Monday, June 17, 2013

A View from the other Roman Frontier

In general the Roman Empire had logical boundaries.  The Atlantic ocean was on the west, so not much risk of invasion from that direction.  The Sahara desert on the south also proved impenetrable.  To the north you had Hadrian's Wall and the North Sea.  These were not perfect but largely served well.  In the south east there was a disputed region around modern day Syria/Iraq and no end of unpleasantness with the Persians, but there too deserts helped with defense, only the organized armies of a rival Empire were a threat.

The big trouble area was the German frontier and the many barbarians jostling restlessly about beyond it.  Even there, the Rhine and Danube rivers made pretty good frontiers. Difficult to cross in force and given the superiority of water travel over land, great communication routes.  The problem though was that this made a rather long frontier, so for about a century and a half Rome tried to shorten things up by creating a land frontier in southern Germany.  This was the Limes, a word arising not from the citrus fruit but from the word for "limits".

From about 100 AD to roughly 250 this frontier held.  Behind it were prosperous provinces with proper cities.  But eventually the disorder of civil war and the pressures of barbarian incursions caused the area to be evacuated...just ahead of the Germans.

While in southern Germany I had a chance to visit the site of the former Roman fort called Biriciana.  It was part of the now vanished Limes, a system of forts, watchtowers and timber/turf walls that lacks the enduring power of Hadrian's great stone edifice.  But it makes some interesting contrasts with my experiences at Vindolanda.

The fort site proper is not that much to look at.  It was razed by the barbarians then presumably scavenged for stone by anybody who happened by.  The archaeological techniques of the 19th century excavators also were more akin to treasure mining than preservation.  Here is the fort with only a few bits of wall and of the central Praetorium still showing.  Given the stark isolation of the site at Vindolanda it was odd to see houses built right up to the walls of the place.

Nearby was a fabulous bath complex.  A huge place for a frontier post and its associated vicus.  The European archaeological style seems to be running towards preserving such sites under a free standing roof...

These sites are in a small German town called Weissenburg.  They have a very well done museum that contains the items found at fort and bath.  One of the first things you see is this:

This of course has nothing to do with the site at all, and is simply included as an example of life on a Roman frontier.  I recognized it immediately as one of the more famous tablets found at Vindolanda.  It is from a mother to her son listing the items she is sending him. One of our archaeologists gives a talk to school groups quoting it.  He always gets a big laugh when he mentions that she was sending underwear!*

Some of the more interesting items on display came from a hoard found near the fort, probably from a farming villa.  Hoards in England tend to be fairly tame, by the point in history when rampaging barbarians became an issue there the coinage was pretty worthless, and there had been an extra century of economic hardship to reduce the general wealth.  But on the Limes there was quite a bit of prosperity when it became time to flee for safer grounds.  And it shows...

Silver foil decorative pieces, probably votive items to be left as offerings.

Masks, probably the display portions of fancy cavalry parade helmets.

And there were an entire series of magnificent bronze statues of gods and goddesses. Here are a few favorites..

I could not leave out my old pal Hercules!

And here are two different artists depictions of Venus.  Note the out sized hands?  Helpful for discrete covering up.

An interesting visit to a frontier much less heralded, but much more troubled than northern England.
*When he gives this talk in his impressive Cumbrian accent it sounds more like "Ooonderwear".  This spring I heard him give his standard speech to a group of Chinese visitors.  Sure enough, the laughter arrived, but delayed a bit by the poor translators trying to parse the idea from Latin by way of thick dialect English on into Mandarin!

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