In Syria […] the flower of the Hellenic conqueror was settled. […] For the Romans in Syria not much was left to be done as to the increase of urban development.
(Mommsen 1906, 132)
Mommsen’s viewpoint in 1906 still informs most archaeological and historical analyses of Roman Syria between the 1st c. BCE and the early 4th c. CE. The narrative revolves around strong Greek influence (hellenization) and little impact of Roman rule, which has resulted in studying Syria as a unique and distinct entity, separated from Rome.
This is an unusual conclusion, as Syria was under Roman rule for many centuries and, as outlined in the introduction, witnessed many changes in this period.
is the existing image of Syria is mistaken and that in fact the conquest by Rome left deep marks on provincial society?.
Existing scholarly accounts of Roman Syria revolve around three themes: hellenization, similarity to Rome, and a profound difference with the western provinces of the Roman empire.
Scholars perceive Roman Syria as culturally hellenized, or influenced by Greek ideas and material culture. In the centuries before Roman rule, after Alexander the Great had conquered Syria in the 330s BCE, the region had been part of the Hellenistic empires (Seleucid and Ptolemaic, p. 5).
In this period, Greek and Macedonian communities settled in Syria and disseminated their lifestyles to local Syrians. This hellenization included a political system (polisstructure), urbanization, city planning (hippodamian grid and public buildings), religious syncretism, and, most of all, Greek language. This, it is argued, persisted throughout the Roman period in Syria that started in 64 BCE. For instance, the mention of a city council (boule) and magistrates (archontes) demonstrates the existence of a city-state structure (polis). It is assumed that the cities founded by Hellenistic rulers. and 3rd c. BCE in North Syria were organized on the model of the Greek polis and held a degree of autonomy. ( The political structure and cultural features of these cities spread in greater or lesser extent to other cities
The view of Syria as part of a hellenized East was developed in the early stages of research on the Roman provinces. Mommsen stated in 1906 that much of the east of the Roman empire belonged exclusively to the Greeks. Roman gods and political organization were never introduced in the East; rather, the Romans were heavily influenced in their contact with the eastern world as they borrowed gods, forms of administration, and Greek language.
East & West
A second assumed characteristic of Roman Syria was a pronounced difference with the western provinces of the Roman Empire.
The differences between East and West were also underlined by Haverfield, who commented that, in contrast to Britain, “in the East where an ancient Greek civilization reigned, the effects of Romanization were inevitably slow. Rome met here the most serious obstacles to union, a race whose thoughts and affections and traditions had crystallized into definite coherent form. That checked imperial assimilation”.
Scholars generally draw a strong boundary between the western and eastern empire. In the eastern empire, also called ‘the Greek East’, the impact of Roman rule on local communities and structures was supposedly minimal compared to the western regions. Mommsen and Haverfield already mentioned this division in the early stages of research on the Roman province. The main evidence for this division is the lack of so-called romanization in these eastern areas.
The Roman province of Syria did not experience a shift in material culture in a similar way as Britain, France, and Spain. The large-scale introduction of Roman artifacts and ideas and the local production of these goods were absent in Syria.
Scholars argue that the preexisting structures in Syria and their similarity to Rome’s own resulted in little change under Roman rule.
To quote Drijvers: “in contrast to Britain and Gaul, where one could argue that the Romans brought the fruits of civilization to barbaric lands, in Roman Syria the new rulers added an administrative-military layer on top of a social and culturally complex society”.
Most authors agree that, unlike other provinces, a structure of cities existed in Syria before the Roman conquest, specifically in northwest Syria and the Lebanese coast. Little administrative reorganization was thus needed. Furthermore, Roman administrators established only a single colony in Syria (Beirut). The volume of non-local settlers compared to local inhabitants was much lower than in other parts of the Roman world. Thus, the direct contact between colonizers and colonized was limited, as were intrusive practices such as land appropriation and intensification of agricultural return.
Athens on the Orontes? However
A major problem with the traditional narrative of Syria is the lack of any actual evidence for hellenization before the Roman period. This scarcity of evidence is often mourned, yet it is not the evidence but the treatment of this evidence that is incomplete.
more problematic is that most of the evidence dates to a later period: Roman, Parthian, or Byzantine. All the references to the polis-structure of cities, almost all Greek inscriptions, and by far the greatest part of the archaeological evidence for hellenization date to a later period. Buildings that seem to signify Greek institutions and taste, for instance, such as theatres and gymnasia, were constructed after the 1stc. BCE.45 Hellenistic Antioch is largely reconstructed on the basis of later sources such as Libanius (4th c. CE) and Malalas (6th c. CE). Most authors assume that these buildings are a continuation from the Hellenistic period, but there is little evidence for backdating.
Syria’s transformation as a result of incorporation into the Roman empire was fundamental, but it took a different form than in the western provinces. The neglected province of Syria and the body of evidence of funerary practices enhance our understanding of the process of Roman imperialism and, indeed, our understanding of imperialism in the past and present.