CJ-Online Review: Empire, Authority, and Autonomy in Achaemenid Anatolia

Empire, Authority, and Autonomy in Achaemenid Anatolia by Elspeth R. M. Dusinberre. Cambridge/New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013. Pp. xxvi + 374. $ 40.99. Paper. ISBN 978-1-107-57715-2.

Reviewed by Jan P. Stronk, Universiteit van Amsterdam

In a world where various forms of imperialism still exist, it is interesting to look at the way how (the idea of) Empire worked for the Achaemenids. Dusinberre has looked into this matter, specifically for Anatolia-a region she is very familiar with as her 2003 book Aspects of Empire in Achaemenid Sardis attests. However, in that book she organized the treatment of evidence (largely confined to the city of Sardis) after the type of evidence, in the current one she presents the material-for a much larger area-thematically. Due to its treatment of many varied types of sources (archaeological, epigraphical, literary, art historical), necessary to create the comprehensive picture that Dusinberre presents, the book seems to be aimed primarily at an academic audience. In spite of its scholarly aims and contents, the book is nevertheless-in my view-(relatively) accessible and a pleasure to read.

The publisher’s blurb summarizes Dusinberre’s book neatly: “The Achaemenid Persian Empire (550-330 bce) was a vast and complex sociopolitical structure that encompassed much of modern-day Turkey, Syria, Jordan, Israel, Egypt, Iraq, Iran, and Afghanistan, and included two dozen distinct peoples who spoke different languages, worshiped different deities, lived in different environments, and had widely differing social customs. … Through a wide array of textual, visual, and archaeological material, Elspeth R. M. Dusinberre shows how the rulers of the empire constructed a system flexible enough to provide for the needs of different peoples within the confines of a single imperial authority and highlights the variability in response. This book examines the dynamic tensions between authority and autonomy across the empire, providing a valuable new way of considering imperial structure and development.”

As indicated in the first paragraph of this review, Dusinberre’s book has been structured thematically, basically a chapter dedicated to each theme (imperial control, religion, education, diet, to name some). What strikes the eye is both the diversity and the varying amount of evidence present for each of these themes. Some themes (like education) are hampered by the near absence of viable data, while others (like diet and death: the latter I find an excellent contribution to our knowledge and understanding of how people in Anatolia incorporated Achaemenid elements into their funerary culture) are blessed by a relative wealth of evidence.

Whenever the amount of evidence is poor, I think Dusinberre deals as well with the problem as might be expected, relying more heavily on literary than on material evidence, the type of evidence she prefers in the chapters where both types are present. The risk of bias in the literary evidence, however, remains-in my view regrettably-largely unattended by Dusinberre. For instance, she appears to ignore the fact that some authors may well have been more informed than others. In this respect a discussion on minimalist-maximalist attitude, i.e. the extent one can rely on literary sources might have been really helpful.[1]

As the title of the work indicates, Dusinberre confines her study largely to Achaemenid Anatolia, which thereby serves as a kind of exemplum for Achaemenid imperial practice.[2] Methodically, I think, few can argue with her approach and its results. Nevertheless I sometimes felt slightly uncomfortable with the strict way she sticks to her approach. As the publisher’s blurb, quoted above, rightly states, the Achaemenid Empire (my emphasis) encompassed many regions and many peoples. An excursion to (cautiously) compare the situation in (or of) Anatolia with that in other parts of the empire would-as far as evidence goes-have been extremely welcome. In the same category would have fitted an excursion into the afterlife of Achaemenid Anatolia during the succeeding Antigonid and (after 301 bce advancing) Seleucid kingdoms. Many of the practices Dusinberre describes did not disappear with the Achaemenids and, therefore, such an excursion could contribute to the understanding of Achaemenid imperial elements in their relation(s) to Anatolian local and/or regional ones.

Since a good deal of Dusinberre’s evidence in the various themes is of art historical nature, it is obvious that the illustrations in this book are many and, necessarily, (almost) all of good or excellent quality. They support many of Dusinberre’s observations. I was less impressed by the quality of the maps and the fact that some of them are used more than once (a simple: see figure so and so on page xx could suffice). Also the added value of inscribed aerial pictures instead of plain, well-drawn maps eludes me at all. As with fig. 18 (page 25), such maps distort the geographical dimensions and only allow for a limited amount of information. Only occasionally, as in fig. 25 (page 47) which shows (some of) the relief of the Taurus mountains against the Cilician plain, such aerial pictures may add to our understanding, though here as well the geographical distortion is obvious. In a work aimed at academic use I find the use of endnotes instead of footnotes obnoxious, distorting the coherence of text and note. The bibliography is extensive, up to date, and really helpful. The index, regrettably only limited to a general one, is succinct but sufficient.

