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Journal of World History 12.2 (2001) 468-469

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Book Review

Frontiers of the Roman Empire

Frontiers of the Roman Empire. By HUGH ELTON. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1996. Pp. ix + 150. $29.95 (cloth).

During the mid-second century C.E., a Greek orator named Aelius Aristides delivered a formal panegyric to Rome. After describing the empire's wealth and grandeur, Aristides praised the encircling boundary, composed of soldiers and walls, that secured the Pax Romana. Archaeological monuments like Hadrian's Wall in England and the Limes in Roman Germany corroborate the image presented by Aristides. Excavators at these sites have unearthed ground plans of forts, watchtowers, and defensive ditches. Roman frontiers, it seems, coincided with a line separating the Empire from barbarians; their primary function would have been preclusive defense. Such a concept of frontiers tends to differentiate Romans sharply from barbarians, narrowing research to military sites and soldiers. In contrast, Hugh Elton challenges "centrist" and "adversarial" perspectives, asking general questions about how frontiers affected not only soldiers, but all who lived within frontier zones.

While Elton acknowledges the existence of an official dividing line between Romans and barbarians, he would concur with Lucien Febvre that ancient boundaries were not sharp lines, but zones (La terre et l'évolution humaine [Paris: Albin Michel, 1922], p. 331). Indeed, Elton even suggests that the frontier "line" is best understood as a series of "overlapping" (p. 5) and "multiple" (p. 113) zones. By imagining a frontier as land extending broadly on either side of a conceptual boundary, Elton can include heterogeneous peoples as proper subjects of investigation: Roman soldiers, Roman civilians, local natives, and barbarians.

In seven brief chapters, Elton tries to show how frontier zones affected both residents and transients. Although Chapter 1 discusses theories about comparative and Roman frontiers (for example, Frederick Jackson Turner, Owen Lattimore, and Immanuel Wallerstein), Elton holds no brief for any particular thesis; instead, he adapts ideas eclectically from all. He surveys the Roman Empire's edges, pointing out familiar sites like Hadrian's Wall and obscure sites like Bejuk Dag, Cifer Pac, and Ruwwafa. Through detailed case studies (Rhineland, Palmyra, Dura-Europos), Elton tries both to illustrate the shortcomings of "centrist" and "adversarial" assumptions and to demonstrate the benefits of an enlarged, "multiple zonal" concept of frontiers.

Elton recognizes the army's centra1 importance within frontiers, but like Ramsay MacMullen, he is mindful that "many a recruit need never have struck a blow in anger, outside of a tavern" (Soldier and [End Page 468] Civilian in the Later Roman Empire [Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1963], p. v). Accordingly, Elton has less to say about soldiers as preclusive defenders, and more about soldiers in quasi-civilian roles, for example, as engineers and policemen. In places like the lower Rhineland, Rome left indigenous trade networks undisturbed; nevertheless, its army's very presence transformed local commerce: soldiers had to be supplied with grain; they earned (and spent) hard currency; and they safeguarded commerce to and from the frontier zone. The frontier, then, fostered symbiosis among soldiers, traders, and barbarians. From his case study of Dura-Europos, Elton concludes that frontier life so familiarized Romans and Persians with each other that they had more in common than they did with their own people. Other observers, elsewhere, have noted the homogenizing tendency ("going native") of frontiers: Han officials, for example, expressed dismay that proximity of Chinese and minority Ch'iang tended to barbarize the frontier Chinese rather than to Sinicize the barbarians (Yü Ying-shih, "Han Foreign Relations," in The Cambridge History of China, I [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986], p. 433).

When Elton points out the multiplicity of groups and functions within a frontier zone, he raises some difficult questions. He mentions, for example, a watchtower named "Commerce" (Commercium) on the south bank of the Danube, near Esztergom, Hungary (pp. 87-88). Erected by a legionary officer, this watchtower appears to serve a military function, yet its name implies that it may also have supervised provincial or trans-Danubian trade. Was "Commerce" exceptional or standard? Did such...


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