World History Connected Home    
Home List journal issues Table of contents
Printer-friendly format        

Book Review


Sartre, Maurice. The Middle East Under Rome (Cambridge and London: Harvard University Press, 2007). 665pp, $39.95 hardback, $22.50 paper.

     Maurice Sartre is the preeminent French authority on the ancient Near East. The Middle East Under Rome is an English language translation of his 2003 work D'Alexandre à Zénobie: IVe siècle avant J.-C. – IIIe siècle après J.-C., which is a monumental history of the Near East, anchored around the Seleucid Empire and the Roman province of Syria, but including the entire Near East to the Euphrates River. It thus covers Greek and Roman interactions with a host of peoples and regions including Phoenicia, Judea, Palestine, and Nabataea. This English version is an abridgement that focuses on the Roman chapters of the original, spanning from the early Roman involvement in Syria through its annexation, and concluding with the defeat of Zenobia of Palmyra. The work thus covers some three and a half centuries, a time period that brought immense changes to the Near East. Few changes have been made to Sartre's original chapters from the French version. What changes have been made deal with updating information, correcting minor errors, and eliminating text that took away from the Roman focus of the English volume. In addition, in order to place the Roman period in context, Sartre has provided a new introductory chapter, "The Hellenistic Legacy," which briefly summarizes much of the first half of D'Alexandre à Zénobie.

     Sartre's volume can be divided into two halves; the first proceeds chronologically and the second topically. The first chapter traces the influence of Hellenism on the Near East, from the conquest of Alexander to the successor state in Syria of the Seleucids. A series of Greek colonists, many of them veterans, settled in Syria bringing with them Greek culture, including a Greek political structure that centered on the polis. This, in turn, led to the founding of numerous new cities. The second chapter deals with the decline of the Alexandrian successor states and increasing Roman intervention on issues of succession in the states of the Near East. In the third chapter, Sartre goes on to trace the more prominent involvement of Rome after the ascension of Augustus, as Rome began to assert direct control in the area. The fourth chapter deals with Judea, which alone among the kingdoms in the area had elements within its population that offered an ideological alternative to Roman rule based on the Jewish faith, and the consequent rebellions and civil wars that erupted within Judea. The initial chronology concludes in chapter five with the stabilization of Roman control in the Near East with provinces and client kingdoms beyond the Euphrates, and the end of Roman expansion.

     The second half of the work examines a series of cultural and economic topics. In chapter six Sartre examines city life in the Near East, including a series of city profiles that emphasize the Hellenistic influence in the area. In chapter seven, Sartre examines rural life and issues of land distribution and production. Evidence on this topic is far more limited than in other areas, including Anatolia, but still Sartre draws on what available evidence exists. Chapter eight deals with the economy of the Near East, its distribution networks and production inside the cities, and issues of taxation. The ninth chapter examines Hellenism's effect on local communities and the range of interactions with it, from a deep acceptance by many urban elites to absolute rejections by others. He examines the levels of acceptance of Greek institutions, language, art, architecture and culture as well as Roman law. Chapter ten covers religious developments and the influence of Greek culture on local pantheons and temple architecture. It also covers the changing nature of Judaism and its rabbinical direction after the destruction of the temple as well as Greek influence upon it as demonstrated by the use of animal and human decorations on Jewish places of worship (practices barred by Jewish law). It also briefly covers the spread of Christianity, though it is impossible to come up with accurate projections on the number of Christians. The work concludes with a chapter on the growing Persian threat to Roman territory in the Near East and the changing nature of client kingdoms, as Romans withdrew from frontiers and turned to nomadic tribes and others for security.

     Catherine Porter and Elizabeth Rawlings have provided an eminently readable translation. Nonetheless, there is an immense amount of material covered in three hundred and sixty eight pages of text, and the density of that material could be overwhelming for those without some introduction to the material. Having said that, The Middle East Under Rome is an excellent synthesis ideally suited for scholars as well as graduate and undergraduate students pursuing classical studies or with an interest in the Middle East—especially those who do not want to delve into the secondary sources that Sartre draws extensively on. This is particularly true for those who lack a reading ability in French, given the language of many of the works that Sartre utilizes. The book could be assigned for upper level courses on the classical world or in graduate seminars either in classics or courses that take a long-term view of the Middle East. Probably the best original English synthesis is F. Millar's The Roman Near East, but Sartre's work is far more wide ranging and comprehensive in its coverage of the Roman rule, and more forthright in making judgments in areas where there is limited evidence.

     In addition to drawing on a vast amount of secondary sources, Sartre relies on archeological works, Greek, Latin and other inscriptions as well as a highly critical reading of the well-known ancient histories and literary sources to create this masterful synthesis. The endnotes and works cited, and the number of pages devoted to them, attest to the amount of time and effort that went into creating such a well-constructed volume. The work also contains an adequate index and a series of drawings and photographs revealing frescoes, inscriptions, statuary and models of architecture that vastly improve the text, though it could benefit from more maps, particularly in the first five chapters. The subject matter is ideally suited for students of world history and is of particular relevance for the modern world. Sartre's work examines how cultures interacted in the Near East across all aspects of society from politics, warfare, and economics to religion, language, culture and architecture. It examines how Greece and Rome transformed the cultures and societies of the Near East and also how Greeks and Romans were transformed in the Near East as well. This is a subject of immense relevance that details cultural interaction and change over three and a half centuries between east and west in an area of the world that continues of be of paramount interest.


Michael Beauchamp
PhD. Candidate, Texas A&M University


Home | List Journal Issues | Table of Contents
© 2008 by the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois
Content in World History Connected is intended for personal, noncommercial use only. You may not reproduce, publish, distribute, transmit, participate in the transfer or sale of, modify, create derivative works from, display, or in any way exploit the World History Connected database in whole or in part without the written permission of the copyright holder.

Terms and Conditions of Use