Florin Curta

title.none: Pohl et al. eds., The Transformation of Frontiers (Florin Curta )

identifier.other: baj9928.0203.014 02.03.14

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Florin Curta , University of Florida,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2002

identifier.citation: Pohl, Walter, Ian Wood and Helmut Reimitz. eds. The Transformation of Frontiers: From Late Antiquity to the Carolingians. Transformation of the Roman World. Leiden: Brill, 2001. Pp. v, 298. ISBN: 9-004-11115-8.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 02.03.14

Pohl, Walter, Ian Wood and Helmut Reimitz. eds. The Transformation of Frontiers: From Late Antiquity to the Carolingians. Transformation of the Roman World. Leiden: Brill, 2001. Pp. v, 298. ISBN: 9-004-11115-8.

Reviewed by:

Florin Curta
University of Florida

Conference volumes and other edited collections are often faulted for lack of coherence or failure to address a common central theme. In this case, the publication of the papers presented at the second plenary conference of the European Science Foundation program on the Transformation of the Roman World (Le Bischenberg, Alsace, April 21-24, 1996) is to the good. As Ian Wood notes in the introduction, "culturally, Europe between 300 and 900 can be seen to be crisscrossed with frontiers, linguistic, artistic, religious and philosophical" (p. 1). But how were frontiers defined? In his concluding essay, co-editor Walter Pohl argues that "political boundaries did exist" (p. 250), despite the fact that frontiers became an issue of political debates only during the Carolingian period. Readers interested in frontiers in general may feel somewhat disappointed that, beyond a brief survey of the Forschungsstand, Pohl's essay does not develop any new model or theory. Nor does he elaborate on the influence that Turner's concept of "frontier society" had on the Limesforschung. Archaeologists will take a cue in his deep distrust of archaeology, most typical for traditional approaches to frontier studies, for, to Pohl, "archaeological remains cannot provide evidence for political frontiers" (p. 254). Others will notice that, while emphasizing that states "might claim to have no limits" (p. 250) and, consequently, no frontier history, Pohl places the collapse of the Roman frontier, as well as that of the Empire's offensive policy on the Danube limes, precisely at the time of Phocas' revolt of 602 (p. 251). But Pohl nicely outlines the multiple dimensions of the frontier concept: "not a matter of states, but of carefully surveyed agricultural property" (p. 247); "invisible frontiers that regulated social interaction and imagination" (p. 250); and "spaces defined by churchmen and missionaries" (p. 259)

