The Language of Stones: Roman Milestones on Rabbinic Roads

In: Journal for the Study of Judaism
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  • 1 The Hebrew University, Department of Hebrew Literature, Jerusalem, Israel

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In the multi-linguistic reality of late antique Palestine the mixing of languages was also a mixing of cultures. This essay examines how one multilingual artifact, the Roman milestone, functioned as a means of inter-cultural communication both for those who erected them and the rabbis who read them. I suggest that the Roman roads and milestones that signified the power of the empire, were interpreted by means of a rabbinic hermeneutic of resistance that allowed them to create an imaginary landscape and counter-cartography wherein all the roads lead not to Rome, but rather to the sages and their teachings.

  • 1

    Steven Fraade, “Before and After Babel: Linguistic Exceptionalism and Pluralism in Early Rabbinic Literature and Jewish Antiquity,” Diné Israel 28 (2011): 31-68, at 33.

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  • 2

    Steven Fraade, “Moses and Adam as Polyglots,” in Envisioning Judaism: Studies in Honor of Peter Schäfer on the Occasion of his Seventieth Birthday, ed. R. Boustan et al. (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2013), 185-94, at 185.

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  • 3

    Steven Fraade, “Language Mix and Multilingualism in Ancient Palestine: Literary and Inscriptional Evidence,” Jewish Studies: Journal of the World Union of Jewish Studies 48 (2012): 1-40, at 27; citing J. N. Adams “Bilingualism at Delos,” in Bilingualism in Ancient Society: Language Contact and Written Text, ed. J. N. Adams et al. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), 103-27, at 125.

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  • 4

    Seth Schwartz, “Language, Power and Identity in Ancient Palestine,” Past and Present 148 (1995): 3-47.

  • 5

    Jonathan Price and Haggai Misgav, “Jewish Inscriptions and Their Use,” in The Literature of the Sages: Second Part, ed. S. Safrai et al. (Assen: Van Gorcum, 2006), 467-83; Hayim Lapin, “Palestinian Inscriptions and Jewish Ethnicity in Late Antiquity,” in Galilee Throughout the Ages: Confluence of Cultures, ed. E. Meyers (Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns, 1999), 239-68.

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  • 6

    Cornelis van Tilburg, Traffic and Congestion in the Roman Empire (New York: Routledge, 2007), 6; Walter Scheidel, “The Shape of the Roman World,” Princeton/Stanford Working Papers in Classics (April 2013), 2-27, esp. 3. This is also the number adopted by orbis: The Stanford Geospatial Network Model of the Roman World ( See Anne Kolb, “The Conception and Practice of Roman Rule: The Example of Transport Infrastructure,” Geographia Antiqua 20-21 (2011-2012): 53-70, esp. 54 n. 3. By comparison the us interstate highway system covers approximately 76,788 km.

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  • 7

    Catherine Hezser, Jewish Travel in Antiquity (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2011), 58.

  • 8

    Ray Laurence, The Roads of Roman Italy: Mobility and Cultural Change (London: Routledge, 1999), 39.

  • 10

    Tertullian, De anima 30.3.

  • 11

    Blake Leyerle, “Mobility and the Traces of Empire,” in A Companion to Late Antiquity, ed. P. Rousseau (Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell, 2012), 110-23, at 121.

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  • 12

    Laurence, “Milestones, Communications, and Political Stability,” in Travel, Communication and Geography in Late Antiquity, ed. L. Elliot and F. Kidner (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2004), 41-58, at 45.

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  • 14

    Israel Roll, “The Roman Road System in Judaea,” The Jerusalem Cathedra 3 (1983): 136-61, esp. 136, 145. For an informative survey of the material see Hezser, Jewish Travel, 54-88.

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  • 15

    Benet Salway, “Travel, Itineraria and Tabellaria,” in Travel and Geography in the Roman Empire, ed. C. Adams and R. Laurence (London: Routledge, 2001), 22-66, at 32.

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  • 18

    Roll, “Roman Road System,” 153. Isaac, “Milestones,” 57 mentions that Latin measurements are not found after the reign of Caracalla.

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  • 19

    Laurence, “Milestones,” 45, 56.

  • 22

    Benjamin Isaac, The Limits of Empire: The Roman Army in the East (Oxford: Clarendon, 1992), 304-5; Isaac and Roll, Roman Roads, 91.

  • 24

    Roll, “Roman Road System,” 153.

  • 25

    Isaac, Limits of Empire, 305.

