Brief Review of Maren R. Niehoff, ed., Journeys in the Roman East: Imagined and Real (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2017).
In her essay in this wide-ranging and helpful volume, Sarit Kattan Gribetz recounts rabbinic provisions for prayer on the road—in some cases, provisions that meant modifying standard, daily prayers to accommodate the rushed and perilous nature of travel under Roman rule. “He who journeys in a place of danger,” advises Rabbi Joshua in m.Berakhot 4, should replace the Amidah, or Eighteen Benedictions, with the following alternative: “Save, O Lord, the remnant of Israel; at their every crossroad let their needs come before you.” In the clever, polysemic usage of “crossroad,” the prayer asks God to heed and protect Israel at every place and time, not just when facing an uncertain voyage—though the constant threat of physical and ideological peril was more pronounced, more palpable, on the road. With respect to special prayers and prayer specifications during travel, however, Kattan Gribetz explains how tractate Berakhot “maps benedictions onto topography or geographic landscape” (302). This re-marking of roads and geographic distinctions responded to practical and ideological fears and resisted larger material and ideological forces. As Kattan Gribetz notes, the very milestones and lares lining roads through Roman territory at the same time measured passage, communicated Roman power and ingenuity, and promised divine protection for those who worshipped the many Roman deities who themselves traveled or otherwise watched over human travelers.
The subtitle of this essay collection, referring to journeys “imagined and real,” both neatly encompasses the broad diversity of erudite studies the collection contains and acts as a point of departure for methodological reflection on ancient travel, as Maren Niehoff reflects in her introductory essay. In my own reading of the volume, as filtered through my work on the pragmatics and performance of travel in ancient literature, I wondered (to put it simply) about the imagined nature of real travel and the reality of imagined journeys. It’s clear in most of the essays that even imagined journeys point to something real, and that real journeys require processing by interpretive imagination. In this blurring of categories, we simultaneously evoke and blur, I think, categories of materiality and ideology. For me, this is the best part about studying travel. Travel is good to think with because it clearly problematizes these distinctions. Like a Roman idol marking a crossroads in a way that makes visible the danger and domination that was always there, focusing on travel allows writers ancient and modern a vantage point on interplays between materiality and ideology that otherwise might slip by us.
In movement, one’s material situation is always changing, requiring active and imaginative orientation in the midst of surrounding sensory dynamics. This material and interpretive dynamism obtains both with regard to gradual change in landscapes (as Aristides—a main protagonist in the volume—exemplifies in his ekphrastic description of the approach to Smyrna, as analyzed in Janet Downie’s essay) or the more demarcated movements measured by itineraries and borders. As Benjamin Isaac discusses in his essay on the practical prevalence of ancient itineraria over more decorative geographic visualizations and maps, itineraries reflect the “earnest” and “serious” way Greeks and Romans conceptualized the logistics of travel (133). Nevertheless, as other authors in the volume discuss (such as Gribetz, noted above), even the regular marking of travel distance cannot be divorced from ideological, political, or emotional overlays. Similarly, borders, far from being mere lines separating regions, either preventing or allowing crossing, are rather more complex technologies negotiating the passage of people, goods, money, ideas, languages, races, families, and forces natural and supernatural. Borders act much more like membranes than walls, even if and no matter how much some may want to build walls on those borders. Nothing so blunt as a wall can prevent the movements of people or the contestations of nationalism and economics evoked by a border. As we’ve seen in our own world, much more subtle, diffuse, and, unfortunately, at times diabolical mechanisms must be deployed to alter these mobilities. (Just in the past week, British Prime Minister Theresa May touted in her continued and staunch support of Brexit that “we will take back control of our borders, by putting an end to the free movement of people once and for all.” I invite you to imagine for a moment what superhuman, inhuman efforts would be required to end actually and permanently such movement of people.)
