How does archaeological evidence shed light on the success of the roman army?


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The current archaeological evidence for the presence of the Roman army across Europe, the Mediterranean, Near East and North Africa is significant both in quality and quantity but is probably only a fraction of what there is to be discovered. However, much of it cannot be construed as providing evidence for the success of the Roman army (Goldsworthy 2007: 12-13). As a force, which had an impressive and unparalleled range and time span of success, the Roman army was both dynamic and energetic in its scope of duties that covered the military, civic and political arenas. In these roles it was central both physically and psychologically to the expansion of the republic and empire by conquest and the preservation of Roman rule.

For much of its early existence the Roman army was a militia that only formed at times of crisis and then disbanded when the danger had passed, its soldiers returning to normal society and the daily routine of agriculture thus leaving no permanent features as evidence of their success (Keppie 1991a: 32-33). Only with the creation of a permanent, professional army under the Principate does more physical evidence appear in the archaeological record. Luttwak (1979: 4-5) proposes that there are three systems that can be identified for Roman strategy, the first of which covers the expansion of the republic and empire that was ultimately bounded by the emperor Hadrian (117-138AD) who set the physical limits of the empire. This essay will use evidence from that period to demonstrate the military success of the Roman army.

When the emperor Hadrian came to power in 117AD he was aware that the Roman army was thinly stretched and so he set limits (limes) to the physical extent of the empire using natural boundaries where they existed, like the rivers Rhine, Danube and Euphrates which were patrolled by Roman vessels and were important trade and communication routes (Goldsworthy 2007: 155), and building barriers, like the Clausurae in North Africa, where they did not (Whittaker 1997: 70-71). The most famous of these barriers, at least in Britain, is Hadrian's Wall in the north of England which stretches some 80 Roman miles (73 miles) from South Shields on the East coast to Bowness on the West, providing a substantial barrier between the conquered territories to the South and the Barbarian lands to the North (Fig. 1). However it was not just a physical barrier, it was also a psychological one as it demonstrated the power and presence of Rome and acted as like a customs post, monitoring movement in either direction, questioning its purpose, and levying the appropriate taxes (Whittaker 1997: 82-83).

Archaeological evidence indicates that it was built by the Roman army because they left their legionary emblems and names on bricks and tiles at intervals along the wall, thus indicating the sections they had constructed (Breeze 2002: 48-49). However, the wall did not limit the diplomatic influence (or interference) of Rome in the affairs of people beyond the barrier (Whittaker 1997: 18) but it did make an unequivocal 'we are here to stay' statement, thereby demonstrating the success and might of an army from a city 2,000 miles away.

A wall or river does not, of itself, provide an insurmountable barrier and it must therefore be patrolled and protected. This needs men and equipment which require housing, hence the establishment of legionary fortresses and auxiliary forts either as part of the barrier or in close proximity which can be seen in the archaeological record (Campbell 2006: 27-29). However, these should not be viewed in the same way as medieval castles as they were bases from which the Roman army would emerge to fight or patrol rather than purely defensive structures (Goldsworthy 2002: 155). Taking Housesteads (Fig. 2) legionary fortress on Hadrian's Wall as an example it can be seen that, besides providing accommodation and facilities for the soldiers, it also had a hospital, granary and workshops which gave it an air of permanency and order indicating that the builders knew what they were doing, understood the form and function of the fortress and again made the statement of power and success (Breeze 2006: 7-8).

As well as the physical remains of the fortress providing an archaeological record for the success of the Roman army other evidence can be found at Caerleon in South Wales where roof tiles and bricks have legionary inscriptions on them (Brewer 2000: 20-21). In the case of Vindolanda, also on Hadrian's wall, we have the famous writing tablets which, although not directly providing proof of success, shed light on the daily routine of a successful conquering army (Birley 2007: 84-86). Growing up around a number of these fortresses and forts were civilian settlements that provided the additional comforts required by the soldiers, and some of these grew so large that they became towns and cities in their own right, as at Colchester in England and Lyon in France (Smith 2009: 272).

