BMCR 2020.04.52

The Roman military base at Dura-Europos, Syria: an archaeological visualisation

, The Roman military base at Dura-Europos, Syria: an archaeological visualisation. . Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2019. xxxiii, 345 p.. ISBN9780198743569 $175.00.

Since its “discovery” exactly one hundred years ago, the site of Dura-Europos (Syria) has loomed large in narratives of society, culture, religion, and military on the eastern edge of Rome’s empire. If the site is not quite the “Pompeii of the Syrian Desert” that Mikhail Rostovtzeff trumpeted it to be, Dura has become the type-site for the dynamics of a medium-sized provincial town in the Roman East, and for Roman army-civilian interactions in the region. The Hellenistic/Arsacid city fell under Roman control in 165 CE, and came to house a major Roman military base whose facilities were inserted into the fabric of the earlier Parthian town, at least until the site faced siege(s) and abandonment(s) in the 250s CE. The largest portions of the site were excavated between 1928 and 1937, and the results mostly published in a substantial series of Preliminary Reports. These were exactly what they professed to be: preliminary. Uncertainties and questions remained among the original excavators, and some excavated areas were largely (or wholly) ignored in print. Still, the partial narratives the Preliminary Reports crafted around and freighted upon the site’s archaeology have had remarkable (and problematic) longevity in shaping understanding of the site, its significance, and images of military-civilian interactions in the Roman East.

Simon James’ new account of the base and its community—in many ways the Final Report envisaged by the excavators but never written—shows just how problematic those preliminary narratives are. Drawing on archival data and new fieldwork to reassess the archaeology of the military presence at Dura, James not only makes novel and compelling arguments about interpretation of the site, but fundamentally transforms and remakes the archaeological record of Dura itself. The present volume should become the foundation and the model for subsequent work on Dura, and a guide for using legacy archaeological data to achieve substantial new results.

Three related historical arguments sit at the heart of the book. First, the Roman military presence at Dura was much more substantial—spatially and demographically—than is often assumed. Instead of occupying a walled area in the northwestern corner of the Parthian city (from approximately the city wall to the amphitheater), a distinctly military zone covered the entire area from this partially walled section to the northeastern edge of the Durene plateau, then stretched down along the Wadi Ascent Road to cover a large area of the wadi floor below, with blocks of earlier buildings and even the Hellenistic citadel converted to housing for the military. With familiae and servants, the extended military community formally occupied almost 30% of the earlier city, and may have compromised between 3,000 and 6,000 people.

Second, this large military community was in place at least a generation earlier than the excavators (and most subsequent commentators) have assumed: there was a major military presence that reshaped life and the urban topography of the city from at least the 180s CE (if not earlier). There was no sudden and traumatic expansion of the garrison around 211 CE, as the excavators thought; rather, the building program of c. 211 simply formalized the contours of the base with the “camp wall” and added new facilities like the principia (the excavators’ “Praetorium”), one of the few epigraphically datable fixed-points in the phasing of the base. Much of this earlier dating for a substantial military presence is predicated upon James’ new analysis of the E3 Bath, and its physical or inferred connections with other features across the military zone. The bath had already been built and then almost entirely rebuilt on a new alignment before construction of the principia(c. 211). The bath’s physical relationship to a piped water-main allows inferences about dating the program of hydraulic infrastructure and other bath buildings across the site. The bath at F3, for example, similarly underwent at least two phases of construction before being supplied by that water-main, and ultimately went out of use by 216 CE (another epigraphic fixed-point). In other words, a large swathe of Dura saw new structures probably related to a new military population and its bathing practices much earlier than previously thought. Coupled with papyrological evidence and the seemingly early conversion of several blocks of houses to military accommodation, James makes a compelling case for the military takeover of a significant portion of the city at a much earlier date than previously acknowledged. New work on the phasing and construction techniques of the Dura mithraeum might continue to push the date of a major transformation of the city and its population even earlier, to the late 160s.[1] The early dating for substantial military construction at Dura also renders recent arguments about Palmyra filling a power vacuum along the Euphrates between 165 and the late second century CE moot.[2] And the updated chronology also lets James trace diachronic change within the base in finer detail, including a notable increase of control over access to different spaces within the base and its buildings.

