BMCR 2001.07.08

Soldiers, Cities, and Civilians in Roman Syria

, Soldiers, cities, and civilians in Roman Syria. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2000. x, 349 pages : maps ; 24 cm. ISBN 0472111558 $49.50.

Over the past few decades studying the Roman imperial army within the larger context of society has resulted in the publication of several major monographs, beginning with Ramsay MacMullen’s pioneering work, Soldier and Civilian in the Later Roman Empire (Cambridge, MA 1963), and continued inter alia with books by Alston, Isaac, Millar, and Whittaker.1 This book by Nigel Pollard (hereafter P.), the product of a dissertation from the University of Michigan, clearly stands in this tradition and in fact draws extensively upon this earlier work in attempting to study the nature and degree of social, economic, and cultural interaction and separatism between soldiers and civilians of the principate and the later Roman empire in the region defined by the Roman provinces of Syria, Mesopotamia, and Osrhoene.

In the second sentence on the first page of the main text of the book P. justifies his choice of topic by remarking, “this region was selected because evidence from the area is unique in its quantity and nature.” Indeed, the ensuing introduction (pp.1-32), seven chapters (pp.35-250), summation of general conclusions (pp.251-4), two appendices on major sites mentioned throughout the text (pp.257-303), and bibliography (pp.305-19) treat the reader to the author’s mastery of the relevant modern scholarship, ancient literary evidence, archaeological data, and epigraphic material. Nevertheless, a careful reading of the text discloses just how exiguous are the ancient literary and non-literary data of this study. Consequently, although always plausible, P.’s major conclusions are invariably conjectural, and he quite often resorts to better documented situations (e.g. Roman Egypt or Anatolia) in order to frame and illuminate the investigation of his own chosen area. Thus, the study may be viewed as failing to live up fully to the book’s billing as suggested in the opening lines of the introduction. On the other hand, the book serves as a very convenient compendium of the widely scattered ancient data well contextualized within current modern scholarship, but it does not set forth any major revisionist interpretations.

Following an introduction to the book’s subject, the seven chapters are grouped into three larger parts. Chapters 1-2 form the first part and concern the physical relationship between Roman military forces and the towns and cities of the region. Chapter 1 covers the period of the principate up to the middle of the third century A.D., whereas Chapter 2 is devoted to the later Roman empire. In Chapter 1 P. observes that the disposition of Roman military forces in Syria was influenced in part by pre-existing urban patterns established during Seleucid times. The well excavated site of Dura-Europos, which served as a Roman fortress city on the Euphrates during the later principate, receives P.’s close attention. Soldiers and civilians lived within the same fortified settlement, but the military was organized into its own sector and had its own physical facilities. In Chapter 2 P. notes that conditions of the later Roman empire were rather different from those of the principate. For one thing, military forces during the later period were more widely dispersed in smaller units; and for another, the nearly incessant wars fought between Rome and Sassanian Persia produced a shifting frontier with the result that the Roman state built new fortress towns or refounded old or abandoned ones as the situation required. Excavation of the fortress town of Dibsi Faraj on the Euphrates, probably to be identified with Neocaesarea mentioned in ancient literary accounts, well illustrates this general pattern. In contrast, the great city of Antioch served as an important transit point and rear-echelon logistical and administrative base for Rome’s eastern wars.

Chapters 3-4 comprise the book’s second part and treat respectively formal and informal interaction between soldiers and civilians. P. notes that physical proximity of the two groups did not necessarily guarantee close social, economic, and cultural interaction, because the Roman army was an autonomous, largely self-contained institution that could keep its members isolated from the surrounding civilian environment. Chapter 3 concerns itself with the questions of the military used as a police force, centurions’ involvement in municipal government and their service as judges, the military’s participation in and later legal prohibition from the collection of taxes, and billeting and other requisitions. Chapter 4 discusses sources of military recruitment, the ethnicity of soldiers, and language and religious practices as cultural instruments for binding together or separating soldiers and civilians. On the basis of very scanty evidence P. concludes that by the middle of the second century soldiers were largely recruited from areas in or near where they were stationed. Thus, the army was generally representative of the region’s major cultural groups. But the situation was somewhat different during the later Roman empire. Sons frequently followed in the footsteps of their fathers’ military career, and as a result of Rome’s wars with Persia, at least some forces of western (including Germanic barbarian) origin were transferred to the eastern frontier. Latin, however, is rarely attested epigraphically and was apparently confined to official military use. Greek would have been the most commonly used language, but many soldiers and civilians may have been bilingual, speaking Greek along with native Semitic dialects. The evidence of religious dedications suggests a dichotomy between official and private practices among soldiers as well as possible differences between soldiers and civilians. The official Roman military religious calendar, as exemplified by the Feriale Duranum, embodies traditional Roman religion, whereas private dedications by soldiers involve a much wider range of divinities, many of whom were indigenous to this region of the Roman empire.

The book’s third and last part is formed by Chapters 5-7, which concern the Roman army and the regional economy. As in Part 1, a distinction is made between the principate and the later Roman empire. Chapter 5 covers the principate and discusses taxation, military pay, coinage, agriculture, and trade (including the ambiguous evidence of pottery). Chapter 6 treats the same topics in reference to the later Roman empire and stresses the movement toward payment in kind. Archaeological finds (olive presses and amphorae) suggest that the growing of olive trees was expanded into marginal areas of northern Mesopotamia. This expansion seems to have taken place primarily during the fifth century, which was more peaceful than the fourth century. In Chapter 7, entitled “The Roman Army, Exploitation, and Investment,” P. discusses the army’s possible role in exploiting the region’s timber and stone resources, as well as the construction of major public works such as harbors, defense walls, roads, and bridges. His final balance sheet concludes that the Roman army generally consumed and extracted more of the region’s resources than it gave back in services and the circulation of military pay in the economy.

The book ends with four pages of general conclusions followed by two appendices, which are catalogues of major sites mentioned throughout the text dating respectively to the principate and later Roman empire. These appendices summarize and analyze under a city’s or town’s name all the ancient literary and non-literary data relevant to this study. In addition, between Chapters 2 and 3 there are 19 figures showing the plans of the major sites discussed throughout the book (e.g. Zeugma, Palmyra, Dura- Europos, Dibsi Faraj).


1. R. A. Alston, Soldier and Society in Roman Egypt: A Social History, London 1995; B. Isaac, The Limits of Empire: The Roman Army in the East, Oxford 1990; F. Millar, The Roman Near East, 31 BC-AD 337. Cambridge MA 1993; and C. R. Whittaker, Frontiers of the Roman Empire: A Social and Economic Study, London 1994.