An interview on Edge of Empire

I recently had a talk with Jona Lendering, co-author of Edge of Empire: Rome’s Frontier on the Lower Rhine, a hardcover book on the Roman occupation of the Low Countries that was published as last year’s special of Ancient Warfare. What follows includes some background information on the book and one of its authors, as well as a few general musings on some of the topics that the book touches upon. 

Josho Brouwers: First of all, can you tell us a little about yourself, your background and previous work?

Jona Lendering: I read history in Leiden and studied Mediterranean Societies at the VU University in Amsterdam. Ever since, I have been working in the field that might be called “communication of scholarship”, trying to convey the results of historical research to people.

JB: Edge of Empire is a reworked version of an earlier book published in Dutch. What led you to write about the Roman occupation of the Low Countries?

JL: Two very good teachers, Simon Wynia and Wim van Es, both archaeologists who also understood how ancient sources must be read. That is increasingly rare, and already in the late 1990s, it was clear that a book was needed that explained archaeology to historians and ancient sources to archaeologists. The first Dutch version of the book appeared in 2000.

JB: How does Edge of Empire differ from your earlier book?

JL: It’s an update, in the first place. Over the past decade, there’s been an explosion of data in European archaeology, while physical geographers have substantially changed our view on the development of the Dutch coastal area. Some information was outdated, so that had to change, and because the amount of new archaeological data was so immense, I invited archaeologist Arjen Bosman to become my co-writer. In 2010, an updated Dutch version appeared, with many extra photos and maps.

The English version contains further new information, better photos, better maps, and drawings.

JB: Julius Caesar plays an important part as the first Roman to really venture into the Low Countries. Without Caesar, do you think the Romans would still have extended their empire to the Rhine?

JL: I think so. I think that beyond the events of Roman military history, there was a process of globalization, which had started as early as the Iron Age. From the Atlantic to the Euphrates, trade networks made sure that hitherto separated proto-urban societies became integrated. As it happened, the final result had a Roman face. Since this process was the true engine behind Roman imperialism, I think that Roman legions would have entered Gaul anyhow.

This also explains why the country east of the Rhine was never conquered. Lacking proto-urban structures, it remained outside the process of globalization.

JB: The eighth chapter is devoted to the Batavian Revolt. Do you think this was a pivotal moment in the history of the Roman Low Countries?

JL: No, it did not change very much. Nevertheless, in later imagination, it was very important, because it offered a focus to the way the Dutch were looking at the past. They had once been free and had kicked out the Romans, they believed; so they kicked out their Spanish overlords. As late as the 1780s, this view on ancient history helped to express political dissent.

JB: The Low Countries were largely a frontier zone, rather than a real Roman province. How would you assess the influence of the Romans on the region? Did they make a lasting impact?

JL: In the Netherlands, much was later reverted, as happened in Britain. On the other hand, in Belgium, a new type of economy was created. In the late third century, it was forced to adapt to a deep crisis, which, in the Northwest of Europe, was different in cause, shape, and solution from what happened in the Mediterranean. When the Roman Empire collapsed in the second half of the fifth century, the northern part of Gaul was better prepared, and the Franks, who had seized control of old Belgica, were ready to take over all of Gaul.

JB: Edge of Empire features map and reconstructions made by artists who also contribute to Ancient Warfare magazine. Can you tell us what it was like to work with them?

JL: Extremely easy. They know what they are doing and need only half a clue to things as I would like to see them done.

JB: What are your hopes for Edge of Empire? If you could point out a single thing that the reader should take away from the book, what would it be?

JL: I think the basic lesson is that you cannot write about archaeological finds without knowing how to read ancient texts, and you cannot write about ancient texts if you do not know what archaeologists are doing. Everybody knows this, and everybody knows that this also applies for the study of Greece or Judaea or Anatolia. After all, we have been talking about interdisciplinary research for at least 40 years. This continued call for collaboration, proves that nothing has really changed for the better.

JB: What are your next projects?

JL: They have nothing to do with books. There is a very big problem in science communication. Universities used to “send out” information to a lowly educated audience; nowadays, highly educated people select their information, and talk back. In order to convince, universities must discuss their methods, but they rarely do, and when critical citizens continue to ask questions, many academics say that they are not paid for science communication, or have publications to write, or find another way to evade meaningful dialogue.

A very recent report by the Dutch Rathenau Institute says that about one third of the people has grave doubts about science and scholarship. Only by writing a press release that said “People have more trust in scientists and scholars than in politicians”, the universities could neutralize this message. If they continue like that, universities will have lost all credibility before this decade is out. Now that is something really scary, and I hope to do something to improve science communication, which includes explaining ancient history, but essentially means creating awareness by all means possible.

My thanks to Jona Lendering for responding to my questions.

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