Institute of Archaeology


RAC/TRAC Session 3: Roman Frontiers and Borderlands: theory and practice

Details of the RAC/TRAC Conference session 'Roman Frontiers and Borderlands: theory and practice.'

Conference Sessions and Abstracts - Saturday 13 April 2024

3. Roman Frontiers and Borderlands: theory and practice

David Breeze
Andrew Gardner – University College London

Interpretations of Roman frontiers and borderlands, and their connections to the wider Empire, have been changing in recent years, with much new data and new insights from diverse disciplinary traditions. Meanwhile, the contemporary significance of the character of borders and frontiers has become ever clearer in a world with many new conflicts, divisions, and barriers, alongside new connections and mobilities. In this context, understanding and theorising the details of the interactions on Roman frontiers, across the great diversity of these in time and space, is an urgent challenge. Papers are invited to this session which consider both broad and particular questions to advance our interpretations of Roman frontiers. How can comparative studies within the Roman world, and to other historical contexts, enhance our comprehension of the workings of frontier operations? What was everyday life in different parts of the frontiers like? How did people move along, around, and through the frontiers? What was the relative balance of licit and illicit activity? Were geography, ecology and climate major determinants of frontier processes? How did militarization and defence co-exist with interaction and communication? And how can advances in Roman frontier studies be better communicated to diverse public and scholarly audiences?

Session schedule 

Saturday 13 April (AM)              Room 1 - Elvin (Level 1)
09:40A line in the sand? Understanding Rome’s North African frontiers in XXIst century (Anna H. Walas)
10:00Towards a more inclusive understanding of the Roman imperial borderlands: the case of the Lower German Limes in the Netherlands (Saskia Stevens, Gert Jan Plets, Wouter Vos & Henk van Houtum)
10:20Servi on the Frontiers: Records of Slaves in the Roman Provinces on Today’s Serbian Territory (Ivana Protić)
10:40Friend or foe? What fortlets reveal about local and military relationships in the northern frontier zone of Britain (Matthew Symonds)
11:00                                               BREAK
11:30Explaining the silences: why are women at the frontiers and borderlands invisible to us? (Lien Foubert)
11:50Interprovinciality in the Roman Empire: the case of Syrian and Pannonian dress (Ursula Rothe & Jen Baird)
12:10The Walls Come Tumbling Down: Frontier Mythology from Rome to North America (Emily Hanscam)
12:30Theorizing colonies: The use of Roman parallels in the early modern colonization of Ireland and North America (Richard Hingley)


 A line in the sand? Understanding Rome’s North African frontiers in XXIst century
Anna H. Walas – University of Nottingham

European colonialism placed Roman frontiers at the heart of contradictory narratives between Europe and North Africa. Roman frontier played a key role in the European discourse about ‘other’ societies, based on colonial back projections onto the Roman past, producing contradictory narratives between Europe and North Africa that place cultures in competition. Colonial and then post-independence discourses have equated European colonization with Roman conquest, viewing Roman frontiers as a separating and discriminating barrier. This impacts discussion around the understanding, de-colonisation and protection of the Roman frontiers in North Africa. Drawing on research on unpublished materials from 1960s excavation of Bu Njem, Libya the paper provides examples of how approaching military civilian relations offers opportunity to overcome the colonial bias, and to amplify local voices in frontier discourse. The paper traces the relationship between colonial rule and excavation of Bu Njem to highlight the dynamics of power in politics of fieldwork, which reinforced colonial bias. Based on the author’s engagement with work in Cuban Studies on cultural heritage of a Ruta de la Revolución, the paper reflects on the process of heritagisation, highlighting the role of academic activism and of tuning into current literary and non-academic cultural discourse.

