This is an important addition to the mounting literature on the cultural and especially the linguistic mix in the east- ern provinces of the Roman Empire in the period before the Arab conquests. It arose from a conference and a related research theme on epigraphy and cultural and linguistic change in the Near East “from Hel- lenism to Islam,” organised by the Institute for Advanced Studies of the Hebrew Uni- versity of Jerusalem in the year 2002-3. This background, as well as the connection of three members of the research group with the international project, which aims to publish all inscriptions from Israel and Palestine surviving from the fourth to sev- enth centuries, explains the emphasis of some of the contributions on the evidence of inscriptions. On the whole, the volume deals with the period before rather than af- ter the coming of Islam. The exceptions are two contributions on Egypt by Tonio Se- bastian Richter and Arietta Papaconstanti- nou, both of which deal with the complex interplay in Greek, Coptic, and Arabic, and a third by Leah Di Segni’s paper that pro- vides a welcome survey of Greek inscrip- tions in the region from the sixth century and into the late Umayyad period. Robert Hoyland’s penetrating paper “Arab kings, Arab tribes and the beginnings of histori- cal memory in late Roman epigraphy,” also discusses the portrayal of pre-Islamic Arab leaders and groups in later Arabic sources.
With the exception of the two papers on Egypt just mentioned, the only contri- butions which deal with Anatolia as dis- tinct from the Near East are the fascinating paper by Angelos Chaniotis on “Ritual per- formance of divine justice: the epigraphy of confession, atonement, and exaltation in Roman Asia Minor” and Walter Amel- ing’s discussion of inscriptions relating to diaspora Jews in Asia Minor and Syria. It is a pity that there are no maps, both in view of the large number of place names in the text. In addition, obviously modern national borders are irrelevant to this pe- riod, and one of the areas most productive of written material in the period before Islam is now partly or mainly in Eastern Turkey (see Sebastian Brock, “Edessene Syriac inscriptions in late antique Syria”). Also somewhat distant from the main theme of the volume is Marijana Ricl’s con- tribution on the legal and social status of threptoi (children reared by persons other than their natural parents) in narrative and documentary sources.
The volume well illustrates the inten- sity of current scholarly discussion about the Roman Near East in the period pre- ceding the impact of Islam. Fergus’ Millar highlights much of this theme in his in- troduction. On one level, this is part of a wider debate about prosperity and decline, with many writers pointing to the ‘fall’ of the Roman empire and rise to prominence of barbarian peoples in the west as a fifth- century phenomenon, while the provinces of the eastern Mediterranean continued to flourish economically and culturally at least until the Persian invasion and occu- pation of the early seventh century (and in the view of many until well after the Arab conquests). An economic boom fed by population growth in this period is high- lighted, for example, by Robert Hoyland (p.
388). It is striking that the centre of imperi- al government in Constantinople seems far away, to judge from the emphasis in these papers. Among the themes that emerge in many of the contributions perhaps, the most prominent are those of cultural iden- tity and the reliability of other markers, such as language and religious practices. A major topic is the use of Greek in rela- tion to indigenous languages (connected with the ‘Hellenism’ of the book’s title), but two papers (Eck and Isaac) also deal with the use of Latin. The contribution by Rich- ter stands out for its application of socio- linguistic theory and comparative material from other periods against a too-ready re- sort by many ancient historians to notions of bilingualism. Languages and scripts also need to be distinguished. A language could be and often was written down in a differ- ent script that the spoken word, as in the case of Arabic, written in northern Arabia and southern Syria in Nabataean Arama- ic script which gradually developed into Arabic script or in Egypt in Coptic signs. Christian division, a prominent theme in other publications on the Near East in this period, and rightly re-emphasised by Pa- paconstantinou in relation to Egypt, gen- erally gives way here to these complex lin- guistic questions, which together present a far more localised and nuanced impression of change than is usually provided. The Talmud, “a complete Greek book written in Aramaic letters,” (p. 284) also emerges as being affected by the cultures surround- ing its production. We can agree with Hoy- land (374) that this period, which also saw the emergence of a Samaritan script in the fourth century (Dan Barag, “Samaritan writing and writings”), represented an “ef- florescence of a whole range of languages and scripts across the Roman empire,” and nowhere more vividly exemplified than at Dura-Europos (see Ted Kaizer, “Reli- gion and language in Dura-Europos”), or Palmyra, where eight churches are now known from late antiquity, at least one of them from the Umayyad period. With this phenomenon of linguistic change also went the experience of “language death,” “lan- guage shift” or “language loss.” (Richter)
Some of these highly complex devel- opments indicate the formation of new groups, but Papaconstantinou is right (449,n. 8) to caution that “identity and allegiance in this period is complex, and involves much more than the usually cited religious and ethnic factors.” Thus, the reasons for the “westward spread” of Syriac inscrip- tions and writing in the fifth and especially the sixth centuries (Brock, p. 291) or for the rise of Arabic script and disappearance of ENA (Epigraphic South Arabian; see Hoyland, p. 391) are equally complex and multiple. The main reasons were new cli- entage relationships with the Roman pow- er that brought corresponding changes to the Arab groups already settled in imperial territory and that no group in these Near Eastern provinces during this period could remain unaffected by the degree of change that was taking place on all sides.
Many of the contributions address the basic methodological problems inherent in drawing conclusions from inscriptional evidence, or from naming practices. But the overall impression left by this volume is of a period characterised by multiple linguistic and cultural shifts, and of highly complex and changing allegiances. Above all, the consolidation of Islam did not take place in a context of cultural or political decline but against an existing background of energetic experimentation and cultural change.