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The Archaeology of Imperial Landscapes: A Comparative Study of Empires in the Ancient Near East and Mediterranean World

April 2020 (124.2)

Book Review

The Archaeology of Imperial Landscapes: A Comparative Study of Empires in the Ancient Near East and Mediterranean World

edited by Bleda S. Düring and Tesse D. Stek. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 2018. Pp. xviii + 368. $120. ISBN 978-1-107-18970-6 (cloth).

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This volume reimagines and reinvigorates how we make relevant the success or failure of ancient empires by means of archaeological case studies. The authors share an approach using a “structural and typological [analysis] of the workings of empires and imperialism” (2). Imperial power structures have been of interest as long as empires have existed. The aim here is to weave together historical and archaeological approaches with a focus on rural and peripheral regions. The study grows out of an increasing desire to understand the impacts, changes over time, and persistence of imperial systems cross-culturally on the lived landscapes of imperial subjects. The studies within the volume depend on a recognition that archaeological evidence tells a particular important story about the past, that transformations in “provinces and peripheries matter” (3) to our understanding of empires, and that the complexity of these data result in analyses that are “messier” than usual (hence, perhaps more accurate). Two critical points emerge from these studies: first, that empires both subtly and radically transform the regions under their rule in nontrivial ways; second, that the means by which they do this are flexible and not “programmatic” (4). The authors concentrate on the archaeological assessments “of change and continuity and their relationship to imperial expansion” while emphasizing “the problem of empire, logistics, and heterogeneity” (6). The authors further argue that empires were, in their essence, experimental, and they highlight the “trial and error” nature of imperial consolidation and control and the ubiquitous diversity in their social makeup (11). The authors initially separate “rural” from “periphery,” and then draw the main conclusions together in a comparative section at the end.

Part 1 considers rural areas in the Middle Assyrian (Düring), Achaemenid (Daniele Bonacossi, Henry Colburn), Hellenistic (Peter Attema), and Roman (Stek) imperial systems. Düring argues that effective and durable domination of conquered territories resulted from flexible and adaptive strategies that responded to local conditions and logistical realities. Mesopotamia’s lack of a major, natural transport artery lead to a tendency toward political localism (22); most attempts at lasting empire building had failed. The Late Bronze Age Assyrian empire is the exception. How was that possible? Düring utilizes “repertoires of rule (23–24) to emphasize that empires in Mesopotamia did not adhere to a strict set of particular practices. After examining several systems that did not last, Düring considers how Middle Assyrian rule differed. Using archaeological and archival evidence, the author argues convincingly that Assyrian control was strengthened by purposeful adaptation of local strategies to imperial needs and by creating “a culture of empire” (24–25) that, more often than not, legitimated its policies and practices. Bonacossi uses the evidence from landscape archaeology to analyze the material remains of imperial control in her study of the Middle and Neo-Assyrian heartlands. This essay achieves two goals. The author demonstrates how solidified imperial control can impose altered settlement, agricultural, and trade patterns—as well as the goods produced and traded—and lead to “ideologically charged” man-made and natural landscapes (67). In addition, the author shows the importance of an integrated approach to the study of empire and ancient states. Similarly, Attema examines settlement and land use patterns in the Tauric Chersonesos using “an exceptional combination of data derived from settlement archaeology and epigraphy” (117) published by the Džarylgač Survey Project. The point of his project was to understand power dynamics emanating from, and the external forces exerting pressure on, what became the Hellenistic “hegemonic city-state” (117) located on the Chersonesos. He concludes that the Tauric Chersonesos provides an excellent case study of the behavior of a small Hellenistic city-state in its quest to expand and exert control over larger regions, even while the exact mechanisms of control remain unclear.

Data from the Achaemenid period in the Kharga Oasis in the Western Desert of Egypt provide further evidence for Düring’s argument that specific, flexible strategies for rule increase the likelihood of successful domination of subject people and landscapes. Colburn illustrates the importance of evaluating both the centers and peripheries of imperial states with an eye toward understanding how the dominant powers adopt, adapt, and interface with subject peoples and cultures. Because of the Achaemenids’ interest in bringing the region into the larger imperial system, there is compelling archaeological evidence indicating significant change at the oasis during Achaemenid rule. The size and remote location of the Kharga Oasis provide an unusually valuable “case study for Achaemenid rule in a rural landscape” (88). 

