The lands around the Mediterranean have been politically and administratively united only during the Roman period. For four centuries (first to fourth century CE) Rome presided over an empire that at its height around 200 CE covered some 5 million sq km extending from central Scotland to northwestern Saudi Arabia. Complete control was achieved only in the first century BCE. Even in the fifth century CE when barbarian kingdoms emerged in the western half, the Byzantine Empire lived on in the east for an additional one thousand years.

Beginning with the province of Asia (western Anatolia) In 133 BCE Rome embarked on a series of conquests that culminated In 30 BCE with the overthrow of Cleopatra's Egypt. For the Near East in the narrower sense, there were provinces of Syria (63 BCE); Judaea (70 CE), later called Syria Palaestina; Arabia (106 BCE), and Mesopotamia (198 CE). Direct administration in the first century BCE was restricted mainly to the northwest where the major cities of Hellenistic Syria were located. Later acquisitions extended direct control to the Gulf of ῾Aqaba and to the Tigris at Mosul. Military expeditions saw Roman armies campaigning as far as the Caspian Sea, Persian Gulf, and Yemen.

Government was in the hands of a legatus (called praefectus in Mesopotamia) drawn from the imperial aristocracy. Equipped with a slim and largely unprofessional bureaucracy, these officials controlled their extensive provinces through a combination of delegation to internally self-governing cities and the threat of intervention by an efficient and ruthless army. In addition to the cities and often extensive territories that were administered by local aristocracies, there were various principalities and petty kingdoms. The emperor Augustus (30 BCE–14 CE) swept away many of these in Syria, but some well-known allied states remained. Best known is Herod the Great's Judaea, but longer lasting was the Nabatean kingdom, which was only annexed In 106 CE.

The quality of government improved after the civil wars (49–30 BCE). The monarchy of Augustus replaced the Roman republic. Governors resided in palaces in their provincial capitals but were often absent on tours of assize (legal and juridicial) centers or on campaigns. Their primary responsibilities were security, the administration of justice, and the collection of tax. Despite the great Jewish rebellions (66–70, 116–118, and 132–135 CE) the eastern empire enjoyed a long period of largely peaceful, stable administration for nearly three centuries. [See Bar Kokhba Revolt; First Jewish Revolt.]

Eastern Cities.

Greco-Roman civilization was essentially urban, and the East had many cities. Antioch and Alexandria reached populations of about 200,000 to 250,000. There were many other great cities, such as the provincial capitals at Ephesus (Asia), Ancyra (Galatia), Nisibis (Mesopotamia), and Caesarea (Palaestina) with scores of others, mostly of already great antiquity. The pattern of cities—overwhelmingly pre-Roman in origin—was largely determined by geography: fertile soils, trade routes and ports, and strategic requirements. Most of the cities in greater Syria were on or within fifty miles of the coast.

The Roman impact was superficially modest. A few new cities, coloniae, were founded in southwestern Anatolia, with fewer still in Syria, although Berytus (now Beirut) grew into one of the great cities of the East. But this overlooks the contribution of the allied rulers who founded Greco-Roman cities, some of which—Herod's Caesarea Maritima in Palestine is the outstanding example—flourished and helped transform the character of the region. The real impact of Rome on the urban landscape was more subtle but important. Peace and stability provided the ideal conditions which permitted growth, prosperity and development. It was only in the Roman period that most cities achieved their fullest flowering.

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Roman Empire

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Under Roman prosperity civic architecture flourished. Theaters, stoas, and gymnasia became regular features of Greek cities in the Roman Empire. The Roman contribution, however, was uneven. The basilica is rarely found in the East. The amphitheater occurs in such “Roman” cities as Berytus and Caesarea Maritima but is otherwise rare. In contrast, the hippodrome and that quintessentially Roman structure, the monumental arch, were popular features. Probably the best-preserved hippodrome in the empire is at Tyre, and there are fine combinations of city gate, hippodrome-stadium, and monumental arch at Gadara (Umm Qeis) and nearby Gerasa (Jerash) in Palestine in what may be an example of civic rivalry. Public amenities were most developed in the Roman period, whether the great public baths or aqueducts, such as those to be seen still at Caesarea (drawing water from 14.5 km distant), Apamea (75 km long), and around the cities of eastern Cilicia.