Lines of communication to link up forts and fortresses, and support the linear barriers (either natural or manufactured), were of paramount importance. The Roman army needed to be able to concentrate units and deploy troops rapidly to counter any insurrection or insurgency. Hence the development of an extensive network of roadways built by the army to facilitate this movement of military manpower, although these roads were also used by the civilian communities. However, their existence has to be classified as a major success for the army since it improved their ability to respond rapidly to threats (Goldsworthy 2002: 147). The fact that these roadways, although overlaid with more modern fabric and materials (like the A5 in Britain which follows the line of Ermine street), still provide a basic infrastructure today is a testament to the successful design and implementation of a strategic communications plan by the Roman army.

So far the physical presence of the Roman army in the extremes of empire has been taken into account but it is well documented that their greatest success was in war, which they commemorated with triumphal arches, columns and monuments (i.e. visible propaganda). Perhaps the most famous examples of these monuments to success are the column of Trajan in Rome and the Adamklissi monument in Romania (Richmond 1982: 43-46). These monuments celebrate the wars between Rome, under the emperor Trajan (98-117AD), and Dacia, under their king Decebalus.

Documenting the whole campaign the column of Trajan has a frieze some 200 metres long spiralling around it which depicts scenes of the army undertaking many tasks, such as besieging and capturing the Dacian capital (Fig. 3). The column, which still exists today, is a testament to the success of the army as it expanded the empire, although this success was short lived as the emperor Hadrian withdrew Roman forces from Dacia (Whittaker 1997: 70-71). At Adamklissi, in modern day Romania, Trajan set up his Tropaeum Traiani, a trophy monument with depictions of captured arms and soldiers (Goldsworthy 2007: 131-132). Using the metope from crenellation XIX, as a typical example, this shows a captured Dacian warrior (Fig. 4), thus demonstrating to the local populace that they had been beaten and were now part of the Roman empire. It also reminded the Dacians that they had been conquered and, probably as a warning against any insurrection, it was a veiled threat that they, the Romans, could come back and do it again (Richmond 1982: 53-54). This therefore demonstrates the extent of the Roman empire built on the success of the army in battle.

Having focussed on the success of the army as an entity, evidence will now be sought in the archaeological record for the success of individual soldiers. The epigraphic record presented by gravestones and commemorative stele opens up a plethora of information in a formalised style that, although requiring some translation and interpretation, can demonstrate the significant contribution of the individual to the successful achievements of the Roman army (Keppie 1991b: 98-99). The panel from a statue base found in Colchester (Fig. 5) is a typical example indicating a soldier who had been decorated and rewarded by the emperor Claudius for military service in Britain. It also tells a more detailed story, showing the positions he held within Rome and the rewards he had received for his success (Keppie 1991b: 86). Nor were these commemorations restricted in scale, as evidenced by the monument of Lucius Poblicius (Keppie 1991b: 90) which is 48ft high and demonstrates the status and wealth a soldier could accumulate as a result of successful campaigns and conquests.

Some soldiers, having completed their term of service remained in the locality in which they served and became part of the community. They might also have contributed to the community as it established itself as a town or city centred on the legionary fortress, with some of these retired veterans marrying local women and raising families. This type of development was encouraged by Rome as most of the non-Mediterranean areas it conquered were not urbanised and Rome, being a city based culture itself, dealt better with other city-based cultures where they could rule or interact with the local elite, especially if, through marriage, those links to the elite could be dynastic (Keppie 1991b: 52-53).This could be viewed as another success of the Roman army: the settlement of conquered lands by retiring veterans, as not only did those veterans provide a constant reminder of the presence, power and reputation of Rome but they were a readymade militia force ( type of territorial army) in times of trouble. A prime example of this type of settlement is the establishment of the veteran colony of Colonia Sarmizegethusa Ulpia as the capital of Roman Dacia under Trajan (Goldsworthy 2007: 131).