Third, James argues that construction of the base and its facilities reflects an official policy of seeking a measure ofconcordia with the local community of Durenes, even if the reality of lived experience was far more complex. The construction of a mudbrick “camp wall” separating part of the base from the city respected previous civil property lines; the military apparently acquired two houses in the northern part of Block K5, demolished parts of them for the wall and a small gap left between them and civilian houses left standing in the southern part of the block, and then inserted military accommodation into the reduced space left available. Similarly, military construction not only seemed to respect and preserve earlier sanctuaries, but also facilitated access to temples swallowed up by the base: the odd placement of an arch at F/10th St seems designed to channel civilian processions towards Dura’s Temple of Azzanathkona. James also makes a novel argument for a group of rooms adjacent to the principia in E7 but inaccessible from it: he suggests that these rooms formed the naos of an earlier Durene temple (James suggests the unlocated but epigraphically attested Temple “of Alexander and Epinicus”) whose courtyard was appropriated for the principia, preserved but re-oriented: another mark of the military attempting to respect at least the most sacred portions of earlier shrines. Last, James notes that some of the leisure buildings constructed by (and perhaps at least partially for) the military community may also have extended their amenities to Dura’s civilian population, including the amphitheater at the edge of the camp and the luxurious C3 Bath in the Lower Town.

While building a more nuanced archaeological understanding of the relations between military and civilian communities at Dura is one of the goals of the work, James’ focus is squarely on the military’s impact on Dura: the army is his main historical agent. James thoughtfully considers the effects of the garrison on daily life at Dura—everything from the noisy marking of army time to control of passage through the city gates—and the social changes documented in the third century, including the seeming disappearance of Dura’s ruling family. Yet relationships are always two-sided; James’ new account of the nature and timing of military presence demands reconsideration of the ways that reconfigured power structures at Dura might have re-shaped life and practices within the wider city not as impact, but as creative response. This volume demands an equally detailed, archaeologically sensitive re-analysis of the other two thirds of the city; fortunately, James offers a methodological model for how such a study might progress.

After all, the value of the present work lies not only in these wider historical arguments, but in the way that James carefully remakes the very archaeological basis for those claims. His discussion of every building and block at the finest resolution possible—often room-by-room for excavated areas—allows for him to craft fundamental arguments about phasing and the use of individual spaces that correct a number of archaeological “facts” put forward by the original excavators or subsequent work. Nearly every claim made in the Preliminary Reports is subjected to scrutiny and evaluated, from the purpose of water-pipes in a bath to arguments about absolute chronology. New, detailed plans of each area and block in the base—crafted by adjudicating among sometimes conflicting unpublished archival drawings, original published plans, and the author’s own total-station survey of parts of the site—will render the plans in the Preliminary Reports nearly obsolete.

James’ work on the military zone demonstrates both the need and potential for full re-analysis of legacy data from Dura and other sites with similar excavation histories. It offers a methodologically robust paradigm for doing so, whose value is apparent from the way James is able to re-write the history and archaeology of Roman-controlled Dura. This is an auspicious opening to mark the centenary of Dura studies, and a model starting point for reevaluating one of the most important archaeological sites in the Roman East.


[1] L. Dirven & M. McCarty, “Rethinking the Dura-Europos Mithraeum: Diversification and Stabilization in a Mithraic Community,” in M. McCarty & M. Egri (eds), The Archaeology of Mithraism (Leuven), forthcoming.

[2] T. Kaizer, “Empire, Community, and Culture on the Middle Euphrates: Durenes, Palmyrenes, Villagers, and Soldiers,” BICS 60 (2017): 63-95.