Archaeology and reconstructing ancient warfare II

Sunday, May 23, 2010


Cohort strength report on a writing tablet from Vindolanda (c. ad 100, north Britain).

The case of Julius Caesar’s attack on Alesia in 52 bc demonstrates the potential of archaeology at an abandoned site as well as various complications. Caesar himself provided a detailed account, including the complex siege-works around the hilltop (B Gall. 7.68–89), but there are sufficient imprecisions in the text to permit different identifications of the location. Partly because the site was of great symbolic significance for Gallic national identity, there was fierce provincial rivalry to claim it between Alesia in Burgundy and Alaisa in Comté. Napoleon III patronized excavations at Alesia, and even visited the site on 19 June 1861 to tour the trenches and listen to a translation of Caesar’s narrative on the summit; finance was available, but there was also strong imperial interest in results so that the integrity of the investigation might be challenged. Many found the results conclusive and a statue of Vercingetorix was erected as a memorial to a unified Gaul, but there was still sufficient argument between Burgundy and Comt´e to thwart a national bimillenary celebration in 1949.

Subsequent archaeological work has confirmed beyond doubt that Napoleon’s investigators were right, but also revealed how their reconstructions had been shaped by Caesar’s descriptions (B Gall. 7.72–4), which in fact contained certain inaccuracies: the location given by Caesar for some of the outer obstacles proved to be wrong, and, although the various items recorded by Caesar did exist, their disposition varied around the circumvallation. Caesar produced a homogenized description which embraced what might be found at certain points on the circumference but did not correspond precisely to any of the areas investigated. The constraints of memory, or perhaps the demands for literary clarity affected the written record, but the text then influenced the interpretation of the material remains for over a century.

Archaeological discoveries provide our main insight into the routine of military service, camp life with patrols, and the occasional skirmish which would be too minor to attract the notice of an ancient author. The writing tablets from Vindolanda, the archive of Abbinaeus, and the papyrus records of the camel corps at Nessana reveal the realities of the Roman army’s presence in different provinces at different times, the economic importance and social connections of the army in terms of supplies, local patronage, ownership of property, delivery of justice, and maintenance of order. Even on active campaign there was considerable tedium: the story of Socrates’ protracted immobility at the siege of Potidaea is preserved to show his devotion to knowledge (Pl. Symp. 220), but the interest which his odd behaviour generated among fellow besiegers also points to the boredom of a protracted blockade. Camp life required its diversions, as the antics of young Athenians on garrison duty illustrate (Dem. 54.3–4): we know about them because the victim went to court and employed a famous speech-writer, but otherwise such behaviour would pass unrecorded. Even here there is no escape from literary texts.


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