 Towards a more inclusive understanding of the Roman imperial borderlands: the case of the Lower German Limes in the Netherlands 
Saskia Stevens – Universiteit Utrecht        Gert Jan Plets – Universiteit Utrecht
Wouter Vos – Hogeschool Saxion        Henk van Houtum – Radboud Universiteit

What kind of border feature was the Limes? And how has our modern lens influenced its interpretation? The Lower German Limes, created in the 80s CE, ran from the modern town of Katwijk in the Netherlands to the town of Remagen, south of Bonn in Germany. This Roman border feature has been the focus in Dutch Roman archaeological research for the past half a century. Its inscription as UNESCO World Heritage in 2021, has only instigated further interest. Although the Limes often features as a line on maps, suggesting a territorial divider and hard border, in recent scholarship the interpretation has moved towards the idea of a contact zone, and terms as frontier and frontier zone appear in literature substantiating this. First, this contribution sheds light on the archaeological knowledge regarding the border functionality of the Limes. Second, we introduce the concept of imperial borderlands. By stressing the imperial dimensions, we promote a postcolonial interpretation and representation. The notion of borderlands steers away from an exclusive focus of military significance and functions as a useful tool to understand the impact of the Roman presence on societal dynamics, cross-border relations, local power relations, and its landscape. Applying the concept of imperial borderlands helps us to better comprehend the archaeological and geopolitical reality of the Lower Germanic Limes in a more inclusive manner, facilitates a critical heritage discourse, and brings us closer to understanding the Limes’ significance. 

 Servi on the Frontiers: Records of Slaves in the Roman Provinces on Today’s Serbian Territory
Ivana Protić

The Roman slave system constantly emphasized the inequality of social classes as slavery was omnipresent in all aspects of Roman life. Individuals were enslaved in different, violent and nonviolent ways, they came from various territories and divergent social structures within them, they were of different ages and sexes. They were, most frequently, victims of Roman military expansion, who were renamed, disenfranchised, sold, and used. Roman slavery is often seen as a unitary concept, bringing to mind gladiators and enchained individuals being tortured, psychologically abused by their owners and generally oppressed by anyone whose way they stood in. There were, in fact, a great number of slaves who spent their days doing hard physical labour, individuals who are today considered to be archaeologically invisible. However, there were enslaved estate managers, financial advisors, imperial slaves, etc., who enjoyed greater privileges, and who represented the very top of the hierarchical ladder of the enslaved social group. The aim of this research is to shed light on the identities of slave records from the Roman provinces, the territories of which were within today’s Serbian borders, and depict the spectrum of job positions and social roles of the epigraphically recorded enslaved individuals.

 Friend or foe? What fortlets reveal about local and military relationships in the northern frontier zone of Britain
Matthew Symonds – Current World Archaeology

The Roman army did not adopt a uniform approach to fortlet use in Britain. Instead, different regions display marked differences in terms of overall installation numbers, the ingenuity of their fortifications, and their inclusion within wider control systems. As fortlets served as a means to create a dispersed military presence by embedding small numbers of soldiers – typically between roughly 8 and 80 men – within the landscape, such variations arguably reveal something about the temperament of local groups occupying or operating within these regions. Combining the implications of the fortlets with the wider archaeological, ancient literary, documentary, and epigraphic evidence grants insights into a wide range of local responses to both the Roman presence and the creation of a frontier zone. The results hold implications for understanding the nature of the resistance faced by the military, which in turn formed the backdrop to interactions between occupiers and occupied, colouring everyday life. Assessing this shows how shifting relationships between the military and local groups help explain the evolution of security measures within the frontier zone. 

 Explaining the silences: why are women at the frontiers and borderlands invisible to us?
Lien Foubert – Radboud Universiteit
Women at the Roman frontiers are to a large extent invisible to us. There are many aspects of women’s frontier life on which the sources remain silent. Which women lived at the frontiers and borderlands of the Roman Empire? Did it take a particular type of endurance to manage life there? Were women able to find companionship or was it a lonely state of being? Everything that makes these women human seems to be lost to us, so we don't talk about it for fear of giving too much free rein to our imagination. We often let them be invisible and silent. But at what cost? It is important to remain nuanced about these silences and not jump to the most obvious and perhaps convenient conclusion, that women and their human affairs were and are just not there. Are there (other) explanations for these silences? Can we identify and explain the power dynamics that defined – both in the ancient and more recent past – what was and what was not a serious object of mention (and therefore of research)? Are the silences real? And if so, is there a way around them? This paper will make use of the case of Roman Egypt, in particular but not exclusively, to venture an answer to these questions.

