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Roman Gaul and Germany by Anthony King

Book Review by Ursus

English language scholarship tends to overlook Roman provinces - aside, of course, from Roman Britain. Anthony King attempts to partially correct that imbalance in Roman Gaul and Germany. Twenty years old and seemingly out of print, the book is worth an attempt to locate it from used vendors. It offers an interesting look into these two provinces, and perhaps a mixed review of Rome's efforts to civilize them.

Dr. Anthony King has authored previous books on Roman history, archaeology, military, and religion. He served as senior lecturer in Roman history and archaeology at King Alfred's College, Winchester. King's entreating prose will prove endearing to most readers. His sources are thoughtfully notated in the end, and the book comes included with some choice photographs, illustrations and maps.

Chapter one delves into Gauls' pre-Roman relationship with the Hellenic world. The Greek colony of Massalia in southern Gaul was to exert a conspicuous effect on the surrounding tribes. It is apparent from both literary and archaeological sources that the Celts were all too glad to become economically linked with the greater Mediterranean economy in order to purchase "prestige goods." Greek architecture began to work its way into Celtic designs, particularly into defensive military structures. Thanks to Greek horticulture, wine became the preferred drink to those Celts who could afford it. Celtic religion and language were relatively unaffected; however, even though the animist Celts gradually started displaying gods in human form and within the confines of temples. Therefore, southern Gaul was quite softened up by the time that Caesar arrived, and indeed Caesar might not have made inroads into Gaul were it not for loyal tribal allies.

Chapter two outlines the Roman conquest. Southern Gaul was at first needed as a strategic land route to Rome's holdings in Spain. But from there, as we all know, Caesar's thirst for glory pushed northward. Augustus attempted to pacify Germania, but with the loss of the Varus legions the Romans had to content themselves with some rump provinces along the Rhine. The main archaeological shift in this period is from the fortified hilltop "proto-towns" of the rural Celts into the roadside towns of Roman Gaul.

The next three, four chapters look at the urban landscape, countryside and trading markets of the conquered provinces, with an additional look at the fusion of indigenous and Roman religions. Southern Gaul became quickly Romanized and thus urbanized, where local elites proved their Romanitas through the funding of public works. Northern Gaul, by contrast, held mixed results. There the less Hellenized Celts were much slower to urbanize. Archaeological remains have been found of outlines of town centers that were erected by the Romans, but were relatively desolate as few Celts bothered to move in to populate them. Tellingly, the most successful towns in northern Gaul seem to have been erected alongside shrines adhering to native Celtic religion.

The position was even more bleak in the German provinces, who were not even as urbanized as northern Gaul. King says the Germanic way of life was simply not aligned with Roman civilization; even if Varus had not lost his three legions, greater Germany would never have amounted to anything more than an unprofitable military zone such as existed in northern Britain.

The next chapter looks specifically at the frontier system in the German provinces. We see the gradual evolution from an ad hoc arrangement of checkpoints at the border to a full fledged wall of sentry towers backed by a mobile reserve force. Of course, these ultimately proved futile, as the next chapter reveals.

The turning point of the history of these provinces occurred with the crises of the Third Century. Germanic invaders were able to exploit Roman weakness and pour through the frontier. With the resulting depredations, culture and economy became purely defensive. Towns were walled up over the next century; local elites that had funded Roman style monuments and buildings no longer had the wherewithal to do so (many early monuments, in fact, were broken down and used as mortar in defensive construction). Poorly defended rural estates became targets for swift Germanic raiders. The desperate and displaced turned to brigandage, adding to the chaos. All of this resulted in the significant if ultimately unsuccessful attempt of the western provinces to break away from Rome.

The next chapter traces the rise of Christianity under this chaos. The religion swept into the urbanized south. In the rural north, a system of "parishes" was set up to deal with the decentralized local culture. King explains that while Christian beliefs in the afterlife attracted some, the real appeal of the Church lay in its increased leadership role in all levels of society as pagan establishment simply retreated in the face of crisis.

The final chapter recounts the last days of Roman Gaul. King says the fall of the West can be placed at 406 CE; it was then that Germanic invaders settled en masse through the Western provinces, destroying Rome's political unity. The next seventy years simply witnessed Germanic hordes carving up the corpse of the old empire. However, the new Germanic masters needed help in running local territories; that meant calling in the Church, thus ensuring a fair degree of Romanization in continental Europe.

This work provides an interesting look at these provinces. Highly suggested is the idea that northern Gaul and Germania (and by extension, Britain) were never ripe for conquest because of their poor cultural level. The Romans would have done better to consolidate southern Gaul and simply trade with the barbarians in the north and in Germania. But the Roman way was conquest at any price, and therein perhaps lay the seeds of its own destruction.

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Roman Gaul and Germany (Exploring the Roman World) - Related Topic: Roman Gaul


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