Review of A Walk like no other, East of Asia Minor, Rome's Hidden Frontier by Timothy Bruce
OUP (two volumes, 2018) h/b 832pp £225; (ISBN 9780198725176)
Published in Cornucopia, issue 57, 2018
Every year Hadrian’s Wall has a hundred thousand visitors, of whom seven thousand walk the seventy-three mile long limes (Roman frontier). The history of this frontier, in the most obscure and unrewarding north-western province of the Roman Empire, has been under constant investigation for the last 180 years. Its conservation was largely achieved through the passion of just one man (a Newcastle lawyer called John Clayton, 1792-1890) who had the good fortune to have a father called Nathaniel who introduced him to his lifelong passion for antiquities aged four. Every year, another book about some historical aspect of 'The Wall' is published in Britain - while its influence is embedded in popular culture - witness the Game of Thrones TV drama or such a blockbuster film as Stardust.
By contrast the eastern-most frontier of the Roman Empire is truly 'the Hidden Frontier'. Until the publication of this book, no archaeologist had ever worked out the five-hundred-mile route, no historian had written about its forts and no travel-writer had marched its length. Yet it guarded some of the richest and most civilized provinces of the entire Empire. With the occasional exception (such as Sapor's invasion of 256AD) for five hundred years it protected its dazzling, gorgeous cities and ancient temples from the cavalry armies of the Parthian Kings and Sassanid Shahs, as well as the Mountain Lords of Georgia and Armenia in the Caucasus. It is seven times the length of Hadrian’s Wall, and rises to altitudes seven times the height as it climbs across the Taurus mountains and the Pontic Alps as well as marching beside the deep impenetrable gorges of the Upper Euphrates.
As the author writes, 'All has remained hidden', though he is unfailing courteous to that small but entrepid band of vice consuls, adventurers and military engineers seconded to the Ottoman Empire who have looked for or stumbled upon the limes: D. G. Hogarth, V. W Yorke, J. G.Taylor, H von Moltke, Colonel Maunsell, J. Brant and Freya Stark.
This all conspires to make Timothy Bruce Mitford's East of Asia Minor an extraordinary achievement on a host of levels. He is the first man to have consciously walked this entire Roman frontier since the days of Justinian. He is the first historian to positively identify the route that threaded together the line of legionary garrisons and forts. He is also the field-worker who has collated the evidence for future generations. I cannot think of another example, in my lifetime, when the different roles of historian, explorer, field-surveyor and linguist have been so successfully combined in one man.
What makes it even more poignant, is that Mitford, as well as being the first to find and map it is also the last. For any of us with the stamina to try and follow his footsteps through the mountains vast stretches remain but great sections have already been buried under the rising waters of the irrigation dams that are transforming this region of Turkey as well as accidentally obliterated by new roadworks, deep ploughing and forestry.
I did at first wonder why the work needed to be spread over two volumes, but once I started reading into his quest, I began to understand Mitford's desire to meticulously record. Early on he must have realized that even if he managed to be the first to record the entire frontier he was certainly going to be the last. The second volume is a meticulous offering to future generations of scholars. We have a citing of every inscription observed (both by himself and cross referenced with the accounts of earlier travellers), its position, its size and text, often accompanied by a simple, poignant comment - 'Lost before 1964' which proves how invaluable this book is already. We also have the record of every coin find, a hands-on appreciation of the Anatolian landscape in the hinterland of the frontier, a complete list of every known textual reference, a detailed series of modern maps referenced to a topographical index and an identification of modern Turkish villages with both their Ottoman and ancient identity. The latter were preserved for us by the chance survival of the 225 road routes mapped out for Caracalla (the Antonine Itinerary) and a complete list of officials and military units made for Theodosius in 395 (the Notitia Dignitatum).
The flesh of the work is contained in the 425-pages of volume one. I hope that one day this will be filleted down to become a travel book with a price (down from the current £225) that can put it in the pocket of any reader who enjoys adventure, history and the romance of a quest achieved across a fascinating landscape over a lifetime.
Mitford started on this work as a student, first catching sight of the Euphrates on 8th September 1963. As he self-deprecatingly informs us, the task of exploring this section of the limes took him longer than the legions took to build it. Though he achieved a thesis based on it, his day job was never as a professional classicist like his father (see the Mitford & Bean article in CORNUCOPIA, issue number 00) but as a naval officer. Progress was necessarily erratic, the 60s were highly productive (because the Royal Navy were delighted to encourage a fluent Turkish speaker in their ranks), the 70s indifferent, but the early 80s were very good, when his work was supported by the Turkish Navy whilst he served as British Representative at their Ankara headquarters. In the 90s some resentful bureaucrat awarded Mitford a black mark which frustrated many a visa application. Fortunately better informed Turkish citizens, such as the Minister of Defence and Chief of Staff trusted Cdr T. B. Mitford sufficiently to ask him to serve as their interpreter.
