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East of Asia Minor: Rome’s Hidden Frontier

April 2019 (123.2)

Book Review

East of Asia Minor: Rome’s Hidden Frontier

By Timothy Bruce Mitford. 2 vols. Vol. 1, pp. lii + 425; vol. 2, pp. 332, figs. 310, color pls. 45, maps 28. Oxford University Press, Oxford 2018. $369.95. ISBN 9780198725176 (cloth).

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An outstanding book. It starts with a preface that is one of the finest and most evocative pieces about working in Turkey that I have ever read. Fieldwork is conducted by people in the present, even if we are usually thinking about people in the past. On and off, Mitford has been working in eastern Turkey for half a century, and he has now produced a piece of scholarship that will be the definitive starting point for studying the Roman frontier in eastern Turkey for the next generation of scholars. Given its detailed and unique recording of surface remains, many of which have now been lost, from an area where few scholars have traveled so extensively, the discussion of the archaeology and topography will remain forever useful. Scholars of the Roman world owe Mitford an enormous debt.

This is a big book, with six chapters and five appendices, totaling some 600 pages of text. The core of the book is the more-than-300-page chapter 3: “The Course of the Limes,” i.e., the mountainous eastern edge of the Roman empire in Turkey. This chapter is preceded by a brief section on geography and climate and a somewhat longer historical outline. It is followed by discussion of the garrison and some notes on coins and inscriptions. There are lots of maps and photographs, many in color, often telling their own tales. Plate 45 shows the great epigraphers Terence Bruce-Mitford, father of the author, and George Bean, prodigiously tall, somewhere in Cilicia. Both are deservedly legendary, and I can remember, near Ermenek in Cilicia, once meeting someone who told me of two earlier archaeologists “who came here a few years ago, both English, one very tall.” Mitford Jr. has left similar memories himself.

The area covered is described succinctly at the start of chapter 1: “From Commagene in north-eastern Syria, the Roman frontier followed the Euphrates valley northward through Cappadocia and Armenia Minor to the plain of Erzincan, and climbed over the high Pontic ranges to the Black Sea at Trapezus (Trabzon)” (1). Fully half of this first page is footnotes in a smaller font, and though the ratio of text to notes varies as the work progresses, the density of documentation carries on similarly. Throughout, Mitford demonstrates a deep knowledge of the terrain, the primary sources, and later history—a rare combination.

The temporal dimension is covered in chapter 2, divided into four sections (Sulla to Nero, the Flavians, Trajan to Caracalla, and then down to the seventh century C.E.). These sections are described as being not fully annotated (esp. parts 1 and 4), but the annotation is thorough and a good starting point for the frontier history of this region, though in the highly conservative Limestudien tradition. This is entirely appropriate as a report on the military archaeology of the frontier, particularly one based on surface materials. But it is always clear from Mitford’s lucid prose that he thinks this is a story about people, not just stone walls. Undergraduates will occasionally be frustrated by the use of untranslated Greek and Latin phrases, but this reflects a deep engagement with the literary sources. There is much nestled within these sections, including useful discussions of road building and its impacts on travel, or the chronology of Hadrian’s travels in Anatolia. The fourth section is not as strong as the preceding three (the fourth to seventh centuries are covered in three pages only), perhaps because much of Roman-Sassanian confrontation was now in Lazica and Mesopotamia rather than in Armenia, but also because of changing Roman epigraphic habits.

