Review: “Documentality: New Approaches to Written Literature in Imperial Life and Literature” edited by Jacqueline Arthur-Montagne, Scott J. DiGiulio, and Inger N. I. Kuin

Jacqueline Arthur-Montagne, Scott J. DiGiulio, and Inger N. I. Kuin, eds. Documentality: New Approaches to Written Literature in Imperial Life and Literature. Trends in Classics 132. Berlin: de Gruyter, 2022.

Documents are integral in a historian’s pursuits. But what precisely constitutes a document is not always clear. To this point, philosopher Maurizio Ferraris recently raised the question of what constitutes a social document. Such a question is pertinent to late antique scholarship because his theory can address “fundamental questions about the status of (physical) documentary objects, their influence on reality, and the role of subjectivity and intentionality in their creation and reception” (5). As such, this volume’s contributors engage with Ferarris’s theory as a means to interrogate documentality in Rome’s Imperial period. This volume, then, “explores the implications of Ferraris’s documentality for the study of life and literature in the Roman world on its own merits” (8) in light of Ferraris and his interlocutors’ most recent critiques. 

In this review, I first offer a thorough summary of the various contributions. Subsequently, I engage with specific chapters and consistent themes based on what I deem relevant. This review aims not only to summarize the contributions accurately and thoroughly but also to encourage 1) interdisciplinary conversations about documentality and 2) further engagement with this volume and Ferraris’s theory and his interlocutors. 

As per any introduction, Jacqueline Arthur-Montagne, Scott J. DiGiulio, and Inger N. I. Kuin (i.e., the editors) frame the volume through an overview of documentality’s history (e.g., Hayden White, John Searle, etc., up to Ferraris), examines the word “document” and analogs in ancient Greek and Latin, and outline the broad historical context of documents in the Roman Empire. After summarizing all contributions, the editors identify the various contributions’ goal: to “address the materiality, authority, use, and literary interactions of Roman documents, examining different modes of documentation from the early Empire into Late Antiquity” (27). 

In chapter 1, John Bodel examines the role of documents for identity in the early Roman Empire. Based on two example cases, Cicero, and various imperial changes of three centuries, he shows that “classical antiquity never fully emerged from the oral stage of documentary development in which written declarations depended upon witness verification for validity” (53). In doing so, he challenges documentality theorists claiming that a society’s shift toward documents is a part of a given historical, evolutionary process fluctuating through time. Instead, Rome appears not to have engaged in the process as documentality theorists outline. 

In chapter 2, Jacqueline Arthur-Montagne examines how school copying exercises in the first four centuries CE shift ultimately aim for the texts to be stored in memory. With this observation established, she highlights how defining documentation in Ferraris’ terms, that is, the modern sense, does not necessarily map clearly onto Imperial period school texts, especially since the late Roman pedagogy aimed to “eliminate the necessity of the trace [i.e., the trace being a key aspect for Ferraris’s interlocutor E. Terrone] entirely” (70). Finally, after reflecting more broadly on “the practices of copying and memorization in literary education” during the Roman period, she concludes that school copying exercises are intentional traces that “contribute to the construction of intellectual identity and social reality in the Roman Empire” (75). Therefore, “the documentary trace provides a useful model with which to analyze ancient sources that do not conform to the definition of documentation in the modern sense of the word” (59). 

In chapter 3, Karen ní Mheallaigh, a specialist in ancient fiction and the ancient scientific imagination, explores what fiction tells us about ancient documentality. To do so, she suggests that Lucian’s True Stories challenges the real–fiction divide by preoccupying his text “with the details of a document’s material nature [to increase] in direct proportion . . . anxiety about its authenticity” (82), to create “the mere whiff of a possibility that the document might actually exist” (83) and to make “these fictions all the more exciting” (83). Examining three instances of documentality in Lucian’s True Stories,  she concludes that Lucian’s treatment shows documents as a place where “the potential for deception is always lurking” (101). As such, Lucian’s representation of documents challenges the extent to which fiction can be documentary and documents can be fictitious. 