However this enforced longeur brought its own literary benefit, making Mitford an observer not just of the Roman frontier, but of the transformation of Anatolia over the last fifty years. Bear cubs once played under his seat in an antiquated bus on the road to Melitene. He has watched boars as large as small donkeys graze in the evening shadows of a Roman road and a mile long line of water buffaloes steaming patiently in the frost before dawn. He has witnessed Roman coins being used as small barter change with which to buy cigarettes, caught the last of the camel caravans festooned with cooking pots and hollow beehive logs and journeyed on a goatskin raft, lit up by lightening, in a gorge of the Anti-Taurus.
Mitford is an articulate witness to the change of “an ancient and conservative way of life”. He writes of villages “remote, isolated and largely self-sufficient, depending on barter and agriculture, as they had done since the departure of the legion, and radiated a traditional courtesy and hospitality. Drinking water was carried from a spring above the village, ploughing and hauling was by water buffalo, a source of milk, meat, heat and fuel. Processions of wooden-wheeled arabas brought corn from the surrounding fields, and threshing floors were busy with flint-studded sledges and huge wooden winnowing forks.”
We also meet a recognizable caste of villains amongst the Emperors. It was the jealousy of Tiberius determined to humiliate a proven ally of Rome (loyal old King Archelaus descended from both Xerxes and Alexander) which would destroy the independence of the Kingdom of Cappadocia. Just as the envy of Nero would lead to the death of Corbulo, the incredibly talented Roman governor of this region. Yet unlike the British Isles, which only enters written history as a province of the Roman Empire, Rome did not bring civilization to this part of Turkey. She was just another invader who imposed herself upon Commagene and Cappadocia ten thousand years after the first human-built monuments had arisen on the hills of Anatolia.
If this hidden frontier needs a single identifiable founder for its nomenclature, it has to be Vespasian’s Wall. It was this general, who in the aftermath of the civil strife of the year of the four emperors, who sorted things out. The XII Fulminata legion were despatched north (away from their disgrace in Judea) to garrison Melitene aided by his own XVI Flavia Firma, a legion of proven worth, who were based on Satala. He had 12,500 legionnaires at work on everything from road and bridge building to watching over quarries and making armour, assisted by an even larger number of auxiliary cavalry detachments (who leave a very scant trace of inscriptions) deployed in twenty-nine smaller forts. From Mitford’s research we can watch the careers of young noblemen from Anatolia, such as Pompilius Piso, serving his apprenticeship as a legate in the legions, before returning to a position of honour in his home city of Ephesus. Or Centurion T.Cervonius Lucius, who served for twenty-five years but died aged 44 in retirement at Ankara. There is tantalisingly little evidence for the soldiers, apart from the roads they carved and the walls they laid. They, and the many Turkish companions of Mitford’s travels (be they gendarmes, scholar-school masters, shepherds or distinguished academics), are the heroes of this work.
Now and then, the legions were led by men worthy of their loyalty. Arrian, biographer of Alexander the Great, formed his understanding of history from his own experiences as a Roman frontier general and governor of Cappadocia. In one of Arrian’s letters to the Emperor Hadrian, it is clear that Hadrian had personally inspected the frontier works two years before. The two men had clearly delighted in the fact that a newly surveyed section of the Roman frontier followed the exact march of the Ten Thousand as related in Xenophon’s Anabasis (of 370 BC). On Mitford’s first visit to this place 'one of the most haunting scenes to come down to us from the ancient world’, all he can see among swirling mist, is a sea of clouds a thousand feet below (though six miles later they discover Xenophon’s memorial cairn). Mitford’s guide that day was Celal Yilmaz, whose family had climbed up to this high mountain pass for three months every high summer. His father and grandfather told Celal tales of the old days, of the 300-strong camel caravans that used to pass this way, en route from Trabzon to Erzerum, until 1945. The caravans had passed over the spot where Hadrian and Arrian had once themselves stood, marvelling at tales from the past, of Xenophon and his companions greeting the sea (Thalassa!) as an old friend.
Thanks to Mitford we now join them. The hidden frontier has been found, and with this book, this achievement, Mitford needs no tombstone.
Back to Articles page
by Barnaby Rogerson