BMCR 2021.02.42

The Oxford handbook of the archaeology of Roman Germany

, , The Oxford handbook of the archaeology of Roman Germany. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2020. Pp. 656. ISBN 9780199665730 $145.00.

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

This handbook is a highly informative invitation to all classical archaeologists to explore recent analyses of the rich archaeological datasets available for the Roman Empire’s German provinces. The handbook thus foregrounds the efforts of Roman provincial scholars to further international collaboration in the study of individual provinces, in comparisons of the interactions that shaped life in adjacent and distant parts of the Empire, and in assessing how these interactions involved peoples outside the Empire’s borders. This volume has several strengths. Its chapters cover a wide range of topics and include plentiful examples of all kinds of archaeological finds from Roman Germany. Moreover, the thematic bibliographies that follow each chapter provide readers with multiple avenues for further research. Some chapters explicitly address current methodological and theoretical approaches in German-language scholarship on Roman Germany while others do so implicitly. In either case, each chapter provides insight into these approaches that will better allow interested parties to dive deeper into the handbook’s subject material. This review touches on these strengths and a few accompanying limitations primarily through a step-by-step overview of the handbook’s chapters.

Those who consult the handbook should start with James and Krmnicek’s introduction, which precedes Chapter 1. The editors’ introduction discusses the handbook’s parameters (geographical, thematic, chronological, methodological, and theoretical) and succinctly lays out its purposes. The introduction concludes with maps of modern Germany and the Roman provinces that included and bordered its territory. The reader will find these maps helpful references since the handbook’s authors refer extensively to modern Germany’s geographic regions and federal districts and Roman Germany’s northern border.

James and Krmnicek define the handbook’s conception of “Roman Germany” as the portions of the 1st – 3rd century AD provinces of Germania Inferior and Germania Superior that are in modern Germany. They also specify that interactions linking these provinces to Germania Magna/Barbaricum — the territory beyond the northern border of Roman Germany and thus extending well into modern Germany — receives significant attention in this volume. As the editors admit, however, the volume does not cover those parts of Upper and Lower Germany that are in France, Switzerland, Belgium, and the Netherlands. It also only partially addresses data from the portions of neighboring Gallia Belgica, Raetia, and Noricum that are located in Germany. The handbook’s geographical parameters are thus tailored to its purpose to offer foreign scholars and students, particularly those who work primarily with Anglophone scholarship, a greater awareness of the current research of some of Germany’s leading Roman archaeologists. The handbook could be of interest to the general public, as the editors hope, but its content presupposes a background knowledge of Roman archaeology and history. In its goal, the handbook follows the example of and succeeds a 1999 English overview of current German-language scholarship on Roman Germany.[1]

The 24 chapters that follow the editors’ introduction are helpfully but somewhat overwhelmingly divided into four parts (I-IV) and ten subsections (A-J). All these subdivisions are broad in theme and roughly chronological in order. The five chapters of Part I (“Prelude, Conquest, and Provincialisation”) orient readers to the effects that Roman emperors, generals, and armies had on the two German provinces’ native populations between the 1st century BC and 3rd century AD. Sievers’ Chapter 1 surveys architecture and artifacts from pre-Roman Iron Age settlements and cemeteries across modern Germany. In Chapter 2, Wolters covers literary and archaeological evidence for the formulation of Germania Inferior and Superior during Roman military campaigns in Augustus’ and Tiberius’ principates. Kortüm’s Chapter 3 reviews the forms of the variously sized military and civilian settlements that arose in Germania Superior; this chapter also investigates the lives of several large urban centers. In the next chapter, Hanel similarly explores the topographies of Germania Inferior’s two colonies and characterizes the province’s vici, industrial sites, and rural settlements. For a separate treatment of the rural landscapes in both Roman German provinces, however, the handbook’s readers need to look to Maurer’s detailed overview of seminal and recent scholarship on the subject in Part I’s final chapter.