In the Abruzzi Mountains of central Italy, patterns of settlement and exploitation lend themselves to a different set of interpretations than those associated with typical Roman colonization patterns (i.e., tidy, well organized, with clear agricultural property lines and cultivation patterns). Stek argues here that the traditional models and theories must be questioned, particularly due to the intellectually hegemonic reach of Roman imperial theories and studies in the modern era. New data from Abruzzi provide the means to do so. This chapter is the most historiographically far-reaching in its potential impact on the way we think about Roman colonization. Our understanding of Alba Fucens is transformed from a typical, orderly Roman colonial town with a “neatly partitioned agricultural hinterland” (166) to one that fails to display necessary features: a large urban population, capitolium, and colonial farms. Indeed, this seemingly traditional colonial town appears to have been subject to particular violence for strategic military purposes. Stek concludes that Alba Fucens “shows that the impact of Roman imperial power on conquered landscapes should not be expected to follow an urban-rural divide and did not behave according to a diffusionist model of change” (167). This adaptive nature of Roman rule needs to be integrated into our interpretations of Roman imperial behavior and policies.

Part 2 moves systematically to peripheral regions and borderlands in Urartu’s Caucasus region (Lauren Ristvet), Roman Egypt and Sudan (Anna Boozer), the Roman Imperial-period north Mesopotamian steppe (Lidewijde de Jong and Rocco Polermo), and the western frontier of the Byzantine empire (Joanita Vroom). This section also relies on material evidence to make sense of relationships between and among subject people. In the case of Urartu in the Caucasus, more questions than answers emerged regarding the techniques used to resist aggression and to pull together diverse people for a common goal, but the data confirm the existence of three theoretical strategies used to exert control: constant warfare (violence), decentralization, and state assemblage. The author documents “the great diversity of people and political arrangements that operated below and beyond the level of Urartian control,” the dynamics of power along the Urartian frontier, and changing economic patterns (185–86). The other chapters in the section consider evidence for the strategies and motivations for Roman and Byzantine behaviors in the creation and maintenance of border areas, concluding that imperial rulers used dramatically different techniques—some tried and true, others new and adaptive to the local needs—to enhance border security depending on the local resources. Imperial behavior was not monolithic but flexible, a theme found throughout this volume for those empires that held territories for lengthy periods of time. Furthermore, imperial behaviors and their impact on the lives of inhabitants are vividly recorded in the material remains at the centers of empire and along the edges.

Part 3 aims to offer a comparative approach to discussing imperial strategies (J. Daniel Rogers) and their impacts on our understanding of the evidence (Bradley Parker; Stek and Düring). Strategies of expansion and control were the “product of a nested set of relationships” (304), local and regional, urban, rural, and peripheral. Strategies of control are equally, if not more, complex, but both have archaeological implications. Parker’s essay on the “big picture” of comparative archaeology can be summed up with: It is really complicated and hard, but worth doing to enhance our understanding of the archaeologies of empire. Especially significant in his essay is the articulation of the questions to consider and the types of evidence that might lead us to answers. 

These case studies work well together to enhance our understanding of how imperial systems impacted the people and landscapes over which they exerted control, and the volume is appropriate for graduate students and scholars. The editors did an effective job of organizing and linking disparate methods, regions, eras, and data into a coherent exploration of ancient empires. The individual authors handle published survey and excavation results effectively, as well as new data with creative and compelling combinations of sources.

Cynthia K. Kosso
Department of History
Moravian College

Book Review of The Archaeology of Imperial Landscapes: A Comparative Study of Empires in the Ancient Near East and Mediterranean World, edited by Bleda S. Düring and Tesse D. Stek
Reviewed by Cynthia K. Kosso
American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 124, No. 2 (April 2020)
Published online at
DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1242.Kosso

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