Thursday, 24 February 2011

Why History should not be written by Film-makers

Sometimes one post sparks off another. This has been particularly true where the subject of the "lost" Ninth Legion is concerned. (Over the years, I have blogged about it here, here and here.) One of my readers (thank you, Juliette) recently drew my attention to a press item which heralded exciting new information about the Lost Legion.

More fact than fiction

According to The Daily Mail, "experts have revealed that the children's book [Rosemary Sutcliff's Eagle of the Ninth] is more fact than fiction".

The report claims that "a group of experts" -- presumably including "historian and film-maker" Phil Hirst and "historian" Neil Faulkner, both named in the press release -- have brought "dramatic new evidence" to light, proving that "the elite infantry force [i.e. the Ninth Legion] was indeed defeated by a band of barbarians in a military catastrophe that shamed the empire, prompting a conspiracy of silence"!

A bold claim. So what is the "dramatic new evidence"?

Dramatic old evidence

The Daily Mail report announces that "the dramatic new evidence hinges on a single gravestone tribute and was brought to light by historian and film-maker Phil Hirst". So much for the press hyperbole. What about the truth?

RIB 3364

At the end of April 1997 -- roughly fourteen years ago --, an inscribed slab was found during excavations at Vindolanda, a Roman auxiliary fort in Northumberland (England). The slab formed the lefthand side of a funerary inscription, which had been re-used as a building stone during a later phase of refurbishment at the fort.

The inscription (officially designated RIB 3364) appears to commemorate a centurion named Titus Annius (or possibly Annaeus), "killed in war". But was he a centurion of the cohort, commanding a squad of 80 men, or was he a high-ranking legionary centurion, seconded from his legion to command the entire regiment? The real experts are divided on this. Professor Anthony Birley, who first published the inscription in 1998, believed that a substantial part was missing; perhaps as many as 20 letters from each line, allowing the insertion of a legion's name. However, Professor Roger Tomlin, who included the inscription in the official Roman Inscriptions of Britain publication in 2009, took a different view; he believed that only half-a-dozen letters are lost from each line. The resulting interpretation differs radically from Birley's.

So Titus Annaeus (or perhaps Annius) was killed in war. But which war? And when? This time, the real experts are in broad agreement. The auxiliary unit mentioned in the inscription (the First Cohort of Tungrians) is attested at Vindolanda over roughly a fifty year period (broadly AD 90-140).

Which war, and when?

Film-maker Phil Hirst is quoted as saying that "the discovery of a tombstone of a centurion stationed at the Northumbrian fort of Vindolanda shows the Romans were under attack from the north 20 years later [than the battle of Mons Graupius]" (i.e. AD 104). But the stone does not mention a date or a dateable event, and Professor Birley has noted that "there are not enough securely dated stones from the area to draw inferences about date from the style or quality of carving". In essence, it cannot be dated within the Tungrians' fifty-year occupation of the fort. Professor Birley's own preference was to link the stone with known unrest in Britain under Hadrian (r. AD 117-138). Professor Tomlin is in broad agreement, based on his observation that the word stipendiorum on lines 4-5 (usually abbreviated to STIP) is unlikely to occur "later than c. 125".

Of course, as seems to be standard practice, tentative suggestions have a habit of becoming historical facts, and facts get blurred. One recent handbook of Roman Britain claims that "a centurion's tombstone was found at Vindolanda which suggests the date of death as AD 118". (In reality, nothing on the stone suggests any date.) Another recent book, referring to the Hadrianic troubles in Britain, is more economical, claiming only that the Vindolanda centurion was "killed in a war about this time". (Of course, we have no idea precisely when he died.)

More fiction than fact

You may have noticed the singular absence of the Ninth Legion in all of this. The "dramatic new evidence" of its demise turns out to be rather old evidence of an auxiliary unit's involvement in an unknown war. Meanwhile, Neil Faulkner (according to the Daily Mail report) piles conjecture onto already shaky foundations by adding: "My guess is that the Ninth Legion was destroyed in a carefully executed ambush by northern tribes".

Well, at least we have established that the "dramatic new evidence" solving "the 2,000 year riddle of Rome's lost Ninth Legion" comes down to a guess. History really shouldn't be written by film-makers.

Saturday, 19 February 2011

The Eye of the Beholder

Sometimes throwaway remarks -- suggestions that seemed reasonable at the time -- are picked up by other writers, and what began as a good idea becomes a theory, and finally a fact.

This process has, I think, occurred in the case of the Britannia coins of the Roman empire. And I am grateful to a recent visitor (Fvrivs Rvfvs) for prompting this latest reflection of an old emperor, once again demonstrating the value of a blog in firing up new ways of thinking about old problems.

Hadrian's Provincial Coinage

To begin with the facts, it seems that the emperor Hadrian (r. AD 117-138) issued a series of "provincial" coins, celebrating his famous tours of the provinces. He certainly had cause to celebrate, for not one of his predecessors had managed to work his way around the entire empire, visiting each frontier in turn.

