In this lavishly illustrated and arresting study, Warwick Ball presents the story of Rome's overwhelming fascination with the East through a coverage of the historical, architectural and archaeological evidence unparalleled in both breadth and detail. This was a fascination of the new world for the old, and of the mundane for the exotic - a love affair that took literal form in the story of Antony and Cleopatra. From Rome's legendary foundation by Aeneas and the Trojan heroes as the New Troy, through the installation of Arabs as Roman emperors, to the eventual foundation of the new Rome by a latter-day Aeneas at Constantinople, the East took over Rome, - and Rome eventually ditched Europe to the barbarians. Rome in the East overturns the received wisdom about Rome as the bastion of European culture. Newly available in paperback, and illustrated with almost 300 photographs, plans and drawings, its accessible and comprehensive approach makes it an ideal resource for both the academic and general reader.
Warwick Ball is an Australian-born near-eastern archeologist.
In the past 30 years, Ball has mainly excavated in Jordan, Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan.
Ball was formerly director of excavations at The British School of Archaeology in Iraq. He is the editor of the scholarly journal Afghanistan. His publications include the volume The Monuments of Afghanistan, History, Archaeology and Architecture, I.B. Tauris, London 2008. The book consists of exceptional photography of numerous rare archaeological sites no longer well accessible today for reasons of security.
Although this was a long book, full of detail about the stone built villages of Roman era Syria and their dependence on the international olive market and the funerary customs of the Nabatenaens among others, it was also a simple and strikingly uncontroversial book at least for me, an amateur reader with no formal education in the history or archaeology of the ancient world.
This is the thing with education, that duct can be felt as an aqueduct marching across the countryside. Without it you lack structure and direction to your reading and your thinking, with it you can end up flowing on to a destination that somebody else intended without realising that was where you were heading all along. And in a way that is the core issue with this book, Warwick Bell is engaged with a pattern of thought about the past that is unfamiliar to me. For those who have been educated in a certain way this will be a controversial and striking book, which I suppose, is a pity since viewed from Bell's perspective it entails looking down on the inhabitants of Syria as natives and assuming that everything laid out in a grid pattern is necessarily superior and therefore has to be a foreign importation. From another point of view it seems entirely reasonable to suspect that the Roman Patrician's reaction on seeing the splendour of the Iranian inspired Eastern courts with their monarchy and ceremony was the Latin equivalent of wow.
Bell it seems to me has two major theses. Firstly, that Rome looked to the east in the sense of looking up to the east - it was big, rich, sophisticated, different - Rome stumbled into the near east following on from victory over Hannibal and the Carthaginians while it was relatively unpolished, and so because of that we can be aware of the range of influences that the near and middle east had upon Rome culminating in the adoption of Christianity as the state religion. Secondly, that continuity is more visible and important in the history and archaeology of that region than discontinuity irrespective of incoming populations and regimes, be they Greek, Macedonian, or Roman. Linked to these two is a third thesis as a corollary, and that is the enduring importance of certain families and how an understanding of the role of those families in their region enriches our appreciation of history - here the archetypal example is the family of Septimus Severus' wife who were hereditary High Priests of the cult of Esmene Baal otherwise known as Elagabalus.
The book can be divided in to two sections. A long middle bit that looks at the archaeology of the various polities of the near east, and two shorter wide ranging sections fore and aft that provide the argument in the form of a historical overview and a discussion of the transformation of the empire - an offshoot of this is that the fall of the Western half of the Empire and the survival of the Eastern half seems an entirely natural development.
