Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2009.02.05
David J. Breeze, Edge of Empire: Rome's Scottish Frontier, the Antonine Wall. Edinburgh: Birlinn, 2008. Pp. 128. ISBN 9781841587370. £14.99 (pb).
Reviewed by Brad Eden, University of California, Santa Barbara (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Word count: 1033 words
Books by David Breeze have come to signify the best current scholarship on the Roman presence in Britain, especially as it relates to the two largest surviving archaeological structures, Hadrian's Wall and the Antonine Wall. In 2008, I reviewed another Breeze book titled Roman Frontiers in Britain, part of the Classical World Series from Bristol Classical Press (BMCR 2008.03.17). In that review, I compared Breeze's book with that of D.J. Woolliscroft and B. Hoffman, Rome's First Frontier: The Flavian Occupation of Northern Scotland (BMCR 2006.11.17). The Breeze 2007 book and the Woolliscroft volume, in short, were very different from each other, both in content and perspective, even though they both looked at Roman influence in the British Isles. Edge of Empire is very different from Roman Frontiers in Britain, and the reader can refer back to both the Woolliscroft and the Breeze 2007 reviews in order to observe the interesting differences of approach and style that each provides.
The Antonine Wall has often taken a back seat both in research and in tourism to Hadrian's Wall, although not for lack of surviving archaeological evidence. Built 120 kilometers (75 miles) north of Hadrian's Wall, the Antonine Wall is located in the Midland Valley of Scotland, running from the River Clyde in the west to the Firth of Forth in the east, measuring approximately 60 kilometers (37 miles). It was almost immediately abandoned after it was built. Breeze provides a concise, up-to-date, and colorful pictorial and chronological presentation of this Roman frontier. The author was formerly the Chief Inspector of Ancient Monuments for Scotland, and he prepared the bid for World Heritage Site status for the Antonine Wall. Breeze does a magnificent job of providing context both before the Wall was built, how it was built and why, and the history of the Wall to the present day. The volume is worthy of coffee table status, with some type of color photo or graphic on every page opposite the text, illustrating various well-known as well as forgotten and hidden parts of the Wall, with good maps, aerial photographs, reconstructions, and illustrations of artifacts, sculptures, monuments, and coins, and so much more.
The book begins with beautiful front and back fold-outs, which feature an especially pastoral section of the surviving Antonine Wall when both pages are laid out flat. The inside of the back fold-out contains an illustrated map of the Antonine Wall, showing the best surviving forts and fortlets, rampart bases, the military way, visible lengths of rampart and ditch, museums, and the best part of the surviving wall to walk. The author begins with a discussion of the northern Roman frontier in Britain, with some spectacular aerial photography of the Wall. The history surrounding the early history of the Wall is presented, including a short biography of Antoninus Pius (138-61), the preparations and the invasion of northern Britain by the Romans, how various Roman authors described this historical event, and the military victory itself in August 142. A well-illustrated description of the distance slabs along the Antonine Wall follows, along with the information they were meant to record. Surviving information on the naming and dating of the Antonine Wall according to contemporary sources and histories is also provided.
The next major section of the book deals with how the Antonine Wall was built, including accommodations for the soldiers, ramparts, ditches and stone bases. The ditch on Croy Hill, the military way that runs alongside the Wall for almost its entire length, Rough Castle fort, the lilia discovery at Rough Castle (hidden traps that used to hold sharpened spikes) as well as its west defenses, Bar Hill fort and its bath-house, Kinneil fortlet, various expansions that occurred along the Wall, and the Bearsden bath-house and latrine are all presented. Interspersed among these actual archaeological remains is an examination of the life of the Roman soldier.
Breeze states that the primary purpose of the Antonine Wall was not for military defense, but as a demarcation line to aid in the task of frontier control. His conclusion is based on a number of observations, namely that the Romans did not take advantage of a number of geographical features as they built the Wall. The Antonine Wall was probably abandoned around 160, hardly lasting for a generation, and around the same time that Antoninus Pius died. Various Roman writers record that the Romans did maintain an interest in politic situations in northern Britain through the fourth century, often financially supporting tribes and chiefs who were sympathetic to their influence, but that continued maintenance and even occupation by the Romans along the Antonine Wall after the second century was not a priority of the Empire.
The final section of the book details the recent history of the Wall, including the nineteenth-century discovery of the Turriff Jug, medieval and modern use of the Wall, various mapping efforts from the thirteenth century onwards, how modern-day mapping techniques have assisted in research and archaeology along the Wall, and the resurgence of interest in the Wall in the nineteenth century. There is also a discussion of the Antonine Wall in popular culture, reenactments of Roman marching soldiers, visibility analysis, and the effort to protect the Antonine Wall through application to the World Heritage Site. There is a page that describes the best sections and museums along the Wall to visit, a short bibliography, and an index.
I found myself thoroughly entranced with the design and presentation of information in this book. Having walked the entire length of Hadrian's Wall, I had no idea about the Antonine Wall's surviving features, or I would have also tried to visit parts of it on previous trips to the United Kingdom. I will certainly visit it in the future. I was impressed with the portability and conciseness of the Breeze's Roman Frontiers in Britain, which provide short descriptions of many of the surviving Roman antiquities within Britain. But the focus on the Antonine Wall in this book allows the author to fully expand on his accumulated knowledge, expertise, and experience regarding this northern Roman frontier. Breeze led the implementation team formulating the management plan for the Antonine Wall, whose World Heritage Site status has recently been decided.