Friday, October 6, 2017


Rob Collins, Matt Symonds, Meike Weber (ed.), Roman Military Architecture on the Frontiers: Armies and their Architecture in Late Antiquity. Oxford; Philadelphia: Oxbow Books, 2015. Pp. ix, 142. ISBN 9781782979906. $65.00.

Reviewed by Christopher Lillington-Martin, University of Reading (

Version at BMCR home site

[Authors and chapter titles are listed at the end of the review.]

Collins, Symonds and Weber's book is a very welcome contribution to the study of late Roman frontier armies and fortifications, especially along the northern borders in the 4th century. Collins and Weber offer a form of introduction in chapter 1. The 11 chapters (see contents list below) range in length from three pages (David Breeze's chapter 11) to 25 pages (Ignacio Arce's chapter 9). In all there are 62 black and white figures (plus three in full colour) as well as nine tables, which are all very well produced and therefore perfectly clear. The chapter titles (see below) give a clear indication of the content of the volume and these will be reviewed according to the frontier discussed.

In-text notes are used throughout the book to refer to individual bibliographies at the end of each chapter, which works well, although a general bibliography at the end would have been useful. Even more useful would have been an index. The lack of one may mean that some potential readers will prefer the searchable e-book version. The individual chapter bibliographies amount to about fifteen pages, listing works ranging in publication date from the 19th and early to mid-20th centuries, although the vast majority consists of research published in the last few decades up to 2014 (Arce's). This synthesises an enormous amount of combined research for which the contributors are to be commended.

The full title, as well as the chronological and geographical coverage within this book all merit comment. Chapters 3, 4 and 5 discuss mostly 4th century Britain, chapters 2, 6, 7 and 8 are concerned with the Rhine and Danube frontiers mostly during the 3rd and 4th centuries and chapter 10 with mostly 4th century forts on the frontier in North Africa. Only chapter 9 is concerned with (the southern part of) the eastern frontier from the 4th to 7th centuries (including the core centuries of late antiquity, I would argue). The important changes to the late antique Roman frontiers in the 5th, 6th and 7th centuries are not dealt with. Therefore, this book will be of most interest to Roman military historians and archaeologists who specialise in the 4th century, particularly those interested in the Rhine and Danube frontiers, or Britain, or both. This chronological and geographical imbalance suggests that a more suitable title for this book might perhaps have been, "Late Roman northern frontier armies and fortifications".

Chapter 1, a four-page introduction, states that the aim of this volume is: "to demonstrate that while scholars grappling with the late Roman army may want for a rich corpus of inscriptions and easily identifiable military installations… research is revealing a dynamic, less-predictable force that was adapting to a changing world, in terms of both external threats and its own internal structures." (4) This does seem to indicate significantly more concern with the late Roman army than with the late antique Roman frontier armies and fortifications, suggested by the title of the book. Furthermore, much of the text is devoted to the fortifications rather than the army. The sites of Aquincum, Altrip and Alzey are highlighted on page 2 but their locations are in no way indicated and, as there is no map here, this reader had to look them up (to save others the trouble, Aquincum is located in the Óbuda district within Budapest, Altrip and Alzey are in Rhineland-Palatinate, Germany). Otherwise, chapter 1 discusses late Roman architecture in general and introduces the subsequent contributions.

Conor Whately's chapter 2 offers a superb historical perspective and discusses textual, epigraphic, papyrological and legal evidence and the Notitia Dignitatum in particular. He applies this to the case of the late Roman armies on the Lower Danube (Moesia) from AD 250 to 400 and deploys several helpful lists of army unit locations. This illuminates the complications of late Roman military history and sets the scene for most of the subsequent chapters.

Chapters 3 (by Rob Collins), 4 (by David Petts) and 5 (by Matthew Symonds) are those concerned with 4th century Britain. Collins considers the use of horrea (granaries) and their sometime conversion. His fully explored examples are at South Shields, Newcastle, Vindolanda, Birdoswald and Housesteads (with secure evidence regarding the latter's size and function regarding the annona militaris). Petts discusses Binchester fort in great detail, including the praetorium, barracks, latrines and ovens. The evidence suggests that this site probably continued in use until the 5th century. Symonds concentrates on 4th century fortlets by considering their function and size, building materials and locations. His examples are at Caer Gybi, Hen Waliau (both in north Wales), Burrow Walls (Cumbria), along the Carlisle to York road and Cardurnock (Cumbria). He divides the fortlets into three categories: those having masonry ramparts, with or without bastions, and those having turf and timber fortifications, found in different types of location. He hypothesises that the three sites of Caer Gybi, Hen Waliau and Burrow Walls may have been located very close to the coast to secure their garrisons' access to sea craft in order to protect shipping from piracy.

