Roman Toulouse

17 August 2013

Relief from the Musée Saint-Raymond, Touloyse

I have never met Mr Michel Gybels, who lives somewhere in southern France, likes to visit ancient ruins, and writes nice pieces about them. He already wrote for the Livius website about several cities in ancient Greece and Anatolia, and about the excavations in southern France. I must not forget that he knows an awful lot about medieval Catharism as well – this is his Dutch website – which explains why he has also contributed a piece on Manicheism.

His latest piece is about the excavations west of Toulouse, ancient Tolosa. I have added a history of the city, and was glad that I could refer to so many sources that are nowadays online available. Most photos by Gybels.

You will find the Toulouse stuff by Gybels and yours truly here.

Roman Military History

10 August 2013

Although nothing seems to change at LacusCurtius and, that’s not really true. At the first site, Bill Thayer is doing a lot of proofreading, while at the second site, I have corrected a lot of minor and major factual errors. One of these had been in my inbox for nine months, because I am occupied with many other things, including my book on the “parting of ways” between Judaism and Christianity.

I am also trying to have the website converted to better software. The trouble is that I neither have sufficient time to do it myself nor €12,000 to outsource it. If someone has a brilliant plan, drop me a line.

Still, we’re adding things, although it’s mostly Bill, who is adding all kind of ancient texts to the “Roman Military History” section of LacusCurtius. You will find an English translation of Caesar’s Civil Wars and Hirtius’ Alexandrine War (Latin/English), African War (Latin/English), and Spanish War (Latin/English). The Gallic War will be there too, but not yet. Also available: Onasander, The General (Greek/English) and Aeneas Tacticus (Greek/English).

Le Clos de la Lombarde

31 July 2013

House of the Genius

Michel Gybels sent me a nice piece, with photos, of a usually closed excavation in Narbonne (France), called Le Clos de la Lombarde. In the 1970s, archaeologists discovered the foundations of houses, workshops, and a bathhouse. Later, the remains of a Christian basilica and a cemetery were excavated as well.

Go here for the story and the photos.

Shameless self-advertising

28 July 2013


Some time ago, my friend and colleague Arjen Bosman and I could proudly announce that Edge of Empire, our book about the Romans in the Low Countries, had been translated into English. However, it took some time until it reached the bookshops, but now the award-winning book ought to be available easily. You can also order it on Amazon or buy it directly at the website of the publisher. If you live in Holland, this webpage is the place to go.

Why you should buy this book? To read it, in the first place. Without false modesty: this is a nice book about a subject that deserves more attention than it usually gets. An English review of the original Dutch version is here.

The Eburones

24 April 2013
Model of the Eburonian village at Hambach-Niederzier (Rheinisches Landesmuseum, Bonn)

Model of the Eburonian village at Hambach-Niederzier (Rheinisches Landesmuseum, Bonn)

In 57 BCE, Julius Caesar conquered the valley of the Upper- and Middle- Meuse, which, he said, was inhabited by Belgian tribes. Among the members of the Belgic confederation were the Eburones. In his campaign notes, the Roman general mentions them together with three other tribes, adding that they were called Germanic (Gallic War, 2.4). This may indeed mean that they were of Germanic descent, but the four Eburonian names we know are perfectly  comprehensible in Celtic (Eburones is related to the word for yew; Aduatuca means “place of the soothsayer”; Ambiorix means “ruler-king”; and Catuvolcus means “hero”).

Caesar explains that the heartland of the Eburones was between the Meuse and Rhine (Gallic War, 5.24), which probably is more or less identical to the Belgian and Dutch provinces called Limburg, and the western part of Nordrhein-Westphalen. In any case, it was north of the Ardennes. South of these old mountains lived the Treverans, of whom the Eburones were a client-tribe, which was protected by the mightier tribe (Gallic War, 4.6).

