What was the purpose of the Roman frontiers? It seems a simple enough question and one might think that the answer ought to be equally simple, yet many years of scholarship have failed to reach a consensus. Indeed some more pessimistic investigators feel that we may never be able to arrive at an answer.
David Breeze thinks otherwise. He begins with a survey of the sources available to us, along with historical background. The larger part of the book considers the nature of the frontiers themselves, whether constructed linear barriers, walls, palisades & ditches, or making use of natural boundaries in the form of rivers, deserts, mountains, the sea and even forests, marshes and swamps. Breeze notes that our understanding is variable due to differing levels of archaeological research around the various parts of the frontier, and he furthermore confesses that his coverage of some areas in this book is not complete, such as the later defences of the Julian Alps and the long walls of Thrace, as well as the Great Hungarian Plain and at Galati in Romania. The book nevertheless provides a useful overview of the variety of forms, features and structures employed.
The third and final part discusses the interpretation of the evidence, finally addressing the question of purpose. Was it really to defend against attacks by large armies? Well it's historically clear that this was spectacularly unsuccessful if that was indeed its purposes. Was it to defend against smaller scale raiding? Was it (as seems to be an obligatory reason given for anything by historians these days) a "statement of power", a prestige construction to impress foreigners with the might of Rome? Perhaps a deterrence? Was it part of a "Grand Strategy"? Was it to control flow of population movement into the empire? Or even the opposite, a kind of ancient "Berlin Wall" to prevent escape? Was it economic in nature to control flow of goods one or both ways, or for taxation purposes?
Breeze concludes by declaring his own opinion, seeing a multi-level operation in place of some defence against larger scale attacks, the capability to deal with smaller scale brigandage, and a tertiary level of control of population movement. Research is of course ongoing, but the overall message Breeze wants to leave us with is that there's no reason for pessimism when it comes to attempts to discover the function of the frontiers.
David J. Breeze is an Honorary Professor at the universities of Durham, Edinburgh and Newcastle. He is the author of several books about Roman history, including Hadrian's Wall (Penguin History) (with Brian Dobson, 4th edition, 2000) and The Antonine Wall (2006).
His book about the frontiers of imperial Rome is based on ancient literary sources, archaeological objects and modern scholarship. The text is divided into three major parts. Here is a brief overview:
* Part I: Sources - chapters 1-6 * Part II: The Frontiers - chapters 7-13 * Part III: Interpretation - chapters 14- 20
At the end of the book we find the following five items: Conclusions - Further Reading - Sites to See - Notes - Index.
The illustrations are numerous and well-chosen. There are 48 black-and-white illustrations (maps and drawings). In addition, there are 28 plates with photos printed on special paper in the middle of the book. Most photos are in colour.
In the introduction the author explains what his book is about: "The vital questions at the heart of this book are therefore: how did Roman frontiers operate and what were their purpose and role?"
He adds that his book is not about Roman emperors, not about Roman foreign policy, and not about the Roman army: "The focus is firmly on the frontier installations themselves."
He hopes his readers will be encouraged to visit some of the sites mentioned in the book: "The remains of Roman frontiers are best seen and understood in their topographical settings even though these have been modified over the last 2,000 years."
I agree with him. You may learn a lot from a book about an ancient site. But you will learn more, if you combine the reading with a visit to the site.
I like this book. I like the systematic approach and the helpful illustrations. It is interesting, but there are many flaws. For reasons of space I can only mention some of them here:
(1) The author has a problem with the first Jewish rebellion against the Roman Empire: on page 18 he refers to "the Jewish War of 68-70." But on page 146 he talks about "the Jewish War of 66-73."
(2) The author has a problem with the Batavian Revolt, which was led by Julius Civilis: on page 25 it is placed "in the late 60s." On page 92 he talks about "the revolt of Civilis 69/70." On page 95 he says it broke out 69/70. On page 189 he gives only one year: 70. But on page 207 it is extended: 69-71.
(3) The author has a problem with the Dacian wars: on page 103 we are told they took place in 101-102 and 105-106, which is correct. But on page 84 he says they took place in 101-103 and 105-106.
(4) The author has a problem with Valerian: on page xvi we are told he ruled 253-259, but Valerian ruled until he was captured in 260, and the author knows it. On page 120 he writes: "The Emperor Valerian was captured in 260."
(5) The author has a problem with Hadrian's Wall: two times (pp. 4 and 62) he claims the wall was 130 km, which is not true. On page 62 he says it was 80 Roman miles, which is true. Since 1 Roman mile = 1.476 km, it follows that the wall was 118 km. On page 4 he says it was 74 miles, which is true. But the figure 130 km is still wrong. Later (page 105) he claims 130 km = 80 miles, which is not true either, because 130 km = 81 miles.
(6) The author has a problem with the Antonine Wall: two times (pp. 4 and 71) we are told the Antonine Wall was half as long as Hadrian's Wall, which is true. On page 71 he says it was 40 Roman miles, which is true. By his own logic, he should claim it was 65 km (half of 130 km), but he does not. He says it was 60 km, which is not true either. It was 59 km (half of 118 km).
(7) The author has a problem with the Battle of Mons Graupius: on pp. 144 and 182 we are told it took place in 83. But on page 148 he says it took place in 84. The date of this battle is uncertain. It happened in 83 or 84.
(8) At the end of the book Breeze discusses the purpose of the Roman frontiers and the frontier installations. On page 205 he sums up by giving three answers. The purpose was to:
* Defend the empire against large scale attacks * Prevent small-scale raids * Control the movement of people and goods
John C. Mann and others have suggested that Hadrian's Wall was a symbol of power built to impress and intimidate the people on the other side of the border. Ramesses II of Egypt made a similar statement when he built his famous rock temples at Abu Simbel. Mann is quoted on page 204. In my opinion, his interpretation makes sense. Breeze admits (on page 210) that the wall is "larger and grander than what was strictly necessary," but having said this he still rejects Mann's idea: "Roman frontiers had a purpose more related to practical considerations than symbolism."
The British scholar Simon James believes an important reason for building Hadrian's Wall was to keep the soldiers busy and to keep them out of trouble for a while [see his book Rome & the Sword: How Warriors & Weapons Shaped Roman History pp. 159 and 170]. In my opinion, this suggestion is highly credible, but it is not considered - not even mentioned - by Breeze.
I have informed the publisher about the flaws. I hope they will not be repeated, if there is a second edition or a paperback version of the book.
A book, which as the author suggests, try to generate a synopsis on the Roman frontiers; at my advice it does more than that especially by putting together the archaeological evidence, which until today, has always been considered in "bits", depending on the frontier, without generating an overall picture.
A good book for this who would like to deepen their knowledge on Roman Empire frontiers!