barbarians speak: how the conquered peoples shaped Roman Europe, by
Peter S. Wells
In AD 9 in northern Germany a Roman army under the command of its general, P. Quinctilius Varus, suffered what was not only one of the worst defeats inflicted on the Empire, but also a turning point in the history of Europe. It brought to an end two centuries of imperial expansion, as Rome was forced to realise that there were limits to its capacity to conquer and incorporate other territories. It is difficult to resist the interpretation that up to this point Augustus' strategy had envisaged the extension of the empire through northern Europe. Thereafter, however, the frontier was consolidated along the Rhine and Danube; apart from some adjustments to this frontier, the only further conquests were those of Britain and Dacia. The clades Variana (Varus' disaster) entered Roman historical memory with much the same significance as the sack of Rome by the Gauls four centuries earlier. It was certainly a strategic, military and political disaster; but it was also the high water mark of cultural expansion. Like Napoleon's retreat from Moscow in 1812, it represented the confrontation of two very different sorts of Europe and set the boundaries to their extent.
The site of Varus' defeat has been the subject of much heated historical debate, but since the 1980s archaeological investigation near Bramsche on the northern edge of the Teutoburg Forest has shown where it took place and something of the tactics used by the 'barbarian' Germans to ambush and annihilate the army of the greatest military power of the ancient world. It is a stunning example (very rare for the prehistorian, but perhaps less so for the archaeologist of the Roman world) of archaeology's ability to document a historical event, and it is also a reminder of the wealth of archaeological evidence that now exists for this region. If Rome's final frontier is a theme demanding detailed study for its significance to prehistoric, Roman and early medieval archaeology as well as to European history as a whole, we may judge that archaeology has risen well to the challenge. Germany and its tradition of academic scholarship was at the heart of the development of archaeology as a modern discipline and Roman Germany in particular has been central to the growth of provincial Roman archaeology, not least of frontier studies. A century and a half of scholarly research has produced an archaeological record as richly documented as is available anywhere in Europe; if it has been at times dominated by a concern for military matters, that has been largely corrected with much recent work on the civilian populations of the towns and the countryside.
Peter Wells draws on this wealth of evidence to give an account of Rome's encounter with and incorporation of its barbarian neighbours. His focus is on the provinces of the Rhine-Danube frontier, the two Germanias, Raetia and Noricum. This forms a coherent block of the empire, but it is, of course, not one that is necessarily representative of the other parts of the empire, even in Europe; Britain and the provinces of the lower Danube frontier, let alone the non-frontier provinces of Spain and Gaul, all had very different histories. Wells's approach draws on themes from much recent work in Roman archaeology and in post-colonial studies more generally. He questions the simple notion of Romanisation and emphasises the role played by the pre-Roman societies in shaping the culture of the provinces. He also adds something more unusual, bringing comparative insights from the field of anthropology on such questions as the incorporation of subject communities and the nature of ethnicity.
The book is aimed at a general audience, and in particular an American one. This accounts for its inclusion of extensive introductory chapters, as well as a text which eschews references or footnotes, although there is an extensive and valuable list of bibliographical sources at the end. Chapter 1 provides the geographical and historical setting for the Roman empire and a discussion of the problematic nature of the sources: while the difficulties of the historical sources are critically rehearsed, the problems of using the archaeological evidence may seem optimistically over-simplified. Chapters 2 and 3 give an account of the prehistory of the region from the Late Bronze Age to the Late Iron Age, while Chapter 4 deals with the conquest itself. Chapters 5 to 9 are the real meat of the book, discussing themes such as the military development of the frontier zone, the growth of the urban and rural economies, the survival of pre-conquest cultural practices and the transformation of identities. Chapter 10 reviews the impact of the empire on the societies beyond the frontier as far north as Denmark, while the concluding Chapter 11 provides a brief glimpse of events after the military and political crises of the third century.
