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The Creation of the Roman Frontier

The Creation of the Roman Frontier

by Stephen L. Dyson


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Stephen L. Dyson finds in the experience of the Republic the origins of Roman frontier policy and methods of border control as practiced under the Empire. Focusing on the western provinces during the Republic, he demonstrates the ways in which Roman society, like that of the United States, was shaped by its own frontier.

Originally published in 1985.

The Princeton Legacy Library uses the latest print-on-demand technology to again make available previously out-of-print books from the distinguished backlist of Princeton University Press. These editions preserve the original texts of these important books while presenting them in durable paperback and hardcover editions. The goal of the Princeton Legacy Library is to vastly increase access to the rich scholarly heritage found in the thousands of books published by Princeton University Press since its founding in 1905.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780691102320
Publisher: Princeton University Press
Publication date: 10/21/1987
Series: Princeton Legacy Library , #27
Edition description: REPRINT
Pages: 337
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 1.25(h) x 9.00(d)

Read an Excerpt

The Creation of the Roman Frontier

By Stephen L. Dyson


Copyright © 1985 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-691-03577-2



From the beginning, Rome was a society of frontiers. For the first Palatine communities, political boundaries were close at hand. The shrines of Janus preserved the folk memories of their existence. Nor was the experience of Rome exceptional for the communities of the Italian peninsula during the first millenium B.C. The whole area was a crazy quilt of political units varying in ethnic background and level of social development. Etruscans, Greeks, Italians, and Gauls all met along complex and changing frontiers.

For this study, the meeting between Rome and the Gauls seems the most appropriate place to begin. Starting with the traumatic events of the defeat on the Allia and the sacking of the city by the Celts, the Romano-Gallic wars developed into some of the longest, most brutal conflicts in the history of the Republic. The Gauls seared themselves into the Roman national consciousness in a way that no other group did. Art, rhetoric, and even religious ritual reflected this. Gallorum autem nomen quod semper Romanes terruit.

The initial involvement with the Gallic folk was almost accidental and largely the result of forces shaped well outside central Italy. It was the Etruscans who first brought the Gauls into contact with Rome, and it was Rome's concern with Etruria that led to her first Celtic confrontation. Some background is necessary in order to understand the events at Clusium, the Allia, and Rome that were to open the frontier experience for the Tiber state.

During the last third of the sixth century B.C., the Etruscans extended their trade and colonizing networks over the Apennines into northeastern Italy. The expansion resulted in new contacts with local tribes and Greek traders along the east coast of Italy. It also allowed Etruscans to tap trade routes extending into and beyond the Alps. This new expansion was undoubtedly related to the political changes taking place north of the Alps. By the fifth century B.C. the Hallstatt culture in west-central Europe was being replaced by the new group known as La Tene. The main La Tene power centers lay more to the east. This meant that the trade routes linking continental Europe to the Mediterranean were shifting eastward, increasing the importance of the Alpine passes and the Po drainage. Northeastern Italy and transalpine Europe were drawn more closely together. Trade networks developed and along these routes were soon to move peoples from central Europe.

By the time these ultramontane invaders had arrived, the Etruscans had produced considerable changes in the region. Later tradition spoke of the foundation of twelve cities; some important centers such as Felsina and Marzabotto were established. The number of Etruscan settlers was probably smaller than later tradition implied. It is often difficult to distinguish in the archaeological records between the Etruscans and the natives whose culture had rapidly acquired an Etruscoid veneer. Students of Etruria have increasingly realized the distinctive quality of this transapennine Padane culture and its blend of Etruscan and native elements.

Quite early, transalpine migrants moved into the area, thus starting the sequence of events that led to Rome's intervention. Traders spread news of fertile lands south of the mountains that were sparsely populated and dotted with rich centers. This appealed to the Celts in the north, who lived in a poor and overpopulated country. More migrants began moving through the mountain passes. At first they were tolerated or perhaps even welcomed, but they slowly became a menace to the people of Italy. Archaeologists and ancient historians continue to disagree about when this movement began. The classical authors offer radically different versions, and the fragmentary evidence of archaeology has not yet helped to resolve the dispute. Yet the issue calls for some discussion, since it is fundamental to an understanding of the kind of Gallic society the Romans met when they crossed the Apennines.

The ancient writers provide us with two traditions. The first placed the initial Celtic migration in the period of Tarquinius Priscus, during the sixth century B.C. Livy is our main source for this. Whatever faults the Patavian historian might have had, he was a child of the Padane region and undoubtedly knew its Celtic traditions. In this version the motives for migration were basically economic. The Celts went through the western Alpine passes to the area of Milan, where the first Celtic center south of the mountains was founded. Livy makes it clear that there were several Celtic migrations and that the process of domination of northeastern Italy was only completed in the early years of the fourth century B.C.

The second tradition, which ultimately rests on the authority of the second-century Greek Polybius, places the arrival of the Celts during the late fifth century B.C., shortly before the attack on Rome. Historians have tended to favor this second version, partly because of the generally greater respect accorded Polybius over Livy. The arrival of the Celts has been seen as a sudden folk migration in the pattern so beloved of prehistorians. This acceptance of the Polybian version may be rash. Before this problem is addressed, however, the archaeological evidence should be briefly reviewed.

