Roman

The Key Question in the Fall of the Roman Empire

A conversation with Nathan Ross inspired me to track down two essays by Steve Muhlberger on what I think is the key issue in the fall of the western Roman empire. (The debate “were foreign invasions or civil wars more destructive?” is a bit of a semantic issue, since soldiers tried to be as Germanic as possible and wealthy Germans in the Imperium tried to become as Roman as possible: its never going to be easy to define figures like Stilicho as either Roman or barbarian). It has long been obvious that the fifth century saw light beautiful pottery, stone houses, roofs with leak-proof terracotta tiles, and philosophers who could do original work vanish from Europe north of the Alps, but recently archaeologists have noticed that people buried in Post-Roman Europe seem to be living longer and eating better than their ancestors who bore the Roman yoke.

My second reflection is on the current debate about the fall of the Roman Empire (the fifth-century fall) between people who equate it with “the End of Civilization” (Bryan Ward-Perkins) and people who don’t think it was an ending of unprecedented significance (say, Peter Brown and Walter Goffart). I really think that the unresolved and maybe unresolvable debate is about what civilization is. Is it a situation where a leisured minority sit around in the palace library, enjoying bread made from Egyptian wheat and dipping it in Syrian olive oil or Spanish fish sauce, and debating the great ideas of the ages, while other people dig minerals from the earth in dirty, dangerous mines, or harvest cotton in the hot sun, and die young? If that’s it, then there was probably a lot less “civilization” in large parts of the formerly Roman world after AD 400 than there had been for some centuries, in that it was far more difficult to assemble a large variety of enviable luxuries in one spot through the routine operations of centralized imperial power. And there is more civilization now, because here I sit, not even close to being rich by Canadian standards, but able to read, think and then speak to a privileged minority around the world while hundreds of millions sweat profusely (and all too often, die young).

But it might be worth considering whether the height of luxury — whatever luxury you prefer — is the only measure of civilization.

I say, bring on those resilient decentralized networks and extend them as far as we can. The only alternative is slavery for somebody.

– Steve Muhlberger, “Brave New War, The Upside of Down, and the fall of the Roman Empire,” 22 April 2007 https://smuhlberger.blogspot.com/2007/04/brave-new-war-upside-of-down-and-fall.htm
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The New “Journal of Roman Military Equipment Studies”

Three paper copies a journal scattered across an oriental rug
JRMES 17, with its griffin guardians, has arrived in Rhaetia

The new issue of the Journal of Roman Military Equipment Studies has arrived in Tirol. The two volumes published last year contained articles such as:

  • A study of the impact marks from catapult balls and sling bullets on the walls of Pompeii, presumably dating back to the Roman siege of the town during the Social War.
  • A project on Roman locking scale from Carlisle by David Sim and J. Kaminski which started with billets of specially-made wrought iron and ended in having a good bash at the armour with replicas of Roman weapons. This particular armour was sophisticated and effective, and the authors have many interesting insights into metallurgy and manufacturing process, including a time that their wish to ‘tidy up’ more than the original armourers did created a problem. I was left wishing that they had addressed some other issues, but I will put those below the fold.
  • A pair of articles on the reconstruction of Roman boots and their use on a march across the Brenner Pass. I enjoyed the contrasting perspectives of the shoe-wearers and the shoemaker-cum-archaeologist who made the shoes.

The latest volume includes things like:

  • Two examples of Roman lorica hamata squamataque preserved as a whole (rather than as loose scales or small clusters of scales), one of which was preserved with its linen liner. To my knowledge, this is the first archaeological evidence for mail with a lining in the Roman world.
  • A copper-alloy crescent (lunula) similar to those mounted on Roman battle standards from a layer dating to the first century BCE at Gurzufskoe Sedlo in the Crimea. Both the date and the location are worth noticing.
  • A set of silvered bronze saddle plates which ended up buried with a cow in the Meroitic kingdom of Kush.
  • An article by Jon Coulston on Roman archery which makes use of comparative evidence from outside the Roman world.

