Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2019.03.04 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2019.03.04

Nick Hodgson, Paul T. Bidwell, Judith Schachtmann (ed.), Roman Frontier Studies 2009: Proceedings of the XXI International Congress of Roman Frontier Studies (Limes Congress) Held at Newcastle upon Tyne in August 2009. Archaeopress Roman archaeology, 25.   Oxford:  Archaeopress Publishing, 2017.  Pp. xxii, 726.  ISBN 9781784915902.  £90.00.  


Reviewed by Tyler V. Franconi, University of Alberta (franconi@ualberta.ca)

Table of Contents

The triennial meeting of the International Congress of Roman Frontier Studies celebrated its 60th anniversary during in 2009 in Newcastle, the same city that hosted the inaugural Congress organized by Eric Birley in 1949. The publication of the conference was delayed by eight years due to a number of factors stemming from the financial crisis of 2008, and the editors start the volume with an apology for the delay.

The publication includes 105 papers divided between 17 subsections, some grouped into themes such as “women and families in the Roman army,” “Roman roads,” “smaller structures: towers and fortlets,” “recognizing differences in lifestyles through material culture,” “Roman frontiers in a globalised world,” “civil settlements,” “death and commemoration,” “camps, logistics and supply,” and “frontier fleets.” Others were grouped by regions, such as “the Roman frontier in Wales,” “the Eastern and North African frontiers,” “Barbaricum,” “Britain,” “the Danubian and Balkan provinces,” “the Germanies and Augustan and Tiberian Germany,” and “Spain.” Even just a quick glance over these section headings should make it clear that this is a diverse volume that highlights the increasing breadth and variety of expertise in Roman frontier research. While many of the papers are in English, the multi-national and multi-lingual character of the Congress is preserved in the numerous German and French papers.

It is not possible to touch on all of the papers of this volume in one review, so my intention here is to highlight some particular points and arguments throughout the volume in order to discuss the broader impact of this work. There are, of course, many reports on excavations from sites and regions across the Empire. These types of papers have always formed the core of Roman frontier studies, and that tradition is still evident in papers showcasing new results from Caerleon in Wales, Carnuntum in Austria, Saalburg in Germany, and Viminiacum in Serbia, to name only a few. These site-specific reports are situated alongside regional overviews of frontier systems from Arabia, Germany, Dacia, the Balkans, and, of course, Britain. It is worthwhile to note that the geographical reach of this Congress extended beyond Roman frontiers as well, touching on battlefields at Kalkriese and Harzhorn in Germany and extending to Poland, Scandinavia, the Sassanian Empire, and even all the way to China. Thus, while some may continue to view the frontiers of the Roman Empire as a boundary or limit to Roman power and influence, this volume (and many more besides) makes it clear how important it is to view Roman frontiers as gateways to the wider ancient world, of which Rome was only one part.

This view towards globalising Roman frontiers is worth further discussion, since one section consisting of three papers covers this topic explicitly. The paper by Nemeth starts this section, drawing parallels between the frontiers of Rome and the frontiers of the modern world. He especially emphasizes the experience of immigrants to the Roman Empire—drawing examples from Tacitus and Cassius Dio and comparing them to recent and current examples in Cold War-era Europe, Israel and Palestine, or the USA and Mexico. This sort of comparison is useful as it demonstrates not only how little has changed over the course of 2,000 years, but also how much modern experience can inform the past. The comparison between the border fence between the USA and Mexico and the Antonine fortifications of the Outer Limes in Germany, both political monuments rather than actual deterrents to immigration, is a case in point: frontier fortifications, no matter how grand, do not necessarily serve only a military or police function. The relevance of this observation is perhaps even more important to the Trumpian America of 2018 than it would have been in 2009 when first presented.