Overall, however, the greatest Roman contribution was grandeur. It is most striking in the treatment of the main streets. Broadened, lengthened, flanked by shady colonnades and shops, they became monuments in their own right. The street at Antioch in Syria two miles long, is known only from excavation. Their character can be seen readily at Apamea also in Syria, Gerasa, and elsewhere. [See Cities, article on Cities of the Hellenistic and Roman Periods.]

Art and Architecture.

Despite numerous Greco-Roman features, the eastern cities lay in an alien environment. At Palmyra in Syria, for example, the column brackets that were intended for statues are a native embellishment. In most cities the pre-Roman tradition of post-and-lintel architecture remained dominant in the face of Roman preference for brick-faced concrete, and there was a continued confident Hellenistic artistic tradition.

At Samosata the native rulers used opus reticulatum, diamond-shaped facing stones on a concrete core, even on their city walls, a construction style rarely found outside Italy. At Caesarea Maritima, Herod the Great evidently employed not just Roman engineers and craftsmen but Roman techniques and material for his great artificial harbor. In Herod's palace at Masada, however, the wall paintings were of Alexandrian (Hellenistic) style. Most representational art of the period is known to us only through the many fine mosaics to survive—more than three hundred at Antioch and Daphne alone and many more superb examples from Apamea, Zeugma, Palmyra, and Scythopolis in Syria-Palestine, reflecting a vigorous Hellenistic style of three dimensionality and illusionism. Where wall painting does survive extensively, it is in peripheral areas, providing the evidence for a continuing oriental tradition. At Dura-Europos, for example, a city with a strong army presence, the figured scenes in the synagogue are in the unrealistic, frontal poses of the Near East. Even the third-century painting in the temple of Bel at the same site depicting the Roman tribune Julius Terentius sacrificing with his soldiers, is in the same style. [See Wall Paintings.]

Sculpture was common. Full-size bronzes such as that of Hadrian from Tirat Zevi near Scythopolis are rare anywhere, but there is much fine heavily classical stone statuary and relief sculpture from the towns. Once again, native tastes remained vibrant. Best known are the relief sculpture and depictions on tombstones from northern Syria, especially Palmyra, where it is the staring frontal pose which strikes the observer rather than the Greek of the inscription. Syrian style was exported to imperial art where it appears in the relief portraits of Septimius Severus (193–211 CE) and his family on the Porta Argentariorum in the Roman forum. The porphyry sculpture of the four tetrarchs now at St. Mark's Cathedral in Venice is perhaps the most obvious example of Palmyrene tradition in the art of the Roman East (Rice, 1968, pp. 52, 390).

Popular art and architecture remained little changed: mud-brick and pisé (clay) for houses in many areas, stone orthostats (supports) and arches in the villages of the largely treeless limestone massif of northern Syria and the lava lands of the Hauran. Amongst the sedentary population, artwork tended to be cruder versions of traditional oriental forms. The thousands of so-called Safaitic graffiti of the desert and semidesert often reveal the tastes of the nomads for scenes of everyday life, especially hunting and herding. [See Building Materials and Techniques, article on Materials and Techniques of the Persian through Roman Periods.]

Religion and Funerary Practices.

The deified Roman emperors and the “classical” deities were certainly worshiped in the eastern empire; nonetheless, the Greco-Roman pantheon figured only superficially in local cults. The god of Doliche in northern Syria may have been called Jupiter, but he was an oriental syncretism, Jupiter Dolichenus, clad in Hellenistic military costume and standing on the back of a bull. The important excavations at Dura-Europos illustrate the complexity and diversity of religious belief. Worshipers had access to Palmyrene deities such as Bel and Atargatis, Greco-Roman personifications of Nemesis and the Fortune of Dura, and to a synagogue. Alongside these mixed practices, the army was engaged in the official commemoration of defied emperors and the gods of Rome, as we know from a unique military religious calendar (see Welles et al., 1959). In the south the important Nabatean sanctuary at Si in the Hauran and numerous smaller Nabatean temples and “high places” continued to flourish under Roman rule, giving way to Christianity only in the third century. In the northwest, too, oriental religions dominated. The oriental priest of the cult of Atargatis at Hierapolis is depicted in traditional long robe and conical hat. At Emesa, Diadumenianus, priest of the sun god Elagabalus, became emperor In 218.

