Frontiers of the Roman Empire: A Social and Economic Study - C.R. Whittaker The principle argument of Frontiers is that the idea of a well defined border between Roman civilization and rabid hordes of barbarians is nonsense foisted on generations of students by Enlightenment and later historians who viewed the empire through the distorted lenses of their own prejudices. (In their defense, however, one must take into account the enormous wealth of new information - particularly archaeological and anthopological - that Whittaker and his confreres have access to.)

Whittaker concentrates on the idea of "frontier" and what it meant to a Roman. To the extent that there was a definite border, it was purely administrative (p. 222). On one side, Rome exercised direct control; on the other side, that control was exercised indirectly (through client kings and/or subsidies and occasional military expeditions - force projection, to use a modern term). The imperium Romanum was coterminous with the world (the focus of the first three chapters). (This is similar to the Chinese idea that all were subject to the Emperor even if not all were directly ruled by him.)

The frontier, then, was a zone where two (or more) polities met, and the rivers, roads and mountains commonly associated with fixed borders were avenues of communication and control (pp. 62f and pp. 79f). The imperial frontiers were regions of economic development that allowed Rome to expand its area of direct control. In turn, though, competing polities arose (Germanic and other tribes along the Rhine-Danube frontiers) that put countervailing pressure on the limes. From the late Republic to the crisis of the third century (AD), Rome's frontier was pushing against undeveloped regions (except in the East, where she faced her only political/social/economic peer - Parthia/Persia). There was never a time when a fixed border existed, on one side of which cowered Rome and on the other lurked slavering hordes of rabid savages (Robert Howard and his Conan stories notwithstanding).

A parallel exists in America's own history - our "frontier" has never been static but, rather, a constantly moving zone of political and economic development that even today pushes up against Mexico and Canada, and is pushed upon by growing economies in Asia.

This is an enormously interesting book that marshalls a great deal of evidence to prove Whittaker's points to which I don't plan to do much justice in this review. Whittaker doesn't discount the idea that there was a difference between Roman and barbarian but that difference was almost entirely ideological - a perception of difference that, in reality, didn't exist.

Some of the more interesting arguments, IMO, included:

Whittaker argues that direct Roman control depended upon reliable supply lines. As evidence, he points to Roman efforts to push the line of direct control to the Elbe, which largely ceased with Varus' disastrous expedition to the Teuotoberger Wald in AD 9. Looking at a map, one might believe that the shorter Elbe-Danube defensive perimeter would make strategic sense. A more nuanced look would reveal that supplying a legion on the Elbe depended upon ships navigating the dangerous English Channel and North Sea. Considering the primitive nature of ancient naval technology, this was an unacceptable and untenable situation. Supply routes following the Rhine and Danube were more secure and easier to defend. (It's interesting to speculate where the frontier would have ended up if Rome had had decent ships capable of weathering the North Sea.) A similar situation pertained in Britain, where direct Roman control ended where arable farming and the roads ran out.

Whittaker also spends some time on the effects of military procurement on the economy. Based on the archaeological record, supply monopolies negotiated between the empire and merchants (for grain, particularly) determined markets and where economic activity took place (pp. 104f). In a related vein, frontier trade led to the development of local elites that, as long as Rome was dominant, became Romanized and measured themselves against Roman ideals. The "common folk" were hardly touched by the "civilizing" effects of Greco-Roman largesse.

The textual sources (Ammianus, etc.) for the late empire tend to be "gloomy" and overly pessimistic because the Roman ideology of universal imperium was being challenged (often successfully) on all fronts. Their world was coming to an end. "(T)he classical Roman ideology of frontiers was based on the idea of expansion and of control of the barbarians beyond the provinces" (p. 195).

Ultimately, there was no signal collapse of the empire, certainly not at any particular date like AD 476. There was a transformation as rival political and economic zones developed that became new civilizations. The debate is largely academic on when Rome fell and something different took its place (heck, there's a whole strain of Christian fundamentalism that looks forward to a restoration of the empire) but what I like about studies of this sort is the author's attempt to study the evidence and strip away preconceptions. It's not an easy task and I'm sure Whittaker and myself have our own blindspots but I find his (and other authors I've reviewed here on GoodReads) picture of our past more convincing, more exciting and far more interesting because of the evidence they discuss and their attempts to tie together a variety of disciplines to paint a more "complete" picture of our incredibly complex history.