  • 26

    J. N. Adams, Bilingualism and the Latin Language (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 14-18.

  • 27

    Laurence, “Milestones,” 48.

  • 29

    Adams, Bilingualism, 301, 413.

  • 30

    Fraade, “Before and After Babel,” 33. See also, Lapin, “Palestinian Inscriptions,” 258.

  • 32

    Ngugi wa Thiong, Decolonizing the Mind: The Politics of Language in African Literature (London: Currey, 1986), 16.

  • 34

    W. A. L. Elmsie, The Mishnah on Idolatry ‘Abodah Zara (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1911), 62.

  • 35

    Nicole Belayche, Judaea-Palaestina: The Pagan Cults in Roman Palestine (Second to Fourth Century) (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2001), 54. See also David Flusser, “Paganism in Palestine,” in The Jewish People in the First Century, ed. S. Safrai and M. Stern (Assen: Van Gorcum, 1976), 1065-1100.

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  • 40

    Rachel Neis, The Sense of Sight in Rabbinic Culture: Jewish Ways of Seeing in Late Antiquity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013), 194.

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  • 43

    Maoz Azaryahu, “The Power of Commemorative Street Names,” Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 14 (1996): 311-30, at 311.

  • 44

    Derek Alderman, “Place, Naming and the Interpretation of Cultural Landscapes,” in The Ashgate Research Companion to Heritage and Identity, ed. B. Graham and P. Howard (Hampshire: Ashgate, 2008), 195-213, at 198.

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  • 45

    Derek Alderman, “Street Names as Memorial Arenas: The Reputational Politics of Commemorating Martin Luther King Jr. in a Georgia County,” Historical Geography 30 (2002): 99-120, at 99; Reuben Rose Redwood, et al. “Geographies of Toponymic Inscription: New Directions in Critical Place-name Studies,” Progress in Human Geography 34 (2010): 453-70, at 456.

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  • 46

    François Constantin, “Condition Swahili et identité politique,” Africa 57 (1987): 219-33, at 219.

  • 47

    Alderman, “Place, Naming,” 199.

  • 48

    Azaryahu, “The Power of Commemorative Street Names,” 315.

  • 49

    Redwood et al., “Geographies of Toponymic Inscription,” 463.

  • 50

    Alderman, “Place, Naming,” 205. See, for example, the toponymic discussion in b. Meg. 6a.

  • 52

    Jaś Elsner, Roman Eyes: Visuality and Subjectivity in Art and Text (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2007), 254-55.

  • 53

    Ibid., 258. Elsner adds: “The kinds of resistance which might arise in these situations are more a matter of what has been called ‘latent identities’ than of active opposition . . . What might be described as largely unselfconscious counter-hegemonies or implicit resistance, may arise when subgroups of a given society are imperfectly integrated within the larger aggregate, so that their primary sentiments of affinity remain lodged at the subgroup level while they retain correspondingly strong sentiments of estrangement from, or antipathy toward, other (sub)groups” (p. 285, quoting Bruce Lincoln, Discourse and the Construction of Society [New York: Oxford University Press, 1989], 73). For a dissenting opinion see Lee Levine, Visual Judaism in Late Antiquity: Historical Contexts of Jewish Art (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2012), 111.

  • 55

    Gerhart Ladner, “Homo Viator,” Speculum 42 (1967): 233-59; Gillian Clark, “Pilgrims and Foreigners: Augustine on Travelling Home,” in Travel, Communication and Geography in Late Antiquity: Sacred and Profane, ed. L. Ellis and F. Kidner (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2004), 149-58; Hezser, Jewish Travel, 199-209.

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  • 58

    Elsner, Roman Eyes, 253.

  • 59

    Tim Edensor, “National Identity and the Politics of Memory: Remembering Bruce and Wallace in Symbolic Space,” Environment and Planning D 29 (1997): 175-94, at 178.

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  • 63

    van Tilburg, Congestion, 20; Salway, “Travel, Itineraria and Tabellaria,” 51; Chevallier, Roman Roads, 52-53; M. Cary, “Direction-posts on Roman Roads,” Classical Review 50 (1936): 166-67.

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  • 65

    Laurence, “Milestones,” 45, 56.

  • 66

    Homi Bhabha, “Of Mimicry and Man,” in The Location of Culture (London: Routledge, 1994), 89.

  • 67

    Michael Bakhtin, The Dialogical Imagination (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1981), 293.

  • 68

    Fraade, “Language Mix and Multilingualism,” 27.

  • 69

    Bakhtin, Dialogical Imagination, 304.

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