The Roman military at Dura

Investigating the Roman military base and garrison community in the city of Dura-Europos on the Syrian Euphrates

 

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Viewed from the northern part of the city plateau forming the heart of the military base, the Hellenistic citadel was also taken over by the Roman army, while the adjacent wadi floor became the exercise and assembly ground for the garrison.

 

Building on his study of the spectacular finds of Roman and Sasanian military equipment from Dura, Simon James is now investigating other aspects of the Roman military presence in the city. This is founded on a primarily archaeological study of the Roman military base in the northern part of the town. In contrast to the West where the imperial armies were normally housed in custom-built fortified bases, in the East locating garrisons in towns was routine. Dura provides the only archaeologically accessible, and reasonably well explored example of such an urban base from the Principate.

 

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Painting of a Roman regiment at ‘church parade’: cohors xx Palmyrenorum, based at Dura, assembled to sacrifice to its military standard, and to the Palmyrene gods. From a temple incorporated into the military base.

 

The Roman base was quite substantially excavated in the 1920s-30s, but the remains were only partly published, no synthetic study was undertaken, and most of it remains buried. Currently a programme of archival and field research is underway, to publish the excavated remains, to extend our knowledge of the base’s nature and layout, and to investigate how it articulated with the civil town with which it shared the walls. Fieldwork, which began in 2005, was completed in 2010 before the current tragic civil war erupted. The planned archaeological report on the base will in turn underpin a wider consideration of how the garrison—hundreds if not thousands of soldiers and probably comparable numbers of dependants (families, slaves and servants)—interacted with the civil population.

New fieldwork has comprised two main components: recording of the extensive excavated remains, and geophysical investigation of the areas still buried. The 2007 season centred on a 12 ha magnetometry survey of the entire base area, funded by the British Academy. This was highly successful, and was supplemented by a further survey of the base vicinity in 2008, proving a major help in elucidating the layout and operation of the military cantonment, and its articulation with the rest of the town.

Preparation of the project for publication is continuing, with the generous support of the Leverhulme Trust and the Gerda Henkel Stiftung. 

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The 2007 magnetometry survey superimposed on the plan of the military base. Right, the survey underway.

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