Limits to our knowledge on the times of the Roman Army

About half a century of (re-enacting) Roman soldiers out on patrol. A century of soldiers usually was 80 at full strength. “Jerash, Jordan – Roman Army, Hippodrome” by eviljohnius is licensed under CC BY 2.0

My studies on Roman finances led me to a fantastic resource: The Complete Roman Army, by Adrian Goldsworthy, Thames & Hudson Ltd, London, copyright 2003. The book was a delight to read.

There are a number of things in the text I wish to describe on my blog. I will describe some highlights in the next few posts.

Limits of our knowledge

This book, along with others I have read, point out that there really is not a lot of information in the written record on the Roman era. While the Romans were solid bureaucrats, apparently keeping meticulous records, consider the format of their information.

They recorded information on papyrus.

Multiple centuries of Mediterranean heat and humidity has destroyed massive portions of the written documents accumulated by the Romans. Repeatedly in the text, Mr. Goldsworthy points out information is limited in this situation or that particular idea is speculation based on a fragment of information somewhere in the Empire. From those fragments of information, assumptions are expanded to sort out what the particular issue was across the empire.

At one point (pages 149 – 150) the author is exploring peacetime duties, particularly on the frontier. He points out very little is known because minimal written documentation has survived.

As a Christian I am an amateur student of the Old Testament and New Testament with particular interest in the Romans during the first century. I have recently started looking at what Josephus had to say.

Imagine my enjoyment at reading this comment, which I will quote:

Infinitely more is known about this sort of activity in and around the province of Judea than any other part of the empire. This material, derived from historians such as Josephus as well as the New Testament and the Talmudic literature, gives us an unrivaled view of Roman rule as seen from the perspective of the conquered population.

He then goes on to say it is difficult to extrapolate this across the empire. Amongst other reasons is that the Jews were given special permission to practice their religion, were quite literate, and were not well absorbed into the Roman system. Those circumstances did not exist elsewhere.

As a result Josephus, the New Testament, and Talmudic writings provide insights to the Roman empire and army but those insights may or may not be applicable elsewhere.

I’ve also just wrapped up teaching a Bible study on the book of Acts from the New Testament. During the class I consulted Josephus on several occasions. It is fun to separately read history books mentioning as a source the material I already read.

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