Saturday, 13 October 2012

Edge of Empire review

De Rand van het Rijk. De Romeinen en de Lage Landen by  Jona Lendering and Arjen Bosman

Dutch 2010 edition

Edge of Empire, as it will be released in English, is in fact more of a military than a general history of the area between the Somme and the Weser in the Roman era. This is of course due to the remaining evidence, which mostly focuses on warfare.

The book starts off in earnest with the campaigns of Caesar in northern Gaul. The authors argue that the distinction between Gauls and Germans was not as strong as Caesar suggested (he had his own agenda to emphasize it). This remains a problem throughout this era of shifting tribal allegiances and confusion of ethnicity brought about by the fact that we mostly know these people through the heavily coloured writings of the Romans. Although the areas in the outer ring and even in Germania were Romanised over time, the clichés of the barbarians kept being used until the fall of empire.

In the 1st century AD the Rhine border was consolidated, while there were attempts at expansion across the Rhine. Although colonisation beyond the great river proved unsustainable, Roman influence extended across the Rhine through alliances and divide and rule politics.

Under Roman rule, the difference in economic development between the southern area and the Rhine frontier became more pronounced. This difference is a recurring theme throughout the book. The province of Lower Germania was part of the outer crust of the Roman Empire and the garrisons were an economic stimulus. Belgica, on the other hand, was part of the core, and a net tax exporter. This meant that after Roman power diminished, the outer ring declined, while Belgica could hold out on its own.

This was most pronounced during crises, for example in the 3rd century when internal conflict opened opportunities for external attacks. The new German alliances were more aggressive and more dangerous and mounted major incursions in 240 and 256-260.

The Gallic Empire under Postumus from 260-274 was a local response to the crisis in the absence of central aid. German troops were incorporated as foederati and more troops were stationed in the interior. However, in 274 the central authority was reasserted and troops were sent elsewhere at the expense of local garrisons. This in turn led to renewed incursions.

Although Belgica seems to have recovered well from the crisis, Lower Germany entered a long period of decline. The area north of the line Doornik, Bavay, Tongeren, Maastricht, Cologne was effectively given up as no mans land inhabited by German farmers. There is evidence that the language border shifted in this period as a result. The Frisians disappeared as a separate people and reappear as Saxons in present day Friesland. This was combined with ecological crises, like floods due to intensive salt pans.

Relative peace returned until troops from the west were called east in the crisis of 405-6, never to return. The abandonment of Britannia also meant the end of grain exports and maintaining the Rhine fortresses became unsustainable. Rome now effectively gave up the west.

Northern France and Belgium now became the power base for the Frankish kings. It remained a wealthy and self-supporting area and relatively stable as compared to the decline in the Mediterranean.

After the Frankish takeover a process of creeping Germanisation set in. Chlovis was still a Roman in name, but later Merovingians dropped all pretense. There is a tendency to paint the Germanisation as bringing along decline, but Lendering and Bosman argue that institutions like serfdom and feudalism not imported by Germans but already introduced by the Romans.

The book is well written in a clear style, much like its Roman examples. It´s richly illustrated with maps, portraits and photographs of archeological finds and reconstructions.

Lendering and Bosman emphasize the dearth of evidence and the extent of their conjecture. In many cases the archeological evidence points to different conclusions than the historical sources or contradictory historical sources must both be discounted.

The book is now reprinted in English as Edge of Empire - Rome's Frontier on the Lower Rhine and of course I heartily recommend it.

There's a few interesting tidbits relating to Britain at this time as well, which I will post later.

No comments:

Post a Comment

I appreciate comments. Let me know what you think!