing this gravestone found in Thullium with other North African inscriptional evidence, Shaw sheds light on the choices made by individual “Gaetulians” (to borrow an exonym that flattens out local tribal identities) in arbitrating between coexistant, competing identities over centuries of Roman rule. Though one wonders whether modern concepts like métissage might enhance discussion, the paper succeeds in illustrating that Rome “was an empire of cities and peoples” – sometimes even “within each person” (p. 83).
Opening Part II, on “Culture and Identity in the Roman Empire,” Margalit Finkelberg explores Augustan and later imperial receptions of the Trojan War to conclude that “Vergil’s idea of the inferiority of Greece before Rome and its imaginary antecedent Troy enjoyed a much longer life than Horace’s and Dionysius’ vision of a single Graeco-Roman civilization.” The author, a Hellenist, does not delve into the copious Latin literary scholarship on the subject, leading to gaps (e.g. the works of Philip Hardie) and simplifications (e.g. that “Augustus’ rise to power” occurred in 27 BCE). The paper is on firmer ground when it enters the evolving physical site of Troy and most ambitious in its sweeping sketch of later imperial and medieval receptions.
“Claiming Roman Origins: Greek Cities and the Roman Colonial Pattern,” by Cédric Brélaz, flips the lens to ask which Greek-speaking cities claimed Roman refoundations, adopted Roman colonial structures, or otherwise competed for or rejected imperial measures of status, and why. Drawing from a range of numismatic, epigraphical, and papyrological evidence, this paper offers granular insight into the complex interactions among Roman colonies and local communities in Greece, Asia Minor, and the Near East, which themselves employed individuated strategies of positioning themselves vis-à-vis Roman rule. Far from being hegemonic and unitary, the Roman empire “continued to be a multipolar world”.
Heterogeneity within and among local communities, this time regarding theological, religious, and calendrical practices in Western colonies, re-emerges as a theme in John Scheid’s chapter on “Roman Theologies in the Roman Cities of Italy and the Provinces.” Case studies include the municipal laws of the Caesarian colony at Urso, in Spain, and material evidence for public religion and private worship in Gaul, Germany, and Raetia. Rich in both evidentiary detail and interpretive speculation, the chapter will inspire further inquiry into provincial colonies’ religious choices as a microcosm of larger imperial dynamics of cultural exchange and transformation.
Ido Israelowich provides welcome insight into ancient education with a contribution on “The Involvement of Provincial Cities in the Administration of School Teaching”. This chapter is less concerned with pedagogy than pragmatics: how did Rome administer the profession of schoolteaching during the High Empire, and what role did individual cities take in deciding which teachers would be granted immunities and privileges? Along the way, Israelowich offers useful rundowns of the history of grammar schools in the Roman world and of different types of teachers’ varying levels of perceived value to imperial bureaucracy and local communities, ultimately concluding (am I alone in detecting regret?) that teachers never broke “the glass ceiling for artisans” (p. 145) to gain true appreciation as intellectuals or transmittors of culture.
Angelos Chaniotis concludes this section with one of the volume’s most novel and illuminating contributions, on “Many Nations, One Night? Historical Aspects of the Night in the Roman Empire.” Despite acknowledged limitations in evidence, the author makes a compelling case that Hellenistic cities “colonized” the “frontier” of night in dialogue with changing cultural practices and increasing mobility across the Roman world, usefully differentiated by class and gender. The High Empire marked a high point in a centuries-long expansion of nocturnal activities (religious celebrations, bathing, dining, voluntary associations) along with safety concerns, time-based regulations, policing, firefighting, street lighting, even emotional possibilities. “The creation of an empire of many nations,” Chaniotis suggests, “contributed to convergences in nightlife,” fundamentally reshaping the ways that people in the Greek East experienced the hours between dusk and dawn.
The volume then pivots toward “the case of the Jews” under Roman imperium. Debates about Rome’s attitude toward this people can feel like a Rorschach test: scholars looking at the same evidence variously see intolerance or inclusion. The volume’s honorand and Part III’s headline contributor, Erich Gruen (a mentor of mine), lead opposite camps. In “Religious Pluralism in the Roman Empire,” Gruen lucidly reviews emic and etic evidence from an array of media and contexts – including examples of Jewish religious syncretism and socioeconomic success – to argue, against Isaac, that Roman attitudes toward this people were far from “proto-racist.” With few exceptions, Jews (differentiated on religious more than ethnic grounds) were incorporated with the same self-interested pragmatism that characterized Rome since its foundation: laissez-faire “indifference, religious pluralism – and supreme self-confidence” (p. 185). It’s a testament to the tolerance and scholarly confidence of both Isaac and Gruen that the latter’s contribution, one of the few accessible enough to assign to undergraduates, becomes a kind of proem in the middle of this volume, tying together themes of the first two parts and pivoting toward subsequent discussions of Rome and Jews united by generative engagement with both sides of the debate.
Though I treat subsequent chapters only briefly because of their more specialist appeal and my own disciplinary limitations, all perform valuable work in facilitating engagement between scholars of classics and ancient Judaism. Challenging the assumption that Judea was permanently punished and policed in the wake of the Great Rebellion, Alexander Yakobson argues that imperial policy reverted soon afterward toward the softer ecumenicism described by Gruen. Furthering Isaac’s insights into emic identity, Youval Rotman measures Jews’ dynamic self-definition against differently bounded Persian, Egyptian, Greek and Roman categories including ethnos, demos, populus, and natio. In a refreshingly non-metrocentric discussion of interconnections between micro-local and global identities, Jonathan Price investigates how late antique synagogues connected themselves epigraphically with the larger Jewish community. Rounding out this section are Yuval Shahar’s discussion of Talmudic representations of Roman emperors, and Aharon Oppenheimer on the Severans and Rabbi Judah ha-Nasi. A short fourth section comprises two papers, by Yotam Tepper and Shlomit Weksler-Bdolah, on archaeological findings related to Roman legionary presence in Judea.
It is difficult to imagine a unitary audience for these diverse papers; it seems more likely that scholars, and the occasional student, will dip in and out according to their own research priorities. Yet it is precisely in its unabashed heterogeneity, its inclusion of multiple contradictory views and bodies of evidence, that Rome: An Empire of Many Nations most resembles the Roman empire itself – and most advances interdisciplinary, cross-cultural, and inclusive approaches to the ancient Mediterranean world, notwithstanding the abundance of perspectives and methodologies that remain to be explored.