In the field of Celto-Italian archaeology, both the quantity of evidence and its interpretation are rapidly changing. Until recently it had been a somewhat neglected subject. This was in part a result of a certain lingering prejudice against the barbarian invaders, but it was also related to the paucity and ambiguity of the physical remains. Except for a few cemeteries such as Filottrano and Ornavasso, the traces left by the Celts are unimpressive. Nothing like the great oppida sites of France and Germany survive, although a few centers, such as Mediolanum, must have once rivaled their counterparts north of the Alps. Settlement sites are still almost unknown, and nearly all cultural reconstruction is based on cemetery finds. A further complication for the cultural historian is that Celtic society was undergoing rapid change during this period, partly because of contacts with the Italic and Greek world. Thus it is often difficult to tell whether one is dealing with a Celtic site that has undergone some degree of Mediterranean acculturation, or a site of a local Italic group that shared many cultural characteristics with the Celtic invaders and was even slightly influenced by them. Moreover, the Celts appear to have arrived in different areas at different times and thus possessed diverse blends of cisalpine and transalpine traits. New excavations and the renewed study of material from older excavations have helped clarify our picture of Celto-Italian culture, but much needs to be done. We are still far from such basic reconstructions as the Celtic settlement pattern and forms of sustenance, especially for the early period before the invaders were heavily influenced by Greco-Etruscan ways.

The current state of the archaeological evidence suggests that a compromise needs to be made between the two ancient literary traditions. Some Celtic influence is evident in Italy relatively early in the fifth century B.C. Undoubtedly these movements through the Alps were similar to the migrations of the early second century B.C. that were to cause so much concern to the Roman senate. Mercenary service and the prospect of good land probably drew the Celts into Italy.

What seems clear from both the literary and the archaeological record is that the pace of invasion accelerated during the late fifth and early fourth centuries B.C. During this period the new arrivals became sufficiently numerous to challenge the Etruscan hegemony in the north. For the ancients, the critical turning point came with the fall of the Etruscan city of Melpum in 396 B.C. The exact location of Melpum is disputed, but it lay north of the Po and represented an Etruscan outpost in the part of Italy that was first to become Celticized.

As new arrivals crossed the Alps and pressed farther into the peninsula, the Etruscanized communities south of the Po felt the impact of the invasions. The most vivid testimony that we have of this conflict is the series of tombstones found at Felsina, the Etruscan Bologna. During the late fifth and early fourth centuries, scenes of combat between Etruscan warrior and nude Gaul appeared on these grave monuments. The Etruscans of the north helped create the artistic motif of the Celtomachy that was to have its greatest expression in the school of Pergamon.

The growing dominance of the Celts affected the urban communities that the Etruscans had established in the Aemilia area. Most dramatic was the decline of the Etruscan center at Marzabotto. Some of the Etruscans may have been driven out. Tradition had one group under King Rhaetus pushing north toward the Alps to form the Rhaetian nation. But the Etruscan decline may not have been quite as sudden and dramatic as is sometimes supposed. Vergil recalls a continuity of Etruscan tradition in his native Mantua. At Adria on the coast, graffiti of the third and second centuries B.C. have a number of Etruscan names.

One reason why certain Etruscan groups could survive was that the Gauls were politically fragmented and often led a partly mobile existence. The Roman historians described the Gauls as being scattered in castella sua vicosque. Pliny mentions 112 distinct groups as having lived in the territory of the Boii. Evidence both literary and archaeological suggests a pastoral element in the society of the Gauls, and it is possible that their agriculture was based on something resembling slash and burn. Even their cemetery sites are generally small and scattered. There is no evidence for the development of oppida like those that apparently emerged north of the Po.

The richest concentrations of Celtic material come from graves around Bologna. In general the Gallic tombs were modest inhumation burials. Only 60 of 203 burials from Bologna contained grave goods. In addition to weapons, these included personal ornaments, imported bronzes, and ceramics. A few tombs of the third century B.C. were more opulent, including one that had a diadem of gold. This suggests the emergence of social and economic differentiation. The literary sources mention reges and reguli well established before the Romans appeared on the scene. It is significant that the names of more Celtic chieftains have survived than those of any other native ethnic group the Romans faced in these early Italian tribal wars.

Without sufficient data on settlements, it is difficult to discuss the level of economic development among the Gauls. The finds in the burials suggest, however, that certain individuals had access to Med iterranean luxury goods. The presence of items such as strigils shows the adaptation of Hellenic customs. Some of these items may have been booty, but others were certainly trade goods acquired either from Etruria or from trading centers along the Adriatic. Polybius mentions the importance of gold as an indication of wealth among the Gauls. The Romans at one point issued a prohibition against anyone giving gold or silver to a Gaul. The prohibition was probably intended to prevent certain persons from acquiring excessive wealth and upsetting the delicate social and political balance in Gallic society. A final indication of the growth of wealth among the Gallic elite is the list of items, including finely worked objects in precious metal, carried to Rome for Gallic triumphs.

