Saturday, January 21, 2012


Olivier Hekster, Ted Kaizer (ed.), Frontiers in the Roman World: Proceedings of the Ninth Workshop of the International Network Impact of Empire (Durham, 16-19 April 2009). Impact of Empire, 13. Leiden; Boston: Brill, 2011. Pp. xi, 378. ISBN 9789004201194. $178.00.

Reviewed by Everett L. Wheeler, Duke University (

Version at BMCR home site

Table of Contents

In the shadow of Hadrian's Wall two congresses of 2009 discussed Roman frontiers: an "Impact of Empire" workshop at Durham in April, here reviewed, and the XXIst International Congress of Roman Frontier Studies at Newcastle in August, whose acta remain in limbo.1 Both groups—in theory at least—espouse an interdisciplinary approach to frontier studies, although recent Limes Congresses have largely forsaken their original multi-disciplinary roots for a predominantly archaeological approach. Epigraphers and historians are now rarities, contrary to the intentions of that congress's "founding fathers." The Durham workshop's published program featured 35 presentations, promising a varied program potentially of greater interest than that of the Newcastle group, but only 20 of those papers appear in the volume. Expectations of enlightenment are largely unfulfilled. Four of the 20 papers (Richardson, Hilali, Vervaet, Foubert) essentially excerpt or recycle larger works already in print or soon to appear. Three of the four papers with detailed geo-political aspects of frontiers (Hilali on North Africa, Strobel on Alpine passes, Lewin on the southern theater of the Near East) lack maps—an absurdity that the editors should have corrected.

The Newcastle group, however, knows what a frontier is; the Durham workshop is unsure. The Durham editors discern five categories of papers, specified only in the Preface without formal division of the contents into parts: first, changes in language reflecting changes in mentality (Richardson, Drijvers, Benoist); second, consequences of provincial borders for inhabitants of the borderlands (da Costa, Nappo/Zerbini, Hingley/Hartis, Hilali, Schörner); third, religious activity (Grijalvo, Lozano, Dirven, Evers); fourth, shifting frontiers (Strobel, Lewin, Vervaet, Ñaco de Hoyo et al., Cosme); and fifth, people crossing frontiers (Nicols, Verboven, Foubert). Geographical coverage includes the southern theater of the Near East (Dirven, Lewin), Palestine/Arabia (da Costa), Egypt (Nappo/Zerbini), North Africa (Hilali, Evers), the Alpine region (Strobel), the Lower Rhine (Cosme), Britain (Hingley/Hartis), and the Aegean (Ñaco de Hoyo et al.). Missing are the Middle and Lower Danube, the Black Sea and the Caucasus, Anatolia, and the Euphrates north of Syrian Sura—a rather large hole in the Empire's borders.

Fashionably, the Durham workshop emphasizes the multiple types of "frontier." Religious, cultural, administrative, economic, and ideological boundaries are considered in addition to the geo-political-military demarcations associated with the Newcastle group. Thus the editors (vii), whose logic escapes this reviewer, assert the self-evident relevance of all papers to the workshop's theme and abstain from defining "frontier"—an attempt to render coherent an incoherent collection. Ñaco de Hoyo et al. on the conflicts of elites and demos within Greek cities during the Mithridatic wars, Verboven on collegia of resident aliens in Roman ports, and Foubert on wives accompanying husbands in provincial service, although the latter two offer interesting papers, dubiously manipulate the word "frontier."2 In contrast, Benoist's musings on extensions of the pomerium and the Empire's universal pretensions ponder borders without mustering a scholarly argument. Evers's astute treatment of the Donatist controversy, valuably assessing the archaeological evidence, overthrows some current interpretations. Yet does this paper really belong in a volume of frontier studies, where its import may be lost to posterity? Does the shotgun approach to a conceptual study of "frontier" yield progress?