Wells presents a judicious and well-informed overview of the period and its problems, but the book's target readership inevitably means that a better informed or more specialist audience will find it rather superficial. It is rooted in a thorough knowledge of the latest archaeological findings, as the lengthy list of sources shows; though there is little new to the specialist, it does very usefully bring together much new material in a way that will be particularly helpful for the non-German-reader. Nevertheless, the approach taken, coupled with the extent of the introductory material and the somewhat repetitive structure of the book, means that there is little space to engage in more detailed debate; though many of the most important critical and theoretical contributions to recent debate are cited in the bibliographical essay, there is little opportunity to engage with these key issues. A few examples will illustrate the point. Wells shows that the south German oppida such as Manching were abandoned, or at least substantially transformed in their political and economic function, well before the Roman conquest of the region, but prefers a date in the 50s BC in distant response to Caesar's conquest of Gaul; the date could be somewhat earlier, with important consequences not only for our interpretation of the Late Iron Age but also for our understanding of the type of society encountered by the Romans and the progress of the conquest. Again, the broad geographical range of the book has its advantages in showing the big picture, but much of the emphasis in recent work, especially in early Roman archaeology, has been to stress the highly regional nature of the responses to Rome; unfortunately, there is little space to pursue these finer-grained differences. Above all, one wishes for a longer exposition of some of the theoretical arguments: the early Roman period has been the focus for a real outburst of critical and creative intellectual activity in recent years, yet little of the excitement of these debates comes through. Wells rightly structures his treatment around the contribution of the indigenous societies to the brave new post-conquest world, thus giving space to the subaltern voice of post-colonial studies, but the complexity of the issues seldom comes through. Much of our knowledge of 'native' culture, for instance, especially in such fields as religion, is in fact derived from post-conquest contexts and cannot be simply treated as a pure survival; recent work has warned us that such 'survivals' may rather be innovations or transformations, which may represent more complicated cultural adaptations to the new context than simple indigenous resistance.
I am conscious that this is a response from someone who is not typical of the target readership, and that these comments will incur the accusation of criticising a book for not doing what it never intended to do. To restore the balance, let me say that Wells has given us an elegant and scholarly overview, which despite a rather meagre allowance of illustrations, will give the general reader a good introduction to much new archaeological evidence and to new interpretations of an important period in European history. Nevertheless, a comparison with some other recent books will only emphasise the comments above. Maureen Carroll's Romans, Celts and Germans (2001), for instance, deals with much the same problem as Wells and for a similar general readership, but focuses on a much smaller geographical region, just the German provinces; this smaller scale allows a much more detailed analysis of local variation and a richer exploration of provincial culture, with a much more generous allowance of illustrations. On the other hand, Greg Woolf's Becoming Roman (1998) is aimed at a more academic audience, but its more theoretical analysis offers a much more nuanced treatment of the processes by which local communities adapted to the new political reality and cultural opportunities of the Roman empire. If Wells's discussion suffers by comparison to these other works, his choice of a larger geographical scale and a more general and comparative overview has its compensations. The political expansion and contraction of Rome can be seen as one specific part of a much longer process of interaction between the initially more developed societies of the south and their northern neighbours, rather than as an isolated historical event, and as a uniquely well documented example for the comparative study of the impact of empires. Despite a long-standing comparative approach to the study of state formation and state collapse, little has yet been achieved in a similar vein for the even larger-scale polities we call empires: Empires (Alcock et al. 2001) makes an important start, but too often they have been studied in a context of isolated historical specificity. If nothing else, Wells points us in the direction of interesting new approaches.
One final thought. Given that the book is evidently aimed at
an American audience, it is particularly interesting for a European
reviewer to find a section discussing the significance of the Roman
empire. What did the Romans do for us? For most western Europeans a
reference to some or all of language, law, urbanism and religion would
form a good basis for an answer; even for most of Britain, despite the
disruptions of the post-Roman world, the physical legacy of the empire,
and even more so its ideological one, are powerful symbols of our past,
as Rome's continuing presence in our school and university curricula
demonstrate. But for an American? Wells's answer acknowledges Rome's
historical importance in the development of European culture, but pays
more attention to its role as a source of imaginative inspiration for
the creative arts, especially film and television. It is a sobering
thought that to the vast majority of the people who have ever heard
of Rome its significance is as the mythical setting for Ben Hur and
Asterix rather than the historical context of Varus and Vespasian.
Review Submitted: November 2002
Alcock, S. E., D'Altroy, T. N., Morrison,
K. D. and Sinopoli, C., 2001 Empires : perspectives from archaeology
and history. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
The views expressed in this review are not
necessarily those of the Society or the Reviews Editor.
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