Romanity on the frontier

Life and Letters on the Roman Frontier - English Heritage Book of Housesteads - Roman Building Materials and Techniques - The Towns of Roman Britain
January 10, 1997

To move from Jean-Pierre Adam's empire-wide overview of Roman building construction to the detail in a letter to the fort commander at Vindolanda, in north Britain, asking his assistance for carting stone, is one instance of the sometimes unexpected ways in which the books reviewed here complement one another.

Adam's book was first published in French in 1989, and this English translation is most welcome. Nothing comparable is currently in print, and no earlier publication on the subject is so wide-ranging or so fully illustrated. Many of the 746 photographs and line-drawings are the author's, and of excellent quality. The drawings are particularly helpful in reconstructing roofing, scaffolding, lifting devices, plastering and other processes. Potentially dry detail is enlivened by occasional scale figures of puppies, basking cats and perching songbirds. The Romans' own pictorial record of building activities in wall-painting and sculpture also provides valuable evidence here.

After a short first chapter on surveying and a long second one on building materials, various types of masonry construction are reviewed, followed by chapters on carpentry, wall and floor coverings. Two final chapters deal with particular types of structure: civil engineering (water, heating, roads), and domestic and commercial architecture, with the purpose of observing applications of the techniques discussed earlier, but extending to such features as gardens and olive presses. Anthony Mathew's translation shows commendable mastery of the technical terms.

While many of the examples may be individually familiar, the aggregate of information compiled and condensed here is most impressive. Selected points may illustrate how much may be learnt from this book. The Pantheon's 24-foot monolithic columns of Egyptian granite, contrasted with an ordinary Pompeian house's colonnade made up of superimposed drums of stuccoed tufa, make a strong statement about the imperial power which could command such massive and exotic pieces. Contrast again the greater mobility of the constituent materials of Roman concrete, which combined with an increased availability of semi-skilled slave labour provided the capacity for relatively rapid construction of large-scale projects. That facility, together with the Romans' transformation of the arch from "simply a hole in a mass to a structure to enclose an open space", culminated in such achievements as the rotunda of the Pantheon, "the masterpiece of Roman architecture".

It is curious to learn, however, that while Roman architects confidently created intersecting vaults in concrete, they avoided doing so in cut stone. Similarly, while hypocaust heating was another Greek idea which they transformed, they did not apply the principle of the flue to making fireplaces with chimneys, except perhaps in Gaul. To have roofed structures as wide as some Roman basilicas implies use of the triangulated truss, in which the respective tensions and compressions of jointed timbers create a rigid structure. In the absence of surviving Roman roofs and of much information about them from Vitruvius, Adam looks to ships' timbers for evidence of jointing. He could, however, have found more information from Britain than a well-lining from York: but there are geographical limitations to his coverage. Naturally, because of their preservation, Pompeii and Herculaneum predominate. Rome, other Italian sites and, not surprisingly, France also provide much evidence, with some also from North Africa and Asia Minor. In this major synthesis, not every regional variation can expect equal attention.

One consequent question, then, is how far Romano-British sites stand comparison. John Wacher's book on the towns, though not directed to that question, certainly contains references to much relevant material. It is the second edition of a work published in 1975, which was the first to collate the evidence for Britain's major Roman towns. The boom in urban development was already giving unprecedented opportunities for archaeological excavations. Much new evidence has thus accumulated over the intervening 20 years, and Wacher must be congratulated first for his success in such a formidable updating task. He follows the format of the first edition, starting with two chapters in which he defines the various status of Roman towns and their part in the province, and discusses the main types of public building. The towns are then discussed in order, starting with London; then towns with the formal constituted status of a colonia; then the urban centres of each civitas, the communities based on the native British tribes.

What, then, is new? Discoveries in London include the amphitheatre, the long-sought defensive walls along the Thames, and a series of riverside wharves with waterlogged timbers, the evidence for which, with similarly preserved buildings from York, could have been a useful addition to Adam's book. Much more is now known about the native settlements which preceded Roman Canterbury and Verulamium. In Canterbury, too, city-centre excavations have led to substantial revision of the Roman street plan, and added new evidence for public and private buildings. Chronologies based on old excavations at Silchester and Caerwent have been superseded, part of the evidence at the former comprising previously unknown timber predecessors to the stone-built forum-basilica. New or revised plans of every town have been needed.

Much of this substantially supersedes the first edition, but Wacher's overall approach remains essentially the same. In his preface, he states that it was to "follow very much the traditional style of earlier writers on Romano-British matters". He eschews the graphs, statistics and other such "fashionable trappings of modern archaeology". "Traditional style" may be taken to connote a view of Roman Britain determined primarily by surviving Latin historical texts and inscriptions. Some consequences for the balance and presentation of the book may be noted.

