Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2013.11.23 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2013.11.23

Peter S. Wells (ed.), Rome beyond its Frontiers: Imports, Attitudes and Practices. JRA supplementary series, 94.   Portsmouth, RI:  Journal of Roman Archaeology, 2013.  Pp. 131.  ISBN 9781887829946.  $62.00.  

Reviewed by Tatiana Ivleva, Freie Universität Berlin (


This concise and lucid volume of seven essays is a part of the International Roman Archaeology Conference Series of the Journal of Roman Archaeology. It contains the speaker-by-speaker proceedings of a session bearing the same name and organized by Peter Wells for the Roman Archaeology Conference at Oxford University in 2010.

The volume is refreshingly contemporary and contributes to the growing number of works, especially among Anglo-Saxon scholarship, that explore Roman cultural norms and practices from the perspective of people living under Roman domination, such as inhabitants of the provinces and those beyond the Empire’s borders.1 As a whole, the volume embraces current theoretical frameworks positing the transformative and adaptable nature of material culture, by which an object’s meaning at its creation fades or mutates once the object changes ownership or moves from its native region.2

The volume begins with an introduction and concludes with a short chapter by Peter Wells, who synthetizes the volume’s intention and illuminates how future research may respond to the subject of Roman imports. In the introduction Wells explains that the term "Roman imports" refers to “objects manufactured in Italy or other parts of the empire [from the Early to the Late Roman period] that have been recovered in lands outside the imperial boundaries,” such as those spreading from Ireland to southern Germany, and even as far as India (p. 7). By aiming to provide an account of how such imports were received, perceived, evaluated, and adopted by communities living beyond Roman frontiers, the essays in this volume produce a detailed image of the manifold and changing nature of these objects that took upon varied roles in the new settings, from pure practical, such as rubbing tools and scrap material, to the embodiments of friendships and inter- regional connections. While the volume is not strictly divided into parts, the papers nevertheless form three coherent groups. The three essays by Fraser Hunter, Thomas Grane, and Christoph Schmidt together paint a picture of pragmatic societies living beyond the Roman border that approached Roman imports selectively and more seldom than not appropriated these imports because of their value as prestigious, exotic and luxury goods.

Hunter evaluates selective indigenous societies of Roman Iron Age Scotland, whence materials were viewed according to their importance and value in enhancing social status, devising behavior, and controlling social realities. After their acquisition Roman objects were integrated into social practices to tread a thorny path of modification, hybridization, breakage, intentional ritualization, and reuse. Applying the theory of cultural biographies,3 Hunter shows how each object experienced a variety of scenarios of appropriation and re-contextualization outside the Roman world. Hunter thus proposes viewing these interactions in a three-step model of the selection, use, and deposition of Roman material. This model raises the question whether it can be applied to objects that found their way outside their area of manufacture but that also stayed within imperial borders. Would Pannonian brooches found in Roman Wales, for example, have taken a similar route?

In his chapter Grane emphasizes the selectiveness of the Germanic elite in southern Scandinavia, where objects were chosen for their particular associations, whether as friendship gifts, embodiments of Roman rituals, or goods signifying prestige and social status. In each aspect, Roman materials were described by new narratives, yet their associations with Roman-ness and/or foreignness continued to resonate. Grane then reinterprets the purpose and meaning of Roman imports in southern Scandinavia by proposing to see them as a sign of “a positive contact with others” such as Germanic societies themselves or the Roman Empire (p. 42). His chapter contains the compelling suggestion that the sanctity of unexpected guests prompted the exchange of gifts between Romans and Germans, or among Germans themselves, suggesting that imports should be considered as “symbols of the bond between friends” (p. 38).

Schmidt’s contribution is actually an excavation report in disguise, though an interpretive one. Large quantities of bronze Roman objects broken into small fragments found at the central Germany site Frienstedt indicate that the imports were brought there to be recycled by being melted down to produce objects suitable to the local economy and everyday life. Even a high-bronze relief of Jupiter Dolichenus was not spared this fate (p. 65). Schmidt also traces the fluctuations in Roman import-flow into central Germany that depended on historical circumstances. While in the mid-2nd c. and in the years following the Marcomannic Wars objects reached the area by trade and individual contacts, though in the late 3rd c. returning Germanic auxiliary veterans of the Roman army accounted for an increase in Roman personal military equipment in the region. The latter, however, can be disputed given that the high level of recruitment from Barbaricum has been questioned.4

Meanwhile, three essays by Peter Wells, Roberta Tomber, and Nancy Wicker dwell at length on Roman imports themselves and their power of direct or indirect influence on local techniques, craft production, and visual perceptions.

In his chapter Wells traces the changes in character of personal decorations by showing how the occurrence of Roman imports enhanced the exhibition of their decorativeness and visual complexity. He sees ornaments as mnemonic, visually coded devices that acted as meaningful communicators and “signaling devices” between peoples living across the frontiers (p. 53). Because these societies did “not possess a system of writing, objects play[ed] much more important roles in communication than they [did] in literate societies,” such as the Roman Empire (p. 54). Wells tentatively proposes that though Roman objects became a touchstone for local inhabitants to produce new art forms of adornments, they nevertheless did not contribute much to the nature of communication, which remained image-based. Inhabitants beyond the frontier—the social elite in particular—deliberately chose not to adapt to written communication but continued the practice of “object- and decoration-based communication” (p. 54).

