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The Pasts of Roman Anatolia: Interpreters, Traces, Horizons

July 2021 (125.3)

Book Review

The Pasts of Roman Anatolia: Interpreters, Traces, Horizons

By Felipe Rojas. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 2020. Pp. xxii + 252. $99.99. ISBN 9781108484886 (cloth).

Reviewed by

Until recently, scholarship on Roman Anatolia has focused primarily on its wealth of material remains. Rojas’ book examines aspects of the embodied experience with the region’s past during the Roman period, and he does this adeptly by combining archaeological, literary, and epigraphic sources. Building on his earlier work, he takes a thematic approach by elucidating how various populations in Roman Anatolia—here defined as the period from the early second century BCE to about the fourth century CE—explored and explained aspects of the land’s pre-Roman past through the interpretation and manipulation of various vestiges that they understood to be the remains of this past. Several important questions are considered by the author. How did the residents of Roman Anatolia understand and interact with what scholars today might term “pre-classical material remains”? What traces of the past did ancient interpreters consider meaningful? How did they make sense of multiple material pasts, and who was interested in and knowledgeable about these older physical traces? How can scholars understand aspects of the past that remain invisible to us today, including, for example, clothing patterns, cuisine, religious experiences, dances, and other aspects of daily life that would offer a more holistic understanding of ancient societies? Finally, what term should scholars employ to describe the interpretation and interaction of people living during a particular era with earlier material remains in their land, and why does Roman Anatolia offer a particularly useful case study for understanding human interaction with the past?

The book is presented in six chapters. After a stimulating introduction, each chapter focuses on a specific theme: “Interpreters,” “Traces,” “Horizons,” “Beyond Anatolia,” and “The Past in Things: Ancient Archaeophilia and Modern Archaeology.” The main premise that ties these chapters together is the understanding and manipulation of older remains by populations in Roman Anatolia; what constituted these vestiges of the past ranged from prehistoric earthen mounds to sacred carp to exploding cucumbers (known as balis to Pliny the Elder and Pedanius Dioscorides). Many of these case studies might seem rather bizarre to us, but the author does an excellent job of elucidating their meaning for those ancient people who interacted with the deep past in Roman Anatolia. Where appropriate, Rojas weaves comparative evidence from areas outside Anatolia like Greece, Spain, and Egypt, including narratives by Pausanias, Strabo, Martial, and others.

In addition to the author’s excellent and engaging prose style, the book is noteworthy for shedding light on certain aspects of human engagement with the past that may seem counterintuitive to most modern researchers who study antiquity. One of these is the usefulness of consulting present-day people—in Rojas’ case, those living in parts of Turkey—who tend to know their land better than most academic visitors and may sometimes provide some much needed information about the physical traces of the past in the environment. Modern scholars are often quick to dismiss and discount the testimonies of native informants but, as Rojas rightly insists, such individuals can often serve as a gold mine of information, not only for leading researchers to previously unexplored areas of their land, but also by offering alternative interpretations based on long-term traditions and inheritance. Another important point that the book raises is the engagement with the past through olfactory stimuli by drawing connections between intense local smells—often emanating from rocks—that lingered in the environment. Engaging with the past through the sense of smell was much more prevalent in antiquity and points to the failure of contemporary scholars to fully comprehend this aspect given the underdeveloped sense of smell in the Western world today. As the author emphasizes, “Roman period archaeophiles wanted to know and feel the past multi-sensorially” (157).

Rojas proves that scholarship on antiquity requires the transcending of disciplinary and regional boundaries in order to make sense of how ancient people conceived of their pasts. He does this by using both artifacts found in Roman contexts that are now understood as belonging to preclassical periods, as well as by presenting evidence from ancient texts that explicitly discuss monuments and objects that authors of the Roman period assumed to be remains of earlier times. In certain parts of the book, Rojas also introduces ethnographic and other comparative material, including more recent interactions between Anatolian antiquities and people like modern scholars and lovers of antique remains. This interdisciplinary and diachronic approach lends a particularly rich and wide scope to the carefully thought-out arguments that the author offers in this book.

In the last chapter, Rojas discusses the neologism “archaeophilia,” which he defines broadly as “the urge to find the human past in things” (181). The author discussed the definition and usage of this term in articles that were published before this book, but he has since expanded and refined the concept. He advocates that archaeophilia can distinguish ancient practices and discourses about the past from those of early modern European antiquarianism and contemporary archaeology. I am not entirely convinced regarding the merit of this term in current scholarship as defined by the author. For one, the term itself evokes notions of a psychological disorder, a problem which the author acknowledges in passing. More importantly, one can argue that intense interest in the past has more or less been pervasive among a sizable percentage of the world’s population. Thus, by definition, a certain percentage of people in each generation—and, for obvious reasons, this would be higher in some regions than in others—could be defined as lovers of the past, thus making the usage of the term “archaeophilia” nonexclusive and redundant. An issue that comes to mind regarding the usefulness of this term is what exactly would constitute the opposite of archaeophilia; how do we describe the urges of individuals who choose to focus on their contemporary world or the future and have no interest in the past? By definition, then, all archaeologists and historians of antiquity could be described as “archaeophiles,” but one could argue that this was the case for a significant percentage of people living in time periods in which love of the antique flourished in large segments of society, such as the Roman empire in the second century CE, Renaissance Italy, and the Neoclassical era. Mainly for these reasons, I do not think that archaeophilia is defined sufficiently to allow for it to encompass the broad range of experiences related to time, although Rojas makes a decent, if rather unconvincing, case for the merits of its usage.

Despite this minor criticism, Rojas is right to point out that an appropriate concept is needed to define the engagement of people with the accrued pasts of their land. The monograph is devoid of typographical and grammatical errors and is appropriately illustrated throughout. Since it tackles complex, interdisciplinary themes that require significant background in the study of antiquity, it will appeal most to doctoral students and researchers in the social sciences and humanities. The author should be lauded for producing a groundbreaking book that grapples with themes that are of significant relevance to studies of Roman Anatolia as well as to the perception and reception of the past in antiquity and the present. Most importantly, Rojas’ study raises questions that we should be posing, and it reiterates the necessity for scholarship on antiquity to transcend disciplinary and regional boundaries in order to make sense of how ancient peoples conceived of their pasts. 

Anna Kouremenos
College of Arts and Sciences
Quinnipiac University

Book Review of The Pasts of Roman Anatolia: Interpreters, Traces, Horizons, by Anna Kouremenos
Reviewed by Anna Kouremenos
American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 125, No. 3 (July 2021)
Published online at
DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1253.Kouremenos

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