In chapter 4, Inger N. I. Kuin examines Lucian to show how “Lucian’s manipulation of epigraphic objects in his imaginary worlds indirectly shows us something about the everyday experience of living with such texts, both from the perspective of those who could read them, and from the perspective of those who could not” (110). Similarly to Mheallaigh, she suggests that Lucian shows “documents are always duplicitous and unverifiable,” thereby rendering the literate and illiterate, who trust their authority, “profoundly vulnerable” (129). 

In chapter 5, Pierre Schneider investigates the extent to which documents were building blocks for ancient geographical knowledge. From a modern perspective on documents, such knowledge was based on documents; however, from an ancient perspective, Schneider shows that ancient geographers “assigned a certain degree of truth and reliability” (149) to different sources (i.e., they did not conceptualize the “‘neutral’ conception of documents as a certain quantity of information recorded and stored” (149). 

In chapter 6, Sjoukje M. Kamphorst draws from documentality theory to show how inscriptions, in particular, monuments, served to coordinate and align cities through a monumental referencing “the decree [that] can be considered iterations of the original act” (162), “anchors of shared knowledge and practice” (164). By the Imperial period, though, Kamphorst shows that such monumental documents began to connect cities to the Roman emperor, thereby enabling cities to become “a constituent part of the new imagined community of the Greco-Roman Mediterranean” (170). With this addition, the original purpose of fostering city relations through monumental inscriptions became less powerful.  

In chapter 7, Scott J. DiGiulio uses Aulus Gellius’s Noctes Atticae to understand “how at least one ancient reader approached reading different material in the Roman empire” (181). Through examining Gellius’s use of epistolaries, monuments and inscriptions, and even instances where documents’ legitimacy is problematized, Gellius aims primarily to document the Latin language. As such, DiGiulio shows that Gellius’s documentary conception differs from Ferraris and that of modern historians. 

In chapter 8, Jean-Luc Fournet challenges the line between literature and document by showing how various epistolary texts and petitions served not as documents but rather as textual exemplars, models for good writing.  

In chapter 9, Yasmine Amory how the role of orality in late-antique letters fits within Ferraris’s documentality frame. First, she highlights how some letters reflect “the unavoidable loss of the oral message that frequently accompanied the written text” (236). Second, she shows how messengers functioned as a sort of living letter accompanying the physical document. Further complicating the picture, she also demonstrates that some letters and oral messages served as small literary pieces for recipients, further blurring the boundaries between documents, literature, fictitious accounts, and the living letter accompanying letters. 

In the epilogue, Mireille Corbier examines how a particular tabula can exist in different contexts at different times. As such, the document takes on different significances, as well as how we or others classify the document.  

What makes Documentality a notch above other edited volumes is its organization. Whereas other volumes often read like disparate academic articles, the editors carefully weaved this volume’s contributions into what feels like a coherent, consistent, well-structured volume. Each chapter references others consistently and well, thereby interacting with each other; the fundamental issue is addressed in each chapter (i.e., documentality via Ferraris and his interlocutors); each chapter clearly theorizes on notions of documentation: these various aspects result in a united, coherent volume that I enjoyed reading beginning to end. 

Additionally, while Documentality is beyond the scope of what I typically read, the volume nonetheless provides a helpful template for engaging with theories of documentality in other fields. In recent discussions with biblical and religion scholars, this book has come to the forefront of conversation precisely because the theory of documentality is playing an important role in ongoing scholarship; however, these folks have not realized that classics scholars are just now exploring this new(ish) theory of documentality. Therefore, I look forward to seeing how this volume shapes conversations in analogous scholarly fields. 