The most famous temples of Roman Syria were those at the great sanctuary of Heliopolis at Baalbek. Nominally dedicated to a Roman triad of Jupiter, Venus, and Mercury, they rapidly became powerful, elevated, oriental deities, the temples themselves incorporating features alien to Roman tradition. Monumentality on the scale of Baalbek was not a Roman innovation, but it was surely Roman wealth and determination that finally completed the vast sanctuary. At a much lower level at Dura, we find small, irregular mud-brick temples to Semitic deities that are quite unlike even the semi-classical monumental stone versions at Palmyra.

Funerary practices, too, were less touched by Roman rule, much of the impact being superficial. Notable native traditions which continue are the great tower tombs of Palmyra and Dura and the royal examples at Emesa, and the superb rock-cut tomb facades of Petra in Jordan and Meda'in Saleh in Saudi Arabia. Even when cremation was the common practice in much of the Roman Empire through the first to third centuries CE, inhumation remained the norm in the East. The well-to-do were interred in stone sarcophagi or in niches in rock-cut tombs such as those which are found in the cemeteries of Roman Zeugma. Also found at Zeugma and elsewhere in northern Syria, are a handful of tumulus graves, a fashion most strikingly found in use among the rulers of Samosata farther north. A novel feature, which does reflect a characteristically Roman fashion, is the great increase in the erection of inscribed stelae. Most carry little more than a brief text—usually in Greek—but many bear relief portraits of the deceased. Throughout much of the Near East, however, symbols of the Sun are common on tombstones, especially the eagle, which also implies apotheosis.

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ROMAN EMPIRE. Roman tomb in Syria. Dated to the second century CE. (Courtesy D. L. Kennedy)

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Material Culture.

Throughout the East the material culture of the pre-Roman societies continued. The novelty was less one of new characteristically Roman artifacts than a broadening of the range and quantity. Finds are generally much more abundant and the drier conditions of much of Syria and Egypt have preserved even organic materials from human hair through textiles to wood and foodstuffs. Especially useful are the huge numbers of papyri recovered in Egypt and, now, from similar conditions around the Dead Sea at Dura-Europos and in Mesopotamia.

Coinage became more abundant with the proliferation of both local and imperial mints. Many towns such as Zeugma, Damascus, Pella, Philadelphia (Amman), and even little Areopolis (modern Rabba, Jordan) occasionally struck their own coins, but the principal imperial mints in the Near East were at Antioch and Alexandria. Glass is much more common too, best preserved when recovered among grave goods. Pottery is well made and includes the major fine wares of the Roman world, the red-gloss wares known as Eastern sigillata and African red slip. Metalwork, especially in bronze, is common too for jewelry, tools, and household cult images. [See Coins; Glass; and Ceramics, article on Ceramics of the Hellenistic and Roman Periods.]

Rural Areas.

Agriculture was already well-developed and widespread in the Near East and Roman rule brought no great technological breakthroughs. What Rome did contribute, however, was the long period of sustained peace which permitted the easier spread of ideas and what may have been the fullest expansion of agriculture until modern times. For the former, it was the spread of technical inventions, largely those developed at Alexandria in the Hellenistic and early Roman periods. For example, the geographer Strabo describes a water screw used for raising water from the Nile to the Roman fortress at Babylon in Egypt in the early first century CE; half a century later an example is attested epigraphically on the Euphrates near Samosata. No certain trace has yet been found anywhere in the Near East of the characteristic Roman practice, so common in Europe and parts of North Africa, of centuriation—dividing the landscape up for colonists into great regular squares of, typically, 776 yards. Farmsteads dated to the Roman period are emerging in large numbers from the landscape surveys now so common in Jordan and Israel in particular. In the marginal regions of the Hauran in southern Syria into which agriculture spread very fully in the Roman period, old air photographs preserve traces of fossilized field systems probably belonging to the Roman and Byzantine settlements in their midst. Not the Roman centurial squares but fairly regular long, narrow strip fields, marked by stone boundary walls. The pattern emerging from field surveys is uneven, but the impression is of a densely settled landscape in which even in marginal regions with inadequate rainfall, pre-Roman methods of water harvesting, permitted farming to be sustained for generations. [See Agriculture.]