 Interprovinciality in the Roman Empire: the case of Syrian and Pannonian dress 
Ursula Rothe – The Open University            
Jen Baird – Birkbeck

The considerable amount of work on the nature of cultural exchange in the Roman Empire in recent decades has given us a much more nuanced and less Rome-focussed understanding of these cultural dynamics. Most of the new theoretical approaches, such as ‘hybridity’, ‘creolisation’, the ‘third way’ and those applying globalisation theory view cultural exchange as directly involving either Roman agency, the vehicle of Roman imperial culture, or at least a Roman cultural element. Current work by the speakers focusses on the ways in which people from different parts of the empire directly influenced each other. This is what we are calling ‘interprovinciality’. This happened especially as a result of the movement of people such as soldiers and merchants, and is particularly prevalent in the frontier provinces, where this migration was at its most intense. This paper will introduce the concept of interprovinciality and use women’s dress in Syria and Pannonia as an example. The movement of people between these two provinces is well documented, and consists of both army personnel (e.g. the ala I Augusta Ituraeorum sagittariorum at Intercisa) and civilians (e.g. the benefactor of the Carnuntum amphitheatre: CIL III 143592). The extent to which this resulted in cultural exchange has been a matter of some debate (cf., e.g., Barkóczi 1984 and Budai Balogh 2011), but has in any case mainly focussed on artistic styles, onomastics and religious cults (e.g. Jupiter Dolichenus). This paper will look at women’s dress in Roman Syria and Pannonia and explore the possibility that there was also some influence between the two in terms of both garments and dress accessories, as well as some of the ways in which this may have come about.
Barkóczi, L. 1984. Die südöstlichen und orientalischen Beziehungen der Darstellungen auf den ostpannonischen Grabstelen. Mitteilungen des Archäologischen Instituts der Ungarischen Akademie der Wissenschaften 12-13: 123-151
Budai Balogh, T. 2011. Iam pridem Syrus in Danuvium defluxit Orontes? Az Aquincum polgárvárosi szír városnegyed körüli tényekről és tévhitekről. Ókor 10 (3): 73–82

 The Walls Come Tumbling Down: Frontier Mythology from Rome to North America
Emily Hanscam – Linnéuniversitetet

Methodological nationalism is pervasive throughout archaeology—one way we can see its continued influence is through the uncritical perpetuation of tropes about civilization versus barbarism in narratives about the past. These tropes are especially apparent in the study of past border landscapes like Roman frontiers, landscapes which played a key role in the development of the civilization vs. barbarism dichotomy. Beyond academia, politicians and the wider public have taken an even less critical approach to methodological nationalism as reflected in the understanding of modern landscapes such as the American West as ‘the frontier’ requiring civilization. Ideas about the ancient Romans civilizing the barbarians and the Americans civilizing ‘the West’ are connected, but we do not fully understand how. We need to explore this epistemological connection between ancient and modern border landscapes, especially considering how the mythology of the American frontier created an easily identifiable trope of civilization conquering barbarism/wilderness, which became intimately entangled within American nationalism. In Europe, ideas about national borders are linked to the material and intellectual legacy of Roman frontiers—some of which continue to serve as national borders today. This paper presents preliminary research contending that, despite geographic differences, US frontier mythology is similarly linked to the intellectual legacy of Roman frontiers.

 Theorizing colonies: The use of Roman parallels in the early modern colonization of Ireland and North America
Richard Hingley – Durham University
This paper will focus on the variable way in which Roman concepts were adopted and adapted by the English in the colonization of North America and Ireland during the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. The Roman parallel was used directly by settlers in their military and political actions and in creating new plantations/forts. Adventurers and settlers drew on classical texts and their scant knowledge of Roman material culture to create colonial landscapes. This process has been studied, primarily in the USA and in Britain, as a topic of historical research, and this paper explores ways in which archaeological research on settlement landscapes and material culture might help inform a decolonized account of these early actions that dispossessed local communities of their lands and resources. This paper explores a phase, in North America at least, before the formation of established frontiers. It aims to (a) provide a source of parallels to the processes of colonization in the Roman world and (b) act as the basis for a new research project on the use of classical Roman parallels in the colonization of North America by the English from the late sixteenth century to the American War of Independence.