If that sounds like the kind of thing you want to read or support, copies are available here.

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VENI VIDI VICI

A tomb relief depicting a man in a toga with six writing boards, Archaeologisches Museum, Schloss Eggenburg, Graz. Photo by Sean Manning, September 2015. A good long time ago, Julius Caesar faced the problem of how to boast about military achievements so great and so numerous that one war threatened to... Continue reading: VENI VIDI VICI

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A votive statue of Chai-Hapi (a thousand of bread, a thousand of beer, a thousand of all good things to him!) excavated from the remains of Roman Vienna. Carved from gneis. In the style of late 19th Dynasty Heliopolis. Wien, Kunsthistorisches Musem, Ägyptische-Orientalische Sammlung, Inv. Nr. Äs 64. Photographed on special... Continue reading: Link Dump

The Petition of Marcus Aurelius Sarapion

A bare marble statue of a torso in armour with shoulder flaps and a sash
Torso in a Hellenistic tube-and-yoke cuirass (on display in Palazzo Te, Mantua; photo Sean Manning)

One category of evidence central to this issue [of the abuse of civilians by soldiers] is the large number of petitions directed to officials, where in one sample roughly a third were directed to centurions acting in a local police role (Hobson 1993). The sheer number of petitions suggests that abuse was widespread. A still further complication could be that a centurion was petitioned concerning abuse by a soldier. How likely is fairness in this regard? Such was the case for Aurelius Sarapion in a petition to the centurion Aurelius Marcianus:

there is nothing more dreadful or harder to bear than maltreatment. At the time of life I have reached, being over eighty years, I served faithfully as an Arab archer. A sow having escaped from my daughter in the village and being reported to be at the house of the soldier Julius, I went to him to demand his oath about this matter, and he laying hands on me, despite my age, in the village in the middle of the day, as if there were no laws, laboured me with many blows. (P. Graux 4 [248])

He goes on to list witnesses and to seek redress.

From Colin Adams, “War and Society in the Roman Empire” in B. Campbell and L. A. Tritle eds., The Oxford Handbook of Warfare in the Classical World (Oxford University Press: Oxford 2013) p. 267

(I do not have access to that volume of P. Graux, so I cannot give the original text)

Adams uses this papyrus to ask a question about how often Roman centurions (who often acted as judges and police in the countryside) gave justice when a civilian accused a soldier. Today I will ask another question. In this passage an ancient person tells us a great deal about who he was, or who he wanted to be seen to be. So what was Sarapion’s ethnicity? I would encourage my learned readers to really think about this whether or not they click “more” to see my opinion.

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Reviving the “Journal of Roman Military Equipment Studies”

A typical page from the old JRMES: “after many costly and fruitless experiments” John Duckham wields his 10-cubit lance on horseback https://www.indiegogo.com/project/journal-of-roman-military-equipment-studies/embedded The Journal of Roman Military Equipment Studies used to publish finds of Roman banded armour, reconstructions of Roman saddles, and experiments with sarissas on foot and on horseback. Like... Continue reading: Reviving the “Journal of Roman Military Equipment Studies”

Bonus Content: “Victoria Navalis” Bibliography

A corroded copper-alloy coin with a Roman emperor's profile on one side and the goddess Victoria standing on a ship's prow on the other

A coin of Vespasian with the legend VICTORIA NAVALIS S C, courtesy of Classical Numismatic Group, Electronic Auction 340, Lot 333, via coinarchives.com

In my recent Ancient Warfare article I mentioned that scholars are divided on how to interpret the legend VICTORIA NAVALIS on Roman coins. Some link it with a battle between Romans and Jews in the Sea of Galilee, some with the centenary of Augustus’ victory over the fleet of Antony and Cleopatra, and some with the Roman civil wars of 69 CE. Since I am not an expert on numismatics or Roman Judaea I wanted to get a wide range of opinions. Search engines make it easier to find brief mentions in footnotes and sidebars than it once was, but finding and sorting still takes effort. Here are some scholars who have stated what they think the legend refers to:

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