Monday, July 29, 2013


Michaela Konrad, Christian Witschel (ed.), Römische Legionslager in den Rhein- und Donauprovinzen - Nuclei spätantik-frühmittelalterlichen Lebens? Abhandlungen der Philosophisch-historische Klasse. Neue Folge, 138. München: Verlag der Bayerischen Akademie der Wissenschaften, 2011. Pp. vi, 666. ISBN 9783769601268. €224.00.

Reviewed by Tyler V. Franconi, University of Oxford (

Version at BMCR home site

Table of Contents

The transition between the late Roman and early medieval worlds remains a central issue in Late Antique scholarship. Since Gibbon, scholars have tended to categorize the end of the Roman Empire on a sliding scale that runs from collapse to transition, using a range of historical and archaeological arguments. The recent volume by Konrad and Witschel aims to address this period of transition from the perspectives of 25 papers that deal with a wide range of material and sites organized into five sections. Starting with several thematic studies, the book turns to sites from individual frontier provinces. By considering the history and archaeology of each legionary camp and surrounding settlement between Xanten, Germany and Budapest, Hungary, the papers in this volume produce a detailed panorama of the different trajectories of Roman towns and fortresses in this transitional phase. Military sites are favored, it is argued, because they were particularly influential centers of settlement, power, religion, and economy. The volume itself is well produced, with many high-quality images, maps, and plans which add to the value and usefulness of the work. The entire volume, except the paper by Mathisen, is in German, though English summaries of each paper are included at the end of the book. The expensive price tag for the volume might perhaps be the main drawback for many readers.

The extensive introduction by Konrad and Witschel is an excellent overview of the themes of the book as well as the general state of the field. They outline the main goals of the conference and publication across six topics (4-5): the transformation of the late Roman military, the continuity of civilian settlement clustered around military sites, the relationship between "Romans" and "non-Romans" in this period, the methodological and theoretical issues inherent in ethnographic studies, the role of military sites in religious and economic life, and the settlement history of these sites in the early Middle Ages. The subsequent review of historical, archaeological, and numismatic evidence for the time period and regions in question offers a useful overview of the status quo and makes strong attempts to address both the potential of and the problems inhering in each category of data.

The thematic papers of the first section expand upon a number of issues introduced by the editors. Pohl examines the historiography behind the study of the late Roman/early medieval period, especially the contributions of various Anglophone authors. Dietz follows this with an examination of the historical evidence for the late Roman border defense system and discusses the accuracy of the Notitia Dignitatum for the Raetian garrison. She goes on to argue that the central Roman government exercised progressively less power into the fifth century, emphasizing the importance of local military commanders and German warlords. Nuber examines the archaeological evidence for the dramatic changes in Roman fortifications between the late third century and the end of the fourth. Fortifications of this period are generally smaller with thicker, higher walls with projecting towers and deeper ditches. He particularly emphasizes evidence from the Rhine, focusing on the sites of Strasbourg, Mainz, Bonn, Xanten, and Remagen, where old forts were either partially or entirely rebuilt in new styles. These sites also offer a contrast to newly built sites because they maintained a large inner area that eventually came to be co-habited by civilians. Kulikowski offers an overview of the state of research in late Roman "barbarian" identity, critiquing both the "Vienna-school" of ethnogenesis and Anglophone proponents of "collapse". He argues that comparative historical studies are the way forward, with careful reference to problematic archaeological material. The final paper of this section, by Bierbrauer, demonstrates the difficulties of such ethnographic studies by focusing on the so-called Alatheus-Safrax group, formed by the Ostrogoths, Alans, and Huns in the late fourth century. He argues that many such groups, which are mentioned in textual sources, cannot be easily documented by archaeological research.

The second section offers four papers focusing on sites in Germania II. Otten examines developments at the site of the Colonia Ulpia Traiana, modern Xanten, after the late third century. Both the earlier legionary fortress and city were destroyed and subsequently re-occupied following the early fourth century construction of the 16 ha fortification over the earlier town center. This site continued to be inhabited by the thirtieth legion through the fourth century, as well as by a substantial civilian population. By the late fourth century, settlement again shifted to focus on the area of the modern day cathedral which was the center of the medieval town. Trier examines the transformation of Köln, capital of Germania II, from AD 400-700. He demonstrates that the city remained the most important settlement of the region even as it transitioned into Frankish rule, and settlement continued in most zones unbroken, particularly as the city became a new center of Christianity. Päffgen discusses the changing settlement patterns in the hinterland of Köln, excellently documented in the detailed work of the local archaeological agencies, largely in part due to the large-scale strip mining in the Braunkohlegebiet of western Nordrhein-Westfalen. He demonstrates through a comparison of the different regions of the province how rural settlement deteriorated from the mid-third century onwards as a result of simultaneous political, military, and environmental changes. Later Merovingian occupation did not continue to use most Roman rural sites, but instead founded their own. Müssemeier details the developments around the legionary fortress of Bonn, which continued to be garrisoned by soldiers through the early fifth century. When the fortress was renovated in the late third century, most of the surrounding canabae were abandoned and civilians moved into the fortifications. This led to substantial transformations of the interior buildings, including a church by the sixth century. The construction of another church in the vicinity of the modern cathedral caused settlement to shift in the Middle Ages, abandoning the old Roman place.

