Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2000.02.30

Peter S. Wells, The Barbarians Speak: How the Conquered Peoples Shaped Roman Europe.   Princeton:  Princeton University Press, 1999.  ISBN 0-691-05871-7.  

Reviewed by Michael Kulikowski, Department of History, Smith College (
Word count: 1708 words

When promised speaking barbarians, one may be permitted a certain scepticism. The barbarians left us no record of their voice and the mute stones speak not in barbarian tongues, but in those of their scholarly interpreters. Peter S. Wells' title thus raises immediate doubts which its contents proceed to justify. Its subtitle -- how the conquered peoples shaped Roman Europe -- offers more promise; given suitably nuanced treatment, the mute stones (and pots, post holes, etc.) might tell quite a story on this point. Wells tries to do so, but the results may have real trouble finding an audience.

Though the reviewer is constrained to focus on the book's shortcomings, its virtues are quite genuine and one is paramount: Wells has an engaging way of describing archaeological finds that banishes the tedium that so often accompanies the reporting of material evidence to non-specialists. The discussion of archaeological typologies (153-54) is excellent. On the other hand, these valuable sections are both too few and too scattered. The book's geographical focus is precise, on Roman Belgica, Raetia, and the two Germanies, but beyond the roughly chronological, its organizing principles are a mystery. We move from a vignette of Varus at the Teutoburger Wald and a programmatic chapter on natives and Romans, to two chapters on Bronze and Iron Age Europe, to a history of Roman conquest, to a series of six chapters on the Roman period, in which a great deal of precisely comparable information, on funerary practice or ceramic production for instance, appears in separate places without crossreferencing.

Though hard to access, this data is quite informative. Its context, and the intellectual burden of the book, are undermined by the authorial poses of radical novelty and heroic scepticism. Neither stance is borne out in the substance of the book. Let us take the question of novelty first. Wells repeatedly asserts the revolutionary potential of new disciplinary approaches, for example complexity studies, gender studies, deconstruction, postcolonial history, and postcolonial literary theory. But this potential -- which is quite genuine -- fails to materialize here. The relevance of gender studies turns out to be a page and a half (140-41) telling us that though we have no evidence for it Roman soldiers must have courted native women. Postcolonial literary theory turns out to be irrelevant since the indigenous cultures have left us no literature. Wells outlines postcolonial approaches to the Ancient Near East, Spanish America, British India and West Africa, only to decide that they are not precisely relevant. As to deconstruction, no disciple of Derrida would recognize Wells' invocation of the master's teaching, which he boils down to not taking the ancient sources at their word (22). This bathetic conclusion in no way justifies Wells' dismissal of most modern scholarship as blinkered and archaic.

As to the relevance of complexity studies, I suspect that I am at a disciplinary disadvantage. Wells is an anthropologist, but as a historian, I do not find that the repetition of words like 'dynamic', 'complex', and 'heterogeneous' tells me much about a society without illustration. The chapters on Bronze and Iron Age Europe are full of such usages: material cultures come and go, they are not static but dynamic, and the Romans encountered a much more dynamic and complex society than they, or indeed modern scholars, have realized. I am more than prepared to believe this, but would have liked some exposition, something comparable to his descriptions of the Roman Period settlement changes at Feddersen Wierde (244-45) and Gudme (247-51). These are models of their kind, telling us exactly how change in the archaeological record represents organizational and political change within these barbarian settlements. But without comparable treatments, two full chapters (28-63) substitute assertion for demonstration.

The scepticism Wells professes is equally problematic. Fifty years of classical scholarship have seen to it that we no longer take Roman descriptions of barbarians at their word, and though Wells repeatedly denounces Caesar, Tacitus, and their modern interpreters he never once introduces a discussion of the ethnographic genre. Wells is quite right, on the other hand, to decry the habitual reading of material evidence according to chronologies hinged on written sources. But he proceeds to divide six largely archaeological chapters around the years AD 16 and AD 166, both textually-derived dates (of Tiberius' recall of Germanicus, and the start of the Marcomannic wars, respectively). This tendency to proclaim a principle and proceed to violate it is everywhere. Though he denies the accuracy of Tacitus' tribal descriptions, Wells still prints a map of Tacitean tribes. He impugns the idea of Celtic and Germanic languages as constructs of modern linguists but then adopts the terms as both linguistic and ethnic markers. After castigating those who talk about 'romanization' and the army's role in it on the grounds that many soldiers were not Romans from Rome, he speaks quite matter-of-factly of the army as an instrument of romanization. Conceptual categories like 'Roman', 'indigenous', and 'provincial' are repeatedly stigmatized only to appear as meaningful adjectives without inverted commas in site descriptions. Finally, Wells' description of a third-century crisis in which 'Germanic groups overwhelmed the frontiers' (234), is both dated and credulous in so self-consciously sceptical an author. Some reference to modern debate on barbarian -- and not automatically 'Germanic' -- ethnogenesis is absolutely requisite here, as is an awareness that no reference to third-century Franks predates the very end of the fourth century.

