Rome's Desert Frontier: From the Air

Rome's Desert Frontier: From the Air

Rome's Desert Frontier: From the Air

Rome's Desert Frontier: From the Air


Over 100 archaeological sites lying within the desert area of Rome's eastern frontier are examined with accompanying maps, plans and air photographs. Designed to provide an overview of Roman military works in the Middle East, this work is intended to appeal to archaeologists and military historians.


In the published proceedings of what has proved to be the first of a series of conferences on Roman frontier studies, Sir Mortimer Wheeler began and ended his contribution on 'The Roman frontier in Mesopotamia' by referring to a well-known passage in the The Revelation. The first two of these 'Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse'-the white and the red in the book's opening quotation-are commonly interpreted as symbolizing the great empires of Parthia and Rome in the later first century AD, on the eve of a series of destructive wars. With a characteristically dramatic flourish, Wheeler concluded his paper on a hopeful note:

with a jeep and a proper sense of adventure [a young scholar] can sally forth into the desert with the complete assurance of immortal fame. The bones of the red horse and the white await him there, res vetustate ac raritate notabiles, gigantum ossa et arma heroum.

(Wheeler, 1952, 128)

Such optimism was well founded when he wrote. The years between the two World Wars had been a period of steady progress in Middle Eastern archaeology, and it was natural in 1949 to assume that this would be resumed. After the end of Ottoman rule in 1918, British and French administrations had opened up Syria, Iraq, Transjordan and Palestine to investigation much more widely. For the Europeans and Americans who then had access, this was a land of enormous interest and excitement: the Holy Land and the neighbouring lands of the Bible. Areas seldom if ever reached by western explorers were penetrated, hundreds of ancient sites were visited and scores were excavated. Several of the excavations were considerable undertakings (Antioch, Gerasa, Palmyra and Hama) and the work at Dura Europos was outstanding. Men then, or soon to be, dominant figures in classical scholarship were involved: Cumont, Rostovtzeff, A.H.M. Jones, Hopkins, Brown, Kraeling, Welles. And overhead, a passenger in French military aircraft, was the remarkable priest, Père Antoine Poidebard. Flying over regions difficult to reach on the ground and pioneering a technique of the first importance, he found and photographed roads, forts and towns. His classic work, La Trace de Rome dans le Désert de Syrie, transformed the map of the Roman frontier in Syria. A few years afterwards, stimulated by Poidebard's achievements, Sir Aurel Stein examined a vast territory and produced complementary maps for Iraq and Transjordan. War intervened, but by 1939 scholars were fully aware of the enormous potential of the region for archaeological exploration and the vital role the aeroplane could play.

By 1949, when the Second World War was four years past, archaeological research in the Middle East could be taken up again. Regrettably, however, the post-war period proved to be an anti-climax, with too little done to match the work of the period between the wars. In particular, as a result of the political situation in the Middle East, the pioneer aerial researches of Poidebard and Stein have not been continued by programmes of aerial reconnaissance comparable to those now in progress in parts of western Europe. The latter have revolutionized knowledge of the ancient landscapes of several European countries and of their ancient remains, especially those below the surface of the ground. One can only speculate on how much could have been achieved in the Middle East in the same period with a fraction of the effort. In this region, where land development has been accelerating rapidly, much has now been lost or damaged. For a generation, scholarship has been the poorer for the diminished level of all fieldwork in the area; the loss of material is a tragedy for the future.

In preparing this book, one of our most revealing discoveries was the extent to which the Roman East was terra incognita for even otherwise

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