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Protecting the Roman Empire: Fortlets, Frontiers, and the Quest for Post-conquest Security

Protecting the Roman Empire: Fortlets, Frontiers, and the Quest for Post-conquest Security

By Matthew F.A. Symonds. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 2018. Pp. xiv + 251. £75.00. ISBN 9781108421553 (cloth).

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This monograph, the first comprehensive treatment of Roman frontier outposts, provides a much needed, in-depth narrative of this class of military architecture. Man-made defenses and networks of roads running along rivers or traversing open landscapes all thrived thanks to the lifelines provided by these small, unassuming structures. While focusing on a narrow niche, the discussion skillfully reflects on key current themes in frontier research, including overcoming legacy perceptions of uniformity and the Roman empire’s struggle for border security. In doing so, Symonds taps into issues of postcampaign control over territories and their peoples, themes that resonate in recent experience in the Middle East.

The overview of archaeological material focuses on northwest Europe, including Britain, the Netherlands, France, Germany, and Switzerland, between the first and fourth centuries CE. The analysis is preceded by an introductory chapter with a short synopsis of the definitions of the various types of structures discussed in the book. As with many aspects of research on military architecture, regional and period-specific terms informed by written sources provided a multitude of options to scholars who sought to find a way for the archaeological evidence to fit into workable categories. Symonds follows Sheppard Frere and Kenneth St Joseph in defining outposts as small military sites without their own headquarters building, then dividing the evidence into outposts within border systems and freestanding outposts. This is followed by a thematic section on life in the praesidia drawing on written sources, particularly Hélène Cuvigny’s work on the ostraca along the route from the Nile to quarries at Myos Hormos in Egypt’s Eastern Desert. The chapter provides contextual information about the rhythm of fortlet life and the role of women and dependents, while posing questions regarding the degree of universality of the outpost experience across the vast empire. The research in subsequent regional chapters is structured around analysis of historical context, investigation of topography, affordances of movement through the landscape, and emphasis on the role of preexisting communities in the creation of frontiers. The main themes center around the outposts’ flexible design, which is sensitive to landscape and local needs. Symonds proposes that the presence of outposts can be viewed as a barometer for the local security situation, with the short lifespan of many freestanding fortlets serving as a testimony to their ability to resolve small threats and provide detailed surveillance over the landscape (11).

Part 1, “Consolidating Conquest,” focuses on the early deployment of fortlets during the first and second centuries CE, primarily in Germany and Britain. The following chapters develop the thesis that outposts signaled an increasing focus on consolidating territorial gain. “Early Waterways” (ch. 2) explores this notion in the context of outposts along the riverine frontiers of the Lower Rhine and the Raetian Danube, as well as along the Exmoor Coast. This chapter contextualizes the early examples of outposts in military supply networks and reassesses the evidence regarding their potential independence from larger military installations in terms of staffing. Symonds examines the Exmoor Coast to argue for the role of outposts in achieving coastal control, rather than viewing them as signaling stations. The next chapter examines the early frontier highways in Wales, Germany, the Gask Ridge (Flavian Scotland), and in south Scotland during the Antonine period to trace the development of the fortlet-fort-fortlet deployment model and assess its usefulness. This observed pattern sees the deployment of two fortlets with a larger military base in between, likely first developed in Wales as Symonds argues (62–63), which later became the backbone of road outpost systems in Britain. Particularly interesting here is the analysis of evidence from extramural settlements and evidence signaling the presence of dependents found in intramural areas of the outposts.

Part 2, “Border Control,” explores the reimagination of the outpost systems in the second century CE along Hadrian’s Wall, the Antonine Wall, and the Upper German and Raetian limes. Symonds reassesses the evidence from the milecastles along Hadrian’s Wall to argue that rather than controlling civilian access to the empire, they acted as a signaling system—a conclusion based on the small effective strength of the outposts and the many bizarre instances of outpost gates opening onto steep drops in the landscape (115). This led Symonds to conclude that Hadrian “stubbornly pursued an ordered, intellectual solution to border control” (131) while entirely breaking from the previous outpost tradition. The following two chapters on the Antonine Wall and the German evidence trace the return to more flexible systems, while reflecting on the limited modern exploration of extant outposts along the Antonine Wall as well as recent dendrochronological dates and environmental evidence from Germany.

Part 3, “Provincial Collapse,” traces the unrest of the third and fourth centuries CE through the development of outpost systems in areas not previously militarized, to counter low-intensity transgressions such as raids. A chapter on “Late Highways” traces case studies in the area near Cologne, the Danube-Iller-Rhine limes, and the Stainmore Pass on the border between Cumbria and North Yorkshire. The next chapter, “Late Waterways,” focuses on the military systems along the mouth of the Rhine and along the Yorkshire’s North Sea coast.

The book is beautifully written, drawing on Symonds’ expertise as editor of Current World Archaeology and his doctoral dissertation at Oxford. It employs elements of a popular book, such as short, focused asides in text boxes, and provides generous historical context, including a commentary on key scholarly debates pertaining to the discussed stretches of the frontier. The text box approach works very well in the context of an inherently uneven dataset, where one well-preserved and extensively excavated site can greatly enrich the overall regional analysis. Symonds’ monograph is an intriguing and noteworthy offering that will be of interest to both specialists in Rome’s European frontiers and those wishing to familiarize themselves for the first time with the subject matter. Symonds’ continuing interest in outposts is providing a distinctive voice in the scholarly debate on Rome’s frontiers.

Anna H. Walas
University of Nottingham and University of Leicester

Book Review of Protecting the Roman Empire: Fortlets, Frontiers, and the Quest for Post-conquest Security, by Matthew F.A. Symonds
Reviewed by Anna H. Walas
American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 125, No. 1 (January 2021)
Published online at
DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1251.Walas

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