What about the argumentative substance of the book? Wells is rarely clear as to his overall argument. Half-way in, he declares that "the whole purpose of this book is to focus on ... the impact of the native people on the societies that developed through the interactions" with the representatives of Rome (127). No evidence of this is presented. The real burden of the book seems to be to show that Roman conquest "did not result in landscapes devoid of indigenous populations" (124) and that indigenous Iron Age elements persisted in the Roman Period. Wells describes architectural forms that remain structurally Iron Age even when they incorporate Roman elements, pottery that retains Iron Age forms and motifs, and the recurrence of La Tène styles in the second century AD. These phenomena "were active re-creations, not passive repetitions" (170). In each case, Wells thinks we should read Iron Age continuity as cultural resistance to Rome on the part of indigenous peoples, comparable to recent parallels in West Africa or amongst the Maya. This is a provocative approach, and I am ready to be persuaded, but assertion alone does not make it so. Given his quest for indigenous resistance, it is surprising that the revolt of Civilis receives so little attention. Nor is it comforting to see Wells reach outside his own geographical limits, usually to Hungary, whenever he wants an example of a site where Roman forms were not adopted wholeheartedly. If one wishes to insist upon the infinite variety of rural architecture in the new provinces in order to deny a programmatic romanization, it is disingenuous to contrast them with a monolithic 'classic Italian villa' in order to strengthen one's point. Finally, anyone who can say that "Varus was by training an administrator, not a military man" (92) has not read his Josephus.

Despite all this, there is plenty of material here that might prove revelatory to the non-specialist audience. But the question of the book's intended audience is tricky. It is a professedly American book (x) and the symptoms are everywhere. Some are worrying, for instance the subsection on "why the Roman Empire matters today" (18-20), some misguided, like the comparison of terra sigillata to Coke and Levi's (19), or of Celtic well-offerings to fountains in suburban malls (38). On the other hand, much is merely insular -- no European needs the break-up of the Soviet Union as a reminder that borders change (230), while Irish, Serbs, and Basques may alike be surprised to find that their respective nationalisms are recent responses to globalization (192). Given all this, the book will not travel well.

Questions of audience go deeper. There are no notes to upset the general reader, and the forest of sub-headings, roughly one every other page, is clearly intended to make academic reading seem less formidable. Wells goes out of his way to define potentially strange words, but though a general reader might well like to have a spindle whorl or a strigil defined, glossing cremation and stating that hilt is another word for handle surely insults that same reader's intelligence. Despite such concessions, there are places where the general reader could not help but stumble, for instance the discussion of Viereckschanzen (53). Likewise, with so little knowledge assumed on the reader's part, it is surprising that the oft-cited Greek city of Massalia appears on no map.

In a couple of places, the general reader will be deceived. Wells tells us that "in working with archaeological evidence ... we do not deal with someone else's interpretation, but we confront directly the surviving material evidence left by the people we study" (24). This is simply false. In using archaeological evidence, we have to work through the frequently insurmountable interpretations of modern excavators, who decide what evidence goes into site reports. Not only can we rarely confront the material evidence directly, many site reports ensure that the merest record of that material evidence is irretrievably lost. Elsewhere, Wells assumes that material objects carry ethnicity, that it might be possible to prove migration of peoples from belt-buckles. Many do believe this, despite recent arguments to the contrary. Either way, a book published in 1999, and particularly one so dismissive of its own forbears, should have addressed the controversy. Finally, the legal consequences of Roman citizenship are fundamentally misrepresented on p. 132.

Princeton Press is pushing this book very hard, with a full-colour advert on the back of the American Historical Review and lavish pre-publication hype. A paperback is therefore inevitable and a few blemishes should be corrected before it appears: 'aquaducts' (122); 'indigneous' (180); 'antecedant' (200); 'miriad' (225); 'manifold' as adverb (227); subject-verb agreement (99); also, 'fingerring' (passim) for 'finger ring' has a certain obscene quality, and 'nonelites' (also passim) appears to be a strange technical word until one meets it juxtaposed with 'elites' and the penny drops.

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