The third section covers the provinces of Germania I and Maxima Sequanorum with papers covering the sites of Mainz, Strasbourg, Kaiseraugst and Alamannia. Mainz and Strasbourg both witnessed unbroken habitation between the late Roman and early medieval periods, demonstrated in Mainz by small finds and in Strasbourg by excavated Grubenhäuser and small finds. The interesting contrast between the sites, and indeed along much of the Rhine, is that the legionary fortress at Mainz was not part of the post-Roman settlement. The wider view of developments in the hinterland of Kaiseraugst is welcome, and indeed such contextual detail could have added to the discussions of the other two sites. This site, unlike Mainz or Strasbourg, was a new construction of the fourth century and did not see prolonged habitation after the end of Roman rule, as nearby Basel rose in prominence. Mathisen's article on the relationship between Rome and the Alamanni significantly nuances our understanding of how this region, once the Roman Agri Decumates, became a melting pot of Roman and non-Roman culture. Like the previous section, these papers highlight the quality of archaeological work being done in the region and the wealth of information that can be gained from it.

Moving now to the Danube, the following section examines the sites of Raetia II and Noricum Ripense in two papers dealing with Regensburg, one on the legionary camps and auxiliary forts of Noricum, and one on the city of Enns, site of Roman Lauriacum. Papers by Konrad and Störmer detail how Regensburg, like many sites along the Rhine, had a solid habitation through to the early sixth century, though they outline the problems in documenting habitation beyond this point. Störmer is more prepared to see continuity of habitation through to the early medieval period. Further east in Noricum, Ubl outlines how legionary camps and auxiliary forts alike became centers of mixed populations of soldiers and civilians, though there is little evidence of continuity beyond the end of Roman rule. The next paper on Lauriacum by Igl, however, argues that this city did see continuous habitation beyond the Roman period.

The final section contains seven papers on the provinces of Pannonia I and Valeria. Papers on the sites of Vindobona, Carnuntum, Brigetio, and Aquincum by Mosser, Gugl, Borhy, and Zsidi are followed by wider views of Pannonian fortifications by Heinrich-Tamáska, the emigration of new populations into the Pannonian region by Bratož, and an overview of general developments of the Middle Danube region between the fourth and sixth centuries AD by Vida. Roman cities at Vindobona, Carnuntum, and Brigetio show no signs of sustained habitation beyond the Roman period, though Aquincum does. Heinrich-Tamáska's paper on fortifications deeper inside Pannonia demonstrates (using small-find assemblages) that such variation in habitation was common on smaller sites as well. The issue of continuity is rooted in the nature of post-Roman populations in the area who are discussed by Bratož and Vida; the migration period saw great influxes of Huns and Germanic groups into the region, many of whom were not interested in settling in Roman cities, and the previous inhabitants fled in the face of their arrival. The region did not recover until centuries later.

In total, this volume of papers demonstrates the immense contribution that site-based archaeological investigation is able to add to the discussion of historical issues within these provinces. The extremely detail-oriented traditions of Roman provincial archaeology provide high-resolution chronological data which demonstrate the immense complexity of the late Roman/early medieval period. The amount of variation seen across these sites reveals how different the experience of Late Antiquity was, and how complicated it is to construct viable arguments based on available evidence. Using legionary sites as study cases is not unproblematic, however, when attempting to provide regional overviews. The papers that contextualize sites within their wider hinterlands may do a better job of this than those that simply focus on individual sites. The result is that some important sites that were not themselves legionary postings are excluded, such as Trier, Worms, Speyer, Augsburg.. However, one cannot possibly hope to fit that amount of information into a single volume, so the exclusions of these sites and their hinterlands must be forgiven. This small criticism aside, the papers within this volume do a commendable job of uniting archaeological, historical, and theoretical approaches and produce an extremely useful volume for the study of late antiquity in the west and north. Overall, this volume is now critical reading for scholars of Late Antiquity, and it will take a prominent position in the discussion surrounding the nature and evidence for late Roman and post-Roman continuity and tradition for many years to come.

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