Camel caravan

Camel caravan
Mosaic from Deir al-Adas, Syria, 8th century (photo: J.C.Meyer)
The research project Mechanisms of cross-cultural interaction: Networks in the Roman Near East (2013-2016) investigates the resilient everyday ties, such as trade, religion and power, connecting people within and across fluctuating imperial borders in the Near East in the Roman Period. The project is funded under the Research Council of Norway's SAMKUL initiative, and hosted by the Department of archaeology, history, cultural studies and religion, University of Bergen, Norway.

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Friday, 7 October 2016

On dromedaries and the art of classifying diplomatic gifts

By Birgit van der Lans
At Persepolis. Photo: Magnus Halsnes

Last month NeRoNE went to Iran, where many of our individual interests came together.

Relief IV at Bishapur. Photo: Magnus Halsnes

A good example is this Sasanian rock relief, located in the Tang-e Chowgang river gorge on the road leading to the city of Bishapur. Bishapur was founded by Shapur I and built by Roman soldiers who had been captured after the defeat of Valerian in 260 CE. The relief above, however, was commissioned by one of Shapur’s successors, Bahram II (276 – 294 CE). It depicts the arrival of an Arabian embassy at the Sasanian court, bringing two Arabian one-humped camels, also known as Camelus dromedarius, as diplomatic gifts. The six delegates are ushered in by a Persian courtier while Bahram rides to receive them seated on his horse.

The Arabian origin of the six envoys was already established in 19th century French descriptions of the Bishapur reliefs. Their long, belted garments, short moustaches, characteristic head-cloths as well as the dromedaries all point in the geographical direction of the Arabian desert. It is possible to be more specific about the provenance of the embassy and about its date and occasion if a recent suggestion is followed that the relief depicts the coming of a Himyarite embassy sent by king Shammar Yuhar’ish (287 – 311 CE). In the course of his rule South Arabia was unified under the kingdom of Himyar. Shammar Yuhar’ish is also reported to have established closer diplomatic relations with the Sasanians, presumably in order to support his position vis-à-vis his Ethiopian rivals at Axum, who were in turn backed by Rome. For the otherwise not very successful Bahram II, to depict the arrival of the Himyarite embassy, if this identification is correct, was to publicise a Sasanian step forward in the competition with Rome over influence in the Red Sea region.

This was not the only instance we saw of camels with one or two humps being presented to Persian rulers. In various ways the iconography of the Sasanian reliefs harks back to the stone carvings with which their Achaemenid predecessors represented their dynasty (c. 700 – 330 BCE), cut out of natural rock formations or the stone palace walls of Persepolis. 

a) Bactrian camel with Bactrians 

b) Arabian camel (dromedary) with Arabs. Photos: Birgit van der Lans
Here the eastern stairs of the Apadana feature several camels being presented to the great king at the occasion of the New Year’s festival by delegations of nations subject to the Persian empire: the Bactrians, Arians, Parthians and Arachosians bring Bactrian two-humped camels (fig. a) while the Arabian team brings along a dromedary (fig. b).

The appearance of camels and dromedaries on such reliefs is not difficult to explain. After their domestication in the early first millennium BCE the animals became crucial to the development of long-distance trade because of their ability to carry substantial loads and to travel long distances in arid regions. Camels thus became valuable commodities to those who herded them and to those who obtained them. The association with the caravan trade turned them into symbols of wealth. Especially fine animals could fetch high prices, bring prestige to owners and make good diplomatic gifts.

Yet value and meaning depend on the context of representation. As on Bahram’s relief at Bishapur, the envoys in Persepolis are led by the hand by a courtier, in this case towards the audience hall where they would be received by the king. They are dressed in native outfits and carry objects and animals that represent their origins. Despite these similarities in iconography, the Persepolis camels are classified as ‘tribute’ rather than as ‘diplomatic gifts’.

Although it probably did not matter much to the camels themselves, it did make a difference whether they were handed over as tribute or as gifts. The two types of exchange expressed and constituted different types of social relations and distributions of power. Objects that function as tribute signal an asymmetrical hierarchy of power between rulers on the one hand and subjects, clients or vassals on the other. Whereas tribute displays submission and can be demanded or imposed, diplomatic gifts are associated with the voluntary and reciprocal exchange between equal or nominally independent agents.

Despite its importance, the distinction between tribute and gift (and booty, for that matter) could be difficult to make out in individual cases, for instance when the context of exchange is not articulated and all that survives are the (mostly material) objects themselves. Moreover, the meaning of the exchanged goods and – by proxy – the underlying social relations were subject to negotiation and rhetorical manipulation. Some good examples can be found in Marian Feldman’s study of luxury goods in the diplomatic exchange in the Late Bronze Age Mediterranean. She shows that goods could be called gifts even though they amounted to tribute in the reality of power relations, while conversely they could be presented as tribute when they had been intended as gifts. The Amarna archive provides perhaps the best illustration of the sensitivities when the distinction was misrepresented or ignored. In one letter the king of Babylon complains that the Egyptian pharaoh had displayed the Babylonian chariots he had sent as diplomatic gifts alongside chariots which the pharaoh had acquired as tribute from Egyptian vassals. Here, failing to distinguish between tribute and gift amounts to a public humiliation (EA 1: 89-92; correspondence between Kadasman-Enlil I and Amenhotep III).

