BMCR 2004.11.25

Documenting the Roman Army. Essays in Honour of Margaret Roxan

, , Documenting the Roman army : essays in honour of Margaret Roxan. Bulletin of the Institute of Classical Studies. Supplement ; 81. London: Institute of Classical Studies, School of Advanced Study, University of London, 2003. xvii, 204 pages : illustrations, portrait ; 25 cm.. ISBN 090058792X £45.00 (pb).

Military diplomata are an important source for the study not only of the Roman military, but also imperial administration, and society. Until the last quarter of the twentieth century they were of limited use, however, due to the dispersed nature of the evidence. Few individuals have done as much as Margaret Roxan to assemble the surviving documents and make diplomata accessible. The ten papers collected in this volume originated in a 2002 symposium in honor of Margaret Roxan (who passed away the following year). Readers expecting to find here a selection of papers devoted exclusively to Roman military diplomata will be disappointed, but that let-down should be temporary. Roxan focused most of her energy on diplomata, but taken as a whole her work demonstrates an interest in military documentation generally. It is no surprise, therefore, that the selection of papers reflects a broader view of documentation, with papers that discuss current work employing diplomata, funerary inscriptions, literary sources, and ostraca. This volume is not intended for general readers, as the papers assume specific knowledge regarding the Roman military, military records, and in some cases, previous work by the contributors. Scholars and graduate students can find plenty of material to mine from the contributions here.

In the first paper, “The Commissioning of Equestrian Officers,” A.R. Birley takes a prosopographical approach in a discussion of equestrian officers. In keeping with the theme of the conference, he begins with a name from the earliest diploma found in Great Britain and then proceeds to demonstrate how the use of various documentary sources can illuminate the situation during which this individual, and other equestrians like him, became officers. In the process, he also brings out a sub-theme of the conference. The conference is directly concerned with Roman military documents, but any discussion of military documentation must necessarily involve also the issue of imperial administration. Birley’s is the first of the papers to highlight the realities of imperial administration at various levels. While we sometimes think of (or even present) Imperial administration in terms that sound like a complex bureaucracy, Roman administration was absolutely under-bureaucratized and under-staffed, directed by men at all levels often reacting to situations as they arose.1 Birley’s lucid discussion illustrates how this under-developed administration was manifest in the military and provinces. His analysis is well supported by a lengthy appendix including all the texts to which he refers. The picture of second and third century Roman military promotions that Birley constructs is not entirely new, but it is presented with a concision and clarity that serves as an example.

The second paper, by D.B. Saddington, “An Augustan Officer in the Roman Army: Militaria in Velleius Paterculus and some inscriptions,” is a contribution to the continuing re-evaluation of Velleius as a source. Instead of attempting a wholesale examination, Saddington focuses his attention on Velleius’ use of specific terms for a fuller understanding of the Augustan military. The paper opens with some comparative prosopography in an attempt to elucidate Velleius’ description of his own career. Saddington’s examination is useful not only for its discussion of military terminology, but also for drawing attention to the use of specific language by a veteran officer to convey impressions of military service. Such narratives by veteran officers with extensive combat experience have become a commonplace in the modern world, but Velleius’ Roman History remains one of the few surviving examples from the Roman world. Although the discussion is primarily literary, Saddington anchors his discussion with military inscriptions. Syme’s verdict of “mendacity” may not have been set aside, but Saddington has pointed to an area in which Velleius’ contribution can be appreciated.2

Discussions of military documents inevitably draw upon funerary monuments. Lawrence Keppie concentrates on these documents in the third selection, “‘Having been a soldier’. The Commemoration of Military Service on Funerary Monuments of the Early Roman Empire.” His aim is to study the ways in which soldiers and officers commemorated their military service, and he refers to this as part of a continuing study. Instead of limiting his discussion to the inscriptions alone, he examines the form and style of funerary monuments, seeking to put them in their context. There is, however, more material available than can be treated fully in a paper of this scale. Keppie’s survey is helpful in that he makes some interesting observations, and as a whole it suggests an area worthy of more work. His conclusion, that the only visible pattern is an inconsistent use of locally established types, reinforces readers’ expectations and is a reminder to view these inscriptions within the context of their monuments. Keppie closes the paper with a cautionary reminder that not everyone chose to commemorate military service. His discussion must remain part of a continuing study and leaves the reader hoping that the results of the continuing survey will not be too long delayed in reaching publication.

