Wednesday, November 15, 2017


Nico Roymans, Stijn Heeren, Wim de Clerq (ed.), Social Dynamics in the Northwest Frontiers of the Late Roman Empire: Beyond Transformation or Decline. Amsterdam archaeological studies, 26. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2016. Pp. 230. ISBN 9789462983601. $124.00.

Reviewed by Eli J. S. Weaverdyck, Universit├Ąt Freiburg​ (

Version at BMCR home site

[The Table of Contents is listed below.]

This volume, the proceedings of a conference held in Tongeren in January 2015, is an attempt to move beyond the dichotomy of decline versus transformation in the study of the northwest provinces in the fourth and fifth centuries. In the introduction, Roymans and Heeren write, "We conclude that both decline and transformation were historical realities. They represent two sides of the same medallion and we propose that the perspectives should not be used as a binary opposition" (p. 7). For their part, the contributors present new archaeological evidence and analysis to elucidate the precise nature of social change in the northwest provinces. The result is much more interesting than a choice of decline, transformation, or both. Instead we see in greater detail the long-term withdrawal of central Roman authority and the various social transformations that occurred in the process.

The volume consists of an introduction (Roymans/Heeren), two essays framing the political-economic and military history of the region (Heather and Brulet respectively), three that focus on specific types of material culture (Roymans, Hunter/Painter, and Van Thienen), and four that focus on a specific geographic area (Vanderhoeven, Heeren, Esmonde Cleary, and Collins). Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review. It should be noted that the case studies centered on a specific type of material also tend to have a regional emphasis. In total, six papers cover Germania Secunda or the Rhine region (Heather, Brulet, Roymans, Van Thienen, Vanderhoeven and Heeren) while Britannia is the subject of only three (Hunter/Painter, Esmonde Cleary, and Collins). The emphasis throughout is on power relations between the Roman state, internal constituents, and external groups. Both the material culture and regional case studies rely heavily on new archaeological data from excavations and national databases.

Heather and Brulet offer a political-economic and military framework for the subsequent contributions. Both treat empire-wide developments with special attention to the Lower Rhine region. Heather employs literary sources to identify four "pressure groups" that influenced imperial decision making: the emperor and his advisors, the commanders of regional comitatenses, landowning elites, and non-Roman groups. After reviewing their aims in the fourth century, he discusses their roles within the crises of the fifth century. Although generally insightful and convincing, one of Heather's arguments about the army is open to question. The Gallic army played a central role in imperial politics at the end of the fourth and beginning of the fifth centuries, but after Constantius III, it was largely quiet. Heather explains this as the result of a massive losses suffered between 395 and 422/3, for which he finds evidence in the Notitia Dignitatum. His interpretation rests on the assumption that Stilicho divided the Roman armies equally between West and East in 395. But Stilicho divided the armies either because he received an order from Arcadius to return the Eastern armies or because the Eastern and Western armies had recently fought each other at the Battle of the Frigidus and could not be controlled as a united force.1 In either case, previous divisions between Eastern and Western units remained relevant and Stilicho was not free to divide the armies as he chose. Nevertheless, reductions in military manpower also appear likely based on the archaeological record as set forth by Brulet. Not only are Late Roman forts smaller than their earlier counterparts, but the lower Rhine in particular was no longer garrisoned by regular units after the late fourth century. Upstream of Xanten, forts were renovated under Constantine III and Jovinus and occupation continued through the first half of the fifth century, but forts downstream of Xanten lack fifth-century finds. When considered alongside the withdrawal from Britain, this constitutes a major reduction in the length of the frontier garrisoned by regular units. Although Heather identifies comitatensis commanders as particularly likely to rebel, the limitanei had provided soldiers to previous usurpers, so a reduction in their number is significant.

Roymans, and Hunter and Painter, focus on non-Roman groups by examining precious metal finds in the Netherlands and Scotland respectively. Metal detecting in the Netherlands has brought to light a huge influx of gold to the region in the late fourth and early fifth centuries, which, Roymans argues, represents diplomatic payments to Frankish warlords in return for military service. In Scotland, silver is much more common than gold. Hunter and Painter analyze Scottish hacksilber hoards to show that the weights of pieces often correspond to Roman standards, meaning the silver was distributed in an economic system dominated by Rome, either as payments to foederati or as diplomatic gifts. Both essays cast interesting light on the question of ethnicity and identity. Roymans argues that gold necklaces of the Velp type were produced within the empire as diplomatic gifts that catered to Germanic tastes. Hunter and Painter show that recognizably Roman silver could survive for over a century rather than being melted down. The silver's Roman identity might have guaranteed its purity, but it might also have advertised the owner's association with the Roman world.

Ethnicity and identity is the main focus of Heeren's contribution. Using theories developed by Burmeister in his studies of European settlers in North America,2 Heeren analyzes the archaeological record of rural settlement in the Lower Rhine region and reaffirms the traditional view that the area was settled by allied, Frankish groups around the turn of the fourth and fifth centuries. Most importantly, Heeren demonstrates that the identity of the immigrants was heavily influenced by their role as warriors for Rome: their leadership claims, articulated through weapons burials, rested on the ability to defend the community, but these burials were often located within older Roman cemeteries; they used old Latin place names and Roman-style glassware while adorning themselves with hybrid Germanic/Roman arm-bands, brooches and hair pins. Taken together, these three essays make a strong case for seeing "barbarian" or "external" groups as integral parts of the Roman world.

