Review – Protecting the Roman Empire: fortlets, frontiers, and the quest for post-conquest security

2 mins read
Matthew Symonds
Cambridge University Press, £75
ISBN 978-1108421553
Review Rob Collins

The Roman army is a well-studied aspect of the ancient empire it served, and tourists frequently visit the remains of legionary fortresses and auxiliary forts across the former territory of the Roman Empire. Yet the less famous (though equally important) small installations of fortlets and towers are fundamental to understanding how the Roman army functioned, both as a conquering body and as a defensive force. In this work, Symonds offers the first synthetic analysis of these under-appreciated and intriguing outpost structures.

Symonds’ work will be known to many CA readers, but this is a tour-de-force monograph on his lifelong research passion. Comprising nine chapters split into three parts, he presents a series of geographic case studies that help the reader to understand how fortlets and towers were used to consolidate newly conquered lands, contribute to border control, and respond to security concerns.

The milecastles of Hadrian’s Wall are perhaps the most widely known fortlets, but by the time they were built the Roman army was already very familiar with such structures. Symonds guides the reader across the empire, along the Danube and the Rhine, into Exmoor, and on to the Gask Ridge that skirts the Scottish Highlands. Each landscape is unique, and the Romans deployed men to build outposts best suited to that particular landscape. The book is well stocked with maps, locating fortlets and towers relative to topography, and they are accompanied by photographs of the landscape in which they were so carefully positioned. Plans of individual fortlets are also frequent, allowing the reader to appreciate the diversity of form to be found.

The most important takeaway, though, is that bigger is not always better. Indeed, Symonds cogently argues that the Roman army accomplished a great deal with ‘small solutions’, employing cordons of fortlets and towers with conservative commitments of ‘boots on the ground’. Furthermore, the outposts reveal a Roman army that functioned beyond the shock-and-awe effect of the legions, deploying small groups of soldiers with a clear tactical understanding of the landscapes they conquered.

This review appeared in CA 339.

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