Part II (“Core Provinces at the Edge of Empire”) takes a topical approach to life in Germania Inferior and Superior and to some extent in Raetia across seven chapters. Moosbauer’s Chapter 6 details the osteological, numismatic, and artifactual finds from the Kalkriese and Harzhorn battlefields. Additionally, this chapter ponders the meanings of these finds for activities at these sites during battles and at nearby settlements after fighting stopped. Kemkes includes a historiography of past study of the Upper German-Raetian limes in Chapter 7. He also lays out recent themes in studies of this dynamic frontier. In the next chapter, Biegert and Helfert discuss past study of 1st – 5th century AD pottery found across Germania Inferior and Superior. These authors highlight sites that were significant production centers and/or were important for establishing fine and coarse ware typologies. Wigg-Wolf’s Chapter 9 explores current thematic trends and theoretical concerns in the study of Roman imperial and locally-produced coinage that spread across the German provinces from the 1st century BC to the late 4th century AD. Höpken uses varied evidence in Chapter 10 to investigate the development of votive dedication, magic, and burial practices across Roman Germany in the same span of time. In Part II’s penultimate chapter, Matijević cautiously suggests a low rate of literacy (c. 5-10%) in Germania Superior and Inferior based on available evidence for writing, which is largely epigraphic. He contextualizes his discussion of literacy in general by exploring the kinds of written sources attested for other western provinces and Egypt (e.g. books, inscriptions, wooden tablets, and papyrus). The final chapter of Part II provides examples of forms of artistic expression found in the German provinces (e.g. reliefs, statues, and metalworking). In this chapter Busch and von Hesberg reflect on such images’ capacities to communicate ideas to those who interacted with them. Those interested in questions of self-representation in the Roman Empire’s provinces will find in Chapters 10-12 some consideration of how inhabitants of the two Germaniaeused religion, writing, and art, respectively, to articulate political and cultural identities.

The seven chapters of Part III (“The Transformation of Power”) examine changes in the material features of the Roman German provinces’ urban and rural landscapes between the 3rd and 8th centuries AD. The middle three chapters in particular consider the extent to which material evidence for conflict and peaceful interactions among inhabitants of either side of the German-Raetian limes attests to “Germanic” identities developing in Late Antiquity. Using epigraphic, archaeological, and numismatic evidence, Reuter in Chapter 13 concisely relates military activity along the German limes in the 3rd century AD (e.g. troop movements, fort maintenance, and Germanic raids and migrations). This chapter provides background for Konrad’s Chapter 14, which is rooted in crisis research. Konrad identifies various factors behind changes in urban and rural life in Upper and Lower Germany in the 3rd – 5th century AD. She also notably rejects the “fall and decline” paradigm long inherent to study of the Late Roman Empire. In Chapter 15, von Carnap-Bornheim effectively uses fragmentary evidence such as settlement patterns and assemblages of imported goods to present a diachronic and fairly cohesive picture of life in Barbaricum. Meyer’s Chapter 16 builds on Chapter 15’s discussion. Meyer examines a wide range of artifactual evidence for cross-cultural exchanges of practices between peoples in Germania Magna/Barbaricum and the Roman German provinces. Such practices include craft techniques, burial rites, and military organization. Chapter 17 explores significant changes in settlements, cemeteries, and military facilities between the Main and Rhine rivers and Danube river valley in Late Antiquity. Theune’s discussion overlaps with those of the previous two chapters. Theune, however, focuses on the 4th and 5th centuries AD and critically interrogates possible material evidence for a unified “Germanic” identity emerging at this time. Fehr’s Chapter 18 smoothly follows Theune’s chapter in chronology and theme. Fehr presents archaeological data that illustrates the transformation of the Late Roman provinces Germania Prima, Germania Secunda, and Maxima Sequanorum into medieval kingdoms between the 5th and 8th century AD. He also reviews past scholarship on the subject. Heising similarly offers an overview of modern scholarship on Roman Germany at the beginning of Chapter 19. While a bit out of place thematically, this historiography does follow Fehr’s chapter chronologically by addressing study of Germany’s Roman past in the Middle Ages, Renaissance, and the modern period Heising’s chapter helpfully orients readers to past, present, and possible future trends in German scholars’ thematic and methodological approaches to Roman provincial studies.

Lastly, Part IV (“External Perspectives and Final Thoughts”) offers constructive critiques of the handbook by non-German Roman provincial archaeologists. In Chapter 20, Roymans presents a Dutch perspective on current trends in German Roman provincial scholarship. This chapter is particularly noteworthy as a hard-hitting but quite accurate assessment of this handbook’s strengths and limitations. Reddé delivers a French perspective on the volume in Chapter 21. Like Roymans, he calls for greater emphasis in future German scholarship on rural landscapes in Roman Germany and on connections between Rome’s German and Gallic provinces. Written from a British point-of-view, Haynes’ appraisal of current German scholarship on Roman Germania in Chapter 22 touches on a wide range of points. These include a comparison of German and British approaches to frontier studies, a critique of German Romanists’ continued reliance on the paradigm of “Romanization,” and reflection on the challenge of using material evidence to track migration across the Empire’s borders. Chapter 23 is different than the previous three chapters in that it largely critically treats current trends in classical archaeology education and research at institutions in the US and Canada. Like Chapters 20-22, however, Kiernan does end with proposals for deeper collaboration between North American and German Roman provincial archaeologists. The final chapter by Fischer succinctly draws together the thematic, methodological, and theoretical threads that run through the volume. Part IV thus explicitly represents the goal of the handbook’s contributors to further international engagement with German-language scholarship on the Roman Empire’s German provinces.