In supply, communications, and transport there was a major impact. The change was brought about not so much by Roman engineering skill as by the opportunity for development of native traditions in the construction of dams, reservoirs, and cisterns which now abound in the region. The Romans, however, were great bridge builders and many of the finest surviving examples are to be seen in the Near East, especially those on the tributaries of the Euphrates around Samosata. Many ancient roads became Roman highways, and scores of new roads were constructed, creating a network that in scale and quality was unsurpassed till the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Superb examples can be viewed all over the region from the frontier roads of the upper Euphrates, through the desert roads of Syria and Arabia, to the great highways which bound together the region as a whole. The ancient coast road of the Levant, the Via Maris to Egypt, was paved and marked by milestones under Roman rule, other roads were built to join Palmyra to the Euphrates and southwards to Damascus, and numerous new surfaced roads connected the towns of the Near East to one another. Especially notable is the Via Nova Traiana in Jordan where not just the road but even the regular towers and groups of inscribed milestones at each Roman mile is often visible. Terrain was no impediment, as the zigzags which carry the Via Nova across the great slash of Jordan's Wadi el-Mujib attest. [See Transportation; Roads.]

Trade and Industry.

The remarkable sea captain's handbook, The Periplus of the Erythraean Sea (c. 40–70 CE), provides details of trade between Egypt and India, which is confirmed by finds of Roman artifacts, including terra sigillata (at Arikamedu in Tamil Nadu) and coins (in southern India and Sri Lanka). Trade provided a wider range of items from distant points within the empire and beyond. Thus amphorae attest to wine imports from the Aegean, fine red-gloss terra sigillata to trade with Gaul and the province of Africa, and numerous marbles can be traced to their origins in Asia Minor and North Africa, the Aegean, and Italy. Exotic commodities from outside the empire include Chinese silk from a Palmyrene tomb, lapis lazuli from the Hindu Kush in Afghanistan, ivory from Sub-Saharan Africa, amber from the Baltic. To facilitate trade, not only Caesarea Maritima but also Seleucia Pieria were given sophisticated artificial harbors to supplement the many others along the coast from Cilica to Egypt. At Antioch, the river Orontes was tamed by canals, which allowed goods to be brought upriver, possibly as part of a military supply route linking the Mediterranean to the Euphrates.

Industries included the dyeworks of the Levant, fulling at Antioch, silk weaving at Damascus, and the production of fine linen, jewelry and glass. Natural resources were exploited: copper from the Wadi ῾Arabah, the cedar forests of Lebanon, and bitumen from the Dead Sea.

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ROMAN EMPIRE. Via Nova Trajana, looking south. (Courtesy D. L. Kennedy)

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The nature and role of Roman influence on provincial economies is keenly debated. Although most scholars accept that there was little direct intervention, the needs of the frontier armies, the effects of taxation, and the impact of transforming large areas into imperial estates, will certainly have brought about changes in scale, character and direction. More passively, peace and political unification permitted the gradual filtering of ideas around the region as a whole. In agriculture, the ubiquitous olive presses still to be seen on the limestone massif illustrate one area of development, and recent surveys and examination of air photos have revealed how farming penetrated even the more marginal areas.

Roman Army.

