The City in Roman Palestine

By Daniel Sperber
New York : Oxford University (1998). viii + 200 Pages.

Reviewed by
11.1 (Spring 2000) : 133-135

Visitors to the Mediterranean world may well appreciate Virgil’s reference to . . . the long glories of majestic Rome (Aeneid, bk. 1) when they reflect on the archaeological splendor left behind by the Romans. In Israel, what was once the grandeur of the Roman world is now frequently the domain of camera-wielding tourists. As one sits in the theater at Caesarea, explores the bath houses of Masada, soberly reflects on the games conducted in the amphitheater of Beit Shean, or wanders the Cardo of Jerusalem, the glories which were Rome speak of an era of magnificence. Daniel Sperber’s The City in Roman Palestine is a masterful and scholarly endeavor to explain the human dimension and societal practices of that once great Roman world.

Daniel Sperber is Naftal–Yaffe Professor of Talmud at Bar–Ilan University in Ramat-Gan, Israel. A prolific scholar of twenty books and over 250 articles, Sperber has published such parallel treatments as Roman Palestine, 200–400: Money and Prices (Ramat-Gan: Bar-Ilan University, 1991); A Dictionary of Greek and Latin Legal Terms in Rabbinic Literature (Ramat-Gan: Bar-Ilan University, 1984); Roman Palestine, 200–400, The Land: Crisis and Change in Agrarian Society as Reflected in Rabbinic Sources (Ramat-Gan: Bar-Ilan University, 1978); and Nautica Talmudica (Ramat-Gan: Bar-Ilan University, 1986). He was recipient of the Israel Prize in 1992 and is Rabbi of the Yad Tomer congregation in Jerusalem.

The City in Roman Palestine is a detailed exploration of city life in Israel (Palestine) and the trans-Jordan during the Roman period. Sperber meticulously reconstructs elements of daily life and customs from a plethora of sources, drawing principally from literary and archaeological evidences. Documentation, coupled with scholarly discussion and elaboration in the notes, is extensive and thorough. The author, abreast of recent archaeological developments and discussions w ithin Israel, has incorporated them into the narrative. Sperber clearly demonstrates the literary potential of rabbinic source material for elucidating arcane information or for providing color commentary on Roman customs and practices. The book is supplemented with select photographs and archaeological renderings.

Organizationally, the work begins with a discussion of the nature of the Roman market—including construction, administration and control—as central to the society. This is followed by “Pubs, Drunkards, and Licensing Laws”; “On the Bathhouse”; “Public Buildings”; “Roads and Backstreets”; “City Walls”; “Water Supply, Sewage, and Drainage”; and a general treatment of “Archeology and the City.” The book concludes with two brief appendices that explore “Unidentified Public Buildings” and “Urban Synagogues.” The book includes both place names and general indexes for quick reference. The volume demonstrates a clear command of the primary literature by the author. Readers willing to examine the notes will find rich bibliographic material and annotated analysis of the literature. Finally, Sperber does draw from the expertise of his fellow scholars with contributions by Zeev Weiss, “Buildings for Entertainment” (77-91) and Joshua J. Schwartz, “Archeology and the City” (149-79).

The title, The City in Roman Palestine, may lead some readers to conclude that the work focuses on the early Roman (Herodian) period, and thus offers insight into NT history. The text, true to Sperber’s expertise, tends to focus on the Roman cities of A.D. 200 to 400—a critical period of rabbinic development in the north of Israel following the Second Jewish Revolt. Though limited discussion of Herodian influence does occur, the book tends to focus on the rabbinic communities and their interaction with the Roman culture in such important northern cities as Caesarea, Sepphoris, and Tiberias. Many of the practices and customs undoubtedly have their antecedents in earlier praxises, but readers hoping for greater NT period interaction will likely be disappointed. Furthermore, source material is derived largely from classical and rabbinical sources. Christian source material (e.g., Eusebius [ca. A.D. 263–339], Bishop of Caesarea) is virtually absent. The text does include both Hebrew and Greek citations, usually with English translation or equivalent. Familiarity with the ancient languages is useful but not essential.

The City in Roman Palestine is well-written and offers liberal quotes from the original rabbinic and classical sources. Reference materials and source documentation are superb, but much of the noted material is inaccessible to the average reader due to limited academic circulation or language presumptions, notably Hebrew. Readers will probably find the chapter endnotes, with their accompanying scholarly discussions and observations, as rich and enjoyable as the text proper. This reviewer, however, found that the constant movement between endnotes and the textual material created a distraction that fragmented this excellent work and broke concentration on the subject under consideration.

Readers anticipating a visit to either Israel or Jordan will benefit from this fine text. Sperber offers very detailed narrative that will enhance site visits to many of the Roman cities featured both in the text and in standard tours of Israel (Jerusalem [Aelia Capitolina], Caesarea, Tiberias) or Jordan (Gerasa, Petra, Amman [Philadelphia]). The City in Roman Palestine offers the human dimension of Roman society in contrast to the stark archaeological ruins of these ancient cities that are often missed or overlooked by harried or indifferent tour guides. Although the text is a serious piece of academic scholarship, it is accessible to the earnest reader interested in understanding this important period of Israel’s history. Those interested in Roman history, rabbinic literature, or Israel in general will enjoy this fine work.