Thoughts on frontier regions

I’m taking a class this quarter on frontier Roman archaeology, and after reading through the first few chapters of the primary textbook (Whittaker’s Frontiers of the Roman Empire) and trying to come up with some framework questions for the course, some thoughts came to mind.

(Warning: Extremely meandering thoughts here on changing perspectives on frontiers throughout history. Probably not interesting to most people.)

I think the correct overarching question for this course should be, “What would a Roman citizen [of various types, in various times and places] answer to questions about the edges of the Empire and what lies beyond them?” This question obviously extends naturally to later eras.

Obvious subpoints: What sort of sources are available? Surveys with random people in the street in classical Rome are notoriously hard to come by.

The course itself is focusing on the first 2 centuries AD, the period of full-speed Roman expansion. (Roughly from Augustus to Hadrian, with a bit of slop on the later side) My own background is more in Late Antiquity (3rd-6th centuries) through to the later Middle Ages, so it may be good to look at how those questions could be answered then.

  • In the Middle Ages, there’s a wealth of information. Especially after the Crusades opened up the Eastern frontier of Europe to travel (of one sort or another), there are a lot of narratives written by people who went travelling. This obviously has a selection bias – greengrocers typically weren’t writing narratives. But these narratives were widely circulated in their own time, and there are substantial indirect sources as well: logs of trade, primary sources on urban life, and so on, indicating the extent to which international travel and new perspectives on travel infiltrated daily life. Phillips’ The Medieval Expansion of Europe is an excellent analysis of this whole matter; it appears that there is enough information to synthesize a really coherent picture, and see how it flows into the Renaissance and Early Modern periods. I could babble about this subject for hours.

    (Come to think of it, Umberto Eco’s latest novel essentially is babbling about this for hours. It’s basically a story built out of the travel literature of that period, especially John of Mandeville and similar mythographers)

  • In later Late Antiquity and the early Middle Ages (say, 7-9c, the “Dark Ages”) there is much less evidence, but what evidence exists paints a pretty clear picture as well – namely, lines of communication had collapsed almost entirely, and it was almost impossible to travel even from one town to the next without a large military escort. Gregory of Tours is a good heads-up view on the earlier part of this period, but Cosmas Indicopleustes’ Topografia Christiana (mid-6c) may be one of the most indicative things of all: his idea of the plan of the Earth (which is still the basis for flat-earthers today) and his notions of mapping are really those of someone who had not only never been out of a small area, but knew nobody who had, nor had even heard any reliable stories of anyone who had. The answer to questions about frontiers during this time period would have been terror and mostly incomprehension from all but the highest of nobility, and from those only a fairly localized picture of the world, maybe knowing about some neighboring duchies, but seeing anything beyond that as rapidly descending into the world of the mythical.
  • Early Late Antiquity – say, from the time of troubles in the 3rd century up until Justinian’s ill-conceived attempt to reunify the Roman Empire – is the really interesting case, a transition between the Antique perspective and the later perspective. The picture isn’t fully clear in this period, and it’s something I could babble about for hours, but really I want to get a more solid sense of perspectives in Antiquity in order to make a deeper analysis thereof.
  • Imperial Rome, from Augustus up to slightly post-Hadrian, here simply “Antiquity” – this was the heyday of expansionism. There seems to be evidence that even the random schmuck in the street had heard of Parthia and the Danubian front, and had some notion of the extent of the Roman Empire. Some things about the perception of these boundaries was clear: they were targets for expansion, places we were going to conquer. Other things are less clear. In particular, what would people say about questions of what was beyond the borders? How much would the perspectives differ of people who lived in Rome and people who had actually been out to the frontiers? (This isn’t an obvious question – the attitudes of the latter may have propagated widely into society)

    One thing which may have significantly influenced this question is the Hellenistic view of the world as being comprised of cities (in the technical sense, i.e. πολ&epsilon&iotaς – cities with fora, markets, and certain other things, this being a recognized category in that time and place) with hinterlands in between. Towns, no matter how large, were really not much more than farmlands in the imagination of the time. Therefore it was possible for a soldier to come up to an actual boundary of Roman exploration, say going slightly beyond the Rhine or Danube, look off into the forests and so on and say that this was really the edge of the world, despite the fact that it was obviously possible to walk farther – there were simply no cities beyond that point. But what did individuals think about this?

I think the best ways to approach these issues will be to look for travel narratives. These may be unfortunately hard to find, but a few categories may be locatable: narratives by generals, histories written by people who had never been there, and itineraries. (The old substitute for maps – how to get from point A to point B. Dreadfully boring reading, but a potential mine of information)

Analyzing this question should give some good answers to how the Antique world evolved into the much more isolated, yet world-aware, Late Antique world. I’ve been of the opinion for some time that the real key characteristic of Late Antiquity is the changing relationship with the political Other (i.e., shifting definitions of Romanitas, dealing with barbarians as something other than fodder for conquest, not always being the ones in complete power, etc), and so a more careful examination of this question should be really interesting.

