BMCR 2021.04.15

Camps, campaigns, colonies. Roman military presence in Anatolia, Mesopotamia, and the Near East

, Camps, campaigns, colonies. Roman military presence in Anatolia, Mesopotamia, and the Near East: selected studies. Philippika. Altertumswissenschaftliche Abhandlungen, contributions to the study of ancient world cultures, 138. Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz Verlag, 2020. Pp. 216. ISBN 9783447113816 €54,00.

Edward Dabrowa’s contributions to the field of study of the Roman Near East are numerous. From his seminal study on the governors of Syria[1] to investigations on the legions that operated along the Euphrates, Dabrowa has ushered in a picture of the Roman limes that teems with the energy of the military infrastructure, vibrantly populating the eastern provinces through the stories of those who lived, fought, and often perished in lands far away from their homes. It is apt then that the editors of the distinguished Philippika series solicited a collection of previously published essays by the Polish historian. To the scholar of the Roman East, this collating of articles may at first seem to follow the path of similar enterprises like Glen Bowersock’s 1994 Studies on the Eastern Roman Empire or Fergus Millar’s 2004 Rome, the Greek World, and the East, tributes to commanding figures that changed the discourse of the Roman East in fundamental ways. Rather than addressing overarching themes, Dabrowa focuses his analysis on the impact of the Roman army in the east and, more to the point, the physical presence of legions and the ensuing political and administrative adjustments. To that end, he uses a three-tiered approach, probing camps, campaigns, and colonies as factors that show how durable and consequential the presence of the eastern army was. From the outset the book is a compelling series of questions and problems that are central in the field.

The succinct first chapter on the Syrian army under Augustus and Tiberius is a bracing start for what turns out to be an analysis of murky textual sources as well as a disquieting lack of archaeological evidence. The unsung military operations under the Julio-Claudian emperors and the invisibility of the legions suggest the involvement of vassal kings and their units in defending the interests of the Roman state. The turning point, in Dabrowa’s opinion, was Germanicus’ appointment in the East and the probable scaling up of the military logistics to compete with a rising Parthia. Had their sites not been flooded by Turkish dams, Samosata and Zeugma (especially the former) would probably shed light on the materiality of the army in the early first century CE. Better dividends may be returned by reconsidering the role of Antioch on the Orontes, where the presence of a Campus Martius northeast of the island on the Orontes may have signaled the importance of the provincial capital, in tandem with massive building programs under Agrippa and Tiberius.

More concrete frameworks are offered in the following essay, “La garrison romaine à Doura-Europus,” where Dabrowa surveys the military camp within the built environment of the city on the Euphrates, highlighting its unique conglomerate of multiethnic actors, and, ultimately, the bond between civic and military authorities. He suggests that the establishment of the camp in the northern expanses of the city led to the displacement of previous settlers: “ceci (le camp) a entraîné l’expulsion des habitants.” It may not be so, as recently shown by James Simon.[2] All the same, the securing of colonial status in the early third c. CE led to the appearance of a new Semitic constituency that determined the economic fortunes of the garrison until its 256 CE demise, while also spurring social reconfiguration and the slow erosion of the Graeco-Macedonian aristocracy of old.

Section II of the book (“Campaigns”) opens with “…ostentasse Romana arma satis,” an essay that offers a timeline of campaigns and Roman-Parthian relations spanning the period from the events of 20 BCE, including the return of the military insignia, to the campaign of Vitellius, governor of Syria, in AD 36. The souring of the relationship between the emperors and Arsacid rulers, as well as the centrality of Syria as a base for far-flung campaigns into Armenia, once again promptsquestions about the logistics of these campaigns and the legions involved. What is more, Dabrowa delves into the general Roman perception of the Persian foe. His argument that the Parthians were portrayed as a weak opponent in Roman propaganda is disputable. The 19 BC dedication of the Parthian Arch in the Roman Forum, which is also celebrated by a host of denarii from Spain and a cistophorus from Pergamon, tells a different story.

The following two essays shift the focus to Judea and the long season of wars that culminated in the fall of Jerusalem in AD 70. At issue are the mobilization of the legions, their intersection with local communities, and, lastly, a topography of siege operations. Dabrowa takes on the long debated issue of the position of Titus’ military camp, placing it in the area of the New City north of the Second Wall. With “The Bellum Commagenicum and the ornamenta triumphalia of M. Ulpius Traianus” we encounter the remarkable figure of this legate, the father of the future emperor Trajan. A soldier, administrator, and engineer, he was a man whose achievements were celebrated by both the textual and epigraphic sources and who was instrumental in the building of the military infrastructure of Seleucia Pieria. Dabrowa focuses on the momentous days of the Fall of AD 73 when Traianus was hastily dispatched to Commagene to keep the Parthians in check. That this success led to the receipt of the highest military honors is the main thrust of the essay, thus offering a way forward in the discussion of Traianus’ chronology of accolades.  The section closes with a chronicle of the emperor Julian’s dramatic campaign of AD 363. Much ink has been spilled on the event: the controversial death of the emperor, the aftermath, the triumphant voice of the church fathers. Dabrowa surveys one of the most critical and yet under-studied issues of the whole enterprise, that is, the logistical support of the navy along the Euphrates as the legions marched deep into the heart of Sasanian territory. He argues convincingly that the furious pace of the campaign would not have been feasible without the impressive array of warships and cargo ships assisting the army.