Recent approaches to borders and governance—particularly in the field of political theology—have pointed to the seemingly supernatural aspects (whether diabolical or divine) of such governance and administration. In an SBL paper delivered in 2014 in San Diego, Hebrew Bible scholar Yvonne Sherwood noted that, in many premodern cultures, the act of conquering land and drawing borders was a job for kings, while actually governing within those borders was a matter for the gods. And while such a dichotomy is largely heuristic, it participates in a larger scholarly discourse noting the administrative nature of divine activity, or, in the obverse, the divine nature of bureaucracy. In this mode, Rome’s omnipresence during its imperial rule, a key theme in this volume, can be seen as mundanely administrative and, at the same time, divine. As Laura Nasrallah notes in her contribution, writers under Rome, such as Aristides, hailed the emperor’s godlike powers not just because of his military might but because of the speed of travel his governance enabled, allowing him to be everywhere (274-77). Maren Niehoff similarly notes in her contribution that Josephus, Justin, and especially Lucian can only “produce an utterly Romanized form of Greekness, which is the only form left” in the first and second centuries (221). Travelers through the Imperial period only ever traverse imperial roads, travel imperial miles, trod imperial footsteps. Travel under Rome, no matter how mundane, gives the traveler the overwhelming sense of the Romanization of the subjected self.
Thus, travel as a motif of literary imagination works so well precisely because what we call the divine operates in the most mundane ways. In the same way that I’m not sure how to separate something called “religious” from the material act of travel, I’m not sure how to separate in any clear way the imagined from the real in travel. I think what many of these essays show is that travel is one way in which people strive to, perhaps not separate, but perhaps negotiate or create their orientation to the material and ideological.
This is not to say that the materiality of travel can be dispensed with for its interpretative or interpellative work. On the contrary, it is the materiality of travel that allows it to coordinate ideology. For Aristides (in Downie’s piece, analyzing the orator’s rhetorical erotics of political intervention.), the Roman administrators to whom he sends his oration must see and experience Smyrna to appreciate it, even to fall in love with it. For the Christian pilgrim, in Georgia Frank’s analysis, it is vital not merely to go to holy places, but to touch, hear, and taste them, to experience firsthand their abundance of meaning. Because Rome is everywhere, it may be necessary to go there truly to negotiate ones relationship with it—or, as Yonatan Moss suggests in an impactful essay, Rome’s omnipresence can be deployed as a concept and an itinerary to construct new, universal ideologies, such as the fledgling notion of “Christianity.” In the same way that ancient individuals (including authors) use travel as an act and as a topic with which to explore and arrange their worlds, we as historians and critics should use the literary and material artifacts of ancient travel to understand not just how they imagined their world, but the specific ways they deployed imagination in the face of their realities in the first place, interpreting these artifacts less as symbols or figures than as Foucaultian archai or signatures, images that not only stand for the whole but arrange the whole in a network of meaning. And travel, so often the figure that governs these networks, arranges such epistemologies in different ways in each case.
For this reason, when our interpretive eyes are drawn to travel, it is rarely correct to think of travel simply as metaphor or a symbol—and, to their credit, the authors in this volume are more nuanced and circumspect in their analyses. The Roman milestones, the Christian relics, the cities of Rome, Smyrna, and Jerusalem—these are more than symbols. Their figurative work tends, I think, to be more specific and unique to each case. The things themselves are what people used to orient the world around them.
When we as scholars write about travel, it sometimes seems trite or cute to deploy travel metaphors, but the temptation arises from the way in which following travel in our objects of study usually leads us in the right direction. Emblematic of this approach for me is the recent book by a scholar of African American studies, Christina Sharpe, titled In the Wake, which explores the lasting effects of the history of African American trauma through the image of the slave ship and its various attributes—the wake, the hold, the weather—simultaneously as poetic inspiration and sharp analytical tool. Similarly, I appreciate that so many of the contributions to this volume strove to think the imagined and the real at the same time as a way of examining the unique relationship between the two in each case. These contributors do not dispense with the vehicle as they take their journeys, they keep their eyes on the territory as they draw their maps, and this volume is all the more instructive and gratifying for it.
Dr. Timothy Luckritz Marquis is an instructional designer at Virginia Commonwealth University.
 Here, the recent volume by Sandro Mezzadra and Brett Neilson, Border as Method, or, the Multiplication of Labor (Durham: Duke University Press, 2013), is instructive.
 Yvonne Sherwood, “‘Sans Papiers’: The Problems that Pre-Modern Gods and Empires Experience in Actualizing Claims to the Land,” presented at the 2014 SBL Annual meeting, San Diego, CA, November 2014.
 Christina Sharpe, In The Wake: On Blackness and Being (Durham: Duke University Press, 2016).