Scholars perceive Roman Syria as culturally hellenized, or influenced by Greek ideas and material culture. In the centuries before Roman rule, after Alexander the Great had conquered Syria in the 330s BCE, the region had been part of the Hellenistic empires (Seleucid and Ptolemaic, p. 5). In this period, Greek and Macedonian communities settled in Syria and disseminated their lifestyles to local Syrians. This hellenization included a political system (polis- structure), urbanization, city planning (hippodamian grid and public buildings), religious syncretism, and, most of all, Greek language. This, it is argued, persisted throughout the Roman period in Syria that started in 64 BCE.(1)
The hellenization of Syria rests largely on issues of language. Scholars interpret the use of Greek as evidence for hellenized identity and, conversely, the use of a local, Aramaic dialect as a lack of hellenization. Furthermore, references in these Greek texts to features known from communal life in cities in Greece are taken as indicators for hellenization. For instance, the mention of a city council (boule) and magistrates (archontes) demonstrates the existence of a city-state structure (polis). It is assumed that the cities founded by Hellenistic rulers in the 4th and 3rd c. BCE in North Syria were organized on the model of the Greek polis and held a degree of autonomy.(2) The political structure and cultural features of these four cities spread in greater or lesser extent to other cities and villages. Archaeological evidence for the process of hellenization consists of rectilinear grid plans (also known as hippodamian grids), Macedonian- style fortification walls, public spaces such as an agora, and Greek influence on the arts.(3)
Scholars describe local or non-hellenized traditions in terms of their relation to Greek/Macedonian elements. They consider, for instance, the continuation of older traditions in the coinage and language of the cities on the coast of modern Lebanon, the so-called Phoenician cities, in opposition to their otherwise thoroughly hellenized culture.(4) For places where hellenization is more difficult to find, such as Doura Europos and Palmyra, the analyses focus on the mixture of local with Greek/Macedonian elements.(5)
Evidence for non-hellenized, local traditions is also sought in non-urban regions. For example, Jones argues, on the evidence of the adoption of Greek names, that hellenized culture was spread from colonists to native inhabitants in the cities. The countryside remained culturally unaffected by hellenization as the peasants continued to speak Aramaic dialects.(6) Bowersock however, concludes that hellenization was also strong in the villages, where Greek inscriptions have been found.(7)
The view of Syria as part of a hellenized East was developed in the early stages of research on the Roman provinces. Mommsen stated in 1906 that much of the east of the Roman empire belonged exclusively to the Greeks. Roman gods and political organization were never introduced in the East; rather, the Romans were heavily influenced in their contact with the eastern world as they borrowed gods, forms of administration, and Greek language.(8) The differences between East and West were also underlined by Haverfield, who commented that, in contrast to Britain, “in the East where an ancient Greek civilization reigned, the effects of Romanization were inevitably slow. Rome met here the most serious obstacles to union, a race whose thoughts and affections and traditions had crystallized into definite coherent form. That checked imperial assimilation.”(9)This narrative was firmly entrenched when archaeologists started investigating Syria in the end of the 19th century. Classical scholars were interested in the region for its large Hellenistic- period centers, such as Apamea and Antioch, both excavated in the 1930s. Previously unknown sites such as Doura Europos, where French-American excavations started in 1922, were praised as great examples of Greek-Macedonian city planning. Cumont characterizes the site as an old Macedonian colony on the banks of the Euphrates barely changed by the Roman conquest.(10)
Another example is Butler, who surveyed northwest Syria at the end of the 19th and early 20th century and described the style of the Roman period remains as having an inherited independence from Rome and an origin in the Hellenistic architecture of Antioch. Art and architecture in this region was a “provincial reproduction of metropolitan Antioch, in the work of a people trained in Greek traditions and with an admixture of Greek blood in their veins.”(11) These sites and regions were of interest for their Hellenistic-period remains and the mixture of local traits with Greek and Macedonian traditions. The Roman Empire, however, is virtually absent in these early accounts.
Scholars of Syria rarely state explicitly the reasons behind the adoption of hellenized ideas and material culture. There is no evidence that the Seleucid and Ptolemaic rulers of Syria actively participated in the conversion of provincial communities. Rather, they imply that contact with more sophisticated ideas and artistic forms resulted in adoption. It was a logical and spontaneous outcome of contact with Greek and Macedonian settlers in the cities and spread from these to other cities and perhaps villages.
The strong hellenization of Syria, it is argued, made the region similar to the Roman empire, in terms of political structure, arts, and level of urbanization, and as such less likely to change after incorporation into the empire. A second important inference is that changes in material culture are interpreted as local phenomena and that the increased urbanization, construction of public buildings and spaces (theatre, agora, temple), and the use of Greek language on inscriptions from the 1st c. CE onwards are a continuation of hellenization into the Roman period. The provision of peace and the influx of wealth in the first centuries of Roman rule stimulated or jumpstarted certain trends that had been dormant earlier.
