Williams, Derek. Romans and Barbarians: Four Views from the Empire’s Edge, 1st Century AD.

NY: St. Martin, 1998.

When I did an undergraduate history degree many years ago, I found myself concentrating on “early medieval,” which is the period during which the hegemony of Rome was being replaced by the more dynamic Germanic culture that eventually supplanted it — and which adopted many of its underlying assumptions.

Williams shares my interest and this is his second book on the subject. (His first was The Reach of Rome, about the frontier itself.) Rather than producing a general narrative, though, he provides focal points with four individuals who traveled widely during the first couple of generations after the establishment of the empire and reported back on what they found. The first was the poet Ovid, who journeyed beyond the Black Sea to the pontic steppe and wrote poetically about the Sarmatians. The second is Tacitus, one of the greatest historians of the classical world, who wrote extensively about the German tribes beyond the Rhine not that many years after the disaster at Teutoberger Forest. He may never have actually visited the area, but he was very well connected and certainly received detailed accounts from Drusus and others who were there on official business. The third witness Williams describes is Vespasian, who became emperor but was earlier a successful general on campaign in Britain and made extensive notes on the Celts against whom he fought. This chapter is more collective than the others, including commentaries by other military men in Britain, especially Agricola, Cerialis, and Frontinus (who later wrote two classics on the art of war). Finally, there was Trajan, the first emperor not born in Italy and a very talented (and successful) politician. But he was also the victor in the Dacian Wars in what is now Romania and had his successes recorded in the carvings on the splendid column that survives, almost untouched, in Rome. Historians have spent thousands of hours studying the column artist’s rendition of Roman military life and the culture of the conquered Dacia.

Throughout the volume, Williams weaves classical accounts with modern interpretations and makes brief side trips to discuss Arminius and Hadrian and the realities of a pre-industrial empire based on the value of agricultural land. His style is fluent and the points he makes, while not especially original, are succinct and perfectly accessible for the non-specialist. The very success of the empire’s expansion and the clash between it and the rest of the world led to apprehension among non-Romans and a cultural shift among the Germans, Celts, and Sarmatians. And that led eventually to the decline of Roman authority and its replacement by the Germans in the north and by the Persians in the east. This is a very good introduction to the margins of the Roman world during the century just before things became iffy.

Published in: on 23 February 2015 at 7:15 am  Leave a Comment  
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