Nevertheless, in spite of the critical remarks in the preceding two paragraphs, I am happy with the final result of Dusinberre’s attempt to bring her audience up to date through a review of the available evidence on Achaemenid influences upon local and/or regional communities in one of the provinces constituting the Achaemenid Empire. The book, moreover, is well taken care of and only counts few typos. For everyone taking either Achaemenid or Anatolian studies seriously, this absolutely is a book to own.

[1] Elementary in such a discussion is at present: Hall, J. M., Artifact and Artifice: Classical Archaeology and the Ancient Historian, Chicago 2014. Though this book had not yet been published when Dusinberre composed hers, the subject itself obviously is a long debated one that Dusinberre largely passes by.

[2] The book under scrutiny in a way deepens our understanding of one (geographical) area that already figures, though obviously less pregnant, in Gruen, E. S. (ed.), Cultural Identity in the Ancient Mediterranean, Los Angeles, CA, 2011. In this book Margaret Miller wrote a contribution on drinking in Achaemenid Anatolia (97-134).

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CJ – Online Review ~ The Laws of the Roman People

Williamson, Callie. The Laws of the Roman People: Public Law in the Expansion and Decline of the Roman Republic. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 2016. Pp. xxviii + 508. Paper, $44.95. ISBN 978-0-472-03661-5.

Reviewed by Molly Jones-Lewis, The University of Maryland, Baltimore County

When writing an academic book, the hope is that the finished work will be, above all, useful. In that, Callie Williamson’s The Laws of the Roman People, now available in a reasonably priced paperback edition, more than succeeds. Its ambitious goal-to explore the rise and fall of public lawmaking during the Roman Republic in its historical and cultural context-is met and exceeded, delivering a lucid and thorough discussion of the topic that is detailed enough to satisfy specialists in Roman legal history, yet accessible to those first exploring the field. It approaches its subject organically, moving from the mechanics of composing and passing law to the historical circumstances that shaped the process, and does an admirable job of bringing life to the dry minutiae of the legislative process.
The book divides into three major sections: Patterns and Process, The Expansion of Rome, and The Decline of the Republic. The first (Patterns and Process) begins with a discussion of the various lawmaking assemblies and the sorts of legislation passed in them, moving chronologically from the early Republic to the assassination of Caesar in 44 bce. It then turns to a specific land reform bill (the Rogatio Agraria Servilia of 63 bce) discussed extensively in Cicero’s speeches and letters as a case study in the mechanisms, customary and formal, by which public legislation moved from draft, to promulgation, and then to law. The entire three-chapter section is accompanied by a number of charts arranging the known statistics of public legislation by factors such as date, topic, sponsorship, and category.

The remainder of the book proceeds chronologically, arguing that periods of crisis and expansion coincided with the increasing use of lawmaking assemblies, then contextualizing the history of public legislation within the expansion of Roman dominance in the Italian peninsula. Williamson convincingly ties the use of popular assemblies to Roman efforts to promote loyalty and unity in the face of Hannibal’s invasion, grounding her discussion in the evolving economic and geographic conditions of an increasingly urbanized Italy. The fourth and fifth chapters are particularly gratifying in their bottom-up approach, focusing on the ways in which the customs and concerns of rural non-elite Italians impacted the way in which Rome approached the legislative problems of the time. This gives an organic feel to the argument; conflicts over land use in this section inform, in retrospect, the features of agrarian legislation so central to the first section. Likewise, the narrative of territorial expansion lies neatly parallel to the first section’s arguments about expansion in the legislative process.

Finally, in the third section (Decline of the Republic), the focus returns to the city of Rome and the way in which the crises of leadership during the first century bce impacted the world of Roman law and lawmaking, transitioning smoothly from the social history of the second section with a discussion of how Rome evolved into a central regulatory hub for Italy. Then, Williamson moves on to the events and personalities that directed policy from that urban center, returning, briefly, to the years of the Second Punic war before proceeding through the civil conflicts of the late Republic. The eighth chapter pivots around Sulla’s dictatorship and the stream of legislation generated during 81 bce. She concludes in the ninth chapter with Julius Caesar, arguing that the posthumous enactment of Caesar’s laws in 44 bce effectively finalized the shift away from public, collaborative lawmaking toward a process lead and controlled by the princeps. Within that discussion, Williamson provides valuable context for the genesis of laws regulating the political process, corruption, and murder-laws that were the basis of many a high-profile case of the Imperial period and are therefore of special interest to scholars whose interests range later than the late Republic.

The text and argument alone are enough to make this book a substantial contribution to the field of Roman law and legislation; it covers a large span of time without falling prey to sweeping generalization, maintaining a high density of detail to satisfy the curiosity of a variety of readers. But the tables and appendices add yet another aid to the reader, organizing as they do a vast array of information in a format that is sensible and easy to consult. This reviewer’s copy is battered and coffee-stained from being grabbed for hasty consultation, and now bristles with tabs marked for future reference. Anyone with an interest in ancient Rome, regardless of their level of interest in law and government, will find Williamson’s work relevant and thorough.


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