Thus, I recommend reading Documentality, at the very least the introduction and specific chapters related to your interests. And while I could quip with minor points in individual chapters (or should I say documents?), such criticisms would not take away from the volume’s overall strengths: coherency, consistency, strong engagement with an important theorist, and generally interesting, engaging discussions and arguments. 

“Assessing Biblical and Classical Sources for the Reconstruction of Persian Influence, History and Culture” edited by Anne Fitzpatrick-McKinley

FitzpatrickAnne Fitzpatrick-McKinley (ed.). Assessing Biblical and Classical Sources for the Reconstruction of Persian Influence, History, and Culture. Classica et Orientalia 10. Wiesbaden, Germany: Harrassowitz Verlag, 2015, pp. 216, $59.99 (paperback).

Traditionally, Classicists and Biblical Scholars have been disparate, unaware of each other’s methodologies and scholarship. This volume attempts to demonstrate the interrelationship and necessary discussion between Achaemenid historians and Biblical Scholars. Eight contributions to this volume explore different aspects of the Persian period, articles pertaining to biblical scholarship, classicist scholarship, or both. The following provides a summary of the articles with criticism.

“Herodotus on the Character of Persian Imperialism (7.5-11)” by Thomas Harrison

Thomas Harrison (University of Liverpool) argues that “Herodotus’ Histories reveal a closer engagement with Persian royal ideology (as reflected in the royal inscriptions) than has been recognized” (10). By focusing on the ‘Council Scene’ at the beginning of Book 7, in which the Persian court debates war against Greece, Harrison draws out the motives ascribed to Persians, reflective of Persian imperial ideology. His nuanced reading of Histories carefully demonstrates the value of Herodotus’ history for reconstructing the ideology of Persian imperialism. With regard to Classics, Harrison’s article is valuable as it provides a more refined understanding of Persian imperialism, taking more seriously the value of Herodotus’ Histories. Likewise, this article is extremely valuable for understanding the atmosphere of the period in which the Hebrew Bible was being compiled. Perhaps the elements of Persian imperialism may be incorporated into biblical studies to establish a firmer understanding of the Hebrew Bible’s composition.

“The Use and Abuse of Herodotus by Biblical Scholars” by Lester L. Grabbe

Lester L. Grabbe (University of Hull; also a biblical scholar) raises the issue with biblical scholar tendencies to approach Herodotus uncritically, providing a primer to how one may read the valuable history critically. After providing a few examples of uncritical approaches to Herodotus, Grabbe provides a short of list of his principles of historical method, discusses his sources, and provides four principles for the use of Herodotus by biblical scholars and others.[1] Grabbe’s argument for more critical readings of Herodotus should be taken into account. With such an elusive period as the Persian period, it is important that scholars avoid the pitfalls that early New Testament studies had with Josephus – namely, uncritical approach to the text. Considering how valuable Herodotus can be for biblical studies, students and scholars alike would do well to embrace his approach to Herodotus in order to strengthen the state of biblical scholarship.

“The Justice of Darius: Reflections on the Achaemenid Empire as a rule-bound environment” by Christopher Tuplin

Christopher Tuplin (Archaeology, Classics, and Egyptology at the University of Liverpool) investigates purported (confirm this definition) special connections between Persian kings and environments to concepts of law. He works his way through thoughtful discussion of dāta in Persian and non-Persian texts. He notes that its uses are “non-systematic supplements to the existing set of laws applicable in a particular jurisdiction” (88). Following, he contextualizes the Persian dāta within its ancient Near Eastern background, examining Egypt, Mesopotamia, and Elam and demonstrating uniqueness of data within Persian ideology. Analysis of primarily Greek sources further illustrates the uniqueness of dāta, as Greek sources focus on a unique assumption of justice and law in Persian environments. For the Classics and Biblical Studies, Tuplin’s article is important because it establishes a framework by which to consider Persian dāta, more commonly understood as ‘law’. Consequently, his work may provide clarity on what law constitutes within the stratified layers of the Hebrew Bible, especially in Esther, Daniel, and Ezra. Additionally, just as Grabbe encourages more critical eye with regard to Herodotus, Tuplin’s investigation allows scholars to reconstruct the Achaemenid Period, along with concurrent events, more closely to the historical reality.

