Review: Protecting the Roman Empire

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Protecting the Roman Empire: fortlets, frontiers, and the quest for post-conquest security
Matthew Symonds
Cambridge University Press, £75
ISBN 978-1108421553
Review by: David J Breeze

First, a declaration of interest: I read a draft of this book, and several of my illustrations appear in it. I do not think that either aspect will affect how I review the book; after all, I know most of the authors whose books I review.

I suspect most archaeologists have heard of Roman frontiers, forts, and towers, but ‘fortlets’? Perhaps not. What exactly are these? They are small military enclosures holding a modest number of soldiers, usually not more than 80, drawn from a larger unit. Symonds’ alternative name for them is ‘outposts’. As such, like towers, which are also embraced in the book, they occur on every Roman frontier.

In this book, Symonds presents the first full account of fortlets. While he concentrates on the western provinces of the Roman Empire, he illuminates life in these outposts by drawing on the rich documentary evidence from the eastern provinces. In this, he is careful to reassure his readership that there are sufficient similarities between such sources as the Vindolanda writing tablets and the eastern material to render the latter’s use to illustrate life on the northern frontier acceptable.

Symonds’ discussion is not confined to life in fortlets, but he explores their role and the implications of their presence in the military landscape. He notes that the presence or absence of fortlets ‘should serve as a barometer for the local security situation’ – that is to say, abandonment indicates improved security, and subsequent construction a deteriorating security situation. This appropriately reflects the title of the book, Protecting the Roman Empire.

Symonds offers a fascinating insight into what life in the Roman army in peacetime was likely to have been like: dull, boring, repetitive, risky, and alleviated by alcohol, gambling, and prostitutes – a reflection of much of life in armies over the ages. Supply of food and drink was a great concern, and here archaeological evidence can complement the documentary by providing information on the varied diet of soldiers even at these small outposts. The considerable quantities of wild animals eaten may suggest problems with official supplies.

The collation of so much evidence for these outposts leads to a range of questions. It has been suggested that soldiers thus isolated might have been regarded by the authorities as expendable. Symonds challenges this, arguing that ‘it seems unlikely that small, dispersed groups would be routinely deployed during bouts of open warfare that they were powerless to influence’. Rather, although Symonds does not state this, they reflect the sense of superiority of the Roman army.

The purpose of such small military installations is a common thread through the book. The proffered answer is ‘to curtail the activities of raiders and pirates’. This is backed by an array of archaeological and documentary evidence that satisfies this reader at least. Raiding and banditry might occur within the province as well as on the frontier, as the distribution of fortlets demonstrates.

The deployment of fortlets and towers is important. Generally, ‘they were placed to maximise their impact’ rather than being arbitrarily sited. This underlines the unusually rigid placing of the milecastles (aka fortlets) and towers on Hadrian’s Wall, a frontier that Symonds perceives as successfully reducing low-intensity disruption and allowing the expansion of rural settlement. How do we judge areas where there are no known fortlets? Were these areas too unsafe for a small group of soldiers, or were they so secure that outposts were not required? Symonds sees the presence of undefended extramural settlements at two fortlets in the Pennines as indicating that security was not an issue. In south-west Scotland, on the other hand, the defences of fortlets are stronger than usual and Symonds interprets this as indicating incipient guerrilla warfare.

A welcome feature of this book is its wide embrace, both spatial and temporal. One illustration – of fortlet/tower plans from north Britain to the Upper Danube in the 4th century – emphasises the commonality of approach of many aspects of Roman military architecture. And much of it points to the importance of water in the late empire, be it for movements on the Irish and North Seas or on the Rhine and Danube rivers.

Symonds has fully succeeded in his task of emphasising the importance of fortlet studies, frequently challenging our preconceptions, and in so doing he has cast new light on the protection of the Roman Empire.

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