"Brilliant Historical Work by Freya Stark",
a review by Carroll Quigley in The Washington Sunday Star,
March 12, 1967
of a book:
ROME ON THE EUPHRATES: The Story of a Frontier
by Freya Stark
"Brilliant Historical Work by Freya Stark"
ROME ON THE EUPHRATES: The Story of a Frontier.
By Freya Stark.
Brace. 459 pages. Maps, index, illustrated. $9.75.
Freya Stark, long an indefatigable tourist of Arab lands and later
an acknowledged authority on the geography of the Near East; has, in recent
years become increasingly concerned with the history of one special area. This
volume is the culmination of her narrowing interest and is a very significant
contribution to history. Miss Stark has not only read all the obvious historical
works (both ancient and modern) but has, it seems visited every site of any
historical significance over the whole vast area from the Black Sea to the
Persian Gulf. Moreover, she has found a subject of the greatest significance,
indeed, of even greater importance than she herself seems to recognize.
This subject is what another geographer, Ellen Sem... called "the
Syrian Saddle;" that is the major (almost the only) land passage between the
Mediterranean Sea and the West on one side and the Persian Gulf and the East on
the other side. This crossway lies where the north-south route of the Levant
intersects the even more important east-west route, just at the only point where
adequate water and lack of mountain or desert barriers coincide with the nearest
approach of the Euphrates River to the Mediterranean Sea. For thousands of
years, from at least 25,000 B.C. until the time of Augustus Caesar, this was,
historically, the most important crossroads in the Old World. Even today, it is
one of the major points in any survey of contemporary geopolitics.
Despite Its significance, the history of the area has never been
written, and world-famous authorities, such as Professors P. K. Hitti and W. C.
Albright, have missed its significance almost completely because they allowed
themselves to be distracted by other issues, such as Islam, Arab nationalism, or
religious and linguistic history.
Miss Stark sees the issues very clearly, at least for the Roman
period with which she is concerned, and deals with it in an illuminating way
because she joins her recognition of the geographic significance of the area
with a profound recognition of the political nature of the Roman Empire and the
unstated and nefarious assumptions of Roman imperialism. The most significant of
these assumptions she calls (p. 104) "the elusive pursuit of the weak
periphery," that is the mistaken Roman idea that the boundary of Roman power
must be against a weak neighbor or on the sea, and, accordingly, that Rome must
destroy any strong power, such as the Seleucids or the Parthians, beyond their
frontier on the Euphrates. Accordingly, the Romans made the Euphrates a
north-south barrier of enmity Instead of the east-west channel of mutually
beneficial trade it had been for at least three millennia previously.
Miss Stark's understanding of the issues, probably because she is
hampered neither by an orthodox educational background nor by the rigorous
specialization of most professional historians, is outstanding. She sees clearly
the basic horrors of greed and corruption in the Roman system and, unlike most
writers on this period, does not assume that the Roman success as conquerors is
proof of the correctness of their strategy nor of the tactical superiority of
the Roman legion.
She is one of the few writers I know who is aware of the intrinsic
tactical weakness of the legion against both missile weapons and cavalry, an
awareness based on her knowledge of Parthian tactics and her careful reading of
ancient authors. In this connection it should be said that her analysis of the
significance of the battle of Magnesia (189 B.C.) in the first chapter is
excellent. The text is fully documented with almost two thousand footnotes for
less than 400 pages, and a bibliography at the end of each chapter.
All these outstanding virtues are somewhat diluted by a less than
faultless execution of the task. Miss Stark did not make a decisive enough
choice between historical analysis and historical narration, but wavers between
the two so that her book is not as good as it would have been had it been
consistently either. Moreover, she constantly lapses backward as historian to
her earlier career as a rather garrulous tourist, so that her book is too
verbose by far and is constantly interrupted by irrelevant personal reminiscence
at almost every historic site mentioned. But despite these rather annoying
lapses, this volume has the core of a work of great historical importance and
shows, once again, the advantages which amateur historians so frequently have
Scans of originals