Section III enters the nitty-gritty of colonies and their making, in particular, what is a post-Hadrianic colony in the Greek east, and was the “colony” denomination more than a mere honorific title. In “Colonial Coinage and Religious Life of Roman Colonies,” Dabrowa approaches the discussion from the religious standpoint, noting how military symbols and the iconography of the sacred were intertwined in the numismatic repertoire of Pisidian Antioch and Aelia Capitolina. Antioch’s depiction of the Phrygian god Mên Askaenos on countless issues, however, hardly gestures at the “romanization” of a local cult. The god’s eccentric visual display of worship on Antioch’s Karakuyu Hill, at variance with the great urban sanctuary of Augustus and Rome, rather document two independent, well defined religious foci that articulated life in Antioch. But one can only agree with Dabrowa’s emphasis on the durable allegiance of Antioch’s constituency to the military values that contributed to founding the colony itself. It needs to be added that Antioch’s emission of sesterces (and smaller denominations) in the 3rd c CE with the SR (Socia Romanorum) legend is a further celebration of the colonial legacy.[3]

“Les colonies honoraires ou les colonies de vétérans?” shifts the discussion to issues of numismatic iconography. Dabrowa marshals a vast and complicated array of patterns, types, and iconography, stressing the visual affinity between the repertoire of canonical veteran colonies and that of “honorific” colonies of the Severan age (Singara, Rhesaina, Tyre, Sidon, Caesarea-Arca, and Damascus). “Le vexillum sur les monnaies coloniales (IIe-IIIe s. ap. J.-C.)” segues into the incidence and meaning of the military standard, a symbol that traversed the whole history of Roman coinage. Here, Dabrowa considers whether the type, as struck on the coins of the “honorific” colonies, implied the presence of a military contingent. In so doing, the author convincingly argues that as late as the third century the legions and their veterans were still implicated in the making of colonies.

“Roman Military Colonization in Anatolia and the Near East (2nd-3rd c. AD)” braids several of the previous threads together while bringing into sharper focus the numismatic evidence of the individual honorific colonies, plus adding the case of Tyana, which landed the title of “colonia” under Caracalla.[4] “Les colonies et la colonisation romaine en Anatolie et au Proche-Orient (IIe-IIIe s. de n. è.)” reaffirms Dabrowa’s idea that post-Hadrainic colonies in the East still entailed land allocation for veterans, while also discussing the shifting landscape of veteran policies from the early to the late Roman empire. The following essay “La Legio III Gallica, la colonisation militaire et les Sévères” brings to the fore the role of a military unit that was critical to the establishment of colonies at Tyre and Sidon, while also deploying units at the veteran settlement at Acco-Ptolemais. In “Military Colonization in the Near East and Mesopotamia under the Severi,” Dabrowa discusses the spatial impact of the colonies, weighing in on potential centuriation in the Emesa region, and inquiring whether a program of land distribution ever occurred under the mandate of Alexander Severus, as the Historia Augusta would have us believe. Lastly, “Veterans and the Urban Policy of Roman Emperors” surveys almost two and a half centuries of veteran policies and their intersection with colonies, both east and west.

This is a volume that is redolent with erudition and knowledge of the Roman East, and the firm hand of the author walks us through a landscape of elusive colonies, military operations, and modest material evidence. The quibbles here are essentially two: first, the essays in Section III (Colonies) tend to often repeat points, concepts, and evidence. Second, the complete lack of maps and images is jarring. The volume would have benefitted enormously from maps illustrating the dissemination of third century colonies, for example, because even the most experienced specialist may have a problem locating Rhesaina and Singara in space. Further, the numismatic record of the colonies is the core evidence for eight essays, and the absence of illustrations makes the reading at times cumbersome. The lack of visual assistance is thus particularly regrettable. Lastly, a handful of typos went unnoticed in the copyediting process. All the same, this book is essential in advancing scholarly discourse about the Roman military in the east.


[1] Dabrowa, E. 1998. The Governors of Roman Syria from Augustus to Septimius Severus. Bonn: Habelt.

[2] Simon, J. 2019. The Roman Military Base at Dura-Europos, Syria: an Archaeological Visualization. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press.

[3] Nollé, J. 1995. “Colonia und Socia der Römer. Ein neuer Vorschlag zur Auflösung der Buchstaben ‹SR› auf den Münzen von Antiocheia bei Pisidien,” in: Rom und der Griechische Osten. Festschrift H.H. Schmitt zum 65. Geburtstag, Stuttgart: Steiner, 350-370.

[4] Incidentally, Antioch on the Orontes is conspicuously absent from the list, despite its being the third century CE military hub of the east. Its long history of colonial issues (AD 218-253), however, is the object of a seminal study by Kevin Butcher’s “The Colonial Coinage of Antioch-on-the-Orontes c.AD 218-53,” The Numismatic Chronicle 148, 63-75.