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  • From Hellenism to Islam: Cultural and Linguistic Change in the Roman Near East
  • Walter E. Kaegi
From Hellenism to Islam: Cultural and Linguistic Change in the Roman Near East. By Hannah M. Cotton, Robert C. Hoyland, Jonathan J. Price, and David Wasserstein (eds.) (New York, Cambridge University Press, 2009) 481 pp. $129.00

Hellenism in the Roman Near East has been a welcome subject of scholarship since Millar and others from Oxford first pioneered investigations into aspects of Greeks and Greek culture in the Roman Empire during the early 1960s.1 In the twenty-first century, scholarship has broadened from that of the late 1950s and early and middle 1960s to investigate languages (often beyond Greek and Latin) and cultures in addition to literary works. This volume testifies to such changes. It is an admirable collection of eighteen focused and well-proportioned essays on sociocultural trends. The conveners managed to bring together a powerful group of highly qualified and distinguished scholars to report and reflect on broad, significant, and difficult questions that hitherto have lacked any convenient comprehensive treatment.

The authors have avoided forcing their sources, even though some readers still might want more details. From Hellenism to Islam covers areas of the formerly Roman Near East understandably concentrating on southwestern Asia, but its scope includes subjects stretching from Egypt to Anatolia. Even though the Eastern Mediterranean is the focus of many of these studies, the Mediterranean itself is not the key aspect of the environment or historical context. Instead, the authors explicitly concentrate on the Roman Near East. The essays' approximate chronological scope is the first through seventh century C.E., a lengthy period in the Near East that has suffered neglect but now is attracting more interest. Coverage is reasonable, but the collection cannot and does not cover everything. Omissions include (except indirectly or occasionally) Sasanian and Parthian studies and history and conditions in mainland Greece, the Greek islands, Cyprus, and the Caucasus.

As the subtitle indicates, the subject of From Hellenism to Islam is cultural and linguistic change, especially as illuminated by inscriptions, papyri, and archaeological evidence, not by individual literary sources in Greek, Latin, or nonclassical languages. Contributions are at least as valuable for philology (not necessarily for sociolinguistics) as for history [End Page 327] and cultural studies. The authors address methodological problems of tracing the complexities of long-term continuities and gradual changes. Most of these studies are not conceived as analyses of change resulting from or accompanying any sudden violent rupture. Several of the authors have specialized skills in nonliterary texts, such as inscriptions. The essays are interdisciplinary; they cross textual, geographical, chronological, cultural, and conceptual boundaries.

These essays deal with cultural and linguistic changes in process, usage, and conditions, not primarily with the history of events or individuals or with political and military developments. Some of the more specialized essays may never have large constituencies, measured, for example, by course enrollments. Omnipresent are aspects of religion, though unstated realities of political and military power are also intertwined with linguistic change in many cases. Yet, no case involved outright political compulsion or coercion as the explicit cause for linguistic change, as pointed out by Werner Eck, "The Presence, Role and Significance of Latin in the Epigraphy and Culture of the Roman Near East" (15-42), and by Nicole Belayche, "'Languages' and Religion in Second- to Fourth-Century Palestine: In Search of the Impact of Rome" (177-202, esp. 186-187). It would be inappropriate to invoke simplistic generalizations and formulations about power as causal explanations. The role of political power receives attention (especially in the incisive contribution by Benjamin Isaac, "Latin in Cities of the Roman Near East," [43-72]) but not explicit, singular attention. Relationships between and within communities and the process of linguistic and cultural change involve more complex variables than the eventual change from Hellenistic to Roman to Muslim power.

The five subsections are I, "The Language of Power: Latin in the Roman Near East"; II, "Social and Legal Institutions as Reflected in the Documentary Evidence"; III, "The Epigraphic Langue of Religion"; IV, "Linguistic Metamorphoses and Continuity of Cultures"; and V, "Greek into Arabic." Despite their rigor, these chapters...


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