The next paper by Standen describes developments in Chinese frontier studies, focusing on the impact of Lattimore’s 1951 Inner Asian Frontiers of China and its reception in more recent scholarship. She particularly emphasises that “Lattimore was notable for writing in a time of nation-building and attendant ethnocentrism, and yet not casting the idea of the steppe and the sown, of barbarians and civilisation, as simply another manifestation of Us and Them. What he provided was an even-handed analysis of how difference arises…” (p. 362). This nuanced approached to understanding social processes in border zones has much relevance to Roman studies, as the rest of this volume makes clear, though perhaps the comparison between Chinese and Roman case studies could have been made more strongly in Standen’s conclusion.

The third paper in this section, by Wells, explores how modern globalized experience can influence the way that we view the past. He identifies four modern influences on European researchers: an increased appreciation for diversity in modern communities, an increased understanding of the complexities of material culture, an increased awareness of diverse social groups and community composition, and a new appreciation for the ways that people construct their own identities and express them through material culture. In each case, Wells correlates increased scholarly interest in these topics with growing modern awareness of societal heterogeneity as a result of a more globalised Europe. These are all important observations for the modern Romanist, and the validity of Wells’ observations are borne out throughout the rest of this volume, especially in sections that emphasise the contribution of previously marginalised groups such as women, civilians, and non-Romans to the formation of frontier society.

Another section that is worth noting is the collection of eight papers discussing women and families in the Roman army. The first paper by Allason-Jones investigates female relatives in and around the forts of Roman Britain, using a substantial epigraphic corpus to make clear that enlisted men were often responsible for the guardianship of female relatives (not just wives and daughters, but sisters, nieces, mothers, and mothers-in-law), even though this care was not recognized by Roman law. The presence of women in forts as evidenced by material assemblages is discussed by Allison, and Van Enckevort discusses a settlement in the Netherlands that was organised for horticultural production rather than livestock raising, a pattern that he suggests might indicate “a Batavian woman whose partner was on duty somewhere in the Roman Empire (17).” Greene uses military diplomata to discuss the presence of women and children in military communities, especially as evidence for de facto marriages of active soldiers that were not otherwise legally recognized, and Ivleva examines the emigration of families from Britannia to the wider Empire. Klein goes on to examine the inclusion of women and children in epitaphs in and around Mainz, and Töpfer highlights the role of imperial women in the visual iconography of dynastic legitimation and the army. Finally, Vanhoutte and Verbrugge explore the presence of women and children in the Saxon Shore fort of Oudenburg, Belgium in the 3rd and 4th centuries as demonstrated through artefacts and burials. These papers present a wide variety of case studies and types of evidence, but all demonstrate that the male population of the Roman military co-existed with women and children through both time and space. This is not a new argument, as many of these papers point out, but the body of evidence is now shown to be robust. These papers are another example of the diverse contributions that the study of frontier zones can make to our understanding of Roman social history, and those interested in questions of gender and family in the Roman world more widely would find much of interest here.

I highlight these sections as windows into the wider attitude of much of this volume of Roman Frontier Studies: the field of study is vast, inclusive, and multi- disciplinary. Furthermore, it is increasingly informed by a comparative approach that values both geographical and chronological variation in experience. The strong foundation of material-orientated Roman military and frontier archaeology is still at the centre of these investigations, but it is clear that the field has seen significant development over the course of the 60 years between the first and twenty-first congress from a field mainly interested in military installations to one more wholly interested in frontier society and its place within the wider Roman Empire. This growth should be noted by all Romanists (and Classicists more broadly), and the increasingly diverse results of frontier research should be integrated more fully into narratives of Roman societal development.

For those already well versed in Roman frontier studies, this volume is a useful collection of papers that covers a wide variety of regions and themes around the Empire. Those less familiar with the field of study would find their time well spent in reading this collection as it will provide a multi-faceted view of the strengths of Roman frontier studies and their contribution to Roman social, political, and military history. While many of these studies have additionally been published separately since the 2009 conference, this volume is still a valuable addition to the Frontier Congress series and has much to offer to any reader.

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