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)
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