Roman Frontiers

Antonine Wall reconstruction by Paul DarnellRoman frontiers are one of my key specialist subjects, and I have offered a final-year undergraduate course (for Archaeology and History students) in this area since September 2014. Following a low enrollment in the first year, the course is now consistently one of the most popular final-year choices for students across both subject areas. This course provides an in-depth investigation of the Frontiers of the Roman Empire and key themes in the ways in which these frontiers have been studied and presented. The course traces the movement away from Rome’s early expansionist policy toward containment and consolidation in the AD 120s to 160s, including Hadrianic and Antonine frontiers across the empire. Teaching on this course seeks to balance a firm grounding in traditional scholarly approaches to Roman frontiers with emerging themes that draw on a range of disciplines and cross-comparisons with frontiers and borders in other regions and periods, including borderlands in the contemporary world. In addition to readings across Roman history and archaeology, students will be exposed to sources across multiple disciplines, including the American west and contemporary borderlands such as the US-Mexico border and Europe in the context of Brexit.

The course begins with an overview of the spatial, cultural, and material diversity of Roman frontiers across the empire, from the Roman Walls (i.e. Hadrian's Wall and the Antonine Wall) in Britain to the range of fortifications and (occasional) linear barriers across Europe, the near east, and north Africa. Several classroom sessions are devoted to an in-depth exploration of Hadrian's Wall, chosen for several reasons: including the great depth of material evidence and research, as well as the fact that this is the Roman frontier with which students at this institution are already most familiar. Students quickly learn that much of what they already "know" about this frontier is either incorrect or over-simplified, and we dissect the Wall's structural anatomy and some of the big debates that scholars have wrestled with for a century or more. David Breeze's (2014) book, Hadrian's Wall: A History of Archaeological Thought, is a key text, as are the papers of the Society of Antiquaries of Newcastle Upon Tyne's journal Archaeologia Aeliana. A mid-course assessment centres on the students demonstrating their knowledge and understanding of key theories for the original function/purpose of Hadrian's Wall, including the key proponents for each theory and the primary evidence on which each is based. Regular classroom instruction and assigned readings are augmented by the whole class (including myself) collectively following along with the excellent FutureLearn Hadrian's Wall course developed by Newcastle University. This has greatly enhanced our classroom discussions, and increased student interest.

Donald Trump's Big Beautiful WallFollowing our detailed investigation of Hadrian's Wall, the course then shifts focus to the nature and concerns of academic discourse regarding the study of Roman frontiers, critiques of traditional "Roman Frontier Studies," and a shared critical debate about the benefits and pitfalls of proposed more expansive and comparative approaches. We start with an examination of critiques leveled by Hugh Elton (1996), C.R. Whittaker (1997), and Simon James (2002) and then look at several new approaches that may address their concerns. These include research by Roman archaeologists (e.g. Andrew Gardner (2007) and Richard Hingley (2012)) who have offered non-traditional perspectives, but also a wide variety of extra-disciplinary research that focuses on borders and borderlands of the more recent past and contemporary world (e.g. papers in the Journal of Borderlands Studies). Importantly, the traditional approach to Roman Frontier Studies is not maligned within the course, and students learn to appreciate that comparative research must be cautiously carried out: rather than seeking answers about the Roman past from present-day border zones, we can best exploit these approaches by using observations from other frontier/border/borderland contexts in order to formulate new questions that we can ask about the Roman period. Final assessment allows students to choose from a selection of topics that have been debated throughout the latter portion of the course. Given the current context of the recent (and future?) Scottish Independence Referendum, Brexit, and the election of Donald Trump, I am looking forward to the discussions we will have as the module takes place in early 2017.

Works Cited

  • Breeze, D.J. (2014) Hadrian's Wall: A History of Archaeological Thought. Kendal: Cumberland and Westmorland Antiquarian and Archaeological Society.
  • Elton, H. (1996) Frontiers of the Roman Empire. London: Batsford.
  • Gardner, A. (2007) An Archaeology of Identity: Soldiers and Society in Late Roman Britain. Walnut Creek, CA: Left Coast Press.
  • Hingley, R. (2012) Hadrian's Wall: A Life. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • James, S.T. (2002) Writing the legions: The past, present, and future of Roman military studies in Britain. Archaeological Journal, 159: 1–58.
  • Whittaker, C.R. (1997) Frontiers of the Roman Empire: a Social and Economic Study. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Image Credits

  • Antonine Wall table-top war game terrain by Paul Darnell, courtesy of Warlord Games.
  • Donald Trump's "Big Beautiful Wall," courtesy of the Art of Facts blog.

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This page was last updated on 6 November 2017.