BMCR 1994.04.08

1994.04.08, Lee, Information and Frontiers

, Information and Frontiers: Roman Foreign Relations in Late Antiquity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993. Pp. xxii + 213. $54.95.

Lee’s aim is to examine the role of information in the foreign relations of the Roman Empire with Sasanian Persia and with the peoples living north of the Rhine and Danube from the early third to the early seventh century A.D. For his purposes, information includes “Background knowledge … about the geography, environment, and socio-political character of neighbouring states and peoples” and “[s]trategic intelligence about the activities and affairs of potentially hostile neighbours….” (p. 2), but not tactical intelligence. He considers “two broad questions”. The first is “the availability of information … in terms of the general reliability of background knowledge and the broad frequency with which strategic intelligence moved between the empire and its neighbours”, and the second is “the means by which this information was acquired.” (p. 3)

The Introduction briefly notes the dearth of previous work on this subject and takes issue with Fergus Millar’s conclusion that the frontiers were a barrier to the flow of information. 1 However, although Lee seems to have written in conscious reaction against Millar, their two studies focus on different periods and different evidence and thus, to some extent, they complement each other. The Introduction continues with a survey of the source materials, most of which are Roman historical works, since no archival documents survive and the northern peoples of the period have left little in writing. Lee gives capsule assessments of the Roman historians Ammianus Marcellinus, Procopius, Priscus, Menander Protector and Theophylact Simocatta, but offers the reader no such aid with regard to the generally less well known Syriac sources.

The first part of Chapter I, “The Protagonists”, contrasts the social and political characteristics of Sasanian Persia and Rome’s northern neighbours, the Alamanni, Franks, Goths, Huns and Avars, and remarks on the impact of the differences on Roman intelligence operations. The rest of the chapter attempts to demonstrate that the Roman government took foreign relations more seriously in the fifth and sixth centuries. Since formal bureaucratic structures were still non-existent, Lee has to argue on the basis of increased record-keeping and more specialized personnel, but the jejune evidence does not allow firm conclusions to be drawn. For example, even if the magistri officiorum did serve for longer periods, this may not have been because of any specialization in foreign affairs, as Lee himself admits. Again, although Lee detects a trend towards more experienced and expert ambassadors, this may reflect Roman pragmatism rather than a policy decision in Constantinople.

Chapter 2, “At the Interface: the Frontier Regions”, establishes that there would have been much more travel across the eastern than the northern frontier and hence a greater flow of information. Lee discusses the underlying factors, such as ethnicity and language, the reasons for travel, such as trade and pilgrimage, and an array of specific examples from the sources. It is interesting to learn that the numbers of those who crossed the eastern frontier without hindrance much exceeded those who were impeded by guards, and that many Germans were able to return home when they retired from the Roman army, despite the well-known fears of Ammianus’ Silvanus (XV,5,15-16). All in all, the chapter is a good introduction to late Roman frontiers.

Chapter 3, “Background Knowledge and Assumptions”, attempts to determine “what late Roman government knew of the geography and socio-political organisation of neighbouring peoples.” (p. 81) Lee agrees that the Romans had a very inadequate knowledge of geography and ethnography, but maintains that they would have known more about Persia than about barbaricum. However, Lee concedes that the effect of background knowledge is very hard to detect and he is able to find only three instances when background knowledge may have influenced Roman foreign policy. He is much more successful, however, in showing how climate and topography constrained both Roman and Persian military operations in the east with the consequent “reduction of uncertainty” (p. 2) which is a kind of information, while on the Rhine and Danube, the Romans were perpetually disadvantaged vis-à-vis the barbarians.

Chapter 4, “Strategic Intelligence”, investigates the extent to which Rome, Persia and the northern peoples knew of each others’ handicaps (e.g., rebellions and invasions) and military preparations. Lee examines all known Roman-Persian invasions from 230 to 628, comparing the invasions when information movement is attested with those when it is not, and concludes that there was information movement in almost every case. Moreover, Rome and Persia were equally well informed about each other, and Lee plausibly suggests that this helped to maintain peace and stability on the eastern frontier. Along the Rhine and Danube, however, the barbarians had the advantage over the Romans, and Lee rightly takes issue with other scholars who, denying the barbarians this intelligence capability, have seen them as continually testing the Roman frontier defences.

Chapter 5, “Diffusion of Information”, will be of less interest to historians of the Later Roman Empire than the preceding one. Although Lee finds a few examples of Roman authorities questioning travellers, the most that can be said is that there would have been more information exchanged on the eastern than on the northern frontier. Comparisons with pre-industrial societies and invoking “the social gravity model” (p. 151) add little of value to Lee’s argument, and some of the material in this chapter (e.g. on merchants) is also found in Chapter 2.

Chapter 6, “Information-Gathering”, is about embassies and spies, both of which were, of course, much more common on the eastern frontier than on the northern. There are good accounts of the espionage activities of both embassies and spies, although it is impossible to determine how the Roman spy service was organized or what route intelligence reports took from the agent to whatever minister whose concern they were. There is also an interesting discussion of how the Roman government tried to prevent leaks from its bureaucrats to the enemy.

Information and Frontiers is a comprehensive and consistent study whose conclusions, though not revolutionary, do help to elucidate the different problems which the Roman Empire faced in its dealings with Persia and barbaricum, and its different success in doing so. Indeed, it offers a sensible and up-to-date treatment of many aspects of late Rome and early Byzantium. In essence, however, the book is about Roman military intelligence, rather than foreign relations. In this period, the Romans had consistently hostile relations with the same set of foreign powers and the questions which they needed to answer did not have to do with how to juggle their alliances with a number of more or less equal states, but whether or not they should attack, and whether or not they would be attacked. The Romans had a pragmatic, military interest in their neighbours and this book reveals much about how they got the information which they wanted.

  • [1] Fergus Millar, “Emperors, frontiers and foreign relations, 31 BC to AD 378”, Britannia, XIII (1982), pp. 1-25.