Hadrian's coinsHere are the reverse "tails" sides from a few of the coins, showing (from left to right) Africa, Britain, Dacia, Germany, and Spain. Each province was personified by a deity, displaying some of the stereotypical attributes of the land. Thus, Africa wears the elephant-skin cap and, leaning against a basket of grain, reclines beside a lion.

Dacia, on the other hand, is seated on a pile of rocks, symbolising the mountainous terrain, and holds in one hand a standard and in the other the long, curved falx which was the characteristic weapon of the Dacians.

Germania, the scene of much Roman campaigning, is depicted as a proud warrior maiden, standing in defiant pose with spear and shield. And Hispania, another land of plenty like Africa, reclines holding an olive branch, while the rabbit motif at her feet symbolises fertility.

Britain, or Britannia, is a warrior maiden like Germany, with spear and shield, but her pose, like Dacia, is seated, indicating that, again like Dacia, she has been tamed by Rome, and her rocky seat is the stereotype of a mountainous province.

Frustratingly, none of Hadrian's coins can be dated accurately, but the Britannia coin (issued at some point during the years AD 119-127) is often said to date from AD 122 and to symbolise the commencement of Hadrian's Wall in that year. This standard interpretation probably began somewhere as "a good idea" and has become "a fact" which you will find in the standard books about Roman Britain and Hadrian's Wall.

Antoninus Pius and Britain

Having originated the personification of the various provinces under Hadrian, the Roman moneyers continued periodically to use the same characters whenever deemed appropriate. Thus, when Lollius Urbicus reconquered lowland Scotland for Antoninus Pius (your very own blogger, r. AD 138-161), coins were issued during the period AD 142-144 displaying Britannia on the reverse. The coin depicted below-left is an example of this.

Britannia coinsHowever, coins issued during AD 155 (see above-center for an example) are usually said to depict a "dejected" Britannia, symbolising a disaster in the province. Perhaps the mauling of a legion, as Fvrivs Rvfvs seems to suggest. No doubt, this "dejection" theory began as somebody's good idea, but has now become a fact which you will find in the standard books about Roman Britain and the Antonine Wall. But the "sad" Britannia is really just a slight variation on the original personification found on Hadrian's coinage (pictured above-right).

Roman coins have been likened to the news agencies today. The reverse images carried topical messages around the empire. No doubt the depiction of a province like Britannia meant that something was going on there. But this old emperor would suggest that it was successes that were celebrated on coinage, and the "depressed" Britannia of AD 155 is really just the standard depiction of the deity. Of course, emotion is in the eye of the beholder ...

Tuesday, 8 February 2011

What Roman Soldiers Wear

Book cover

A year ago, I blogged on the subject of "out-of-date" books and what that term might mean.

So I was interested to read an on-line review of the late H. Russell Robinson's booklet, What the Soldiers wore on Hadrian's Wall. While generally enthusiastic, the review -- entitled "Interesting but Outdated" -- still noted that the date of publication (1976; repr. 1979 and 1985) "makes the book slightly outdated".

To set the scene, the 40-page booklet (which is really a single long chapter entitled "Arms and Armour of the Wall Garrisons") discusses cavalry (pages 3-13, with further cavalry-related illustrations on pages 14-19, 26, 28, 30, 34, 36 and 37), the infantry cohorts (pages 25-27, with further infantry-related illustrations on pages 19-23, 30 and 32), the cohortes equitatae (mixed cohorts) (pages 27-29, with illustrations on pages 24 and 38), the cohors sagittariorum (infantry archers) (page 29, with illustrations on pages 33 and 39), and numeri and cunei (irregular troops) (page 31, with relevant illustrations on pages 35 and 40).

The (rightly famous, now deceased) illustrator Ron Embleton supplied nine colour paintings, and some of the characters from these paintings appear on the cover (shown above). Besides copious photographs and sketches of tombstones and artefacts, the book also includes Peter Connolly's drawing of a "bronze helmet for an infantryman of a cohors equitata, 2nd century" (on page 38).

The on-line reviewer, perhaps not realising the pedigree of Russell Robinson (Keeper of Armour in the Tower of London, 1970-78, and author of The Armour of Imperial Rome, 1975), prefers the Embleton-illustrated Hadrian's Wall in the Days of the Romans, with text by the publisher and enthusiast Frank Graham. Of course, as Robinson makes clear in his introduction, Embleton simply followed his instructions to create the paintings that appear in this booklet (many of which reappear in Frank Graham's later compilation). So, in both, we are seeing Robinson's ideas brought to life in full color.

But I wonder why the on-line reviewer thought that Robinson's book was "interesting but outdated". Interesting, certainly. Here are the thoughts of a practising armourer, gathering together evidence for (probably) the first time, and guiding the brush of an illustrator to re-imagine the soldiers of Hadrian's Wall. But outdated? What could be outdated? (Answers on a postcard, please, if you find any out-of-date information in this booklet!)