The work of the military is much harder to trace. We know that upward of one hundred thousand soldiers were based in the eastern provinces, over half in greater Syria but, unlike the West, few of their bases have been located or investigated. Most are known only from literary references or artifacts, such as military tombstones and stamped tiles. There is a legion fortress at Satala in northeastern Anatolia, and the outline of that at Bostra in Arabia is visible from the air, but the location of a first-century fort has been excavated at Tell el-Hajj on the Euphrates, revealing typical round corners, which contrast with the possibly second-century fort at Ḥumeima in Jordan where the circuit has small projecting towers. The best evidence comes from the third century CE, when the Diocletianic castella or fortresses appear along the desert fringes of Syria and Arabia. Part of the explanation for the spotty attestation for military structures seems to be that troops were largely based in earlier periods in the towns where the evidence is lost or hidden. The classic case is at Dura-Europos, where excavation has revealed how an entire quarter within the town walls had been taken over—indeed, walled off—by the military. The garrison built new, characteristically Roman military structures, such as barrack blocks, and also made use of what was there, as in the case of the temple of Azzanathkona, which became the regimental archive. Finally, the East has superb examples of Roman siege works; not just the well-known first-century CE example at Masada, but another at Machaerus, in Jordan. There are also second-century examples at Battir and Naḥal Ḥever in Israel and a possibly third century example at Hatra in Iraq. [See Fortifications; article on Fortifications of the Hellenistic and Roman Periods.]


Ethnic Italians were rare outside the administration and army; even Greeks were few and scattered in the newer urban centres. Many urban natives throughout the eastern provinces, however, became Hellenized in language and, to some extent, culture. In greater Syria the native population was largely Semitic. Latin is rare in inscriptions; Greek is much more common. Indigenous languages such as Palmyrene and Nabatean are preserved on numerous inscriptions; even more startling is the survival of tens of thousands of so-called Safaitic graffiti scratched on the rocks of the harra (the boulder-strewn southern part of the Syrian desert) and hammada (the gravel- and pebble-strewn parts) farther south, attesting to a degree of literacy and self-awareness amongst the nomads. [See Greek; Latin; Palmyrene Inscriptions; Nabatean Inscriptions; Safaitic-Thamudic Inscriptions.]

Soldiers from distant provinces settled and intermarried in the East. Traders and refugees from the Parthian (Persian) Empire came as well. In crude terms we can measure the size of the military impact. Initially most of the approximately 100,000 soldiers were foreigners, but there continued to be recruitment from throughout the East as well as beyond—Italians in the legions and Thracians, Gauls, Moors, and Goths in the auxiliary regiments.

An inscription (ILS 2683) records the tally of 117,000 homines (probably those citizens of tax-paying age) at Apamea in Syria one of the larger cities, under Augustus. Antioch may have reached 250,000 in habitants. Archaeology can assist. Scholars will dispute likely and possible population densities, and must make subjective allowances for the amounts of open space. Nevertheless, broad population parameters may be calculated for individual towns from the extent of area walled; at Samosata, for example, the walls run for 5 km (3 mi.). Then there is the impressionistic value of the numbers and supposed sizes of towns. There is also the evidence of field survey for the size and number of sites of all kinds in the Roman period. Finally, there is the mounting evidence for the extent and intensity of agriculture, implying a large population. At its peak, a population of thirty to fifty million persons may have lived between Bosphorus and Cyrenaica in the second century CE and about ten million in greater Syria.

Future of Research.

Roman sites abound in the Near East. Cities have always been attractive to archaeologists, but excavation has extended now to military sites—especially in Jordan—and field survey has produced rich harvests of “Roman” sites of all kinds. The pressing need today for the understanding of the Roman period, as for other historical eras, is for salvage of the many sites threatened not only by population growth and land development but also by hydroelectric projects and other irrigation schemes.

[See also Byzantine Empire. In addition, most of the sites mentioned are the subject of independent entries.]