“Indigenous Elites in Yehud: the inscriptional evidence from Xanthus, Tayma and Dedan and the Nehemiah Memoir” by Anne Fitzpatrick-McKinley

Anne Fitzpatrick-McKinley (Near and Middle Eastern Studies at Trinity College, Dublin) determines if there is reasonable evidence of indigenous elites operating as a local network of political interrelationships that support a historical reality of the Nehemiah Memoir. After discussing Lycia, Tayma, Dedan, and Yehud and Samaria, she is careful to note their vast differences. Yet, even in light of these differences, epigraphs evidence competing indigenous elites in the Levant with Samaria as the dominant center, indicative of the historical reality of the Nehemiah Memoir. Although she draws no strong conclusions, her essay provides excellent preliminary groundwork for future studies pertaining to Nehemiah and Achaemenid history. More specifically, it may provide better information regarding the origins of the Samarian schism.

“What is ‘Persian’ about the Book of Genesis” by Diani Edelman

Diana Edelman (Independent Scholar) examines evidence for the Persian period as a date of origin for Genesis, especially pointing towards Genesis literature which simultaneously centered on the eretz and tolerated Diasporic conditions. These loci, argue Edelman, serve to educate Judean roles in spreading blessing and educate. Unfortunately, her evidence and explanations lack in quality. Her arguments are conjectural and not on steady ground. While initially noting how she will “ask what textual details, rhetorical strategies and ideologies found in the text point to a date of creation in the Persian period” (152), specific textual details with thorough explanation, rhetorical strategies directly connected to the Persian period, and weak connections between Genesis and Persian ideology pervade the chapter. For example, she references building of altars for ‘calling on the name of YHWH’; dismisses Wenham, who presumes “the offering of accompanying sacrifices were part of a worship/sacrificial ritual” (167), as not persuasive; and suggests that it “implies the existence of a centralized single sanctuary for sacrifice at the time of composition but allows for personal prayer and communing with God anywhere” (167). She fails, though, to address the issue of the Akedah, in which Abraham builds an altar and eventually sacrifices a ram. For Edelman’s argument of Genesis sacrifices as evidence, the Akedah significantly opposes her argument, yet she doesn’t address it. Second, while there may be some relationship between the Genesis and Persian ideologies of land Edelman fails to provide each with autonomy, especially with regard to ‘eres ideology. According to Edelman, “Persians likely adopted and adapted this view [and ideology ‘eres and ruling all land] and applied it to all productive members of the empire” (164). Consequently, Judeans inherited the ideology. While Persians very well may have inherited certain aspects of ideology, it is essential that it be recognized as a unique ideology from Neo-Assyrians and Judeans.[2] I am reminded of Debra Ballentine’s recent work which argues that different groups utilized the conflict myth topos for their social and political purposes. Perhaps a similar approach by Diana would have been more convincing: the author of Genesis used a common theme within the region and re-appropriated it for its own social and political intentions, just as Persia and Neo-Assyria did. As a result, the same conclusion may be made, namely that Genesis legitimizes Diasporic Judeans and those living in the land; however, it allows the Genesis tradition to maintain autonomous standing as a unique tradition. Finally, I am concerned that the term ‘Jew’ or ‘Jewish’ is used in reference to Judeans (p. 171). Overall, there was nothing particularly valuable in this article, though anyone interested in the biblical composition during the Persian period may find it intriguing.