The handbook’s editors and authors work successfully to counter two main barriers to this goal. One barrier is that of language. As the editors stress in their introduction, the handbook is a direct answer to the increasing inability and/or reticence of native English speakers who study the Roman Empire (students and scholars alike) to read scholarship in German. The rich archaeological datasets presented in this volume certainly do stand to incentivize an Anglophone audience to either learn German or refresh their knowledge of it in order to participate in the work of German Roman provincial scholars.

The other barrier the handbook helps its readers navigate is the different approaches that German and Anglophone research on the Roman provinces take to theory and its application to archaeological data. That being said, some Anglophone Roman provincial archaeologists may be disappointed to find that discussion of different theoretical approaches is muted throughout the volume. As the editors acknowledge, Part IV holds the most direct discussion of theoretical currents in recent German scholarship on Rome’s German provinces. However, theoretical considerations are by no means absent earlier. They are taken in stride here and there among the rich datasets covered in Parts I-III’s chapters. Authors in Parts II and III, for example, commonly acknowledge the artificiality of and imperialist bias behind identity categories like “Roman” and “German.” Furthermore, these authors seek to interrogate historical and archaeological evidence more cautiously when investigating the articulation of identity among those who lived on both sides of the German frontier. In the end, the infrequent discussion of theory in the handbook may lead a reader to feel that some chapters could have been more analytical. At the same time, however, this deficiency should motivate readers to apply their preferred theoretical models to the plentiful data presented in the handbook’s chapters and the works in their bibliographies.

Critiques aside, this volume is an invaluable primer and call to action for all Roman archaeologists who want to engage with current, mostly German-language research on the Roman German provinces, Upper German-Raetian limes, and Germania Magna/Barbaricum.

Authors and titles

List of Contributors
Editors’ Introduction
, Simon James and Stefan Krmnicek
Part I Prelude, Conquest, and Provincialisation
A. Occupation and Consolidation
1. The Lands of Germania in the Later Pre-Roman Iron Age, Susanne Sievers
2. Emergence of the Provinces, Reinhard Wolters
B. Creating a Provincial Landscape
3. Archaeology of Germania Superior: Urban Settlements, Klaus Kortüm
4. Archaeology of Germania Inferior: Urbanization, Norbert Hanel
5. Roman Rural Landscape Occupation in Present-Day Germany: An Overview, Thomas Maurer
Part II Core Provinces at the Edge of Empire
C. Wars and Frontiers
6. Roman Battlefields in Germany: Kalkriese and Harzhorn, Günther Moosbauer
7. The Limes, Martin Kemkes
D. An Integrated Economy
8. Roman Pottery Research in Germany, Susanne Biegert and Markus Helfert
9. Coinage and Money in the Roman Rhineland, David Wigg-Wolf
E. Constituting Provincial Identity
10. Religion, Cult, and Burial Customs in the German Provinces, Constanze Höpken
11. Writing and Literacy/Illiteracy, Krešimir Matijević
12. Provincial Art, Alexandra W. Busch and Henner von Hesberg
Part III The Transformation of Power
F. Crisis of the Third Century
13. ‘Vi barbarorum absumptam’: A Military History of Roman Germany during the Third Century AD, Marcus Reuter
14. Crisis Research in a Civil Context, Michaela Konrad
G. Germani and Rome
15. The Germani and the German Provinces of Rome, Claus von Carnap-Bornheim
16. Roman Cultural Influence in Western Germania Magna, Michael Meyer
17. Transformations in the Roman West: The Case of the Alamanni, Claudia Theune
H. After Rome
18. The Transformation into the Early Middle Ages (Fourth to Eighth Centuries), Hubert Fehr
19. Reception and History of Research in the Roman Provinces of Germany, Alexander Heising
Part IV External Perspectives and Final Thoughts
I. The Foreign Commentaries
20. The Archaeology of Roman Germany: A Dutch Perspective, Nico Roymans
21. Roman Germania? What Germania?, Michel Reddé
22. Germanies, Britains, and the Roman World, Ian Haynes
23. Roman Germany and Provincial Archaeology: The North American Perspective, Philip Kiernan
J. Final Word
24. Concluding Remarks on the Handbook of the Archaeology of Roman Germany, Thomas Fischer


[1] Creighton and Wilson, eds. Roman Germany: Studies in Cultural Interaction (JRA Supplement 32). Portsmouth, RI: Journal of Roman Archaeology, 1999.