When Edith Wightman in 1985 published Gallia Belgica,1 she created in many ways the definitive account for the history for the provinces of Gallia Belgica and Germania Inferior. Twenty-six years later the book is still indispensable, but in view of the large number of archaeological interventions in the five modern countries covered by these provinces (Belgium, France, Germany, Luxembourg and the Netherlands), an updated version is very much needed. Some of this can be found in the RGZM’s Transformation web site, at least as far as the province of Germania Inferior is concerned, but a print version is so far lacking. Jona Lendering’s and Arjen Bosman’s title, which translates roughly as The Edge of Empire. The Romans in the Low Countries, intends to fill this gap, focusing on the Dutch and Flemish speaking parts of the former provinces.
The book offers in 12 well-written chapters a detailed history of the provinces from the Iron Age to the mid-sixth century AD. Reflecting recent changes in our understanding, it sees the rise of the Frankish kingdoms as very much influenced by and the direct result of the history of Germania Inferior and Gallia Belgica from the third century onwards, rather than as a separate historical phase distinct from the preceding Roman empire.
The book is a reworking of a 10-year-old book by Jona Lendering, De Randen van de aarde. De Romeinen tussen Schelde en Eems (The edge of the world. The Romans between Schelde and Ems), this new version attempts to take more account of the substantial archaeological evidence known from the area. The division of the text betrays the book’s origin as an historical account: five of the 12 chapters five are largely dependent on events attested in literature, and include long translations of the first-century sources, of necessity mostly Tacitus. Here archaeology frequently takes second place, sometimes offering little but sources of illustration. After the end of the Batavian revolt and the loss of Tacitus as a historical source the account relies more on the archaeology as main source and on Arjen Bosman’s skills in selecting the most interesting material. The information is kept general, focusing on overall trends and developments, rather than on regional differences or problems of the archaeological records or regional patterns. Interspersed are some very good introductions into the possibilities and limitations of the various sources.
The book ends with a list of rulers, a list of legions on the Rhine north of Mainz and a list of museums worth visiting, as well a one-page list of literature, and the usual thanks and acknowledgements, indexes and sources quoted. At just over 300 pages it is very clear that De rand van het Rijk is no real replacement for Edith Wightman’s account.
However, to leave it at this would do the book a major disservice. Athenaeum – Polak & Van Gennep is not a publisher of academic volumes, but bridges the gap between university-based research and the general public. Hence the language is Dutch, which these days is only rarely used in the Netherlands to publish books intended for international academic audiences. On the other hand Athenaeum is justifiably popular with the general public and academics alike for its impressive layouts and high quality illustrations. The current book is no exception, and the mostly high quality photographs are likely to find their way into many teaching portfolios and digital presentations of academic lectures.
In addition Jona Lendering, who is to most readers more familiar as the webmaster and editor behind the livius.org webpage, is a historian with a mission, which is to bring historical teaching to a wider audience, be it by writing books, web pages or in the form of Livius Onderwijs, an adult continuing education organisation that offers history courses all over the Netherlands and parts of Flemish speaking Belgium. In this context De rand van het Rijk has its niche. It offers newcomers to the topic an excellent overview and source collection, accompanied by numerous photographs. It would also work well as a text book for shorter introductory courses on the topic and it can hardly be a surprise to find that it won the 2011 prize of the Dutch Classical Association (NKV).
As such I would recommend the book to teachers and students in the continuing education sector, as well as to first year students, who might find Edith Wightman as an introductory text challenging. I also hope that Athenaeum might soon find its way to an English translation, to allow for a wider distribution.
1. Edith Mary Wightman, Gallia Belgica (London: Batsford and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1985).