Since the historical texts are mainly concerned with military campaigns, close attention was traditionally given to the archaeology of defensive structures. That remains evident here, and those townspeople who are named on inscriptions, likewise. By contrast, and the more noticeably so by comparison with Adam's book, the attention given to domestic housing is often quite summary, though evidence for commercial activities, as well as for such amenities as aqueducts, is discussed more fully.

Another traditional concern has been with the towns'administrative status. Their assignation to particular chapters is predicated on the hypothetical sequence of their constitution as civitas capitals. The more complex and extended sequences of architectural development attested by the recent archaeological work do not always fit this framework well. On a similar point, it was decided to include Chelmsford, on the basis of conjecture that it might have been civitas capital of the Trinovantes, despite its admitted lack of Wacher's two formal criteria for a Roman town, co-ordinated planning and the provision of public amenities: the tail of historical hypothesis here seems to be wagging the dog of substantive archaeology. Even those who do not share Wacher's viewpoint, however, will find that he has drawn together an abundance of material on which further research can be based.

In conclusion, Wacher considers how much of urban life continued after Britain ceased to be a Roman province early in the fifth century. His 1975 hypothesis of plague as a terminal factor attracted a critical rejoinder from Malcolm Todd, but Wacher is "unrepentant" in maintaining his position. Those who enjoy scholarly polemic should not neglect the footnotes to this final chapter; nor the Delphic reminder that much is an exercise in probabilities.

Among Adam's four illustrations of British structures, two are of Hadrian's Wall and one is the granary of the wall fort at Housesteads. James Crow's book on this fort is one of the Batsford/English Heritage collaborative series intended for a public with an informed but not necessarily academic interest in archaeology: authoritative text, plentiful illustrations, full bibliography but no footnotes. House-steads, which stands on the bleakest central sector of Hadrian's Wall in an area which was off-limits to early antiquarians who valued their lives, is now the most visited site on the Roman frontier.

Crow's early chapters on the building of Housesteads and the architectural anatomy of the fort provide excellent local illustrations of Adam's discussions of quarrying, types of stone and constructional techniques. The fort was occupied for nearly three centuries, many of the later structures re-utilising earlier material. Crow's discussions of the buildings and their garrisons are enhanced by the perspective of previously having worked on military sites in Asia Minor. There are interesting concluding sections on the less well-known post-Roman history of the area and on the 19th-century archaeological investigations of the fort which were of formative importance for the development of Wall studies in general.

Among the most interesting aspects of Housesteads, however, is its civilian population. Around the fort there are still extensive remains of their settlement, the vicus. As well as their shops and dwellings, they are attested by religious dedications and tombstones. Here, in a landscape which readily evokes the confrontation between civilisation and barbarism, was a very Roman community, one whose Romanity was of a different variety from the inhabitants of Wacher's civitas towns.

This is vividly evident from the documents found at the nearby fort of Vindolanda which are the subject of Alan Bowman's book. The circumstances of their recovery are as remarkable as their contents. Since 1973 over 1,000 fragments of texts written on postcard-sized wooden tablets have been found in waterlogged deposits outside the fort. They include a unit strength report of the 1st Cohort of Tungrians from Gaul, later to be based at Housesteads; accounts for money and goods; letters from merchants, dealers and slaves; a letter from the fort commander Cerealis about meeting the provincial governor, and others to his wife Lepidina from the wife of another fort commander, one an invitation to her birthday party. Bowman appends 34 of these texts to his commentary, with both Latin and English versions.

These afford vivid and detailed insights into frontier garrison life, but Bowman also has broader points to make. Similar evidence is well known from Egyptian papyri, but the literacy of Roman Egypt had a long-established background. Not so in Britain: but here, in a unit raised from provincial Gauls, Latin literacy was an everyday presence, not just for the officer class, but among traders and slaves as well. Several hundred different hands are recognisable among the scripts.

Two points may be made in conclusion. First, how much depends on conditions of preservation. The Vindolanda find was exceptional: so were the circumstances which preserved the remains of Pompeii and Herculaneum. Secondly, how much can archaeology reveal about the working of ancient society? Wacher, in contrasting Cirencester's prosperity with Gloucester's relative lack of initiative in building, attributes the latter to the conservatism of the military veterans of the colonia and their descendants, compared with Cirencester's greater scope for the entrepreneur. A case can indeed be made for two versions of Roman culture in Britain, that of the Romanised Britons and that of the military areas. Whether the society of Roman Gloucester was the equivalent of Cheltenham's retired colonels, however, could only be known if a similar discovery to Vindolanda's were to be made on the banks of the Severn. Otherwise, it is guesswork. But then, as W. H. Auden (quoted by Bowman) wrote in his poem "Archaeology", "guessing is always much more fun than knowing".

T. F. C. Blagg is senior lecturer in archaeology, University of Kent, Canterbury.

Life and Letters on the Roman Frontier

Author - Alan K. Bowman
ISBN - 0 7141 1389 1
Publisher - British Museum Press
Price - £14.95
Pages - 159

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