“Admiring Others: Xenophon and Persians” by Lynette Mitchell

Lynette Mitchell (University of Exeter) traces Xenophon’s representation of Persian and Greek choices in order to demonstrate his complex view, namely Xenophon’s panhellenic discourse that portrays Persians, the Other, as noble when they chose a Greek lifestyle. So rather than representing one culture as superior to the Other, civilized versus barbaric, he emphasizes Xenophon’s tendency to illustrate difference not on the basis of ethnicity but choice to adhere to Hellenistic standards. When ethnicity is generally portrayed fairly rigidly, this is an important contribution for Classicists and Biblical Scholars because it illustrates the breadth of what ethnicity could constitute in the ancient world.. Xenophon thinking with such terms suggests that similar ethnic boundaries may be discovered throughout the ancient world. As Mitchell writes, Xenophon’s representation is “radical and subversive in that it breaks boundaries not just between the classes, but also Greeks and the Other, and… questions what the terms of those boundaries might be” (189).

“From Fact to Fiction: Persian History and the book of Esther” by Maria Brosius

Maria Brosius (Near and Middle Eastern Civilizations at the University of Toronto) provides additional facets of discussion arguing the Book of Esther is drawn from Greek literary texts. She draws on historical possibilities in Esther and historical impossibilities. Discussion of Greek references to historical possibility for a queen’s banquet and communications within the Achaemenid organization demonstrate that the author of Esther presents within a historical framework in order for it to have its own historicity. She also notes the possible linguistic relationship between Mordechai as ‘the second after the king’ and Masistes as ‘the Greatest after the King’, suggesting it “is compelling evidence for identifying Herodotus as the main source for the author of the Book of Esther” (201). While her argument is not entirely convincing, that is no surprise, as her article is merely intended to provide additional facets to previously made arguments. Without a doubt, her discussion of the Persian context of Esther is important, as she distinguishes between historical and narrative elements in which Esther is framed. While her linguistic connection between Mordechai and Masistes is compelling, the linguistic relationship should have been further explored.

“Judahite Prophecy and the Achaemenids” by Philip R. Davies

Philip R. Davies (Department of Biblical Studies at the University of Sheffield) illuminates the nature of religion in Yehud during the Achaemenid period through how prophetic scrolls were produced. After establishing the importance for an ideology of a universal religious center within a Persian context, he presents these dynamics as illustrated through 5th century BCE political relationship between Judeans and Samarians, both of whom worshiped Yahweh. Following, he discusses prophetic literature, its production and redaction, to illustrate how Jerusalem as a religious center of unified Israel, an idea first developed in the Neo-Babylonian period, first emerges within the Persian period, at the earliest. Most valuable in Davies contribution is the focus on the Persian period as a new society through the lens of prophetic literature. While many have sought to understand the new society in Yehud through Ezra-Nehemiah, Davies’ focus on prophetic literature offers an interesting and important avenue for biblical scholars.

Overall, I highly recommend this book. Because of the distance between Classicists and Biblical Scholars, I appreciate Fitzpatrick’s volume. Each article, for the most part, addresses issues that are relevant to both scholars. Consequently, this volume encourages discussion between the two approaches. Discussion may potentially vastly improve scholarship on both sides of the fence. Perhaps the fence may even be torn down for fuller and more comprehensive understandings of history through classicism and biblical scholarship.

[1] Succinctly, her principles for utilizing Herodotus as a source are as follows: (1) cease ‘prooftexting’ and cite Herodotus based on knowledge and analysis, (2) recognize Herodotus is a secondary source, (3) consider his implied sources within statements, (4) consider how Herodotus’ methods affect ones reading. Regarding point four, (she/he) lays out 7 points on his method on pp. 62-63.

[2] COS 2.4A exemplifies an appropriation of the land topos from Sethos I in the 13th century BCE: “The Good god, Sun of Egypt, Moon of all lands, Montu in the foreign lands, who is not repulsed, Bold-hearted like Baal, there is none who can retreat from him, on the day of marshaling for the battle. He has extended the boundaries of Egypt to the limits of heaven on every side” (italics added for emphasis). In this passage, land is appropriated uniquely, just as it is in Yehud and Persia.