Sofie Vanhoutte's chapter 6 links those about Britain with the Rhine frontier, via the Litus Saxonicum. After summarising the site and its excavation history, recent research there and its building phases from the 2nd century, she examines 4th century activity at the Roman coastal fort of Oudenburg (Belgium) to provide unique archaeological data relating to the presence of women and children within the fort walls. This suggests that soldiers' families lived alongside them to avoid piratical attacks. Moving south-east along the frontier, Martin Mosser's chapter 7, on the legionary fortress of Vindobona (Vienna, Austria), provides a fully comprehensive account of the history and archaeology of the site from 98 to 440, to which he brings all manner of evidence including seismological data. By the fourth century, this site also transformed into a fortified town with a mixed military and civilian population in order to avoid attacks by tribes from the east. Continuing in a south-easterly direction, Martin Lemke's chapter 8 brings us to Novae, Moesia inferior (on the Danube in northern Bulgaria, near Svishtov). He effectively evaluates the history, principia, military hospital and fortifications. Again, the evidence suggests that Novae became more of a fortified town than a military base in the course of the 4th century, in response to cross-border attacks.

With an editorial leap across the Black Sea, Anatolia and Syria, we come to Arce's excellent chapter 9, where he clearly sets out his aim to analyse Roman fortifications on the limes Arabicus from the 4th to 7th centuries. His overview of change across those centuries is outstanding. However, on pages 99 and 103, he firstly relates that the northern section of the limes Arabicus (Palmyra to the Euphrates), refortified in the 3rd to 4th centuries, seems to have been functioning effectively until 540, when the Sassanian King Chosrau I invaded to plunder Syria. Secondly, he claims that, in the 6th century under Justinian, the magister militum per Armenium Sittas had control of the entire eastern frontier from the Black Sea all the way to the Euphrates. He does not mention the significant fortification of Dara, the dux Mesopotamiae, the magister militum per Orientem or King Cavad's Sassanian invasion of 531. Early in that year, Cavad sent an army which crossed the Euphrates at Circesium, pillaging along the northern river bank through Syria as far north as Chalcis (near Aleppo), before being chased back, along the southern bank by Belisarius, which led to the battle of Callinicum (Procopius, Wars, 1.18.1-50). Belisarius' manoeuvres persuaded Chosrau to withdraw in 542 (Procopius, Wars, 2.21.15-29). Overall, Arce analyses many forts over time, explaining the changes of some into monasteries or Ghassanid and Umayyad palaces.

Finally, after another editorial leap, over Egypt, we reach North Africa with Alan Rushworth's chapter 10. He deals with numerous sites across Tripolitania, Numidia and Mauretania and discusses how changes in size to and accommodation within forts may have reflected changes in military planning. Breeze's chapter 11 is a summary of the preceding chapters and starts with reference to the Roman army of the 4th century.

In conclusion, I recommend this book because many types of evidence are extremely well deployed and interpreted. Despite the chronological and geographical imbalance of chapters, concentrating on the northern frontiers in the 4th century (rather than dealing with Roman frontiers throughout late antiquity), it is up to date and it synthesises current scholarship admirably. There are a few typos but the presentation, especially of the numerous plans is a credit to Oxbow.

Table of Contents

1. Introduction, Rob Collins and Meike Weber
2. Making sense of the frontier armies in late antiquity: An historian's perspective, Conor Whately
3. Economic reduction or military reorganization? Granary demolition and conversion in later 4th century northern Britannia, Rob Collins
4. The 4th century and beyond: The Roman barrack at Binchester (Co. Durham), David Petts
5. Fourth-century fortlets in Britain: sophisticated systems or desperate measures? Matthew Symonds
6. The late Roman coastal fort of Oudenburg (Belgium): Spatial and functional transformations within the fort walls, Sofie Vanhoutte
7. The legionary fortress of Vindobona (Vienna, Austria): Change in function and design in the late Roman period, Martin Mosser
8. The dwindling legion: Architectural and administrational changes in Novae (Moesia inferior) on the threshold of late antiquity, Martin Lemke
9. Severan Castra, Tetrarchic Quadriburgia, Justinian Coenobia, and Ghassanid Diyarat: Patterns of Transformation of limes Arabicus Forts during late antiquity. Ignacio Arce
10. Castra or centenaria? Interpreting the later forts of the North African frontier, Alan Rushworth
11. In defence of the late empire, David Breeze

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