The fashion for expanding conferences on frontiers from geo-political and military aspects, the Limes Congress model, to inclusion of any type of "frontier" dates at least to the mid-1990s with a Late Roman frontiers conference at the University of Kansas.3 Here "end of Empire" issues involving territory could be combined with questions of periodization and transformation of culture, thus obscuring the subtext of Late Antique specialists' justifying their claim to study of a distinct period. In theory, treating the universal concept of frontier should produce results relevant to geo-political borders for the traditional Limesforscher. The geo-political sense of frontier is, after all, its basic meaning; other usages reflect metonymy or metaphor. Admittedly the universal approach generates more varied themes, but results in discussions of apples and oranges without advancement in the study of fruit, particularly as such collections of papers rarely pinpoint what progress in study of the universal concept has occurred or how such "progress" improves understanding of geo-political borders. The absence of such conclusions in this volume and others is significant.

An alleged "discovery" in the 1990s that a frontier is really a zone of interaction and not a line, with a now hackneyed berating (explicit or implied) of the Limes Congresses, misrepresents Limesforschung and what its practitioners really believe(d).4 Such views, reasserted in several papers of this collection, essentially beat a dead horse. The semantic quagmire of distinguishing frontier, border, boundary, etc, whether in English (both American and British) or other languages, should not obscure that students of borderlands have always found them interesting because of their mixture of cultures and Roman efforts to deal with other states or non-Roman populations on both sides of the Romans' "fence," if one was erected. Attribution to Limesforscher of a belief in a frontier exclusively as a "line" is a gross exaggeration and ignores attention to religion, trade, and daily life in many Limes Congress acta. After all, the Limes Congresses (begun in 1949 and to be continued in Bulgaria in 2012), one of the oldest periodic conventions in ancient studies, inspired the universal approach, which cannot divorce itself from geo-political aspects. A current scholarly impatience, however, to understand the "why" of frontiers should not marginalize military concerns of Roman frontiers, of which the material remains are legitimate objects of historical, epigraphic, and archaeological study. It can be conceded, however, that Limes Congress acta too often present preliminary excavation reports instead of reflections on broader issues.

Two papers from the Durham workshop relate to this discussion. The debate of line vs. zone underlies Drijvers's discussion of the word limes in Ammianus Marcellinus, whereby yet another nail is driven in the coffin of Isaac's view that limes denoted a Late Roman administrative district, not a fortified line. Not all of Drijvers's concessions to Isaac's point for the plural limites are indisputable. Even the word's plural can be ambiguous. He does show that Ammianus could use the singular limes for a fortified border and even river frontiers. The point, however, is not as novel as the author's apparent ignorance of the relevant bibliography supposes. Isaac's views were already disputed.5 Hingley and Hartis, in all the obtuse jargonese of the now modish theoretical archaeology, and inspired by current hairsplitting about Roman identity, suggest that Hadrian's Wall should be seen as a confession of Roman defeat, a failure to incorporate properly the natives of central and northern Britain. The authors rightly assert that new details about the Wall's construction will not explain why the Wall was built, although they omit that modifications to the Wall over time can reveal changes in policy. Curiously, the authors' contextualization of the Wall in a lack of Roman materials found in civilian sites to the south, from which they infer the natives' non-acculturation, ignores that the Wall's erection followed hostilities requiring the dispatch of additional forces to Britain.6 Nor can it be demonstrated that Hadrian conducted the type of demographic and socio-economic survey of the area their view assumes, unless it be conjectured that construction of the Wall was a local decision without the emperor's input. Debate about the why of the Wall will continue.

Only two papers (besides Verboven) exploit documentary sources. Nicols briefly surveys the practice of hospitium, especially as seen in tessarae and tabulae from Western provinces, and notes that hospitality and patron/client relationships were not mutually exclusive, although precise details remain unclear. Nappo and Zerbini examine the post of quintanesis in the ostraca from Berenike. The existence of this post (civilian or military), collectors of the quintana, a tax on merchants within a Roman military camp, leads to the suggestion that the Eastern Desert of Egypt, within which the quintana was paid, was perceived as a collective military zone. Their endorsement of a favorite argument of papyrologists that administrative practices in Egypt reflect the Roman norm rather than an exception seems, however, contradicted by the presence of arabarchs, a Ptolemaic institution, responsible for supervising external trade and collecting taxes. No other province would have arabarchs.