The impression of Gallic society given by literary and archaeological sources contrasts with the accounts provided by Polybius. He describes the Celts as sleeping in crude abodes and constantly on the move, preoccupied only with war and agriculture and uninterested in art and science. References to the unstable, shiftless, and even drunken nature of the Gauls are commonplace in the ancient literature. In part, this stereotype reflected the subconscious or conscious need of the Greeks and Romans to denigrate the group they were trying to expel or exterminate. Like the settlers on the American frontier, they stressed the cultural inferiority of the natives in an attempt to justify their elimination. Nevertheless, the great majority of the Gallic burials do suggest relative poverty.

Much of the material that has been discovered in Gallic burials dates to the late fourth and third centuries B.C., and reflects Gallic society on the eve of the final Roman conquest rather than in the first migration period. During the early fourth century it was the unacculturated natives whom the Romans met in the series of encounters leading up to the sack of the city. This traumatic period in Roman history, which began at Chiusi and ended on the slopes of the Capitoline, must now be considered. Many variants of the story have survived in the Roman historiographical tradition. They reflect both the obscurities of the early Roman historical sources and the need the Romans felt to alter these traditions in the light of later historical experiences. Yet certain key elements are common and probably reflect a basic reality. They can be briefly stated.

The sequence of events started when a group of Gauls searching for land crossed the Apennines and invaded the territory of the Etruscan city of Clusium, the modern Chiusi. One legend claimed that they had been invited by a certain Arruns of Clusium who was seeking revenge for the seduction of his wife by the lucumon, or ruling magistrate of the city. Behind this romance may lie the reality of factional fighting in an Etruscan city and the use of the Celts as mercenaries.

Chiusi stands on the western slope of the Apennines and controls not only the mountain passes but also access to the headwaters of the Tiber. If the stories surrounding Lars Porsenna are to be accepted, the city had an early link with Rome. Chiusi supposedly played a key role in isolating Veii from the rest of the Etruscans when that city came under attack from Rome. When the Gauls appeared in Clusian territory, the Etruscans turned to Rome for assistance. Concerned about the spread of the Celts to the western slope of the Apennines, the Senate sent an embassy led by members of the Fabii family, a clan traditionally interested in advancing Rome's frontier up the Tiber. The mission of the embassy was supposed to be peaceful and the ambassadors neutral. Fighting erupted while the envoys were at Clusium, however, and members of the Fabian clan joined in the fray against the Gauls. One of the Fabii slew a Gallic chieftain. The Gauls then demanded satisfaction from the Roman senate for this violation of the rules of international conduct.

Our surviving account of the Roman reaction to the Gallic demand was undoubtedly shaped by similar episodes in Republican history in which the demands of international justice clashed with the power of individual factions. The mood may be anachronistic and many details distorted, but even the reworked account says much about how the Romans allocated blame for one of their most important national disasters. The Gauls are portrayed as moderate in the face of this clear violation of the norms of diplomacy and the senate as initially willing to reach an accommodation. But the power and prestige of the Fabian gens prevented the Roman government from taking any disciplinary action. The Gauls, insulted by the rebuff, marched toward Rome, and the Roman army sent to intercept them was defeated at the river Allia. The unprotected city lay open to sack by the Gauls.

The many variations of this narrative reflect not only historiographical confusion but also the need of the Romans to doctor the account to suit later, specific needs. One controversy centers on the ethnic identity of the Gauls who attacked Rome. Later accounts blamed the tribe of the Senones. Their territory, located in the area between Rimini and Ancona, was among the least desirable pieces of land taken by the Gauls. The Senones appear to have been among the groups that arrived last in Italy and would thus have been most tempted to cross the nearby mountains to seize western Etruscan lands. As evidence of their culpability Roman historians mentioned that gold, taken at the sack of Rome, was recovered from the Senones during the Roman wars of conquest in the third century. It should be remembered, though, that the Senones were among the first Gallic tribes conquered by the Romans and that the subjugation was effected with a thoroughness and brutality close to genocide. The Romans coveted Senonian land, and they may well have been tempted to justify their actions by blaming them for the sack. Other Gallic groups may have been involved. Polybius stated that the Gallic withdrawal from Rome was in part caused by Venetian attacks on their territory. The Senones who lived well south of the Veneti would have been little affected by this action.


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Table of Contents

  • FrontMatter, pg. i
  • CONTENTS, pg. vii
  • LIST OF MAPS, pg. ix
  • PREFACE, pg. xi
  • CHAPTER 1. The Gallic Frontier in Northern Italy, pg. 7
  • CHAPTER 2. The Transpadane Frontier, pg. 42
  • CHAPTER 3. The Development of the Ligurian Frontier, pg. 87
  • CHAPTER 4. The Republican Frontier in Gaul, pg. 126
  • CHAPTER 5. The Beginnings of a Roman Frontier in the Iberian Peninsula, pg. 174
  • CHAPTER 6. The Post-Gracchan Experience in Spain, pg. 199
  • CHAPTER 7. The Roman Frontier in Sardinia and Corsica, pg. 237
  • CONCLUSION, pg. 270
  • BIBLIOGRAPHY, pg. 281
  • INDEX, pg. 315

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