Caesar tells his most important story about the Eburones in Gallic War 5.24-37. In the winter of 54/53 BCE, the Fourteenth Legion had its winter quarters on a place called Aduatuca or Atuatuca, when the Eburones attacked the Romans. Its commanders, Sabinus and Cotta, trusted the Eburonian king Ambiorix, who appeared to be trustworthy, even when he could not control his men. However, when the legionaries left their camp and started to march in the direction indicated by the Eburonian leader, they were unexpectedly attacked. After returning to Atuatuca, the Roman soldiers committed suicide.

This story is problematic. In the first place, we do not know where it happened. It is tempting to identify the Atuatuca of the Eburones with the later Roman city with the same name, modern Tongeren. However, there are no Roman finds that confirm the presence of the legion: it seems that the Roman city of Atuatuca was built on virgin soil. The objection that “absence of evidence is no evidence of absence” does not apply, because Tongeren has been investigated on many places.

The second problem is that the Eburones were a very small tribe. Caesar mentions them as being able to raise 40,000 soldiers together with three other tribes. Even if we assume that the Eburones were the largest of these four, it is impossible that they could raise sufficient warriors to annihilate a well-trained, heavily-armed legion.

Perhaps we will have more certainty about the campaign once Atuatuca has been identified. It must have been close to modern Tongeren, because the name was transferred from the camp of the Fourteenth to the later city. Two treasures from the mid-first century, found at Heers (2000) and Maastricht-Amby (2008), also suggest military activity in the neighborhood. A possible location is Caestert, where a Late Iron Age-hillfort has been identified; its excavator, Heli Roosens, has mentioned mass cremations, but has never published them, and it is not known where he has found it.

Caesar’s revenge was terrible. In the Spring of 53, he invited everyone who wanted to join him, to help massacre the Eburones. Ambiorix managed to escape (Livy, Periochae, 107) and his fellow-leader Catuvolcus committed suicide. Nothing more was heard of the Eburones. About three hundred days after they had defeated a Roman legion, they no longer existed as a political entity. Later, a tribe called the Tungri was living in the area.

However, it remains to be seen whether the Eburones were all wiped out, as Caesar claims. The ancient armies could hardly exterminate complete nations. On the other hand, from pollen findings in the area of Jülich (north of Aix-la-Chapelle), it appears that the number of pastures and cornfields fell from the mid-first century BCE and that forests were again growing there. On this land at least, there were no farmers any more. However, it is not clear if this is representative of the whole country of the Eburones, so this remains an open question.


  • Toorians, L., “Aduatuca, ‘place of the prophet’. The names of the Eburones as representatives of a Celtic language, with an excursus on Tungri”, in: Creemers, G. (ed.), Archaeological contributions to materials and immateriality, Atvatvca 4 (2013) 108-121.

Why Pearse’s Mithras Pages Are Important

25 February 2013

Mithras relief from Dormagen

When, in 2040, the departments of humanities will be closed, an elderly historian will perhaps wonder what caused the demise of scholarship. Probably, he will answer that the humanities no longer wanted to live. Somewhere between 1995 and 2005, the will to survive vanished. The ancient, venerable scholarly disciplines no longer wanted to add something meaningful to the shared heritage of mankind.

The turning point, our historian will find out, had been the invention of the internet. Until then, scholars and scientists had communicated their results to the larger audience in a way that can be described as transmitter and receiver: researchers sent out information – books, journals, TV – and the people listened. But at the turn of the millennium, communication became more interactive. People could talk back and could shape the nature of the discourse. Our historian will gladly quote from Time Magazine, which had chosen “you” as the person of the year 2006. The transmitter-receiver metaphor no longer applied; the best metaphor to describe the way in which scientists and scholars explained themselves to the people, became the dialog.

A fine example, our historian will conclude, is Wikipedia, which was a kind of meeting place of good and bad information. Our historian will concede that the designers of the encyclopedia had realized the importance of debate from the very beginning: if someone had a question about someone else’s contribution, they could discuss these issues. It was good that in these debates, people immediately started to refer to their sources, and our historian will recognize that at the beginning of the twenty-first century, everybody recognized the importance of at least looking scientific or scholarly. Compared to the beginning of the twentieth century, that was a leap forward. The greatest achievement of western civilization in the twentieth century was that one-third of the population had had access to higher education.

