The Frontiers of Imperial Rome by David Breeze (Pen & Sword, 2011)
"In fact, in order to understand frontiers, it is essential to visit them and see the position of frontiers, forts and towers in the landscape; there is no alternative, the surviving remains and the topography within which they sit have to be observed in person."
There are some books which every Roman historian should have on their bookshelf. Millar's The Emperor in the Roman World, Syme's Roman Revolution and Matthews' Roman Empire of Ammianus all spring to mind. Professor David Breeze's new book should also find a place on the same bookshelf.
Breeze begins his study by noting the lack of syntheses of archaeological and historical evidence in treatments of the Roman frontiers. Many recent works on frontiers have focussed predominantly on the historical and epigraphic sources. There is clearly a need for a synoptic overview of all that is known about Roman frontiers across the empire. Breeze is certainly well qualified to produce such a study and has a lifetime of experience in dealing with Roman frontier sites across Europe and beyond.
The strength of this study lies in Breeze's breadth of knowledge. He covers a range of themes from the deployment of troops across the imperial frontiers to the various treaties and regulations which governed Roman relations with their neighbours. Breeze presents a masterful summary of the epigraphic, historical and archaeological material. It is rare to read a work which is as comfortable with archaeological sites as it is with Classical texts. It is hard to see how this study will be bettered in future years.
Breeze argues that the purposes of Roman frontiers systems operated on a number of levels. Their primary purpose of defence cannot be denied. Yet the Roman army preferred to engage the enemy in the open, rather than behind a wall. There is considerable variation in the nature and scale of frontier systems across the empire. Most Roman frontier systems follow local topography. Variations in the design of frontier installations suggest considerable flexibility in the decision making process, although whether this was the responsibility of the emperor or the senior officers on the ground is unclear. Frontiers limited the movement of individuals. This would limit the impact of brigands (although not completely successfully). Perhaps more importantly, frontier systems allowed the Roman army to monitor the movement of goods and merchants both in and out of imperial territory. This economic role seems to be well evidenced in the historical sources. More impressive barriers also potentially had a symbolic role as a demonstration of imperial power.
This book deserves the widest possible readership. It represents the broadest treatment of Roman frontier systems to have been published in recent years. It is important not only for the frontiers themselves, but also for topics relating to the army, imperial administration and diplomatic relations.