Roman Frontiers in Northern Britain and in the Eastern Empire

Meeting date

Professor J. Crow (Edinburgh University)

Meeting report

Professor Jim Crow of the School of History, Classics and Archaeology at Edinburgh University has served there since 2007. In the 1970s his Roman and Byzantine interest was enhanced by a period of excavating while based in Ankara. He was invited to speak to Dumfriesshire and Galloway Natural History and Antiquarian Society. His subject was 'Roman Frontiers in Northern Britain and in the Eastern Empire'.

Throughout the evening this interesting and enthusiastic speaker switched from Northern Britain to The Eastern frontiers of Turkey and occasionally to South West Germany. His skill as a photographer was evident and revealed some spectacular scenery in all locations.

The Cendere Koprusu Bridge, constructed in the late 190s AD, is one of the best-preserved Roman bridges in the world. It was built in honour of Septimus Severus, the first black Emperor, to mark his great campaigns. There were originally 4 columns 9–10 metres high: on one side two were dedicated to Severus and his second wife and on the other side two to represent their two sons Caracalla and Geta. The latter attempted to erase his brother's memory by the removal of that of his brother after he murdered him.

Roman Emperors travelled extensively in the course of their campaigns and activities within the Empire. Severus went into what is now Iraq when visiting the East. A decade and a half later he came to Britain and is known to have reached north of the Forth, maybe even into Aberdeenshire because aerial photography has revealed a chain of marching camps. Severus died in York exactly 1000 years ago on 4th February.

In Britain the Romans were dealing with tribal groupings. The frontier was maintained by a series of walls, the most important being Hadrian's Wall running from East coast to West coast. Current thinking inclines to the belief that it must have had some military function: witness one of the welcome to Pathhead signs, as one approaches from the English side on the A68, where there is a relief carving showing a native wielding an axe aggressively on a Roman.

In SW Germany 'Limes' (Leemays) were created as barriers in the form of a sequence of forts, not as formidable as Hadrian's Wall, but successful nevertheless.

On the other hand in SE Turkey in an area called Commagene in Asia Minor there was a series of well-established kingdoms that had existed in the 2nd millennium BC. There was a great city called Samosata, (which as well as the whole region of former Commagene is now under water for the purposes of irrigation and HEP.) The natives erected great sculptures to Zeus and Antiochus, for instance. They were clad in very un-Roman-like oriental clothing! The Romans only gradually conquered them by 'suasion.' There remains a legacy of roads, which in the mountainous parts (where the terrain was very different from that in Britain) had shallow steps; and legionary fortresses, such as at Malatya in the East and at York, Chester and Inchtuthil in the West.

In Eastern Turkey up to the 3rd Century AD the policy of building barrier walls was unnecessary because the Romans were dealing with the Parthians, successors to the Persians, and were not threatened since Armenia, a significant and independent kingdom then, served as a buffer state between the Roman Empire and Persia. The Romans treated the natives like clients (as they did in southern Britain). There is evidence of intermarriage taking place (whereas in Britain it has not been proven one way or the other.)

A new dynasty replaced the Parthians. The Romans found themselves engaged in war against their successors, the Sassanians, who sacked Antioch. A defence was built which failed. Asia Minor was abandoned.

It is thought that the Romans were in Britain for grain. It was strategically very important because in the 350s AD under Emperor Julian the largest garrison of the Roman Empire with 3 legions was in Britain.

Palmyra was an oasis in the Syrian desert. In the 1920s and 30s when the French had a mandate of Syria they led the field in aerial reconnaissance. Mapping revealed a line of small forts strung out along the frontier road from the Euphrates to Damascus. They served as points for water collection and storage. The system enabled goods such as spices and silks from the Far East to come by camel caravan via the Tigris and Euphrates to the Mediterranean world and Rome. Thus Palmyrans became very rich.

Strange to tell, in the ASDA car park at South Shields there is a replica inscription of Regina, a free woman. Her husband, Barates, was a Palmyran. The inscription, originally from Hadrian's Wall, is in the Museum at South Shields.

The arrival of the Sassanians marked the end of Palmyran control. Palmyra was taken directly under Roman control. From the time of Emperor Diocletian (284–305AD) an intense military presence was necessary. A very fine legionary fortress was built. Thenceforth a significant number of men had to be committed to guard from the Black Sea to the Red Sea.

In NW Britain it was proving difficult to negotiate with the native tribes. The Romans left around the end of the 4th Century. Something similar happened in the East, which the Romans abandoned in the early 5th Century. West of Istanbul thick afforestation was thought to have destroyed archaeological evidence. Research has revealed a 65 kilometre wall, the Anastasian Wall. It was termed the Final Frontier by Edward Gibbon, who wrote 'The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire'.