Classifying diplomatic gifts is an intricate art. Even when camels are not confused with dromedaries and gifts are correctly distinguished from tribute, the camel may still end up as dinner.

Wednesday, 28 September 2016

New publication: The Periplus of the Erythraean Sea: A network approach

The Periplus of the Erythraean Sea is a Roman period guide to trade and navigation in the Indian Ocean. Justly famous for offering a contemporary and descriptive account of early Indian Ocean trade, the work has been subject to and a point of departure for numerous studies. Its extensive influence on scholarship is, however, also problematic, as it reflects the limited information and cultural and personal bias of its unknown author. Network analysis allows us to map, visualize and measure interconnectedness in this text. Many of these connections are not explicitly mentioned in the text, but by connecting not only places with places, but also products with places that export and import them, we get a partly different impression of Indian Ocean trade from that conventionally gathered from the Periplus. It allows us to ask questions about the relationship between coastal cabotage and transoceanic shipping, to identify regional trading circuits, and unexpected centres of long-distance exchange.

Asian Review of World Histories // Volume 4, Issue 2/JULY 2016, pp. 191-205

Zoomable figures and dataset are available from Bergen Open Research Archive

Thursday, 28 April 2016

New publication on Palmyra

Together with colleagues Jørgen Christian Meyer and Nils Anfinset I have a new edited book out. Very little networks, but lots of Roman Near East. These are the proceedings of a conference we hosted at the Norwegian Institute in Athens in December 2012 as a part of a research project on Palmyra. It brings together results of international fieldwork and research on the Syrian caravan city until the start of the Syrian civil war. The book can be bought in paper or as e-book from Archaeopress. See their web-site for full details on contents. 

Tuesday, 29 March 2016

Petition without Response: Diplomatic Language in the Christian Apologists

'a rescript from Hadrian in Justin Martyr's 1 Apology, in the medieval manuscript Parisinus graecus 450, fol. 239
(Source: / Bibliothèque nationale de France)

By Birgit van der Lans

The Easter break – when Norwegian cities depopulate but the traditional Påskekrimi provides for some excitement – gave me opportunity to write a few words to introduce myself and my research on this blog. For about two months now I have very much enjoyed being associated with the NeRoNe project, after moving from Groningen to Bergen to join the research group "Ancient History, Culture and Religion" as a guest researcher. The coming year I will be working on a project (funded by a contribution from the Niels Stensen Fellowship) on the roles and expressions of religion in the diplomatic networks of the early Roman Empire.

Birgit van der Lans joins the
NeRoNE group as a guest-
researcher for 2016.
When we think about ‘diplomacy’, we associate it with international relations, with foreign affairs and with a professional diplomatic service to negotiate relationships between autonomous nation states. In the context of the Roman Empire – as Fergus Millar has made clear – the distinction between external diplomacy and internal affairs is less appropriate. The relationship between Rome and the local polities that had become part of the Empire was managed by a system of ‘internal diplomacy’ in which the emperor and other Roman officials received embassies and responded to the countless demands and requests by very different types of subjects.

Just like contemporary diplomatic practice is no longer the exclusive terrain of nation states, the social agents who took part in diplomatic exchange were diverse: besides cities, provincial councils or client kingdoms, embassies were dispatched by local religious associations, ethnic communities, and the ‘world-wide’ organisations of athletes and theatrical performers. City magistrates, high priests presiding over different sorts of associations and skilled rhetors were selected as envoys and amassed prestige by acting as brokers. Diplomatic connections were formed by such travelling persons, but also by the exchange of written documents: petitions, honorific decrees and imperial rescripts were copied, circulated, archived and displayed by interested parties.

This complex administrative system can be analysed as a social network with nodes, hubs, edges and clusters and flows. I think that the network perspective helps us to understand change and continuity in the imperial administration, but I will be looking mainly for the religious practices, concepts and agents that constituted – or impeded – diplomatic relations.

My chronological focus will be on the Hadrianic-Antonine period, when Christians began to participate in diplomatic networks – or at least claimed to do. From the second century onwards we hear of several Christians - Justin Martyr, Melito of Sardis, Athenagoras of Athens, among others – who addressed petitions to the emperor and used diplomatic forms and language to package ‘apologetic’ writings, in which they defended Christianity against accusations of atheism, incest and cannibalism. I suspect that the activities of these new diplomatic agents, who can be placed among other ‘intellectual’ diplomats associated with the Second Sophistic, offer a fruitful entry point to understand the intersection of religious and diplomatic networks in this period.

I hope to give some updates on this blog about developments in research and other planned activities – starting with my first talk for the research group "Ancient History, Culture and Religion" this Thursday (the 31st). A few days later I will travel to Canada for 6 weeks of research at York University, where I will be working mainly on the diplomatic activities of Greco-Roman associations, and a talk for the Ottawa Early Christianity Group. When I come back to Bergen, the Påskehare is long gone, but the 17. Mai celebrations will soon offer the next occasion to explore Norwegian traditions.