Embracing the Provinces: Studying Romans outside of Rome

TATIANA IVLEVA researches and teaches Roman archaeology – but not in the Mediterranean. How do we study Romans and their lives outside of Rome? What can we learn from the provinces, and from the people who lived, worked, moved and travelled there?

I research and teach Roman archaeology at the Dutch University and the usual response to the subject of my work, after a brief reference to Indiana Jones, goes like this: Oh, you do Roman archaeology!? What are doing here in the Netherlands then? Surely, there is nearly no Roman archaeology that far from the Mediterranean.

Empire strikes back

I am always delighted by such questions, bar the Indy jokes, as this gives me the opportunity to say that Roman Empire spread far and wide, with southern Scotland being the official northern limit.  Those in UK will be startled by such questions, however. Visible Roman-period remains act as a testimony to UK Roman past and Hadrian’s Wall alone, a World heritage site, enjoys approximately 100.000  visitors a year. And yet, and yet… Our view on Roman provinces and frontiers still suffers from the long shadow cast by its big brother (or is it a sister?), the sunny Mediterranean.  Comparing ‘the great unwashed’ provincials against the intellectual educated cosmopolite from the Roman Empire centre have dominated the public perception and academic agenda resulting in prerogative views on the lives and deaths of inhabitants far away from Rome. This top-down and Mediterranean-oriented discourse persistently looks for the acceptance and imitation of Roman cultural norms and practices, and measures the levels of Romanisation per province and per social group.

But provinces are much more than that. The social environment was multi-ethnic. These were the provinces populated with social groups consisting of native peoples, Roman soldiers and their families, and traders from across the Roman world. People travelled long distances criss-crossing the Empire, bringing various cultures, norms and practices with them.

Latin is my second language. What’s yours?

Bilingual funerary monument in Latin and Palmyreni script to commemorate the death of Regina from Catuvellaunian tribe (southeastern Britain) set up by her husband Barates, from Palmyra, Syria. Found in South Shields. Photo: D. Breeze. (https://romaninscriptionsofbritain.org/inscriptions/1065)

One of my favourite love stories from the Roman Empire, which shows how mobile and diverse Roman-period population in the provinces was, is that of a soldier Lucco and his wife Tutula. In ca. AD 79, Lucco, son of Trenus, was enlisted to serve in a Roman army together with other men from the Dobunnian tribe. Probably born around AD 60, in the area that is now Gloucestershire and Avon, the twenty-year-old joined the auxiliary unit of the First Cohort Britannica of thousand men strong.

In about a year after their enlistment the Dobunnians, together with their unit, found themselves on Danube, in a territory of present-day Hungary and Serbia, which they may have reached by travelling through the Netherlands, Germany and Austria, following the river Rhine. The unit, and the soldier Lucco, were stationed at various locations in Pannonia (modern day Hungary) and moving between various military camps every decade or so. Between these movements, Lucco met his wife Tutula from the local Pannonian tribe known as Azali. They had three children, one son, Similis, and two daughters, Pacata and Lucca.

One can ponder for a second what kind of languages must have been spoken at home. Lucco, as British-born, likely spoke the (Gallo-)Brittonic branch of Celtic, even when on duty, since at the time of his service, the majority of the recruits were of the same Dobunnian descent. Latin may have been used only on occasions when dealing with officials or during religious festivals, drills and instructions. Lucco and Tutula may have also communicated in Latin, a lingua franca of the Roman provinces, while Lucco may have spoken his native tongue to his children and Tutula her own. In that case, Similis, Lucca, and Pacata may have been able to speak several languages: Latin, their mother’s native language and/or their father’s native language, plus the local dialect of the area they were living in at the time. It is worth pointing out that both Lucco and Tutula became likely bilingual during their lifetime, learning Latin as their second language.

Just this one example shows that Roman provinces were not monolingual, in spite the predominance of Latin. And exciting new project ‘LatinNow‘ aims to show how multilingualism was the order of the day.

Not all roads lead to Rome

A subway-style diagram of the major Roman roads, based on the Empire of ca. 125 AD. Map by Sascha Trubetskoy (https://sashat.me/2017/06/03/roman-roads/)

By  capitalising on a wealth of data made available in recent decades thanks to easily available online databanks such as the UK Portable Antiquities Scheme and its Dutch equivalent Portable Antiquities of the Netherlands, or the database of ancient stone monuments Ubi erat lupa, we are able to research in greater detail and on an unprecedented level the life and death in the Roman provinces. The big data coming out of these massive databases can be analysed on many different levels through, for instance, new techniques such as computational modelling.

In the legendary Life of Brian dialogue ‘What have the Romans ever done for us?’, roads feature as a mark of the Roman civilisation. But while every map of the Roman Empire shows how all roads connect into network to reach Rome, the computational modelling analyses of regional or local transport networks give insights into how people and goods moved between rural settlements, Roman military forts and urban centres. With Rome being far away, what acted as a focus for provincials in everyday life? It seems that inhabitants of rural settlements were more prone to interact with other nearby rural sites rather than deviate towards the military forts or towns. Goods were not transported directly from farms to forts in order to feed the hungry Roman army, but an intricate system of intermediate exchange sites was in operation (for a synthesis see M. Groenhuijzen, Palaeogeographic analysis of the Dutch part of the Roman limes and its hinterland (Leiden 2018).)

Roman provinces rule!

Truly, there has never been an exciting time to research Roman provinces and our book Embracing the Provinces chimes in with the trend by showing the dynamism of the studies. We, and many current scholars with us, aim in particular to create a more balanced view of the Roman world, the one where, while not taking Rome out of the equation, the splendors and hidden gems of the provinces are brought to the foreground and explored fully in their own right.

Embracing the Provinces: Society and Material Culture of the Roman Frontier Regions
Edited by Tatiana Ivleva, Jasper de Bruin and Mark Driessen

Embracing the Provinces is a collection of essays focused on people and their daily lives living in the Roman provinces, c. 27 BC-AD 476. The main aim is to showcase the vibrancy of Roman provincial studies and suggest new directions, or new emphasis, for future investigation of Roman provincial world.

9781789250152 | HARDBACK | OXBOW BOOKS | £48.00