Unfortunately, our historian will notice, this was not a guarantee of quality. He will discover that the online debates were easily hijacked by activists, because in the debate between good and bad information, between good and poor scholarship, bad information drove out good. Our historian will find it incredible, but he will establish that reliable information was, at the beginning of the twenty-first century, deliberately kept away from the larger public by pay walls. In the fight against activists, bona fide scholars and scientists fought with their arms tied, and by 2005, the damage was done.

This being the nature of the game, one would have expected that philologists, historians, archaeologists, theologians, philosophers, and other scholars would have fought back, but our future historian will discover that this rarely happened. If something was done at all, it was just presenting the facts, which were often correct indeed, but they were offered without any further explanation.

Still, there were professional researchers who investigated how to explain science and scholarship to the people successfully. They recommended scientists and scholars to explain methods and theories, but few scholars bothered to take care. Where was the book, our historian will be wondering, that explained the Lachmann method or the hermeneutic cycle to the larger audience?

Slowly, he will start to understand why so many people could, at the beginning of the twenty-first century, claim to be scholars, and were never contradicted: the scholars never explained how they achieved their results, giving the impression that scholarship was not a real, professional discipline, but a kind of amateurish hobby to which anyone might contribute. Precisely when information was transferred less by transmitter-receiver and more as a dialog, and when a highly educated audience demanded more information than just facts, the scholars retreated from the debate, not explaining what mattered most.

At the beginning of the twenty-first century, our historian will think, three things ought to have been the top priorities if the humanities were to survive:

  1. online encyclopedias, written by professional scholars – and of course for free, because the people had already paid taxes and the information was already theirs;
  2. a sound explanation of methods and theories;
  3. an active policy to refute errors and mistakes.

Our future historian will notice that scholars refused to live up to the expectations. Of course, there were exceptions. There were some websites on which something was explained, but they were rare, they were created after the damage had been done, and they covered only the first of the three requirements. Too little, too late, too incomplete. There will be a wry smile at the historian’s face when he writes about the self-pity of the early twenty-first century scholars: they were never tired of complaining that nobody seemed to understand why the humanities mattered, but they rarely explained.

The historian will conclude that the humanities had committed suicide. Still, there had been people, inside and outside the universities, who had done their best. People who had refused to join the academic rat race, who had not been interested in the length of their publication list, who were really interested in the dialog with the larger audience.


One of these is Roger Pearse, the webmaster of and a tireless fighter against quack history. In December, he has started a website on the Roman god Mithras. It offers a basic account of the Mithraic mysteries, it offers the sources, and most of all: it offers the arguments to refute theories that present Mithraism as an essentially Persian cult (it isn’t) and that it heavily influenced Christianity (it didn’t).

If we want to avoid that a historian, writing in 2040, will conclude that our generation is the one that killed scholarship, we desperately need more websites like these. But I am not optimistic. As long as our academics are more interested in the length of their publication list than in their duty to the larger audience, the humanities are doomed.

Lebanon, again

31 December 2012
Beirut (in the distance) seen from Byblos

Beirut (in the distance) seen from Byblos

For the second time in less than a year, I had the privilege to visit Lebanon. Starting in Beirut, where we visited the splendid National Museum again, we embarked upon a very, very leisurely trip around. At the Nahr al-Kalb, we managed to reach the inscription of Nebuchadnezzar, which is covered by all kinds of vegetation, and will soon have disappeared.

Byblos, which I could not really appreciate during my earlier visit because I did not understand its stratigraphy, turned out to be a lot more accessible now that I knew what to expect. It was interesting to think where Wen Amun must have built his tent and where the king must have had his throne.

