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Rome and the Black Sea Region edited by Tonnes Bekker-Nielsen

Book Review by Andrew Dalby

Let’s face it, there are problems with this book. Does the title adequately represent its contents? No. Does it cover an easily definable subject? No. Is it totally without merit? Again, no.

I can’t review the book as a whole, because there is no whole. So I’ll review the papers separately. And I’ll start with the best, the star performance, the one that some on this site will devour like a juicy steak.

‘The Roman army as a factor of Romanisation in the North-Eastern part of Moesia Inferior’ by Liviu Petculescu ... perhaps you think I’m joking. I’m not, I promise. If only this paper were longer, I’d tell you to buy the book for it alone. With a name like Liviu, this author was predestined to be a classicist. In fact he is a specialist in Roman Dacia, and his doctorate, in 1999, was for a dissertation on Roman armour as used in the province. Now he is at the Muzeul National de Istorie at Bucharest and he is prominent in Roman archaeological work.

In the present article, Petculescu has a wonderful subject. Until almost the time of Trajan, the Romans had taken very little interest in the coastal region of Romania that is now called Dobrogea or Dobrudja. Yes, it’s coloured in on maps of the Empire, but it was very largely ignored, except in the writings of one reluctant inhabitant ... the unlucky poet Ovid. During the second century, however, Dobrogea suddenly gained strategic importance, partly because Trajan created the Classis Flavia Moesica – the lower Danube navy – which guarded the frontier westwards as far as Durostorum and guaranteed the coastal seaways eastward across the Black Sea to the Crimea. The fleet was based in Dobrogea at Noviodunum, which soon rose to the rank of municipium. Petculescu estimates that 2,000 naval personnel, 6,000 legionaries and at least 4,000 auxiliaries were stationed in the region; that means a lot of men of many different origins and a lot of civilian settlement. So that’s the topic: the settlement of a newly strategic region by people from all over the Empire under strong military influence. Read this paper, and keep in mind some possible comparisons with northern Britain, comparisons that Petculescu doesn’t make but that we might. But mainly, read it. The pleasure is in the detail.

And here’s a hint. If Petculescu’s article is what you want, get the PDF file here and see whether you agree with me.

Now the ones that are not quite so good.

Daniela Dueck is a specialist on Strabo, the Greek geographer who compiled a magnificent survey of the Roman Empire at the time of Augustus. Here, though, she writes about ‘Memnon of Herakleia on Rome and the Romans’. Memnon is certainly interesting, though very obscure: there is a translation of what survives of his work here (translated by Andrew Smith; Dueck uses this translation with minimal acknowledgement). Memnon lived around 100 AD and wrote a history of the Black Sea city of Heraclea Pontica, an important place. There were many local histories in the ancient world, but this is the only one that (partly) survives. So how did Memnon get his material? How well did he manage it? What does he tell us about the wider world, the Hellenistic kings, the Roman takeover? All this is well worth reading, and the article can be downloaded here. And finally – the angle forced on Dueck by the book’s title – what did he think about the Romans? The anticlimactic answer is that he thought some Romans were nice and some were not so nice. An anticlimax, I think.

The same question that was forced on Dueck was also forced on Jesper Majbom Madsen, the result being his paper ‘Intellectual resistance to Roman hegemony and its representativity’. That’s a difficult title: he’s asking whether Greek essayists of Greece and Asia Minor in Roman times disliked Rome, and whether they shared this dislike with their fellow-citizens who weren’t essayists. Why does he choose essayists? He doesn’t say. It saved him the trouble of reading Galen, anyway. Madsen’s real problem is literalism: not only can he not get behind the words of these authors to find out what motivated them; he doesn’t give much sign of understanding that he would need to. Still less can he find out what the non-essayists thought. Still, I knew a bit more about Plutarch, Dio of Prusa, Arrian, Dio Cassius and Aelius Aristides when I had read the article; here it is.

From the paper ‘Pliny’s province’ by Greg Woolf we can learn a fair bit about the younger Pliny, his service as governor of Bithynia under Trajan, and his correspondence with the emperor. This correspondence survives (it’s book 10 of Pliny’s Letters, and we can get an old-fashioned English translation here) but is it a real correspondence or a literary construct? Most people in the past have thought it real; some now doubt it, and Woolf is a doubter. Some of his reasons are good, some are bad. His argument that Pliny’s letters aren’t real because, unlike Cicero’s, they deal with one topic per letter, is neatly punctured by another author in this book, who points out that in this they resemble emails. Woolf fails, I think, to explain why anyone would forge such short, boring, unoriginal letters as the ones signed by Trajan in this correspondence. I still see them as real – though in most cases written by a secretary, not by the Emperor. Read Woolf here and decide for yourself whether he wins his argument. The book also contains another brief paper that draws largely on Pliny: ‘Local politics in an imperial context’ by Tønnes Bekker-Nielsen. It deals with two municipal conflicts, one at Ephesus (based on Acts of the Apostles chapter 19) and one at Prusa (based on Pliny’s Letters).

Jørgen Christian Meyer’s paper ‘What have the Romans ever done for us? How to win wars and also the peace’ has a good title (stolen from Monty Python’s Life of Brian) but didn’t belong in this book. It has nothing to do with the Black Sea region. It’s about cultural assimilation problems in the Roman Empire, and it focuses almost exclusively on the Jews and the unlucky progress in their case from attempted rapprochement to bitter and hopeless conflict. This is is not a new topic, but Madsen handles it well: here’s the article. Then there’s another paper that belonged in a different symposium. ‘Cultural contact and cultural change: colonialism and empire’ by Anne Marie Carstens is about the “Graeco-Persian art” of Asia Minor in the early years of the Persian empire, long before Rome arrived.

And, finally, there are two papers about the cultural shifts between Greek, indigenous and Roman in Asia Minor as revealed by inscriptions: Jakob Munk Højte’s ‘From kingdom to province: reshaping Pontos after the fall of Mithridates VI’ and Thomas Corsten’s ‘The rôle and status of the indigenous population in Bithynia’. These two might have been the meat of the book. Why are they disappointing? Not, I think, because there isn’t enough evidence. Perhaps because the authors study too little of it and don’t ask themselves enough questions about it. They both have good, strong titles; sadly, in my view, the papers don’t match up to them.

It’s not difficult to explain why the book has these problems. It is the ‘Proceedings of an international conference, University of Southern Denmark, Esbjerg, January 2005’, and it was accepted for publication in the series ‘Black Sea studies’. Not many people fancy Esbjerg in January, so only the scholars who had nowhere else to go offered papers. Not all of these papers were relevant either to Rome or to the Black Sea region, still fewer were relevant to both, and the sum total didn’t add up to much, but what could the organiser do? He gave the speakers a good time, got the final versions of the papers in, convinced the publisher that it would be all right, and here’s the result. Nicely printed, well bound, built to last. And available on the Web too!

But meanwhile, the real work was going on elsewhere. One or two authors here refer to a book by Henri-Louis Fernoux, published in French in 2004: Notables et élites des cités de Bithynie aux époques hellénistique et romaine. No one refers to J. N. Adams’s Bilingualism and the Latin language, published by Cambridge University Press in 2003. From both of these you can learn a great deal about how the population of the Roman Empire gradually became Roman. They aren’t the last word on the subject. It’s too big a subject for that. But they take you further than the authors of this book (Petculescu excepted) have dared to go.

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Book Review of Rome and the Black Sea Region - Related Topic: Dacia


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