Werner Eck handles an extraordinary number of diplomata and demonstrates how useful the exercise is in the third paper, “Der Kaiser als Herr des Heeres. Militärdiplome und die kaiserliche Reichsregierung,” (originally presented as “Diplomata and Imperial Government”). Instead of using the diplomata to elucidate features of the military, his aim is to demonstrate in a survey how the diplomata can be used as source for examining imperial administration. Eck begins with a discussion of ongoing work (including citations for much work both in progress and recently published) with diplomata as a preliminary to discussing the pattern of issues. He then proceeds to demonstrate a variety of ways in which the pattern of issues, their form and even the language can all be used, individually and in concert, to illuminate the nature of imperial administration. Eck finds evidence for rapid communications, official contractors, ad hoc adjustments, military discipline and loyalty, and some emperors’ individual treatment of the military. The picture that emerges is one that dovetails well with the impression given by Birley’s article of an administration that usually worked but was not typically proactive or heavily bureaucratized. Eck reminds the reader that in the end, the diploma is the physical evidence for the relationship between the emperor and the soldier. Eck’s discussion ends with a useful chart showing the years for which diplomata are known and the quantities.

Whereas Eck takes a broad look at the evidence, Slobodan Dusanic takes the opposite approach in the fourth contribution, “The Imperial propaganda of Significant Day-Dates: Two Notes in Military History.” In this contribution Dusanic argues that the dates found on military diplomata and constitutions are more complicated than they may at first appear. Roman manipulation of events to land on special day-dates was not limited to the religious and political record; the dates of such official military documents as diplomata and constitutions were often (if not always) selected with the intention of their coincidence with significant anniversaries and (more often) significant religious dates. Drawing on comparative evidence as well as diplomata, he then proceeds to demonstrate a variety of instances during the Antonine and Severan dynasties in which the dates of campaigns, diplomata, and constitutions coincide with significant day-dates. Such manipulation of the calendar is hardly surprising, but, as Dusanic points out, little has been made of the pattern in the military documents. He concludes by reminding the reader that while use of day-dates had obvious propaganda value, we must not assume that emperors thought of these significant dates as a sham. His discussion also demonstrates the value of diplomata for illustrating imperial administration.

The fifth contribution, “Auxiliary Deployment in the Reign of Hadrian” by Paul Holder, is an examination of how the discovered diplomata reveal deployments of auxiliaries throughout the empire. His discussion is primarily limited to Hadrian’s reign but is still lengthy and full. Each province is discussed in some detail as Holder summarizes the types and number of units that have been found through a combination of diplomata and other inscriptions. The extensive tables of units in each province are extremely helpful for those trying to reconstruct manpower and resource requirements (and the concomitant administrative demands) during part of the empire. Coverage includes all provinces, but in some cases those with associated garrisons are grouped together. Because Holder uses inscriptions to fill out garrison details, the tables do not always reflect the small number of diplomata recovered in some provinces. The tables are even more valuable to those working on military assignments because of the list of sources.

David Breeze focuses on Hadrian’s Wall in “Auxiliaries, Legionaries, and the Operation of Hadrian’s Wall.” In this short contribution Breeze examines the historiography of the manpower along the Wall and tries to draw a new conclusion. After reviewing the three traditional views regarding the origins of the men who manned the milecastles and turrets, he examines the available evidence. After a short discussion (which includes a list of the evidence) he concludes that the small amount of material supports a conclusion that auxiliaries and legionaries both served in the milecastles.

In a contribution that turns away from Europe, Valerie Maxfield focuses attention on Egypt in the seventh paper, “Ostraca and the Roman Army in the Eastern Desert.” Maxfield reviews the information available from recently excavated ostraca found in Egypt’s Eastern Desert. Her discussion illustrates how fruitful an area of inquiry it is turning out to be as a number of ostraca connected to the local garrison forces have come to light. Her discussion is subdivided into useful segments that provide a sense of the various types of evidence provided by ostraca, “Topography of the Desert Sites,” “Deployment of troops,” “The rank of commanding officers,” “The size of the desert garrisons,” “The overall composition of the population,” “The role of the army,” and “Military supplies.” In the excavations, ostraca outnumber every other form of documentation, playing a role similar to the tablets and shavings found at Vindolanda, Carlisle, and other Northern sites and revealing many details associated with daily life and military organization. The discussions of topography and military organization are useful, but Maxfield focuses most of her attention on the ways in which the ostraca illuminate various aspects of service unique to the local desert environment. The discussion of ostracan evidence for military interactions with civilians is valuable for understanding the nature of the military role in this area and for analyzing the society of the local military posts. In addition to all the information about military service, Maxfield’s discussion is another one that suggests to the reader the complex requirements placed on imperial administration and some of the ways in which these demands were met as they arose.

