Book Review: Frontiers of the Roman Empire: A Social and Economic Study

Review submitted by: Curt Emanuel

Title: Frontiers of the Roman Empire: A Social and Economic Study
Author: Whittaker, C.R.
Publisher: John Hopkins University Press
Publication Date: 1994
ISBN: 0-8018-5785-6

This is an overview of the Roman Empire Frontiers from the 1st century B.C. through the 5th Century A.D. As the bulk of this is not relevant to SHM I'll gloss over the earlier sections and concentrate the bulk of my remarks on the final two chapters.

Whittaker opens with a discussion of just what were the frontiers and how they were considered by both the Romans and the "barbarians". From the beginning he argues several points which were interesting to someone with a limited knowledge of the Roman Empire, such as myself. First he states that there is nothing in Roman policy that indicates they had anything approaching a frontier "system" - a strategic plan for managing the frontier. Second he argues that evidence indicates that Roman frontier defenses weren't defenses at all - that they were either; staging areas for continued conquests beyond areas controlled by Rome; points from which Rome could maintain their influence over peoples not considered subjects of the Empire; strategic strongholds from which Rome could keep roads and rivers open for reasons of supplying the military or; points by which Rome could control traffic, particularly for the purposes of trade, into and out of the Empire.

The final two chapters are entitled; "The Collapse of the Frontiers" and "Warlords and Landlords in the Later Empire" and are where I will concentrate my comments.

Whittaker continues a familiar discussion by relating how barbarians, particularly in Western Europe, advanced into the Empire. Aspects of this will be familiar to anyone with an interest in the Late Roman/Early Medieval Period (Late Antiquity). By dividing his discussion by geographic region he is able to depict how various areas of the Empire were lost to Rome. Several concepts were new to me.

One was that the influx of outsiders was not a mass migration of entire peoples, but rather an infiltration by small, usually armed, groups of no more than a few thousand. He writes; "We have to break away from the stereotypes of "tribal" history and mass movements of tribal migrations, which, when we can trace them archaeologically (as we can in the case of the Goths), seem to be slow movements of infiltration by small groups of warriors. Aetius's glorious victory over the Salian Franks at vicus Helena, enthusiastically hailed by Sidonius (Carm. 5.219-29) as a great victory, turns out to be no more than a "minor skirmish" when the Romans broke up a wedding party." p212

Whittaker also discusses how late Roman writers such as Sidonius and Ammianus exaggerated the incursions by the barbarians to strike terror into the hearts of Romans and inspire them to resist more strongly.

The same writers exaggerated the savage nature of the barbarians. Whittaker argues strongly that while the frontiers collapsed, Roman society did not change greatly in areas that were lost. Earlier he discusses how the frontiers were actually rather heavily populated. With the number of soldiers serving on the military frontier, shops, farms, and industry sprang up, on both the Roman and barbarian side, to supply them. The barbarian elite closely resembled the Roman elite, while the lower classes of the barbarians closely resembled the lower classes of the Romans - much moreso than, say, the lower class barbarians resembled their elite. As these barbarians moved into regions formerly controlled by Rome, they brought their society with them - which happened to be largely Roman in nature. Whittaker justifies this view by citing archaeological finds, such as from Fedderson Werde.

Of particular interest to me is Whittaker's contention that the barbarian incursion, particularly into Gaul, was nowhere near as violent and as bloody as many believe. He states that the early medieval warlord and late Roman Landholder were highly similar. Many Roman soldiers serving on the frontier were landholders - either in Rome or beyond it. Others, on retiring, were given grants of land. In either case they would find people to help them work it. And, if need be, they would revert to their military background to serve as the leader of an armed band. These groups were less violent and disruptive than has been believed. Whittaker says, "The problem about conceptualizing this change is, as we have been reminded recently, that Gregory of Tours in the sixth century, followed by many historians since, could conceive of the Franks' entry into Gual only as a violent barbarian invasion, culminating at Soissons, where Syagrius fell fighting symbolically as the last defender of Romania. In fact, the fifth century in Gaul was the culmination of a less dramatic process of integration of Germanic chiefs with their Gefolgsleute in the burgeoning demimonde of estate owners surrounded by their fighting retinues." p266

While focussing on these points of interest I want to note that Whittaker does discuss many other aspects of the frontier such as trade, fortifications, the movement of peoples and traders across the frontier, etc. He covers the entire frontier, including Britain, Africa, and the frontier with Persia, and discusses the various interactions in each area.

I felt this was a good work which helped to discuss an area I was not very familiar with. I was somewhat disappointed however, in the broadness with which Whittaker covered it. This work is largely thematic in nature and while he does give some examples, I would have enjoyed more specifics such as on intricacies of trade on the frontier, and some aspects of daily life in this region. Still, it was an enjoyable book. It is fairly well written, informative, and well footnoted (endnoted actually).

Reviewer Rating: 4-Good

Original review submitted: Jan 8, 2001

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