BMCR 1994.09.01

1994.09.01, Whittaker, Frontiers of the Roman Empire

, Frontiers of the Roman Empire : a social and economic study. Ancient society and history. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994. xvi, 341 pages : illustrations, maps ; 23 cm.. ISBN 9780801846779.

Anyone with the panache to start a book about the Roman Empire with an apposite quote from Rudyard Kipling’s children’s book Puck of Pook’s Hill deserves attention. Indeed, before we are even out of the introduction, we are given a tour d’horizon which takes in everyone from Grotius to Frederick Jackson Turner, from Bismarck to Herbert Spenser and Owen Lattimore, slowing toward the end with some well deserved flattery for Lucien Febvre of the French Annales school of social history to which this text owes much of its perspective. For a book about frontiers, C. R. Whittaker’s vision is refreshingly unbounded.

It had better be. After all, Whittaker has posed questions which must be answered satisfactorily not only about Britain’s walls (Hadrian’s, the Antonine) and German limes, but also about camps on the Danube, North Africa clausurae, Armenian defenses, and forts in Syria. His themes, in order of chapters, are crisp: the interrelation of frontiers with the growth of empire, why frontiers stopped where they did, the economy and society of the frontiers, and the pressure on and subsequent collapse of the frontiers. While Whittaker summarizes abundant archaeological and textual evidence about the peculiarities of the frontier in each region, what he is after is the nature of the frontier. With Febvre, he believes that “social relations project themselves spatially” (p.11), and that frontiers reflect ideology.

That ideology partly resulted from a Roman cosmology which mixed a perception of space in terms of harmony, order, regularity and accessibility with an assertion of power and control over areas not directly controlled by the Empire. Examples are provided by the ambiguous usage of the term provinciae and in how externae gentes were treated as though they were subjects. The ideology also derived from surveying and practices associated with the sacralization of land. The result was that two different kinds of land were recognized: the organized, purified, enclosed, bounded land and the unorganized, unsanctified, vague zone that lay around or beyond it, protecting it, a frontier zone which ended at some poorly specified natural marker like a river or a mountain (p. 20). By extrapolation, Whitakker argues, during the Republic, there was therefore no frontier policy, and during the Empire no clear demarcation of where its limits were. The frontiers of the Roman Empire, to adapt Richard Barnet’s coinage, were no more real than the equator.

Should we be scandalized by this revisionism? Only if we are blinded by the sense of borders and frontiers that the French Revolution and the rise of nationalism left us with. We think of frontiers today as heavy black lines on a map, as Mark Monmonier in his How to Lie with Maps (1991) sarcastically put it, which states draw around as much territory as they dare to claim, and in case anyone objects, they merely point to the map and say “it’s on the map, so it must be real” (p. 88). Maps and borders are cartographic icons of the state and its power, and the crossing of borders today entails bureaucracy, but as late as Louis XV,

a border was a zone whose definition was sufficiently vague that residents of some border villages were able to avoid being taxed by governments on either side, sufficiently permeable that men and goods could flow across it with relative ease, and sufficiently uncertain that not even repetitive and interminable negotiations could resolve disputes over a boundary’s exact location.

It is precisely this sense of a frontier as zone of indeterminacy that Whittaker embraces; not surprisingly, this definition of a “natural border” comes from the (neo-Annales? post-Annales?) Critical Dictionary of the French Revolution (1989) of Francois Furet and Mona Ozouf. A modern German analogy may help; Whittaker is asking us not to look at the Berlin Wall and the state power it reflected, but rather marvel at its permeability, and consider all those who crossed through (or under or over) it, legally and illegally, while it still stood.

There is a remarkable diagram, adapted from Hedeager (1987), half way through the book that shows what this meant in economic terms: pottery brooches, bronze, glass, coins, and silver cups from the Roman Empire were all found more than 200 kilometers from the Roman Border inside Free Germany, within what was an economy lacking in markets and money. Conversely, clothing, amber, hides, soap, and other items made their way across the border the other way and into the Roman Empire. In cultural and military terms as well, while there was a myth of the contiguous frontier (and one especially connected to rivers), the repeated evidence contradicts it: military encampments on both sides of the Danube and parts of the Rhine, Roman forward posts 30 kilometers north of Hadrian’s Wall, Syrian forts which lay on a road that crossed migration routes (similar to the Tunisian walls), etc. Great constructions served military functions, to be sure, but Lord Curzon’s assessment of the Great Wall of China as ‘more of line of trespass than a frontier’ (p. 84) rings true to Whittaker; walls were there to serve as tripwires and to exert control over regions beyond, not impede trade, migration or cultural diffusion.

Near the end of the book, Whittaker points out that we all look at frontiers from the inside outward, and that the “barbarians” had a rather different view—witness the peace negotiation between Valentinian and the Alaman king in the middle of the Rhine and Valens’s negotiating with the Goths on the Danube (p. 241). For the “barbarians” as well, the ideology of the frontier existed, only theirs was an ideology outside looking in. The struggle occurs in the frontier zone, the no-man’s-land of material and cultural influence; perhaps it is the use of social history in this analysis that makes the Roman Empire sound so modern.