East & West
A second assumed characteristic of Roman Syria was a pronounced difference with the western provinces of the Roman empire.(12) This is argued for most provinces in the eastern Roman empire, including modern Greece, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Palestine, Syria, and Turkey. Macmullen summarizes this common view when he states that in the West, non-Roman customs disappeared; however, “in the East, by contrast, it was the Roman intruder’s ways that were eventually forced off the stage.”(13) Scholars generally draw a strong boundary between the western and eastern empire. In the eastern empire, also called ‘the Greek East’, the impact of Roman rule on local communities and structures was supposedly minimal compared to the western regions. Mommsen and Haverfield already mentioned this division in the early stages of research on the Roman province.
The main evidence for this division is the lack of so-called romanization in these eastern areas. Romanization, literally the ‘making Roman’ of people in the provinces, deals with the connection between changes in material culture and incorporation into the empire. The Roman period in the western provinces witnessed the large-scale adoption of new artifacts, which were considered to originate in the dominant Roman culture. Traditionally, scholars of the Roman provinces argue that contact between Roman and provincial societies following conquest resulted in identity change in the latter. This process can be traced through change in language and material culture and the adoption of Roman lifestyles by provincial communities in the form of public buildings, Latin language, dress, bathing, diet, food preparation, literature, architecture, and art. This new culture accompanied the soldiers, colonists, and foreign merchants who entered the province and through whom Roman lifestyles spread. The outcome was the creation of local mixtures, such as Romano-British or Gallo-Roman.(14) The reasons for the identity change are not often stated explicitly in these accounts, but they revolve around the idea that contact with technologically more advanced tools and sophisticated ideas results in adoption, similar to the reasons behind hellenization as explained in the previous section. In this process of adopting goods and ideas from the occupier, the provincial communities became more like the occupier. It was a one-way, progressive process which came, top-down, from the occupier to the occupied.
Some authors argue that it was an entirely voluntary process.(15) Others see a stronger role for the Roman government in encouraging the local communities to embrace Roman lifestyles. Frere, for instance, following Tacitus’ Agricola quite literally, argues that the Romans took careof teaching their ways to the people in Britain.(16) The limits of change are also investigated and the Roman impact on local religious beliefs and afterlife is debated.(17) Scholars consider material culture a marker of identity, and regard people who use a greater quantity of Roman objects as more Roman. Thus, romanization can be measured by means of a checklist, by adding or subtracting Roman ideas and objects in order to identify the degree of ‘Romanness’ of a provincial community or individual.(18)
The Roman province of Syria did not experience a shift in material culture in a similar way as Britain, France, and Spain. The large-scale introduction of Roman artifacts and ideas and the local production of these goods were absent in Syria. Since research on romanization has in the past focused predominantly on the introduction of these identifiable Roman artifacts and ideas, Syria is considered not to have been influenced by Roman rule. As a result of this lack of Roman goods and the presence of a strongly hellenized culture, scholars reconstruct a Roman Syria that looks profoundly different from the western provinces. The only archaeologically visible changes that are ascribed to Roman rule are engineering improvements (bridges, roads, and aqueducts), skills in which the practical Romans surpassed even the Greeks. The story told about Syria is one of stability, continuity, and independence. This is illustrated, for instance, by Kennedy when he states that the region had a deep and rich heritage before the arrival of Rome and maintained a remarkable degree of independence in the Roman period: “for the Romans this must have been a confusing world.”(19) Price similarly describes cities in Turkey as civilized and complex, with ideals about freedom and autonomy.(20) By contrast, the Romans were never confused by the rich heritage of Gaul or Hispania.
In the last decades, archaeologists have strongly criticized the models that underlie romanization studies, in particular those concerning cultural transmission and identifiable Roman goods. Alternative readings of material culture in the western provinces have been sought; these are described in the second section of this chapter. These new readings have implications for research on the province of Syria and its development under Roman rule. These implications, however, are rarely appreciated and the models of cultural transmission remain uncriticized for Roman Syria. In this dissertation I apply some of these new approaches to Roman Syria.
“What have the Romans ever done for us?”(21)
A third and related common view of Roman Syria stresses its structural similarity to the Roman Empire. The types of institutions created to govern, the demands of the empire as well as the pre-existing social, economic, and political structures of provincial societies are essential in understanding the degree, intensity, and form of imperial impact. Scholars argue that the pre- existing structures in Syria and their similarity to Rome’s own resulted in little change under Roman rule. To quote Drijvers: “in contrast to Britain and Gaul, where one could argue that the Romans brought the fruits of civilization to barbaric lands, in Roman Syria the new rulers added an administrative-military layer on top of a social and culturally complex society.”(22) The Roman administrative body for instance, was small and incapable of governing the provinces on the ground. The Romans therefore relied in large part on local administrators for the maintenance of order and tax-collection, and used the city as a unit for governance of the provinces. Urbanization was thus stimulated, in the form of colonies with veteran settlers, but also in the form of new indigenous cities from which the local elite administered the region.(23) These cities were built on the model of Rome and formed points of contact between local people and veterans, other immigrants, and foreign merchants. In these cities the initial synthesis of several traditions occurred.