We proceeded to the Kadisha valley, which is the heartland of Maronite Christianity. Before entering it, we visited Amioun, Bziza, and Aïn Akrine, three sites with Roman temples. In Bsharre (the town of Kahlil Gibran), we climbed to a Phoenician tomb, and had lunch with a view of the snow-covered cedar trees.

Cedar tree

After this, we visited the Bekaa valley and Baalbek. Because we had started early and had slept in a hotel in the valley, we could arrive very early in the morning, and were almost the only people at the site, except for the guards. Returning to our hotel, we passed along Qsarnaba, Niha, and Nabi Ayla.

We also saw the Palestinian refugees who had been bombed away from Damascus – but this is not the place to write about those poor people, who most certainly did not deserve this.


Next day, it was raining cats and dogs, but we were in Sidon, where we greatly enjoyed watching how the storm pushed the surf against the sea castle. Some of the waves must have been fifteen meters high and it was really spectacular. The same can be said of the lovely mosaics in the Beiteddin palace. The last place we visited in Beirut was the museum of the American University.

There was a bonus, though: our airplane was delayed and we were unable to catch the connecting flight in Istanbul. So, our trip lasted an additional day, and we saw a snow-covered Hagia Sophia and, in the archaeological museum, the royal sarcophagi from Sidon.



I cannot wait to go back to the only place in the world where you can listen to “o come let us adore him” and at the same time hear a mu’ezzin’s call for prayer. My Facebook photos are here and here; and today I added photos of the temples of Aïn Akrine, the rock tombs of Amioun, the Phoenician tomb at Bsharre, the sanctuary at Bziza, and the temple at Qsarnaba. Some older stuff from Lebanon is here.

Bagacum (Bavay)

25 November 2012
Photo Marco Prins

The Basilica

I visited Bavay in northern France several years ago, returning from Saulzoir, where Julius Caesar had once defeated the Nervii. The ruins of Bavay were something of a bonus after a day that had been very well-spent, and we were not in a particular hurry. So, we were too late to see the exhibition, but could take some photos of the forum and the basilica. They were impressive, which comes as no surprise, as Bagacum, as it was called, was some kind of showcase of Roman power.

Although I still hope to see the exhibition, some information is already available here.


28 October 2012

There’s no particular reason to put online this drawing by Graham Sumner, except for the best reason of all: that I like it. What you see is the Roman naval base at Velsen, just west of Amsterdam, which was in use during the reign of the emperor Tiberius. It is almost certainly identical to the fort named Flevum mentioned by Tacitus. You can read more about it here, or in Edge of Empire.

You can order Edge of Empire here.

Edge of Empire

3 October 2012


So, here it finally is: the cover of Edge of Empire. Rome’s Frontier on the Lower Rhine. The book is about the Roman occupation of the Low Countries – say Belgium, Netherlands and northern Germany – and contains every relevant literary text, the more interesting inscriptions, and a lot of archaeological information. Basically, my coauthor Arjen Bosman and I use the archaeological data to illustrate that all sources are prejudiced about the people living on the edge of the earth; at the same time, we try to show that you cannot interpret archaeological finds without a profound understanding of textual analysis.

The book has a history of its own. I wrote it in 1999 and it was published in 2000. The reviews were extremely favorable and it was recommended to university students. However, there was a quarrel within the publishing house, and the woman whose project it had been, went away. My book was sort of forgotten and disappeared from the bookshops. Still, I continued to keep notes and improve the text.

The “Lord of Morken”, a Frankish warrior (drawing Johnny Shumate)

Two years ago, another publisher, Athenaeum, decided to reprint it. I asked my colleague Arjen Bosman, who is a professional archaeologist, to contribute, because he knows a lot about the ancient Frisians, a subject that needed more attention. The book was adapted, renamed, and republished with all kinds of illustrations. Again, good reviews and even an award.

And now, Karwansaray publishers makes it available in English. This is also the publisher of Ancient Warfare, which means that it will have the same superb illustrations by people like Johnny Shumate, José Antonio German, and Graham Sumner, and maps by Carlos Garcia.