Other chapters focus more narrowly on one or another of these dimensions. For example, Javier Arce explores the evidence of a fourth-century pamphlet known as De rebus bellicis and its relationship to the official ideology of a triumphant Empire with no limits. Peter Heather's analysis of the emergent patterns of client management on and beyond the imperial frontiers on the Rhine -- as well as on the Danube -- is extremely useful, especially in the light of a plethora of recent anthropological and historical studies emphasizing the role of political frontiers in the creation, rather than separation, of ethnic configurations. Heather stresses the ability of fourth-century emperors to use military force not to defend linear frontiers, but to break up "confederations that they considered undesirable (. . .), returning autonomy to selected groups, and to pick out particular individuals as leaders of the groups so formed" (p. 22). The evidence marshaled clearly shows that the Roman intervention could reach far beyond the limes, as revealed by Constantius II's Sarmatian and Julian's Alamannic campaigns of the 350s. Like Arce, Heather identifies the economic rationale of the military developments on the frontiers. To him, gifts lavishly distributed to barbarian chieftains beyond the limes appear not as a sign of Roman weakness, but as "an attempt to get the best possible peace per solidus ratio out of a given military effort" (p. 27). Heather's reconstruction of the strategies underpinning the decisions of the barbarian (mainly Alamannic) chieftains, to whom the author refers as "overkings," may at times appear as misleading or mistaken. His emphasis on the role of feasting in elevating such individuals to positions of power within their own communities points not to chiefs or "kings," but to forms of political leadership known to anthropologists as "big-men." As described by Marshall Sahlins, a "big man" achieves his position in a context of egalitarian ideology and fierce competition (which dovetails with what we know from Ammianus Marcellinus about several Alamannic leaders). By contrast, a chief succeeds to a hereditary position in a context of social hierarchy. The power of a chief is ascribed and coincides with privileged control of wealth, while a "big-man" manipulates wealth to achieve his position of power. Despite claims to the contrary (p. 44), there is no evidence that Alamannic raids aimed at capturing a large number of prisoners in order to provide "extra producers" for the "kings of the economically less developed lands beyond the Roman frontier." Prospective gains from ransom payments or political negotiations are so far a much better explanation. But the phenomenon Heather identifies is an important one: "reasonably effective, medium-term patterns of stability" that the Late Roman empire created around its borders by "an integrated and pro-active policy of forward military intervention paving the way for carefully targeted political manipulation" (p. 68). Readers will find similar conclusions in Hans-Werner Goetz's excellent essay tracing the gradual change in the "perception and importance of frontiers" from Late Antiquity to the Carolingian period. Matthias Hardt's paper on the Carolingian frontiers in Hesse and along the Elbe and Saale rivers even contends that responsible for Carolingian views of the eastern frontier was a certain spirit of emulation of the Roman limes (pp. 228 and 231). However, recent archaeological studies do not confirm Hardt's conclusions. Christenberg near Muenchhausen has long been interpreted as a "Frankish castle built in the last decades of the seventh century" (p. 220). The site has been dated on the basis of three spurs, but Thomas Kind's re-examination of the evidence pushed the date to the tenth century. The stone rampart does not seem therefore to belong to a Carolingian fortification phase. The same is true about Bueraburg near Fritzlar. New excavations carried out by Joachim Henning clearly indicate the lack of any habitation phase between the Neolithic structures found outside the rampart and the timber palisade, which is dendro-dated to the late 600s or early 700s. The stone rampart long post-dates Boniface's establishment of a bishopric in 741, and is probably Ottonian.

Walter Pohl ably analyzes the Passvorschriften of the Lombard kings Ratchis and Aistulf and the reasons for their failure to control movements across Lombard territories, in particular papal contacts with Frankish kings. Helmut Reimitz discusses the politics of "religious imperialism" (N. J. Higham) in the context of the Carolingian occupation of the Middle Danube region in the aftermath of Charlemagne's campaigns against the Avars. Reimitz suggests that the tension between the religious and affirmative strategies of the Carolingian rulers was ultimately responsible for their failure to establish a "symbolic order" within their "frontier imagination on the middle Danube" (p. 207). Herwig Wolfram contributes an essay on the creation of the Carolingian frontier-system, which came into being only in reaction to specific needs and pressures and was never conceptualized with any degree of clarity as the fully-fledged territorial organization of marches so dear to traditional historiography. Ian Wood's review of missionaries and the Christian frontier(s) assigns primary responsibility for the implementation of the "symbolic order" to missionaries, who were most concerned with the identification of cultural boundaries. Unlike Carolingian rulers, missionaries heading to northern, central, or eastern Europe were more accommodating. To them, "the neighboring pagans were mission fodder" (p. 216). In the process of converting the pagans, they gained first-hand experience of the communities they visited and described them in literary accounts, which now appear to us "as often personal as they are the products of a whole society" (p. 218). What all these essays have in common is not a particular theoretical model, but a broader analytical reach firmly rooted in historical context. This is seen as well in Gisella Ripoll Lopez's chapter on the "supposed frontier between the regnum Visigothorum and Byzantine Hispania." Except for its too-brief treatment of the terminological inconsistencies of Comentiolus' inscription, which has both Hispania and Spania, this essay, written more than fifty years after Goubert's studies of Byzantine Spain, will appeal to many readers with an interest in Visigothic Spain, as a much needed re-examination of an important, if thorny, problem.