The eighth discussion in this collection, “Documenting the Roman Army at Carlisle,” takes a different approach to documenting the military. In a well-written essay R.S.O. Tomlin focuses attention on how informative the documents from one site, Carlisle, are by themselves. Among the many items Tomlin highlights are foodstuffs employed by the garrison. These appear both on ‘dipinti’ as well as on wood shavings. While the amphora records demonstrate types of food and the regions from which food was imported to northern England, it is the ‘official’ records associated with rations that are even more intriguing since they are the first from England which provide a good record of rations for men and horses of alae. The numbers provided are consistent with what would be expected, based on the limited evidence from Egypt. Tomlin demonstrates the diverse appeal of military documents like these records. Taken together these documents and others like them from Carlisle provide evidence for aspects of local military life, but they are also evidence for the economy of the empire, the economic impact of the military, and imperial administration. The second area on which Tomlin focuses attention is the variety of letters recovered here, as at Vindolanda. The thrust of the remaining discussion is on the way in which the documents emphasize the importance of the base at Carlisle, with attention paid to evidence for Agricola’s presence at the base and some specific examples of military terminology and organization not found before this early in the empire. Tomlin’s discussion provides a nice regional contrast to Maxfield’s and is well placed following it in the book.

The work ends with Peter Weiss’ closing comments, “The Future of Roman Military Diplomata — Fortschritte, Probleme und küntftige Aufbaden.” Besides the comments on Margaret Roxan’s distinguished contributions appropriate to the original venue, Weiss’ discussion focuses on the latest findings related to diplomata. He emphasizes the amount of material that is becoming available and some of the changes this wealth of material is causing. Weiss draws attention to a more open central Europe as a rich source of diplomata, but he does not ignore the associated problems including the art trade and forgeries. Since it was the conclusion of the conference his comments are necessarily limited in scope, but they provide a sense of the task ahead of those who try to manage the publication of diplomata.

Other parts of the book meet with mixed results. The opening section of the book is a useful bibliography of Margaret Roxan’s work. Also, a number of complete texts in Latin are provided, accompanied by English translations. The bibliographies provided with each contribution are helpful. Where maps appear (only in Valerie Maxfield’s contribution) they are clear, well labeled, and close to the discussion they are intended to complement.

The maps are also one of the elements that could have been better treated. The addition of several more maps would have been beneficial. The discussions of issues related to Hadrian’s Wall assume all readers are intimately familiar with the geography of the Wall. The inclusion of even one line-map of the Wall would have been immensely helpful and would save readers a trip to the nearest copy of the Barrington Atlas of the Classical World. The abbreviations list attached to each paper could have been consolidated in one central list at the beginning of the book, but more irritating is the inconsistent citation style among the papers. Some authors used footnotes while others employed parenthetical references. There is an index, but it is inconsistent, with some of the contributions better indexed than others. Given the price of the volume and the availability of software capable of handling the task, the index is a disappointment. There were some typographical errors: “comanders” for commanders (pg 7), a superfluous “of” (pg 35), and “women” for woman (pg 164). The price of the volume is the low point of the production. Costing in excess of $100 (US) in paperback binding with few illustrations, publishers priced the book for limited circulation at wealthier research libraries. In conclusion, the contributions as a whole properly honor Margaret Roxan’s career. While retaining a focus on documentation, the papers show the diversity of materials and approaches. Roman army specialists will find useful discussions, but interest in the papers must not be limited only to military specialists. Those not fortunate enough to work on some aspect of the Roman military will also find a great deal of interest in this collection of papers. The authors demonstrate that military documentation is a vigorous area of study with a growing body of evidence that must not be ignored by scholars working on other varieties of historical analysis (economic, social, administrative, etc.) of the Roman world. Indeed, a subtitle of the conference could have been ‘Imperial Administration as Reflected in Military Documentation.’


1. A model of the emperor presented in F. Millar, The Emperor in the Roman World (Ithaca, 1977).

2. R. Syme, “Mendacity in Velleius,” AJPh 99 (1978), 45-63 = Roman Papers III (1984) 1090-104. Cited also in Saddington’s article.