Wednesday, April 7, 2010


Peter Jones, Literary Review June 2009

‘A fascinating and exotic journey along the frontiers of the largest and most enduring ancient power – the Roman Empire’ enthuses the blurb on the front of the book, but I am afraid I have to disagree. For ‘fascinating’ and ‘exotic’ read ‘impressively detailed’. Though now and again the writer intervenes to remind us that he was there and got the tee-shirt (‘A Bedouin shepherdess scrutinises us uncertainly as we approach the Nabataean reservoir’), this historical and archaeological account of Rome’s frontier provinces reads as if it has been put together from a shelf-full of travel guides.

There is, of course, nothing wrong with travel guides. If you want information, they often provide it. But one soon gets indigestion when a guide presents itself as an exotic journey, i.e. a good read. ‘From Cuicul in Numidia, the road leads south-westwards to Sétif (ancient Sitifis), a town that lay inside the boundaries of Mauretania Caesariensis (with its capital at Iol Caesarea, modern Cherchell), but which from the 290s was the chief centre of its own miniature province of Mauretania Sitifnesis. The city that in fact became the capital of modern Algeria lies 225 kilometres to the north-west, on the coast. Of ancient Iconium, Algiers (its modern descendant) preserves almost nothing…’. Now any book can be misrepresented by the context-free selection of an extract. But, frankly, that’s the way it is.

Like travel guides too, the book lacks a sense of the big picture or guiding theme. It seems as if we are going to get a cumulative discussion about Rome’s frontiers, whetting the historian’s appetite for the big question – did Rome have a frontier policy at all? Edward Luttwak, an expert on military defence and Senior Advisor at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, argued in 1976 that it did indeed have a ‘grand strategy’, and historians have been worrying away over the question ever since. The consensus now is that it all depends on where along the frontier you are talking about: strategic patterns can be discerned here and there, but basically Romans did not do ‘policy’. They reacted to situations as they developed, and responded case-by-case to the situations they were dealing with on the edges of empire. Parker does, indeed, consider this issue and says perfectly sensible things about it. But his comments are confined to the thirteen-page *Introduction*. They are not knitted into an argument built up over the course of the book and derived from the evidence of the sites he has visited.

Nor, I am afraid, is Parker the sharpest of observers. The first page I opened expatiated on the wonderful Libyan site of Lepcis Magna, only to call it Leptis Magna. That is the name used by ignorant tour agencies and cruise ships. Parker is aware of this: he says in an end-note ‘It is often spelled Lepcis, which may in fact be a better transliteration of the original Phoenician name LPQY’. But you do not need Phoenician to tell you that. All you have to do is read the original inscriptions on the site and in the museum – there are hundreds – to see that it was called Lepcis by its inhabitants. No one paying attention to what is there before his very eyes could possibly call it anything else.

Again, nearby Sabratha was excavated and restored by Italians under a Mussolini determined to justify his claims to North Africa on the grounds that the Romans had got there thousands of years earlier. Italian archaeologists did a superb job excavating and restoring the magnificent theatre, which Parker quite properly describes in glowing terms. But he fails to point out what I assume is a splendid Italian joke. A Roman inscription running round the frieze above the columns is missing, apart from one word: LACUNA. Ho ho. Not so funny is the misquotation of Cato’s famous exhortation about what the Romans should do to Carthage - it should be delenda est Carthago, not Carthago delenda est.

In this respect, the book is much like your average travel guide: full of facts, usually sound, but lacking the personal touch, the little observation or story that suddenly brings it all to life. That said, Parker has put an enormous amount of work into it. If you want a detailed, fully-referenced, largely ‘ancient world’ guide to the towns Parker has visited - from Britain through middle Europe to Romania, Syria and on to Morocco – this would save you a fortune in local guide books.

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