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Journal of World History 12.2 (2001) 470-472

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Book Review

The Barbarians Speak: How the Conquered Peoples Shaped Roman Europe

The Barbarians Speak: How the Conquered Peoples Shaped Roman Europe. By PETER WELLS. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1999. Pp. xii + 335. $29.95 (cloth).

Wells' objective is to show how Roman Europe was a region in which native cultures played a major part. Instead of looking at this from the traditional Roman perspective, Wells focuses on natives, to provide an interpretation of "the impact of native peoples on the societies and frontier" of Roman Europe (p. 127). This perspective, he suggests, has not been achieved by several recent Rome-focused works. Wells brings a deep knowledge of the archaeology of late Iron Age Europe to bear on the problem. He admits that he is an anthropologist, not a historian (cf. 149), which brings both strengths and weaknesses to the work.

Wells' scholarship of the archaeology of particular sites is a real strength of the book; subsequent criticism should not overshadow his deep knowledge and clear presentation of the archaeological evidence. In particular, the sensitivity to pottery types of late Iron Age Europe and their dating is exceptional (pp. 155-56, 200-201). Also positive is the neutral view of the Roman Empire; Wells' interpretations deal with people and societies and there is no great fuss about the two sides of the Roman frontier (and Wells has read the appropriate literature). The interpretation of the archaeology is, however, often too confident. Thus the assertion that "we can speak of a true monetary economy at the oppida" in the second century B.C. is based only on the presence of coins, backed up by no data, and with no discussion of the volume of coins in operation (p. 54). Romanists are still uncertain of the degree of monetization of the Imperial economy. Similarly, the Ilerup deposit (pp. 4, 256), a deposit of military equipment that can be reconstructed as the panoplies of 300-plus soldiers, is presented as an argument for much larger military units being deployed than at any earlier time, though what makes this a "unit" is unclear.

Rome, however, provides many problems for Wells (though I say this from a Romanist's perspective). Permeating the whole book is a fuzzy notion of what it might mean to be Roman. Wells seems to be operating on a model that interprets Rome as a culture, not a state. "As I have tried to show, when we examine the material evidence closely, categories such as 'Roman,' 'provincial Roman,' 'native,' 'Celt' and 'German' do not stand up to critical scrutiny" (p. 264). Thus, Wells asks who was more Roman, a Raetian farmer or a Danish aristocrat (p. 265), a model that seems to suggest that being Roman was merely a matter of cultural attributes. Throughout, Wells is inclined to minimize [End Page 470] the value of textual evidence (pp. 56, 101-3) and to privilege archaeology, which helps to explain why he interprets 'Roman' in terms of assemblages of material culture. But any such interpretation entirely misses other, non-material, ways to define oneself, for example, as a member of the state or as a member of a literate elite.

Politics are given short shrift, and sections that deal with the Roman state are barely integrated into the archaeological discussion. In terms of understanding the majority of assemblages, this is not a problem, but when certain interpretations are drawn from these, the lack of concern for politics becomes more worrying. Wells thus argues for a rise of regional consciousness, with "active strategies aimed at asserting local identity" (pp. 193, 194), at least for non-elites. "Many native peoples reacted against the trend for uniformity by creating distinctive regional burial patterns, ritual practices and pottery styles" (p. 194). The uniformity perceived by the modern scholar could not be seen by most ancient people, nor can we be certain that any regional culture that existed was the result of a reaction "against the trend for uniformity." Similarly, assertions that...


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