Tomber’s essay is more of an overview of the Roman finds in India, which range from coins and pottery to portable and personal objects, all of which arrived by trade. Her work, however, moves beyond empirical narratives and distribution maps to analyze how Roman objects became models for locally produced objects. Tomber persuasively argues that images of Roman Emperors on coins were adopted due to being “synonymous with abundance, fortune and protection” instead of being associated with Roman-ness (p. 98). This influence, furthermore, did not stop at image reproduction but extended into decoration and production techniques combined with local stylistic trends. It is notable that some Roman imports were given new roles in their Indian settings, perhaps as a reinterpretation of the original purpose, such as sherds of Roman amphorae being used as rubbing tools (p. 98). The idea that Roman imports provided inspiration for objects produced beyond Roman frontiers receives elaboration in a chapter by Wicker, who analyses the transformative path of Roman medallions into Scandinavian bracteates. Instead of being direct copies of their Roman originals, bracteates reflect the deliberateness of Scandinavian society in adapting the manufacture, iconography, and function of the objects to local practices that ensured that the emergent hybrid object, its iconography, and its symbolism could be easily understood within their Scandinavian settings. The most significant transformation, however, is detected in their becoming objects worn by women in contrast to medallions, which may have functioned as gifts or payments between men. Since bracteates were Roman-inspired but locally imagined objects, they reveal no history prior to the medallions reaching Scandinavia; their re-contextualization is thus part of not extraordinary but local discourse.

John Soderberg’s chapter does not neatly fall into sync with the other contributions, for it is a review and descriptive narrative of the contemporary knowledge and scholarship regarding the occurrence of Roman objects in Iron Age Ireland. Soderberg observes a trend of moving “beyond a focus on trading and raiding” (p. 80) toward understanding the imported goods as either active or passive participants in extending connections backwards in time and outwards geographically. Such connections were not limited to associations of objects with Roman-ness, though investments were made to assimilate them into contextually varied and complex local practices. Soderberg shows that imports were part of the integral connectivity among Irish people and with both the Roman world and the provincial societies of Roman Britain. These connections rendered Iron Age Ireland part of the globalizing processes occurring elsewhere in Roman Europe, irrespective of whether Romans ever set foot on Irish soil (p. 83). Such developments in the scholarship of Iron Age Ireland are worthy of both attention and applause.

Wells’s concluding chapter draws out the volume’s broader implications for future research, to wit, the focus should be on the people participating in these interactive processes instead of on the objects themselves. Imports arrived through networks established by trading links, personal relations, or individual actions, such as gift-giving, exchange, and war booty, in which humans were central. It was thus humans that gave imports a new role not necessarily similar to that of valuable objects. By engaging with the Kula system and the Hopewell Interaction Sphere, Wells shows how models, distant both in geographical and theoretical term, can provide a refreshing take on Roman imports beyond frontiers.

This is an artfully simple volume written by contributors in a clear and engaging style, though it does bear minor imperfections. Some authors move between British and American spelling within their texts; Soderberg, for instance, cannot decide between ‘artefact’ and ‘artifact.’ Another seemingly minor point deserves magnification: all essays give the impression of treating Romans, Germans, or any inhabitants beyond the frontier, as bounded entities. “Roman” is defined by Tomber in passing as “a general term to cover any people coming from the area of the Roman empire” (p. 90, n. 7), and it seems that most contributors tacitly endorse a similar definition. Current scholarship, however, does not perceive Romans and Germans as fixed entities but recognizes the manifold and more nuanced experiences of being Roman or German.5 To this end, being an object of Roman import would have also been fragmented and complex and imply a product of provincial markets within the Empire’s borders. This volume fails to illuminate this current theoretical trend, an aspect which may have also contributed to the volume’s inner incoherency, despite the two neat triads of essays. At the same time, though Grane and Schmidt in their contributions imagine Barbaricum as culturally diverse, Wells argues that these inhabitants were culturally united in their signaling devices.

All criticism aside, readers of this volume will emerge satisfied with the sense that for once they have been able to study the topic free of Roman-centrism. Furthermore, the volume is superbly illustrated and with great timeliness engages a subject that neither classical archaeologists nor students can afford to ignore—for the Roman Empire did not halt at its borders, but stretched far beyond the frontier.


1.   T. Grane (ed.). Beyond the Roman Frontiers: Roman Influences on the Northern Barbaricum. Rome: Quasar, 2007. D. Mattingly. An Imperial Possession: Britain in the Roman Empire. London: Penguin, 2006. M. McCarthy. The Romano-British Peasant: Towards a Study of People, Landscapes and Work during the Roman Occupation of Britain. Oxford: Oxbow, 2013. M. Russell, S. Laycock. UnRoman Britain: Exposing the Great Myth of Britannia. Gloucestershire: The History Press, 2011.
2.   H.P. Hahn, H. Weiss (edd). Mobility, Meaning and Transformation of Things: Shifting Contexts of Material Culture Through Time and Space. Oxford: Oxbow, 2013.
3.   I. Kopytoff. ‘Cultural biography of things: commoditization as process’, in A. Appadurai (ed.) The Social Life of Things: Commodities in Cultural Perspective. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986: 64-91.
4.   S. James ‘Large-scale recruitment of auxiliaries from Free Germany?’, in Z. Visy (ed.), Limes XIX: Proceedings of the XIXth International Congress of Roman Frontier Studies held in Pécs, Hungary, September 2003. Pécs: University of Pécs, 2005: 273-279.
5.   S. Brather. ‘Ethnische Identitäten aus archäologischer Perspektive‘, in Kelten am Rhein. Akten des dreizehnten Internationalen Keltologiekongresses, 23. bis 27. Juli 2007 on Bonn. Vol. 1 Ethnizität und Romanisierung. Mainz: Philipp von Zabern, 2007: 1-12. L. Revell. Roman imperialism and local identities. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009.

Read comments on this review or add a comment on the BMCR blog

Read Latest
About BMCR
Review for BMCR
Support BMCR

BMCR, Bryn Mawr College, 101 N. Merion Ave., Bryn Mawr, PA 19010