  • Bowersock, Glen W. Roman Arabia. Cambridge, Mass., 1983. Standard study of an area undergoing increasingly intensive research.
  • Bowman, Alan K. Egypt after the Pharaohs, 332 BC–AD 642. London, 1986. Beautifully illustrated and evocative study of a key and highly distinctive province.
  • The Cambridge Ancient History. 3d ed. London, 1970–. This revised edition of volumes 9– incorporates solid accounts by international scholars of all the major themes of the Roman period, including chapters devoted to specific eastern provinces (e.g., David L. Kennedy, “Syria,” vol. 10).
  • Cornell, Tim, and John Matthews. Atlas of the Roman World. New York, 1982. Superb maps and color photographs illustrate and evoke the Roman Empire.
  • Dentzer, Jean-Marie, and Winfried Orthmann, eds. Archéologie et histoire de la Syrie, vol. 2 La Syrie de l'époque achéménide à l'avènement de l'Islam. Saarbrücken, 1989. A most valuable collection of essays by leading scholars on numerous aspects of Classical Syria not often surveyed outside specialist publications.
  • Isaac, Benjamin. The Limits of Empire: The Roman Army in the East. Rev. ed. Oxford, 1992. Broad-ranging and provocative study.
  • Jones, Arnold H. M. The Cities of the Eastern Roman Provinces. 2d ed. Oxford, 1971. Classic study of the many cities of the region, here revised by several regional experts.
  • Kennedy, David L. “The Archaeology of the Umm el-Jimal Area: Maps, Air Photographs, and Surface Survey.” In Umm el-Jimal, a Nabataean, Roman, Byzantine and Early Islamic Rural Community in Northern Jordan, I, edited by Bert De Vries. Journal of Roman Archaeology Supplementary Series. In press (due October 1995). Based mainly on air photographs, this study illustrated the extent to which even marginal areas were settled intensely.
  • Kennedy, David L. “Syria,” In Cambridge Ancient History. 3d ed. Vol. 10, pp. 703–736. Cambridge, in press (due 1996).
  • Kennedy, David L., and Derrick N. Riley. Rome's Desert Frontier from the Air. Austin, 1990. Air views illustrate the range, character, and context of Rome's military installations.
  • Levi, Doro. Antioch Mosaic Pavements. Princeton, 1947. The principal collection of Roman mosaics from, in this case, the provincial capital.
  • MacDonald, Burton. The Wadi el-Hasa Archaeological Survey, 1979–1983, West-Central Jordan. Waterloo, Ontario, 1988. One of the first and most fully published field surveys which has helped to quantify the Roman presence in the Near Eastern landscape and place it in a broader chronological context.
  • Macready, Sarah, and Frederick H. Thompson, eds. Roman Architecture in the Greek World. London, 1987. Superb collection of essays on an increasingly popular theme; note in particular references to other works by Dodge.
  • Millar, Fergus. The Roman Near East, 31 BC–AD 337. Cambridge, Mass., 1993. The first major study of the region to appear for many years, by a leading historian of Rome.
  • Mitchell, Stephen. Anatolia: Land, Men, and Gods in Asia Minor. 2 vols. New York, 1993. Substantial and thoughtful study of Roman Anatolia.
  • Perkins, Ann. The Art of Dura-Europos. Oxford, 1973. A short but lively survey of the art and architecture, including the wall paintings.
  • Rice, David Talbot. Byzantine Art. Rev. ed. Harmondsworth, 1968. General, well-illustrated discussion of art from the Roman East.
  • Schürer, Emil. The History of the Jewish People in the Age of Jesus Christ, 175 B.C.–A.D. 135. 4 vols. Revised and edited by Géza Vermès et al. Edinburgh, 1973–1987. Superbly documented study of Judaea and neighboring regions.
  • Ward-Perkins, J. B. Roman Imperial Architecture. 2d ed. Harmondsworth, 1989. Classic treatment whose major chapters on the Near East provide both analysis and context.
  • Welles, C. Bradford, Robert O. Fink, and J. Frank Gillian. The Excavations at Dura-Europos: The Parchments and Papyri. Final Report, Vol. 1. New Haven, 1959. Superb collection of military papyri from Syria and including the military calendar.
  • Wells, Colin. The Roman Empire. Stanford, Calif., 1984. Short but stimulating study of the Roman Empire as a whole, combining documentary and archaeological sources in an enterprising manner.

David L. Kennedy