Chapter 3 describes the visible surface remains from south to north, subdivided into sections on Commagene, Cappadocia, Armenia Minor, and Pontus, each keyed to an excellent series of color maps in volume 2, with detailed sector maps at 1:200,000. An important opening note mentions that some of this landscape is now lost, submerged beneath various dammed waterways (esp. near Samosata and Zeugma). For each site there is a detailed historical introduction followed by a description of the archaeology, concentrating on the Roman Imperial period (though with useful notes on Xenophon and the Ten Thousand as well). The notes are as full and challenging as in earlier chapters; excellent use is made of a range of photographs taken by the author, illustrations from earlier travelers, and scenes on Roman monuments (especially Trajan’s Column) to support the text. There are a few plans, but Mitford is mostly interested in topography, relentlessly moving across the landscape himself and thinking about how Roman commanders would have moved their men and supplies through the terrain. The focus is on fortifications and infrastructure, especially roads and bridges, but the text and notes are peppered with comments on weather, coin finds, inscriptions, Christianity, olives, garlic, modern and ancient sites, and more, with the result that this is a guide to the region not just to its military archaeology. Those working on sites in eastern Turkey should certainly read the sections they are interested in, but they should also take the time to read at leisure, reflecting on the landscape. Mitford’s landscape is one of people, with a delight in the chance encounter, the glass of tea, all moments that were also present for travelers in the Roman era but almost entirely lost to us. But as he writes history, the author challenges us to think in terms of how daily life was lived on this frontier. The stream of tantalizing anecdotes is a constant reminder that the way most researchers deal with eastern Turkey (walking or driving) is not the way many modern (and thus also Roman) soldiers interact with the landscape and locals (running, with weapons), while the challenges posed by winter and snow are a constant preoccupation. The text reminds me of the 21st-century Turkey that I know well and at the same time tells stories of a Turkey now changed greatly, evoking the same dual sense of familiarity and “I’ve not seen that” as does reading Mary Gough’s Travel into Yesterday (New York 1954) about Michael Gough’s fieldwork in Cilicia in the early 1950s.

Chapter 4 concerns the units garrisoning the frontier, covering first legions and then auxiliary regiments, with summaries of what is known about officers, movements of units and detachments, and origins and regiments of individual soldiers. This discussion relies almost entirely on epigraphic evidence and dates to the Early Imperial period. The contrast between the three full sections on legio XII Fulminata, XVI Flavia Firma, and XV Apollinaris on the one hand and the slim section on the Diocletianic legio I Pontica on the other is quite striking. Unlike epigraphy from Roman cities, military epigraphy in this region shows little sign of the Constitutio Antoniniana’s spreading of Roman citizenship. The section on the auxilia makes good use of auxiliary discharge diplomas and of Arrian’s Ektaxis kata Alanos. The Notitia Dignitatum is cited occasionally, but most of the discussion of the units in this document is reserved for appendix 2; the two sections should be used together. Chapter 5 (unillustrated) covers 52 coins shown to Mitford over the years, mostly between 1963 and 1965. As the author notes, this is an unsystematic sampling of material, but it is of value in thinking about the level of monetization of the region.

Chapter 6 is a useful catalogue of 125 inscriptions from the frontier, defined as those being of “historical value” (513), presented from south to north, with a few from Armenia and Azerbaijan. Most of these have been published before, and this section is lightly illustrated (and the texts not translated). Mitford has seen (and taken squeezes of) many of these stones and provides useful notes challenging or correcting the readings of many of their texts. The unpublished texts (four epitaphs, an inscription from 232 C.E., a milestone from 367/375 C.E., a dedication to an unknown emperor, a Christian medallion, and a signet ring) derive from Mitford’s own research as well as from Franz Cumont’s unpublished notebooks.

The work finishes with five appendices. Four of these cover geographic sources: the Notitia Dignitatum, Turkish place names and maps (very useful), and notes on the late Ottoman infrastructure based mostly on Francis Maunsell’s reports (also very useful). The fifth appendix is a 25-page extension to chapter 3 on sites beyond the Euphrates, including sites in Armenia and the Darial Pass. The volume closes with a full set of indices facilitating the locating of sites by either modern or ancient names.

Inevitably, there are things that could not be covered, even in 700 pages and with 355 illustrations, but it would be ungenerous to complain. The traditional approach may strike some as old-fashioned, but this is the raw material of history and will remain fundamental. Mitford’s book has a much narrower focus than T. Sinclair’s four-volume magnum opus, Eastern Turkey: An Architectural and Archaeological Survey (London 1987–1990), but it covers his subject in much greater depth, drawing on his deep knowledge of this landscape in the way that S. Gregory’s volumes on Roman Military Architecture on the Eastern Frontier (Amsterdam 1997) do not. This book is thus a complement to both Sinclair and to Gregory, as well as a replacement. Mitford has produced an outstanding resource for specialists. Given its price, it is likely to be purchased mostly by university libraries, but it should be widely read, not just for its scholarship on the Roman frontier but also for its love and illumination of the countryside and people of the region.

Hugh Elton
Ancient Greek and Roman Studies
Trent University

Book Review of East of Asia Minor: Rome’s Hidden Frontier, by Timothy Bruce Mitford

Reviewed by Hugh Elton

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 123, No. 2 (April 2019)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1232.elton

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