Order your copy using the links on this page.

Baalbek, Tyre, Belgrade

2 October 2012

Tyre, Al-Bass: Great Arch, probably dedicated to Hadrian.

Over the past months, I have traveled to Lebanon and along the Danube. I have put online quite a lot of stuff.

That’s it for today.



15 July 2012

The same excavation, two times

Last Tuesday, we visited Thuin, not far from Charleroi in Belgium. It is, at the moment, the place that is considered the most likely location of the Belgian defeat against the legions of Julius Caesar. Absolute certainty cannot be achieved, but it is not too far from the Sabis battlefield and Caesar’s description fits the situation quite well. The matter is dealt with in N. Roymans e.a. (eds), Late Iron Age gold hoards from the Low  Countries and the Caesarian conquest of Northern Gaul (2012), and you can read more here, here (with map), and here.

To be honest, Thuin is not worth a detour, and we only went there because we wanted at least one photo for the English translation of De rand van het Rijk (“Edge of Empire”), the book Arjen Bosman and I wrote about the Roman presence in the Low Country.

The site is covered by a nice forest where it is nice to walk; it’s called the Bois du Grand Bon Dieu, and there’s a nice chapel. It is best approached from a country house called “l’Ermitage” in the southwest or from northeast; over here, you can still see the remains of an old excavation – see photo above.

Other photos here. More about Edge of Empire here.

O’Reilly, The Lost Legion Rediscovered

22 June 2012

Donald O’Reilly’s The Lost Legion Rediscovered is a remarkable book. The author, a retired teacher of history, tries to describe the adventures of the Theban Legion, a Roman military unit that is mentioned for the first time in 383 by bishop Eucherius of Lyon, who tells that the Christian soldiers had refused to follow an order they considered immoral, and were consequently killed in a town now known as St Maurice-en-Valais in Switzerland.

The key detail is that this happened under orders of caesar Maximian. This is, at first sight, sufficient to discard the story. After all, Maximian ruled from 285 to 305, so there is a considerable gap between the legionaries’ martyrdom and the first source. However, if the story were invented, Eucherius would have given his villain the rank of augustus, not caesar, which he held in the winter of 285/286 only. For O’Reilly, this is the ‘smoking gun’ that proves that Eucherius had access to reliable information.

O’Reilly argues that the soldiers of the unit were recruited by the emperor Probus in southern Egypt and send to Italy, where they found themselves in a civil war. This was the confused age of the peasant insurrection of the Bagaudae in northwestern Gaul, of the usurpation of Carausius, and the clash between on the one hand the emperors Carinus and Numerian and on the other hand Diocletian and Maximian. O’Reilly argues that the Theban Legion, which was trained by an officer corps that consisted of veterans converted to Christianity, refused to massacre the Bagaudae, whose “chief offence … was not paying taxes. Killing them would not resolve it.” The refusal to follow an order they considered impractical and immoral, cost the legionaries of the rearguard their lives. Nevertheless, the unit was not disbanded, and it was the “mother” of the four Theban units that are mentioned in the Notitia Dignitatum.

It’s a complex story. The late third century is difficult to study, and O’Reilly has to deal with subjects as varied as the demise of the pagan religions in the crisis of the third century, civil wars, slave revolts, and Christian values, and he has to use numismatics, papyri, little-known Coptic and Syriac texts, and damaged inscriptions. Nevertheless, he tells his story well and it is possible that the Christians in a recently created unit were indeed killed in the western Alps.

Possible. But there is little direct evidence that it actually happened. Worse, O’Reilly makes many mistakes that can easily be recognized by anyone interested in ancient warfare, and will leave him with the idea that the author was not up to his task. For example, he uses the Historia Augusta, which contains hardly any reliable information for this period, almost uncritically. A very substantial part of his reconstruction is built on very shaky foundations. O’Reilly only proves that the massacre of a Theban Legion is possible, not that it is likely.