Published in: on April 3, 2003 at 19:26  Comments (4)  


  1. Actually, I found that fairly interesting. But then, I am odd.

  2. Read, if you have not already, Alan K. Bowman (1994),Life and Letters on the Roman Frontier, British Museum Press, or any other account you can find of the Vindolanda Letters. These are letters and records written by Roman auxiliaries serving on the Tyne-Solway frontier, and although they don’t talk directly about travel much, they provide some interesting perspectives, especially when you consider that the soldiers serving on these border forts had at one time been “barbarians.” The officers were probably the first citizen generation in their families. While they demonstrate contempt for people living on/beyond the border (it’s from these letters that we get the Roman slang term Brittunculi), I certainly don’t think that most Romans saw the world as ending at the limes. In Britain, at least, the border is a moving target — there’s a series of walls, and in at least one instance it goes as far north as Inchtuthil, way up in Scotland.
    I’m also not sure that the sense of the scope of the world in the Dark Ages was as narrow as you paint it. Alfred the Great had been to Rome, and people he knew (like Ohthere / Ottar) had been to Finland. That’s arguably farther than most Romans ever got. Look at the Sutton Hoo helmet, where the imagery testifies to cultural contacts between East Anglia, Northumbria, and Sweden. And look at the exciting career of someone like Ragnarr Lothbrok (for the anti-Alfred the Great) whose legend has been inflated, but who probably sailed from Scandinavia to the Mediterranean. Or the Rus merchants who wound up in the court of Louis the Pious — they had sailed from somewhere in Sweden into Russia, down the Dnepr to the Black Sea, thence to Constantinople, and because the return voyage was hazardous (no argument there), they went by Byzantine routes through the Mediterranean and France to (either Paris or Aachen, I can’t recall off the top of my head). Charlemagne’s top scholar Alcuin came from York, and the Frankish court had contact with Baghdad. Look at the viking grave on Helgo which contains an image of Buddha made in Samarkand, or the tens of thousands of Arabic silver dirhams found in Scandinavian burials and silver hoards. It’s probably tenth century, but the excavations at 16-22 Coppergate in York include silk and seashells from the Red Sea. I think you want to be careful about relying too much on the written sources. They’ll steer you wrong.
    The difference, I think, is that a lot of the travel writing in the Roman Empire is done by the military, and people who were top political figures were very likely to have done a hitch as legatus legionis. These guys are, of course, literate, as would have been most officer-class Romans and many common soldiers. The amount of travelling that Johnny Roman Citizen did during the height of the empire was probably not a lot. In the dark ages, literacy declines. Churchmen don’t travel much (although western bishops went to Justinian II’s synods, and I imagine to earlier ones as well), and merchants and pirates (who travel a fair whack) don’t write much down. Alfred the Great is unusual in that he interviews travellers and writes their stories down. But the trade network of the Viking Age (which spans your split between early and mid medieval, lasting from, say, 700-1066) extends from Ireland to Iceland to the Volga to Constantinople. And the trade networks of former parts of the Roman Empire like Spain and parts of the Middle East extend way east, into Central Asia.

  3. I agree that there were some people who did significant travel, especially from the “northern” regions – Vikings, Rus merchants, and so on. The catch with those is that their travel narratives didn’t seem to propagate into the rest of European culture; most of the rest of Europe saw them as one of the terrifying things that might happen to them, rather than a source of information. There were exceptions, of course, like Alfred the Great, but this doesn’t seem to have had much of a broader influence. (I’m comparing this to, e.g. Rome in the time of Augustus, when even though the average schmuck may not have travelled, he could think of people who had, and had heard various stories about far-off lands; in this period there just wasn’t a critical mass of travellers in most of Europe)
    The North itself was, as you point out, a completely different story – travel there was much more widespread, as both the written and archaeological records testify. But they didn’t have any significant cultural contact with the South (by which I mean two-way conversation, rather than one-way acquisition of knowledge as the northerners travelled) until the point when the North started to get Christianized, around the 10th century, which only happened after the South had partially gotten its act together.
    So I think the “narrowing of horizons” effect was really there, but I should have been more specific about where – the Norse didn’t seem to have any problems.
    (And BTW, thanks for reminding me about Bowman – I’d completely forgotten that book.)

  4. I still don’t know — I think there are narratives of travel. The Vita Anskarii is one; I’m just thinking of that based on Anskar himself, who was born in Picardy and traveled into modern Germany, Denmark and Sweden. Now, mind you, he thought he was going into “barbarian” country, but when he got to Hedeby (Birka? Hedeby? I think Hedeby) he found that there were a number of Christian Danes (not a great number, of course), people who’d been in contact with Frankish and Frisian Christians.
    I also think that we can’t really argue whether or not every Tom, Dick and Harry in Anglo-Saxon England would have known about others who had travelled abroad, because of course Tom, Dick and Harry couldn’t read or write. I’m just not sure that your average Bernician sheep herder in AD 700 knew any more or less about the outside world than your average Campanian goat herder in AD 120. It’s possible that he did or didn’t, but I don’t know whether there’s any way to demonstrate it — partly because they’d both have been illiterate, and partly because northern Anglo-Saxon settlement archaeology is significantly under-excavated.
    I don’t know what you mean by the north and the south (someone once tried to tell me that Quentovic was in “northern Europe,” so I’m always a little unsure on these terms). The places I really know a lot about that were former Imperial provinces in the Dark Ages are Britain, Francia, and a wee bit of Spain. But if you consider Britain and Francia to be “the north,” then the only province that leaves that isn’t part of the eastern empire or in Muslim hands for most of the period is Italy itself (although I could be missing one or two — Dalmatia?).
    I dunno though; I think there’s certainly a decline in geography and travel writing and the awareness of the individual as part of an … international? … community in some parts of Europe during the early medieval period (though again I question how widespread this awareness really was — how much did your average inhabitant of, say, Augusta Treverorum really think about this stuff?), but I certainly don’t think that “lines of communication had collapsed almost entirely.”

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