Vanderhoeven presents archaeological evidence from Tongeren with an emphasis on the results of recent excavations in the eastern half of the Late Roman city. As a result, his contribution sheds light on local elites within a provincial center. Three early Roman cemeteries continued to be used in the fourth and fifth centuries by a mixed population with Roman and Germanic, military and civic elements. Recent excavations have revealed several wealthy domus and a basilica. The domus can only be dated roughly to the fourth century, but the chronology of the basilica's main building phases—based on radiocarbon dating and coins—mirrors peaks in coin loss throughout the city: it was built in the mid-fourth century and the apse was enlarged in the late fourth or early fifth century. The basilica probably functioned as the episcopal church of the Tungri. It continued in use until it was replaced in the sixth century by a new church. Other areas of the city were abandoned in the second half of the fifth century and the episcopal see moved to Maastricht, but Tongeren clearly remained an important place in local memory. Late Roman Tongeren saw declines in population and access to coinage, transformation in the use of the civic space, and continuity of Roman traditions.

Collins and Esmonde Cleary both examine the process by which Roman state authority declined in northern Britain. Collins argues that, as state institutions collapsed, frontier units gradually transformed into war-bands with local power bases. Esmonde Cleary argues against the war-band transformation model by analyzing distribution maps of metalwork associated with the Roman state. In the last decades of the fourth century, such metalwork is almost entirely absent from the northwest part of the diocese. If Roman units turned into war-bands, one would expect old Roman symbols of power to persist (p. 197). Collins argues that such symbols of power do exist, but are unrecognized because they fall outside the most commonly used typology (p. 212). He argues that the frontier region saw significant local production that was influenced by, but distinct from, continental military styles.

Van Thienen examines one particular symbol of power through a cultural biographical study of the crossbow brooch. By combining archaeological evidence from the Netherlands with iconographic and historical evidence, he traces the dynamic social meanings that these brooches held. The crossbow brooch appears as a distinct type at some point in the second half of the 3rd century, when it is worn by soldiers or low-ranking military officers. Under the first and second tetrarchies, the brooches are linked more closely to the imperial cult and are worn by higher-ranking military officials. In the course of the fourth century, the brooches become much more common and are found increasingly in burial contexts, while more and more of the iconographic depictions are of recognizable individuals, suggesting the brooch played an important part in constructing identity. In the late 4th and early 5th century, under Theodosius especially, crossbow brooches are associated with the highest military and civilian officials: they are frequently depicted on consular diptychs, are worn by people of consular or senatorial rank, and are found at only the largest administrative centers in the northwest provinces. In the second half of the fifth century, the brooches are found outside the empire as well, and in the sixth century, similar brooches are depicted in Justinianic mosaics in church apses. After this, the crossbow brooch falls out of use, though its memory as a symbol of power remains, as evidenced by crude, 7th-century depictions.

This collection of essays hangs together better than most such volumes, helped in no small part by well-established geographic, chronological and thematic areas of interest. A synthesis at the end, drawing together the conclusions of the various case studies and explicating their consequences for our understanding of the end of the Roman Empire in the West, would have been valuable. The volume is attractively produced, with full-color maps and figures, but typographical errors are unfortunately common. In sum, this book makes several important contributions and will appeal not only to those interested in the end of the Roman Empire in the West, but also to anyone interested in complex ethnic identities and material culture.

Table of Contents

Preface (vii)
Nico Roymans and Stijn Heeren. Introduction. New perspectives on the Late Roman Northwest (1)
Late Roman State and Military Organization
Peter Heather. The Late Roman imperial centre and its northwest frontier (11)
Raymond Brulet. The Roman army and military defence in Northern Gaul and the Germanic provinces during the Late Empire (39)
Power Relations and Material Culture
Nico Roymans. Gold, Germanic foederati and the end of imperial power in the Late Roman North (57)
Fraser Hunter and Kenneth Painter. Hacksilber in the Late Roman and Early Medieval world. Economics, frontier politics and imperial legacies (81)
Vince Van Thienen. A symbol for Late Roman authority revisited. A socio-historical understanding of the crossbow brooch (97)
Regional Case Studies
Alain Vanderhoeven. The Late Roman town of Tongeren in Germania Secunda (127)
Stijn Heeren. From Germania Inferior to Germania Secunda and beyond. A case study of migration, transformation and decline (149)
Simon Esmonde Cleary. Roman state involvement in Britain in the later 4th century. An ebbing tide? (179)
Rob Collins. Decline, collapse, or transformation? The case for the northern frontier of Britannia (203)


1.   Claudian, In Rufinum 2.196-220. Peter Heather, Goths and Romans, 332-489 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1991), 202 and Michael Kulikowski, Rome's Gothic Wars: From the Third Century to Alaric (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 166.
2.   Stefan Burmeister, "Archaeology and migration: approaches to an archaeological proof of migration," Current Anthropology 41, no. 4 (August/October 2000): 539-567.

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