Most authors agree that, unlike other provinces, a structure of cities existed in Syria before the Roman conquest, specifically in northwest Syria and the Lebanese coast. Little administrative reorganization was thus needed. Furthermore, Roman administrators established only a single colony in Syria (Beirut). The volume of non-local settlers compared to local inhabitants was much lower than in other parts of the Roman world. Thus, the direct contact between colonizers and colonized was limited, as were intrusive practices such as land appropriation and intensification of agricultural return.
Other evidence for the structural similarity of Syria to Rome comes from the demands of the Roman Empire. For tax purposes and supplying nearby armies, for instance, the provinces had to produce surpluses. In many regions, no system of taxation had existed before and agricultural practices were increased, resulting in a changing relationship to the land and rural life.(24) Most communities in Syria had been used to paying some type of tax for millennia, and agricultural intensification and urbanization were not necessary for the incorporation into the Roman empire.(25) Scholars of Roman Syria, therefore, argue that the similarity to Rome resulted in a diminished impact of Roman rule. In the west, Roman rule required new cities, markets, surpluses, and identifiable elites to take care of local governing. These were already in place in Syria, and so the narratives about the province revolve around the continuation of pre-Roman traditions.
These three related characteristics of Roman Syria, hellenization, difference from the western provinces, and similarity to Rome, explain the treatment of Syria as disconnected from the Roman Empire. Jones concludes that “the most surprising feature of Roman rule in the Greek East is that despite its long duration it had so little effect on the civilization of the area.”(26)
1. For this research, ‘Greek’ refers to Greece and the western coast of Turkey, and to the language. ‘Hellenization’ is the influence of Macedonian and Greek traditions on those of the inhabitants of Syria. ‘Hellenistic’, on the other hand, is a time-period (323-64 BCE).
2. These are known as the Tetrapolis in northern Syria (Antioch, Apamea, Laodicea, and Seleucia-ad-Pieria).
3. See for example: G. Bowersock, Studies on the eastern Roman Empire. (Goldbach: Keip, 1994): 147, 168.
4. Garnsey & Saller, The Roman Empire. Economy, Society and Culture. (Duckworth: London, 1987): 191.
5. For instance Palmyra: P. Richardson City and Sanctuary. Religion and Architecture in the Roman Near East. London: SCM Press, 2002.
6. A. Jones, The cities of the eastern Roman Empire (revised second edition). (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1971): 247-253, 294.
7. G. Bowewsock, Studies on the eastern Roman empire. Goldbach: Keip, 1994.
8. T. Mommsen, The provinces of the Roman Empire. From Caesar to Diocletian, pt II. (New York: Charles Scribner’s son, 1906): 127.
9. F. Haverfield, The Romanization of Roman Britain. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1912): 11.
10. F. Cumont, Fouilles de Doura-Europos 1922-1923. (Paris: Librairie Orientaliste Paul Geuthner, 1926): x.
12. The western provinces for this study include the region of modern Belgium, Britain, France, the Netherlands, Spain and Italy, as well as the Roman provinces in North Africa.
13. MacMullen, Romanization in the Time of Augustus. (New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 2000): 46.
14. See for example: F. Haverfield, The Romanization of Roman Britain.: 11.
15. Ibid, 14.
16. S. Frere, Britannia: a History of Roman Britain. (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1967): 304-305, 311.
17. Ibid: 303
18. See D. Mattingly, ed. Dialogues in Roman Imperialism. Power, discourse, and discrepant experience in the Roman Empire. Vol. 23. Portsmouth: JRA supplementary series, 1997.
19. D. Kennedy, "Greek, Roman and native cultures in the Roman Near East." In The Roman and Byzantine Near East, v. 2. Some recent archaeological research, edited by J.H. Humphrey, 77-106. Rhode Island, 1999): 79-80.
20. S. Price, Rituals and Power. The Roman imperial cult in Asia Minor. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984):1.
21. Monty Python's Life of Brian, directed by Terry Jones (1979).
22. H. Drijvers, "Romeinen in Syrië." Phoenix 26 (1980): 77.
23. See also K. Hopkins, "Taxes and Trade in the Roman Empire (200 B.C.-A.D. 400)." JRS 70 (1980): 102.
24. Ibid: 101.
25. The limestone plateau in northwest Syria forms an exception. Surveyors of this region argue that the agricultural practices increase to greater or lesser extent as a result of Roman intervention.
26. A. Jones, "The Greeks under the Roman Empire." Dumbarton Oaks Papers 17 (1963): 3.
Narratives of Roman Syria
A historiography of Syria as a province of Rome
Lidewijde de Jong