[Section 1 Summary] [Section Summary] [Forward] [Contents] [Home]

2.1 Introduction to archaeological research

2.1.1 A male domain

Photo of Gerulata castellum in Slovakia
Figure 3: Gerulata castellum in Slovakia (photo P. M. Allison)

In the past, studies of Roman military bases have concentrated on these sites as part of a male domain, as combat units at the edge of the civilised world (e.g. Birley et al. 1974; Haupt and Horn 1977; Unz 1986). The Roman army has been viewed as a fighting machine (see Haynes 1999, 7; James 2002, 21), and the archaeology of Roman military forts has been concerned principally with the evidence these excavated sites provide for strategic military constructions and for Roman power. In this regard, Roman military archaeology, particularly that of the north-west frontier, has remained relatively segregated (see Gardner 2002, 325; James 2002, esp. 1-3), within the fragmented discipline of Roman archaeology (Woolf 2004). To a large extent, Roman military studies have been the domain of scholars who themselves have had military backgrounds (James 2002, esp. 10-11). Interest in the social life of the occupants of military sites has tended be at the more generalist level (e.g. Watson 1969), and to concentrate on 'laws, rules, customs and numbers' (James 2002, 24).

2.1.2 Military and civilian populations

In the last two decades there has been a marked shift in interest. There has been a growing concern for the relationships between military and civilian populations (e.g. Vetters and Kandler 1990; Maxfield and Dobson 1991, Groenman-van Waateringe et al. 1997; see also Jones 1997) from which has developed concern for the concept of a military/civilian dichotomy (Gardner 1999, 404). Thus, there has been a burgeoning interest in the settlements outside the fort proper, the vici and canabae (e.g. Sommers 1991; Groenman-van Waateringe et al. 1997, section 3). Such settlements were often founded at the same time as the fort and are identified as accommodation for the many camp-followers and tradespeople who provided service for the soldiers within the fort walls. There has also been an increased interest in the interactions of the Roman army with local populations (e.g. Groenman-van Waateringe et al. 1997, section 4), including the impact of ethnic recruitment on these populations (e.g. van Driel Murray 2003). Roman military bases are now being viewed as communities, involving a range of military and non-military personnel (Goldsworthy and Haynes 1999). Michael Speidel (1999) has argued that legionary fortresses functioned like towns, involving families, slaves, craftspersons and businessmen.

2.1.3 Use of space

Idealised plan of a fort
Figure 4: Idealised plan of a fort, with basic buildings (drawing P. A. Faulkner)

These interests have tended to direct research away from the internal dynamics of Roman forts and fortresses and towards a broader examination of their place in the landscape. Essentially, the arrangements of the buildings and spaces within excavated forts follow a relatively consistent pattern (Figure 4). A formal structuralist approach, detailed study of the nomenclature used for these components in the texts (e.g. Polybius, Pseudo-Hyginus), and typological analyses of the components of actual excavated sites, have been employed to identify names and functions of the internal buildings, roads and open spaces within the walls of excavated Roman military bases. Sometimes the artefacts from a specific building have been used to verify the function of all buildings of the same form, although in a fairly anecdotal fashion.

Harald von Petrikovits' work (1975) has been seminal in establishing the use of space within military forts. Since his study, the functions of the internal buildings in most excavated Roman sites are largely considered to be known. An understanding of the actual activities and internal relationships of the people who occupied these forts and fortresses has relied on this structuralist approach. For example, von Petrikovits' estimation of the amount of space each soldier required within a barracks (1975, 36) has been used to estimate how many soldiers an excavated barracks would have held and therefore the strength of the garrison housed there. However, such estimations are based on ground plans and do not consider that upper stories may have existed. Neither do they account for the possibility of the presence of non-military personnel within these barracks.

Von Petrikovits argued (1975, 37-67) that the personnel accommodated within the walls consisted principally of ordinary soldiers (milites gregarii), soldiers with special tasks (immunes); officers (centurions); staff officers (tribunes and praefecti) usually from equestrian or senatorial classes, and the commanders (legati legionis) of senatorial class. Inhabitants also included are cavalrymen, as well as grooms, stable-boys, drivers and guides associated with them and with the baggage train. This approach to the fort occupants and their use of space is based on the traditional belief that the fort was a segregated male military zone, and other non-military personnel, including women and children who were not members of an officers' family, would have resided and carried out their trade in the accompanying settlement, the vicus or canabae. This perspective has often been the premise on which interpretations of the use of space in Roman military forts and fortresses have been based. Gardner has argued (2002, 338), however, that this structuralist 'impression is counterbalanced by the complexity of the inhabitants' and this 'boundness' is 'blurred by the presence (indicated in the small finds data) of people within the walls who are not members [of the fort] in an organisational sense'.

2.1.4 Social life

Only in the last decade has greater interest been taken in the role of archaeological remains in informing on communities and social life within forts. For example, Birgitta Hoffmann (1995) has examined the layout and furbishing of centurions' quarters to gain a better understanding of the social backgrounds and statuses of these junior officers. Mark Hassall has surveyed much of the evidence for married quarters at military sites and stressed the large civilian element that would have been included within both forts and fortresses (Hassall 1999). At the 19th International Congress of Roman Frontier Studies in September 2003 (Limes congress - http://limesxix.btk.pte.hu/ a whole session was devoted to 'The material culture of the supply, preparation and consumption of food and drink' (chaired by Maureen Caroll). Simon James has also stressed the need for a 'soldiers-as-people' rather than a 'military-as-institution' approach and the role that archaeology can play in producing a better understanding of the internal dynamics of military communities (James 2002, esp. 42, 46-48). Issues concerning the relationships between the populations of the military fort proper and of the vicus continue to be debated and are fundamental to our understanding of the use of space within the fort itself. While textual and epigraphic evidence play a major role in our understanding of social life in the military sphere (see Section 2.2), artefacts are also becoming increasingly important (see Sections 2.3 and 3.2).

[Section 1 Summary] [Top] [Forward] [Contents] [Home]

© Internet Archaeology URL: http://intarch.ac.uk/journal/issue17/4/2.1.html
Last updated: Mon Apr 4 2005