Lee Fratantuono, Mesopotamia & Arabia (Pen & Sword, 2020)
In Mesopotamia & Arabia, Lee Fratantuono embarks on a narrative history of one of the most complex regions of the Roman Empire. It is a story full of drama, treachery, empires rising and falling, and war, lots of war.
Fratantuono begins with the perennial problem of lack of sources and the geographic problem of identifying the region accurately. He begins his narrative with the expedition of Gallus under Augustus, which provided much of what we know about Arabia in this period. Then it all goes quiet until the Emperor Trajan in the 2nd Century CE who established an Arabian province. It was a peaceful province for the most part, and Fratantuono leaves to describe Roman Mesopotamia, founded by Trajan, that he calls a ‘graveyard of empires’. The region was a bone of contention through the Severan Age when subsequent Roman infighting and the rise of Persia placed Roman power in the east in severe jeopardy. Alexander Severus’s assassination in 235 then plunged the empire into the crisis of the 3rd Century. The great soldier-emperor Aurelian restored the Roman east in the 270s, but as Fratantuono notes, this was against a backdrop of Persian weakness. Another break followed before Diocletian settled the region in 287, for a while anyway. Fratantuono concludes with an overview of the 4th Century with a resurgent Persia and waning Roman Empire. The Emperor Julian came east as another Alexander the Great only to die on campaign in 363. That led to a humiliating defeat for the Romans, more conflict, then a longer peace from 387.
There is no doubt that the history of Rome in the east is a convoluted story, so Fratantuono does a fine job of packing it all into 170 pages. The narrative moves along steadily but Fratantuono sometimes switches back and forward in the story, which can be quite disconcerting. As befits a work of popular scholarly literature, the text contains excellent bibliographical references throughout and Fratantuono has an obvious command of his sources. A small blemish is that we don’t actually find out that much about Roman Arabia or Mesopotamia as the narrative train rushes past. A major annoyance, however, is the lack of a regional map, making it a bit too easy to get lost in the desert as a few Roman armies did. This is probably more than a primer, though it is difficult to see how Fratantuono could have simplified things. Nevertheless, some background on the overall Roman Empire in the east might be an important first step before tackling this. That said, Roman Empire enthusiasts and students will enjoy this book very much.