By contrast, Dick Harrison's essay on liminality and centrality in early medieval Italy draws heavily from Yi-Fu Tuan's study of "topophilia" and Gurevich's cultural anthropological model. According to Harrison, the "modern sense of boundary appears to have been absent from early medieval Europe," because towns, and not provinces, constituted the central places of political and military interest. His conclusion appears in direct opposition to that of Goetz, for he explains the early medieval concept of liminality as a direct consequence of the fall of the West Roman Empire (p. 92). Falko Daim offers an appraisal of recent research on Late Avar belt ornaments and attempts to place belts with multiple straps in a broader context of diplomatic gifts and trade between the Mediterranean region and the Carpathian basin. It remains unclear, at least to the present reviewer, what, if any, is the relation between this paper and the general theme of the book. There is much to gain from this essay: relative and absolute chronology of Late Avar burial assemblages; a very interesting comparison between belt sets from Avar burial assemblages and a particular fresco in the S. Maria Antiqua church of Rome; an excellent discussion of the iconography of gilded belt sets found in Late Avar and post-Avar assemblages; as well as a useful commentary on the economic value of the belt fittings from the Vrap hoard. But in spite of Daim's reference to Ian Hodder's Symbols in Action, there is very little in this essay that would relate to the British archaeologist's search for spatial patterns of artifacts related to ethnic boundaries. In addition, there is no discussion of either political or ethnic frontiers between the Avar qaganate and its western and northern neighbors. Some of Daim's assertions are also to be taken with the grain of salt. It is simply not true that the "mask fittings" (perforated, so-called "Martynovka" belt mounts and strap ends) occur as singular finds in the Carpathian basin (p. 145). Such artifacts became popular in the steppes north and northeast of the Black Sea during the second half of the sixth century and were in use in the Balkan provinces of the empire during the same period, as demonstrated by their presence in both forts and burial assemblages excavated south of the Danube river. They were in use in the Carpathian basin even before the arrival of the Avars, as shown by burial no. 29 at Szentes-Nagyhegy, in which a "Martynovka mount" was found in association with a Sucidava belt-buckle, a dress accessory most typical for early Byzantine forts of the Justinianic age. In Avar assemblages dated shortly after ca. 600, "Martynovka mounts", though not very common, appear as frequently as in "nomadic" burials north of the Black Sea. Belts with multiple straps cannot be interpreted in terms of "Byzantine influences" (p. 145), for such belts were in use in Sassanian Persia, as indicated by the Taq-i-Bustan reliefs dated to the reign of King Khusro II (590-628). The earliest assemblages with belt mounts of the sixth century are those of the northern Caucasus and Crimea. Similarly, several types of beads (to which Daim wrongly refers as "pearls") found in Late Avar and post-Avar assemblages cannot be used as evidence of "female jewelry of Byzantine origin" (p. 161), for they originated in regions of the eastern Mediterranean basin, which were not any more under Byzantine control after ca. 700 A.D.

In general, this is an admirable collection, opening up some little-known (at least to some American medievalists) but fascinating topics. Readers will easily skip a few colorful, if annoying, anachronisms ("barbarians. . .loved sex and drugs and rock and roll," p. 50). A pervasive, if understandable, hostility towards Luttwak's idea of "grand strategy" sometimes translates into dubious statements. There is no "obvious correspondence" between Reagan's idea of "Evil Empire" and Luttwak's treatment of Roman frontiers (p. 66 with n. 140), for the publication of the Grand Strategy of the Roman Empire pre-dates Reaganism. Some instances of typos ("chronoligically" on p. 2, "divison" on p. 78, "adapattion" on p. 188, "Petschenegs" on p. 210, capitalization on pages 68 and 234), missing note numbers (p. 54 with n. 112; p. 60 with n. 126), odd-phrasing, incorrect choice of words or spellings ("Siebenbuergen," instead of Transylvania on p. 175; "Schiffswerft," instead of "wharf" on p. 176, "Belisar," instead of Belisarius on p. 253), as well as improper usage crept in -- simple details that ought to have been spotted by the editors. But overall, the high quality of the contributors' work made reviewing this volume not at all the chore it might have been. Many essays offer substantial contributions to the field and will no doubt stimulate readers to regard a text (or a period, archaeological assemblage, historical problem) from a new perspective or set them to thinking about how to explore the authors' ideas even further. The bibliography at the end of the volume provides an excellent documentation for subsequent work. The Transformation of Frontiers is a useful contribution to the growing body of literature on medieval frontiers. The editors and contributors alike deserve high praise.