However, a negative judgment would not do justice to the book. O’Reilly is, essentially, interested in something far more profound than the historical details. He is in fact arguing that

… to be intelligently honest, a person needs to be a cynic, but ultimately there is need to be cynical even of cynicism. That is where faith enters.

Everyone – Christian or not – has some basic believes about the value of human life, and any civilized person must try to deescalate violence. O’Reilly is not advocating pacifism, but a professional militarism. The best soldiers are not those who uncritically follow any order, but those who think. The soldiers of O’Reilly’s Theban Legion are the Roman equivalents of the German officers of the Von Stauffenberg conspiracy.

As a book about ancient military history, The Lost Legion Rediscovered is not good enough, but it addresses important questions about a warrior’s moral obligations.

[Originally published in Ancient Warfare magazine]

Caesar and the Aduatuci

1 June 2012

Caesar (Rijksmuseum van Oudheden, Leiden)

Today, the Gallo-Roman museum in Tongeren (Belgium) announced the discovery of the site where Julius Caesar besieged and conquered the Aduatuci (in 57 BCE). The ancient hill fort was south of the town of Thuin, just west of Charleroi. This is the nicest archaeological news from the Low Countries in years.

In 58, Caesar had discovered that Gaul was essentially undefended. In the next year, het conquered the northern part of what is now called France and defeated, in modern Saulzoir, the Nervians, which he presents as terrible savages. After this, he invaded the area that is now called Belgium, where the Aduatuci were his first victims. You can read the story here, with photos of Huy on the Meuse, one of the locations which, until today, were believed to be the location of the oppidum of the Aduatuci. But it was, in reality, at Thuin, which suits Caesar’s description, and where sling bullets and several treasures have been found.

Press release by the Amsterdam Free University: here.

Nahr al-Kalb

30 April 2012

Reliefs of Ramesses II (left) and Esarhaddon (right).

In the thirteenth century BCE, the Egyptian pharaoh Ramesses II left three reliefs on the south bank of the Nahr al-Kalb, north of Beyrut, which commemorated the northern campaigns that culminated in the battle of Kadesh (1274). Several centuries later, the Assyrian king Esarhaddon conquered Egypt, and chose to put a memorial opposite the relief of Ramesses. Ever since, armies have left inscription at the Nahr al-Kalb, a custom known to Herodotus (more).

All in all, there are twenty-two inscriptions and two monuments, with texts in seven languages (Egyptian, Akkadian, Greek, Latin, Arabic, French, and English). Together, they give a nice overview of Lebanese history.

A complete overview is here (and an overview of all Lebanese posts on this blog is here).

Roman Beyrut

30 April 2012

Roman baths

I have now blogged about the new web pages about the Bekaa Valley and the Lebanon, about Niha, about Faqra, and about Machnaqa. There’s a lot more to be written – think of Baalbek, Byblus, Sidon, and Tyre – but for the moment, I will only add Beyrut.

We found it a lovely city, with two beautiful museums (the National Museum and the Archaeological Museum of the American University) and a couple of ancient ruins, which were not very special. Nevertheless, the city’s history is quite interesting, and some objects from the museums are really important.

My favorite is an amulet from the Louvre, in which many celestial beings are invoked to protect one Alexandra. Officially, she was Christian, so she mentions “the One who sits among two cherubs” and “the One God and His Christ”, but after that, we read about the seven lords of the seven heavens (Marmarioth, Uriel, Ael, Gabriel, Chael, Moriath, Chachth), the beings responsible for the weather (Riopha, Zonchar, Tebriel, Tobriel), the protectors of the sea and mountains (Suriel and Nuchael), the celestial dragon keeper Iathennuian, and a protector of the firmament named Chrara. So much for orthodoxy.

Two new webpages can be found here. Enjoy!

Counting Years

22 April 2012

Rome was founded in 753 B.C. and we now live in 2012 A.D., so this year, Rome celebrates its 2765th birthday. Right?