Bell has had a lucky and unlucky career working as an archaeologist in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria in that he was born at a time when it was possible to do this before it came impossible to do. The insight gained from this work that powers this book - that there are styles and traditions in building that last and are relatively unaffected by the wave of regime changes from Alexander of Macedon onwards. To this he adds styles and traditions of religious practice including monotheism directed towards an abstract deity, a cult of a mother and child (this including the Egyptian cult of Isis cradling Horus), and congregational worship which were long present in the region in various pagan cults and later get absorbed by Christianity and Islam. Perhaps the idea of Christianity as a Semitic religion that influences and changes Europe feels to Bell as a big thesis that needs to be asserted and fought for because he is Australian by background. Maybe all these colonial regimes have, part forgotten, in their roots a firm notion of European superiority so complete unto itself so as to justify European domination over distant lands and peoples, a superiority that does not admit of alien influences. From a European perspective, looking up from the stone age, through the Bronze and Iron ages , one can take a more laid back view, hazy with beer no doubt, of ourselves as country hicks profoundly changed by waves of incomers from across the Mediterranean bringing their foreign wines, olive oil, and bathing habits. Then again since I was introduced to Christianity in a syncretic form in my second year of Infant school with the teacher instructing us to pray at night and my friend advising me to pray to Leo at the same because we had been born under the Lion stars of summer, it seems entirely natural to accept Christianity as a completely syncretic religion. Others may find Bell's views problematic rather than curious and delightful.
This long middle section is full of fascinating details about the Nabataeans (famous for Petra, their major cult site), or the people who constructed their buildings from Basalt, or Herod the Great and his building programme which Bell believes was funded through expatriate remissions for the Temple and the so called Dead Cities of Syria. This was a major olive oil producing area until clearing stones from fields to increase the area under cultivation led to such severe soil erosion that the region was abandoned.
When first I came across this book, I flicked through it and my eyes caught the illustration of a Roman with his hair in a Buddhist style top-knot, and it was this in combination with the title of the book that I was looking for: the inter-relationship between Roman and the far East. This isn't Bell's main interest , his focus is on Rome and its near East. I'm in need of further reading on Rome and the far East because Bell both points to and dismisses some connections. Mortimer Wheeler - the one who was forever interpreting burial sites as dramatic and bloody last stands after excavating Maiden Castle as a youth - wrote very excitably about Roman finds in coastal regions of India. Bell points out that numerically these are about equivalent what has been found in pre-Roman Britain. Which depending on your point of view is either underwhelming or really quite exciting. It seems that Indians were present in Alexandria in the Roman era, but there is not the evidence to make definitive statements about Indian influence on Roman era philosophy or religion for all that Jesus' brother James was a practising vegetarian who eschewed the use of wool. Equally Bell dismisses the idea of direct contact between Roman and Indian sculptors despite the near identical styles of work at this period. The problem with this distant era is that it was largely illiterate and many material objects have perished. Much will always remain mysterious and open to speculation.
The main drive of Bell's book and his authorial style means that this is the kind of text that is open to grumpy counter readings. A grumpy reading in general, as you may well be familiar, involves making noises like "paaah", or "ppfff", possibly accompanied by dismissive, even derisory, hand gestures. And sentences like What is important is what Philip meant to the Arabs themselves: that one of their number could aspire to the world's highest office and succeed (p.418) are an open invitation to the reader to make the grumpiest of counter readings, even if it didn't already run counter to his picture of a world made up of tribal, rather than national, loyalties. Bell also passes over contested opinion as fact As a rich description of the Roman era near East, full of suggestions about the interactions between east and west, from the philosopher Plotinus' regrets at not having gone to India to learn from its sages, the non-existence of the Silk Road , to the influence of Zoroastrianism upon the other monotheistic religions this is a very entertaining book.
Much better than somenof the other books with rome in the east. Warwick also gives a lot more context to historical situations so you don't have to.read 50 books before this one to understand what is going on.
A very detailed, academic account with fascinating glimpses of a vanished world. I never realised that the "Silk Road" is mostly a modern concoction, and all ancient accounts of trade with the Far East involved Arabia and India. But most arresting was the idea that captured legionaries of Crassus ended up fighting in China. There's definitely a historical novel to be written about that.