Category Archives: Oh, the Humanity! Improving the model army, in Theory

Sulpicia Lepdina and Elizabeth Custer: A Cross-Cultural Analogy for Military Wives in a Frontier Context – Elizabeth M. Greene, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill

In the last twenty years an important trend in archaeological research has sought to investigate the Roman army as social groups of individuals rather than simply a tool of imperial control (e.g. James 2002, 42-4). This approach has centered largely on examination of the military as a community, both the identity of individuals and of the collective whole (James 1999; Haynes 1999), and the realization that this group comprised significant numbers of non-combatants such as women and children is one of the more important results towards a paradigm shift (Driel-Murray 1998; Allison 2008). The community supporting the army should be understood as a distinct social group whose complex identity was derived first from the military (Sommer 1988, 627-37), as well as from other axes of identity such as ethnicity and gender.

But what more can we say of this population or of the individuals—particularly non-combatants—living in the Roman military context? We are still able to offer very little about the social role of these individuals, their lived reality, or anything of their daily life. However, the robust body of archaeological, documentary, and literary evidence available that informs the lives of non-combatants attached to the Roman army is enviable and can be used successfully in analogical parallels to other military and frontier conditions. This paper uses the letters of military wives on the frontier in the American west, particularly those of Elizabeth Custer, in conjunction with the Vindolanda tablets, military diplomas and inscriptions, to hypothesize by ethnographic analogy the social reality of military wives and families on the Roman frontiers.

Allison, P.M. 2008. “The women and children inside 1st- and 2nd- century forts: comparing the archaeological evidence,” in Brandl, U. (ed.) ‘Frauen und Römisches Militär’ (Oxford: BAR)
Driel-Murray, C. van. 1998. “Women in Forts?” Jahresbericht – Gesellschaft Pro Vindonissa (1997), 55-61.
Haynes, I. 1999. “Military service and cultural identity in the auxilia,” in A. Goldsworthy and I. Haynes (eds.), The Roman Army as a Community (Portsmouth/RI) 167-74.
James, S.T. 2002. “Writing the Legions: The Development and Future of Roman Military Studies in Britain,” Archaeol.J. 159, 1-58.
James, S.T. 1999. “The Community of Soldiers: a major identity and centre of power in the Roman empire,” in C. Forcey and R. Witcher eds., TRAC 1998 (Oxford: Oxbow) 14-25.
Sommer, S. 1988. “Kastell vicus und Kastell,” Fundbericht aus Baden-Württemberg 13, 457-707.


Session Abstract – Oh, the Humanity! Improving the Model Army, in Theory

Roman military archaeology needs humanizing – it needs theory.

Arguably, it is the creative and critical use of theoretical paradigms that have brought the most humanity to Prehistoric and Early Medieval archaeology. Yet, Roman archaeology, particularly its military archaeology, rests behind the ramparts of excellent excavation reports and robust historical frameworks.

Contemporary post-colonial studies of the Roman empire have presented the Roman army as a violent, if multi-cultural instrument of an aggressive state, spreading empire with the point of a sword. This stance avoids the complexities of politically, economically, and socially managing a geographically widespread military diaspora – soldiers were more than mere killing machines or ethnic auxiliaries removed from their homelands.

There are vast quantities of data from across the empire, and more than two generations of sociological and psychological analysis of modern militaries. Roman military archaeologists can potentially lead the field in the application, development and testing of theoretical paradigms and models. But generals are needed!

This session seeks papers that provide a new outlook or insight on Roman military archaeology through the use of theory, at both the grand scale and the small keyhole evaluation.

Beer, Blades and the Batavian Ear: The Batavian Myth, Roman Military

Roman military studies have traditionally focused on broad syntheses of military identity, correlating the experiences of the Roman army with that of modern militaries, in particular with the colonial powers of the nineteenth century.  Within this model individual soldiers are lost to discussions of grand strategies, elite careers, and battle tactics; individuals reduced to the level of cogs in a machine, which as a whole is emblematic of imperialism.   Increasingly, these perspectives are now being attacked as more and more archaeologists utilise theorised perspectives to reinterpret the Roman military as a diverse range of peoples, divided by status, duties and geographical origins.

This paper focuses upon the Batavians, the Rhineland tribe made famous by Tacitus as the preeminent auxiliary soldiers of the Roman military, providing recruits in lieu of taxation (Germania 29, Historiae 4.12).  To the Romans, they were, like all barbarians of the fringes of empire, to be respected for their bravery but also to be feared; the 
revolt of AD69-70 demonstrated both the lie of the homogenous Roman military, and of the army as the unwavering tool of imperialism.  For later generations of Dutch humanist scholars, the Batavians were an exemplar of Dutch nationalist resistance to foreign oppression – the ‘Batavian Myth’ emerged from this context.  I utilise the case study 
of Vindolanda in bringing material and textual evidence to bear on broader discussions of Roman and national identities, arguing that separation of propaganda from reality, in modern and ancient sources, is a challenge Roman archaeologists must meet.

Crossing the Line: Functionalism, Militarism, and Discrepant Experience at Milecastles on Hadrian’s Wall – Dr Matthew Symonds

The extent to which the smaller structures on Hadrian’s Wall were standardised is widely celebrated. Both the adapted fortlets known as milecastles and the turrets strung out between them observed a regular spacing system and were built to a clearly defined plan. Although no two installations are identical, they are all very similar. This similarity has led to perceptions of a unity of purpose in which most interpretations of Hadrian’s Wall assume that the milecastles and turrets would function identically throughout its course. While this probably reflects the intentions of the designer and their military role, it is less likely to be a reliable guide to the day-to-day actuality of frontier life.

The groundplans and proposed reconstructions of the milecastles and turrets fit within a template of military architecture in which any given installation was built for a particular function and role. However, structure does not in itself define function, and ultimately it would be the soldiers within the various milecastles and turrets that would, to all intents and purposes, determine precisely how the individual installations were employed. This is particularly crucial for the milecastles, with their additional role as frontier gates. As such, milecastles represent a key node for ‘soldier’-‘civilian’ or ‘Roman’-‘barbarian’ interaction. In this context of contact, the militarism and use or abuse of power/authority by the milecastle garrison is critical in the portrayal and experience of the Roman empire in the frontier. Although the rank of the commanders on the ground within the milecastles is unknown, they are hardly likely to have been high ranking. This left the ultimate discretion concerning who could pass through a frontier (and under what terms) in the hands of relatively junior soldiers, almost certainly resulting in very discrepant experiences of empire. This paper will examine the relationship of functional interpretation of archaeological remains and theories relating to behaviour likely to have occurred at such sites, exploring the possible consequences of this astonishing arrangement.

Total Authority? Identifying Pervasiveness in the Roman Army – Dr. Rob Collins (Newcastle)

Armies are often portrayed as mechanistic and impersonal institutions with total authority over the lives of its members, easily restricting the impact of individual agency through defined roles and hierarchical management and leadership. More recently, however, ancient historians and archaeologists have pointed out how caricatured this portrayal of the Roman army is. Historians are able to provide examples from ancient writers and inscriptions to demonstrate these claims, but the task is more difficult for archaeologists. How do we demonstrate the limitations of imperial authority? By considering sociological concepts such as institutionalism, authority, and pervasion and their material correlations, archaeologists can test the degree to which the Roman army can be considered institutional and pervasive. This paper explores these issues.