I read it on several places yesterday, but it’s wrong. There’s no year zero. It happened 2764 years ago. The same mistake was made by those classicists who celebrated the battle of Marathon one year too early.

Another question: does it matter? I think most scholars will say that it doesn’t, if only because the year is legendary. But that is too simple. This is a type of mistake that non-specialists can recognize and do recognize. I remember that in September 2010, people in Athens were laughing at a newspaper that had made the error in print.

I am not terribly worried about the precise date on which Rome was founded or the battle of Marathon was fought. But what matters is that scholars, who are paid from public funds, must not give the impression that they do not take their jobs seriously. This means that mistakes, even the small ones, are never innocent.

Call for Comment: Invented Sources

30 March 2012

I am currently writing an article about the Historia Augusta, which is so well-known for its use of fake documents. About one of these sources, Cordus, the author writes that he is unreliable. In other words, he has invented a source to disagree with. It’s a great joke. What I am trying to find out, is whether there are older parallels.

The only possibility I know of, is “Damis”, who is quoted in PhilostratusLife of Apollonius. Personally, I am not convinced that Damis is a fake source, but that is a completely different question. For the moment, I hope to discover (other) parallels to the SHA‘s joke.

Die römische Armee im Experiment

4 March 2012

[Fourth part of a series of articles; 1, 2, 3; this is a review/summary of Christian Koepfer, Florian Himmler and Josef Löffl (eds.), Die römische Armee im Experiment. 2011]

In the introduction and two first chapters, Christian Koepfer and Sebastian Bernhard describe the project: an attempt to reconstruct the equipment of the Roman soldiers of the age of Augustus. The objects found at Augsburg, Haltern, Dangstetten, Anreppen, and Kalkriese offer a wealth of information. Using the reconstructed equipment, the members of this project group, called Legio XIII Gemina, did several experiments, like building a road in a mountain area (six men could build about twenty meters of road in two days) and a fourteen-day march.

During these experiments, Legio XIII Gemina collaborated with locals schools and a Bavarian broadcasting organization, but the results can be applied by anyone involved in Roman re-enactment. One chapter in the book, by André Niebler, deals with the didactic methods, and explains how the participants interacted with their audience. A similar article, by Florian Himmler, compares the project with an earlier project, and explains how previous errors were now prevented.

Incendiary arrow

After this, the books contains twenty-one chapters on the various aspects of the soldiers’ equipment, tactics, and strategy. In the first of these, Robert Wimmers describes some finds from Augsburg-Oberhausen from a blacksmith’s point of view. I had not expected that I would ever read an article with interest about forging handcuffs, knives, or an “object of unknown purpose”. Florian Dörschel shows in his article that one of Wimmers’ objects may have served as an incendiary arrowhead.

A soldier with shield, spear, and sword

The next weapon to be dealt with is the spear. Mischa Grab vindicates Plutarch, who describes how Marius invented a pilum with a wooden peg that would break upon impact, making it impossible to throw back the missile (Marius 25). The truth of this statement has recently been challenged, but Grab suggests that Plutarch may be right after all.

Building a catapult

Dominik Molnar’s checked Vitruvius’ description of a catapult; he concludes that it is useful as a do-it-yourself guide, but that one needs to have practical experience to understand the tensions within the machine. There must have been a mouth-to-mouth tradition in the Roman army about the finer details.

Moving from weapons to armour, Andreas Raab checked the types of leather that might have been used in a lorica segmentata, and concludes that chamois leather was best.

Three shields

Christian Koepfer, Matthias Bofinger, and Johann Schmalhofer conducted some interesting experiments with shields. In his account of the battle in the Teutoburg Forest, Cassius Dio says that the shields of the legionaries beame useless because it was raining (Roman History, 56.21.3), but the experiment proved that. although the weight of the shields did indeed vary with the air humidity, this change was not enough to make them unusable or even difficult to use. Nor did the shape become unstable. This again proves that Dio’s account of the battle in the Teutoburg Forest is not as reliable as it seems.