Space permits only brief assessment of other noteworthy papers. Da Costa suggests that circulation of local pottery can be used to determine the location of provincial borders. Her case may work for her example of Palaestina Secunda and Arabia, an area of recent intense fieldwork, but general application elsewhere remains problematic. Could local pottery define a Galatian-Cappadocian border? Despite the misnomer in his title, as the area from Syrian Sura to Arabian Ailia constitutes only the southern theater of the Near East, Lewin offers a excellent survey updating recent work for the period 284-565 and endorses both a planned reorganization of this segment of the East by Diocletian and a real threat to this area from Arab tribes, especially in the 5th c. Strobel eventually proposes to re-date the creation of the provinces of Raetia and Noricum to 15 B.C. in the immediate aftermath of that year's Alpine campaign, although the reader is initially injected in medias res into a detailed treatment of Alpine passes without warning the reader of what the paper proposes to do. Again, editorial laxity is evident. Cosme examines the career of Iulius Civilis with new hypotheses on the causes of the Batavian revolt of 69. Dirven shares the palm with Evers on the Donatists for the most stimulating paper on religion. In attacking the notion of a common culture of Syrian-Mesopotamian cities, she stresses the religious differences between Hatra and Palmyra. One wonders, however, if she does not make too much of a contrast between Hatra as a religious center and a Palmyra as a caravan city? Was Hatra's wealth exclusively from religious sources? An effort to discount Zoroastrian influence at Hatra may also be too adventurous, inter alia in seeing the so-called "Square Building" of the Great Temenos as the site of a dynastic fire, common among Parthian vassal-kings, and not a fire-temple. Zoroastrian fire-temples were not exclusively Sasanid and Dirven seems unaware of Hellenistic Zoroastrian fire-temples in Georgian Iberia, Media Atropatene, and elsewhere. 7

In sum, as an acta of diffuse frontier studies this collection disappoints. Papers of individual interest, given the publisher's price, would best be used via a university library's copy.


1.   The reviewer confesses participation in the Newcastle congress.
2.   The claim of Ñaco de Hoyo et al. to discuss an "ultimate frontier," denoting a new increased level of violence in the Mithridatic wars, is asserted without statistical or comparative evidence as proof; Foubert elaborates on F.S. L'Hoir, "Tacitus and Women's Usurpation of Power," CW 88 (1994) 12-17.
3.   R. Mathisen/H. Sivan, eds., Shifting Frontiers in Late Antiquity (Aldershot 1996).
4.   "Discovery" of a frontier as a "zone" is often associated with C.R. Whittaker's Les frontières de l'empire romain, tr. C. Goudineau (Paris 1989) and Frontiers of the Roman Empire: A Social and Economic Study (Baltimore 1994).
5.   B. Isaac, "The Meaning of the Terms Limes and Limitanei," JRS 78 (1988) 125-47; contra, E.L. Wheeler, " Methodological Limits and the Mirage of Roman Strategy," Journal of Military History (1993) 7-41, 215-40; cf. "Roman Treaties with Parthia: Völkerrecht or Power Politics?" in P. Freeman et al., eds., Limes XVIII (Oxford 2002) 287-92; C. Zuckerman, "Sur le dispositif frontalier en Arménie, le limes et son évolution, sous le Bas-Empire," Historia (1998) 108-28; B. Rankov, ""Do Rivers Make Good Frontiers?" in Z. Visy, ed., Limes XIX (Pécs 2005) 175-181. Drijvers relies on M. Graham, News and Frontier Consciousness in the Late Roman Empire (Ann Arbor 2006), although Graham is also unaware of Wheeler, Zuckerman, and (perhaps excusably) Rankov.
6.   See A.R. Birley, "A New Tombstone from Vindolanda," Britannia 29 (1998) 299-306, and "Der Hadrianswall," in A. Nunn, ed., Mauern als Grenzen (Mainz 2009) 109-25.
7.   For bibliography see E.L. Wheeler, review of A. Furtwängler et al., eds., Iberia and Rome: The Excavations of the Palace at Dedoplis Gora and the Roman Influence in the Caucasian Kingdom of Iberia, in Ancient West and East, in press.

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