Sunday, February 15, 2015


Penelope M. Allison, People and Spaces in Roman Military Bases. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013. Pp. xx, 487. ISBN 9781107039360. $120.00.

Reviewed by Álvaro Ibarra, College of Charleston (

Version at BMCR home site


Penelope Allison's publication provides a two-pronged study that considers the behavior patterns of people in Roman provincial military bases. The first part re-examines the evidence in earlier scholarship for the absence of women in camps. The second part applies new, more gender-balanced categories to existing excavation data from six forts at five sites in order to posit bases populated by significant numbers of women and children prior to Severan marriage reforms. Allison's goal is to reconsider the feminine presence in this particular Roman setting.

The first three chapters make the case for a more multi-disciplinary approach to the study of Roman provincial bases, one that makes room for non-combatant males, women, and children. In particular, she argues for the usefulness of manifold categorizations of artifacts according to age and gender in chapter three. Chapters four and five explain how a small-scale, localized application of geographic information systems (GIS) techniques can position artifacts in both a physical and social space. In chapters six through ten, Allison applies her strategies to forts at Vetera, Rottweill, Oberstimm, Hesselbach, and Ellingen. Chapters eleven through thirteen summarize the findings of her study.

Allison begins by assessing earlier Roman military studies. Traditionally, the belief in a lack of social dynamism in army bases stems from scholars' imagining such spaces as a correlative of soldierly discipline, a monastic existence devoid of civilians (especially women). Certainly, something as pedestrian as keeping women away from soldiers was easily achieved. Allison interprets recurring accounts of the banishment of women from military settings not as proof of Rome's thorough and ongoing segregation of women and fighting men, but as evidence of the persistent mixing of the sexes on campaign.1 Moreover, there are plenty of examples of legionaries committing far greater transgressions despite the harsh consequences, like mutiny.

The textual and archaeological evidence for women, children, and male non-combatants in and around Roman military sites is often negotiated through the proposed existence of a military intramural community situated alongside a civilian extramural settlement. But such segregation would appear impossible to maintain, as material remains of nonessential personnel consistently emerge from within the walls of Roman forts. Nevertheless, some scholars insist on a divided community. Alternatively, the interpretation of artifact assemblages according to new gendered categories produces evidence of a mixed frontier collective within a socio-cultural context derived from well-known communities like Pompeii.2 In addition, re-contextualizing artifacts using a geo-referenced environment can reveal identifiable social behavior within a given locale. Allison posits a much more diverse population existing both inside and outside the walls of the legionary fortress.

In the next section of the book, the author explains her choice of sites. The six forts were relatively short-lived, abandoned or decommissioned, feature well-preserved deposits, and well-documented excavations. They are located in present-day Germany, along both the Rhine and Danube rivers. They all date to the first and second century CE. They share some of the same personnel, including legionary and auxiliary units.

Still, one might critique the author's choice in forts. There are certainly more military sites along the Rhine and the Danube. Some possible combinations would possess even closer, even more consistent characteristics—like the shared chronological, geographical, and personnel contexts sought by Allison. However, such a criticism overlooks the nature of Allison's study. The author is not questioning the functioning of clusters of Roman defenses in a given region, she is testing the viability of her analytical system, an approach dependent upon the caliber and quality of available material evidence.

A more legitimate line of questioning would revolve around Allison's limited geographical and chronological scope. Why restrict the investigation to Roman bases in Germany? There are scores of well-excavated and well-published forts throughout Western Europe and a handful in the Middle East and Egypt. A larger and more diverse selection would aid in presenting such dynamic communities as a widespread phenomenon of the Roman world.

As a collection of case studies, the success of Allison's investigation hinges on the applicability of her proposed strategies. The less problematic element includes the implementation of recent geo-spatial mapping techniques at a localized scale. Allison uses GIS-type environments to pinpoint the location of certain kinds of artifacts and quantify their reoccurrence in a given space. The frequency of objects associated with certain activities (e.g., cloth-working, gaming, combat dress, etc.) and gendered identity categories communicates more nuanced socio-spatial practices. Despite the preciseness of computer-aided mapping, Allison acknowledges that the quality of depositions and recording vary from one site to another. Nevertheless, the precisely mapped fields of distribution serve as compelling visual aids and the plans effectively showcase the all-important dynamism in the use of space.

Significantly, Allison's strategy places a renewed primacy on artifacts and their role in defining spaces at her sites and questions the strict reliance on architectural typologies. Herald von Petrikovits' formal typologies can certainly aid in deducing the use of a camp's internal structures;3 however, form should not dictate the function of any given room within a Roman base. Artifact distribution mapped in this study indicates more multi-purpose use of interior spaces than previous scholars assumed. The latter may well be a projection of modern phenomena like civic zoning and the division of domestic areas (bedroom, kitchen, dining room, etc.) into an ancient setting.

If the activities carried out in a given space were manifold, it could also be surmised that the individuals performing such activities were varied. According to Allison's gendered categories for identifying social performers, as many as 24% and as few as 5% of the population at a legionary camp consisted of women and children. Although the author admits that both extremes should be tempered with a more conservative mean, the increased number of non-combatants nevertheless strains the efficacy of any fort.

Ultimately, Penelope Allison's book raises many questions about current consensuses about Roman military installations, their populations, and the everyday activities performed by combatants and non-combatants alike. The most significant findings include the demographic shift in the age and gender of base inhabitants to include more women and children. Equally important is the more varied use of space by the inhabitants.

The book provides a thorough and extensive model for the application of Allison's two-pronged approach. Beside the detailed descriptions and justifications for new categories and five chapters on the six German sites in question that address the differing and unique elements at each locale, seven appendices provide further detailed data through text, charts, and plans. Although thoroughness is welcome and necessary, a more streamlined design could have made room for more in-depth discussion about the implications of the author's findings. Much in the conclusion convincingly suggests that we should pay closer attention to the role of women in even the most male-dominated Roman sites.


1.   Primarily, Tacitus, Annals 3.33, Herodian, Histories 3.8.4-5, and Cassius Dio, Roman History 60.24.3. For interpretations regarding the absence of women and children see Peter Garnsey, "Septimius Severus and the Marriage of Soldiers," Californian Studies of Classical Antiquity 3, 1970, 45-53 and R.E. Smith, "The Army Reforms of Septimius Severus," Historia 23, 1972, 481-500.
2.   Penelope M. Allison, The Insula of the Menander in Pompeii, III: The Finds: A Contextual Study, Oxford: 2006. Allison's compared small finds from the Insula of the Menander to similar artifact assemblages at Roman forts in Britain and found the context dictated the assigned use of objects, regardless of a well-attested purpose in places like Pompeii. In a military setting, a spindle whorl becomes a stylus or a bronze hairpin becomes part of a uniform.
3.   Herald von Petrikovits, Die Innenbauten römischer Legionslager während der Prizipatzeit, Abhandlungen der Rheinisch-Westfälischen Akademie der Wissenschaften Band 56. Westdeutscher: 1975. Despite criticizing the strict implementation of Petrikovits' subdivision of Roman forts, Allison uses these same categories to inform this study.

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