The focale is the subject of the article by Josef Löffl. He suggests that on rainy days, it protected a lorica segmentata’s inside against rain, and on hot days, it protected the carrier against the heat of the metal.

The nails of a sandal

In his article about military boots, Florian Himmler arrives upon a very curious conclusion: a legion that was marching for about a month, lost about half a million sandal nails. I was very surprised, but it is interesting to know that the march route of the soldiers to the Harzhorn battlefield can be reconstructed from the lost shoenails.

Turning to the soldiers’ food, Philip Egetenmeier argues that an average legionary or auxiliary soldier might lose some weight during a march. I would have liked to know more, and fortunately, the author seems to be looking forward to further research.


The usefulness of water buckets is the subject of Marcel Giloj’s contribution, which had more to offer than I had expected. They were really designed to be very practical, for example to be filled very quickly. Water bags, on the other hand, might leak easily, as Reinhard Nieβner shows; again, information about how to make objects, must have been rendered orally from one craftsman to another, and things are not as easy as they seem.

At the end of the book are several chapters about subjects that are not directly related to the experiments. One of these is an attempt to reconstruct what a German warrior might have looked like in the early third century. He was better armed and protected than I had expected. Ross Cowan deals with fourth-century battle tactics, proving that the army was still excellent, but that its strength was wasted by too many civil wars.

The participants

Markus Handy deals with the strategic roles of XIII Gemina (the historical unit) and XV Apollinaris in Pannonia in the second half of the first century. It seems that the Fifteenth was more often involved in actual fighting than the Thirteenth. This cannot be an optical illusion, caused by the incompleteness of our evidence, because the commanders of the Fifteenth were selected on military experience. Meike Weber offers a similar account of strategy and space, showing that long before the distinction between limitanei and comitatenses was created, there was already a mobile reserve in the hinterland.

All in all, this was delightful to read. Given the nature and scale of the Legio XIII Gemina Project, it is inevitable that Die römische Armee im Experiment does not deal with all aspects of the Roman army, but one theme was almost conspicuous by absence: the way the Romans dealt with information. How to make a perfect water bag or a catapult, the function of certain objects, how to carry a shield and where to march – all this must have belonged to an oral tradition. This book is essentially an attempt to recover the lost stories that belong to the objects, and left me wondering how information spread from Britain to Pannonia to Syria.

Final note: that perennial insult to Anglo-Saxon scholars, the English summary of a text they understand perfectly well, is mercifully absent.

Christian Koepfer, Florian Himmler and Josef Löffl (eds.), Die römische Armee im Experiment. 2011 Frank & Timme; 978-3-86596-365-9; €24,80

Photos on this page taken from the Facebook page of Legio XIII Gemina.

Bridging the gap

4 March 2012

On more than one occasion, I have indicated how the study of Antiquity is its own reward (example, example). What it offers, is essentially a sensation: a surprise, the experience that this text or that battle changed your own life, the sense that you’ve made contact with someone in a distant past, the Aha-Erlebnis of realizing how things actually were.

This is of course a personal experience, but that doesn’t mean that academic study is useless. It’s nice to know that your experience of the past is based on correct facts, and besides: the study of Antiquity has offered us much of great value.

As researchers, ancient historians, classicists, and archaeologists have little to be ashamed of. Their work is highly relevant and offers much pleasure. Still, they exclude the man in the street. As I already indicated, books for the larger audience are often of very poor quality and have little to offer to those who are most interested.

This is why I am happy to review Die römische Armee im Experiment by Christian Koepfer, Florian Himmler and Josef Löffl, which was published in 2011. Admittedly, the study of Roman army equipment is not of the greatest importance, but the contributors manage to combine the professional standards of the university with the enthusiasm for the past found among re-enactors. They show that is possible to share the excitement of research with those who are really interested. Experimental archaeology is better-suited for this purpose than other subdisciplines, but this book is a clear sign to any scholar that it is possible to keep the larger audience within scope.

[to be continued]


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