Unfortunately, such is the nature of army life that warfare and death are constant companions of a soldier. So when a Roman soldier died in some foreign land, whether in battle or of disease, they would be buried (or cremated and then the ashes buried) locally rather than being returned to their original birthplace. Gravestones marking the graves of soldiers have been discovered which cover all ranks from generals downwards. Again they are stylised and formalised but they can provide significant information about the success of an individual as part of a successful army. A typical example of the genre can be seen in the gravestone of a cavalryman (Fig. 6) where the iconography depicts a Roman soldier trampling a barbarian enemy under the hooves of his horse thus indicating the superiority and success of Roman arms. Other gravestones may depict the soldier in civilian dress or reclining, thereby indicating wealth and status, but the 'action' gravestone as typified by the cavalryman best exemplifies the military success of the soldier.

Some of the troops on the frontiers, as well venerating the Roman gods and the Emperor, would be members of more mystic, Eastern cults with one of the most popular being Mithraism. Having its own secret rites and ceremonies this cult also had its own shrines (Mithraeum) as is evidenced by the well known examples south of the fort at Carrawburgh, to the west of Housesteads (Keppie 1991b: 97); Baalbeck in Lebanon (Smith 2009: 276); or even Dura Europas on the Euphrates (Keppie 1991b: 97). Whilst not directly providing evidence for the military success of the Roman army this does further underpin the permanent nature of their fortresses and via the inscriptions can provide a link back to the original towns that the soldiers came from, hence demonstrating the multi-national, multi-regional nature, of the army and the distances covered in enforcing Roman rule and reputation (Keppie 1991b: 97).

While they were living, soldiers needed to be paid in order to obtain those items not provided by the army. Paid in coins, which would have the head of the emperor on one side (obverse) so the soldiers knew who their paymaster was, the reverse often contained images relating to military events and successes (Keppie 1991b: 10). Coins were a good source of ancient propaganda, the tabloid newspapers of their time, but they can also provide significant information about the success of the Roman army. Taking Fig. 7 as a typical example, this depicts Gallic arms captured by Julius Caesar during war against the Gaulish tribes in the first century BC indicating the success of Caesar and his army in defeating their enemy, expanding the republic and generating revenue through the sale of slaves(Keppie 1991a: 225). Other examples have been found that show defeated enemies (Keppie 1991a: Plate 4e) or significant events in military history, like the recovery of the standards lost by Crassus and Mark Antony against the Parthians (Keppie 1991a: Plate 17a). Plentiful in nature, with many hoards being found, coins are the most accessible of the sources of information on the success of the Roman army. However, unlike the other sources which have been considered and are above ground and visible, coins tend to be buried, deposited, or lost on the ground and have to be excavated before they can be deciphered.

This essay has attempted to prove that there is a significant quantity of archaeological evidence available to shed light on the success of the Roman army as a military force. However, the evidence presented is only part of what is currently available as no consideration has been given to those items which are civic in nature but would still have been constructed by military personnel. Archaeological evidence for bridges, aqueducts, mosaics and bath houses can be found but have been omitted because they have only a tenuous link to the military success of the army. For the same reason finds of military equipment, either as deposits, funerary goods or remnants from a military defeat like the Kalkriese mask discovered in Germany at the site of the Varian disaster of 9AD (Goldsworthy 2007: 12), even though they speak volumes about how the army functioned, have been excluded. Items such as the ramp from the siege of Masada in 73AD or the skeletons at Maiden Castle from the invasion of Britain in 43AD (Goldsworthy 2007: 12) may provide evidence of military success but this essay has focussed on the most common items rather than 'one offs'. In conclusion, there is significant archaeological evidence available to demonstrate the success of the Roman army as a military force, but the challenge for archaeologists is to pull it all together, along with literary evidence, understand it, and create a picture of the Roman army (Goldsworthy 2007: 17) that will enable the telling of a comprehensive and coherent success story.

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