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Colloque – James Dodd (org.), Late Roman Fortifications: New Methods and Approaches

James Dodd

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  • 1 Brulet R. 1990, La Gaule septentrionale au Bas-Empire : occupation du sol et défense du territoire (...)

1Boundaries are a strong thread in the defence of Roman Gaul and their strengthening in Late Antiquity marks a shift from offensive to defensive in the social, economic, and military-political makeup of the frontier zone. It has been 30 years since Raymond Brulet’s synthesis work, La Gaule septentrionale au Bas-Empire and several years since the last major conference on the topic1. Building on the decades of research into Late Roman defence at Université Catholique de Louvain going back to the 1970s, a diverse range of international scholars and students gathered to discuss, debate, and examine the myriad forms of defence in Roman Gaul at Louvain-la-Neuve for Late Roman Fortifications: New Methods and Approaches, held on the 26 and 27 October 2023.

2Raymond Brulet, former professor at UCLouvain, started the two-day event with a broad outline of the defence of the Northwestern provinces, exploring the historiography of the field. He provided an overview of the many forms of defence across the Northwestern Provinces. During this, he highlighted some of the key problems inherent in our study of the period, noting especially the historiography of multiple archaeological-historical crises on our thinking.

3The first thematic set of papers focused on urban settlements and the defence of the city in Late Antiquity. Douglas Underwood began this session by providing an overview of his current research into the grouping of city walls in the northwestern provinces. His work identified the problems, but equally the dividends in the study of these complex defences by temporal period and typologies. Building on this, Steven Vanderwal elaborated on his current work on the Late Roman walls of Tongeren, exploring the recent excavations that hinted at a separate Late Roman wall that extended southwards towards the river Jeker. He speculated that the wall may have enclosed a harbour zone, although discussion following the paper explored the idea that this may have been linked into the potentially serviceable 2nd century wall circuit. These intriguing possibilities indicate that the walls of Tongeren, an important regional centre, were much more complex than the simple paradigm of etiagé. Further south, Ulrich Stockinger discussed the recent excavation (2008‑2014) underneath the Weißheimer malthouse, which exposed some 60 m of the city wall of Andernach and placed this within the context of his PhD research. This explored the various phases and remarkably may have recorded the slabbed banquette of the top of the Late Roman wall network. During this, he was able to describe a new horreum building uncovered within the defences.

  • 2 Rome Transformed. Advancing research through the interactive use of digital visualization/provocati (...)
  • 3 Rural Riches. The bottom-up development of post-Roman northwestern Europe: https://www.universiteit (...)

4Moving onwards and further south, to areas generally not considered the Roman northwest, Dino Demicheli, and Ian Haynes on behalf of the Rome Transformed project2 presented two ‘out of the box’ papers considering the circuit walls of Salona, in modern Croatia and the Aurelian Walls of Rome. Dino Demicheli elaborated on excavations at Salona, specifically Tower 15 and its three phases of construction, complete with vast amounts of spolia and including a triangular bastion as well as its context within the defence network of the city. Ian Haynes, on the other hand, gave us a survey of the work of the Rome Transformed team and the exploration of the south-east corner of the city of Rome, specifically the reconstruction and exploration of the Porta Asinaria through limited invasive, non-intrusive and archival research to present a sequence of ground-level changes and fortification development in the various, highly complex, phases of the city walls of Rome. Both papers presented us with an excellent foil against the situation in the northwest and allow a level of comparison within the discussions. Bookending our discussions on the urban centres, Jip Barreveld explored the continuity, role, and nature of Frankish evidence in the towns of Northeastern and Eastern France. Using the data collected during the Rural Riches project, based in Leiden3, he elaborated on the evidence for Merovingian activity in Roman towns, much of which appears to be focused outside the city walls, providing an intense discussion on the (in)visibility of post-Roman populations in former Roman towns.

  • 4 Vanhoutte S. (ed.) 2023, Change and Continuity at the Roman Coastal Fort of Oudenburg, 3 vol., Reli (...)

5Following a short lunch break, the papers moved away from the urban centres to other forms of defended installations. Peter Henrich introduced the topic, providing a discussion of recent, and not so recent, irregular defences recovered from across the northwest. These installations, ranging from the use of villa main houses to the stripped remains of grave monuments and agglomérations secondaires, present a thorny problem, what was their impact? Peter Henrich explored these issues and discussed the construction, maintenance, and use of these installations. This focused on the impact they would have on local populations. We were able to see this impact in action with Sophie Lefert, who discussed her recent work in the Condroz (Wallonia), where she is currently directing excavations at the villa of Lizée. The site is a classic small villa building, reinforced with stone pillars and internal buttresses in the late 3rd century. Importantly, this was surrounded by a scarped, broadly U-shaped ditch as well as a probable palisade line. The site is isolated in the landscape and more seasons are needed to explore this fascinating villa complex. The irregularity of Lizée was contrasted with the late 4th century military burgus of Eisenberg, presented by Lennart Schönemann. A central building, of six rooms, possibly with a courtyard, and a curtain wall with corner towers and a further range of three rooms was uncovered in various excavations and dominated the main highway into Gaul from Worms on the Rhine. This contribution included an important new discussion on a burial found under the levelling layers with intense trauma to the skeleton. Moving on from Eisenberg to larger installations, Raphaël Clotuche and Sofie Vanhoutte presented two sites identified as military installations, Famars and Oudenburg. Raphaël Clotuche discusses the defences at Famars within their context of construction and the demolition of the preceding agglomeration and postulated the potential presence of a defended supply and transport corridor from Famars and Cambrai down the Scheldt River, indicating the need for new research on the lidar and aerial photography anomalies recovered from the site. Sofie Vanhoutte followed this up with a discussion of her magisterial recent work on the fort at Oudenburg, on the Flemish coast, where important Late Roman sequences run from Posthumus to the mid-5th century or beyond, notably with the most recent excavations that uncovered the probable late 3rd century praetorium4.

6The evening keynote speech, presented by Rob Collins, drew much of these discussions, debates, and ideas together. Addressing the different social mechanics behind the defence and violence in Late Roman society, Rob Collins explored the theoretical levels in which we can investigate the reasoning behind fortification. Initially exploring the morphological evidence, he rightly highlighted the problems with terminology, before moving into a more elaborate discussion of motivations behind construction, staffing and perceptions of defence in the Late Antique world. To illustrate these points, he provided a series of examples from the northern frontiers of Britannia and the role played by raiders, the army, and civil communities in this region.

7The morning papers on the 27th of October concerned defensive integration on a wider level. James Dodd begin the day by introducing a methodology for ascertaining siting decisions at fortified installations and tested this on a series of small case studies in the Paris Basin and Mosel Eifel region. This work, although in its infancy, demonstrates potential, especially when combined with other forms of analysis, for understanding the Late Roman defended landscape. Completing the conference, Ferdinand Heimerl explored the several important elements of the road forts present in Eastern Gaul and Rheinland-Pfalz. Beginning with a discussion of the key site of Bitburg, and the construction sequences at the site, he moved onto a more integrative discussion of fortification between Lyon and Köln and the similarities between groups of sites, as well as addressing the key questions of who pays and who benefits from construction.

8The conference proved a success in bringing together diverse scholars from different regions to bring to bear on the problems of various elements of defence in the Late Roman empire as well as forging new links between researchers and students across varied countries and regions. A volume of conference proceedings will be published as part of the Collections Joseph Mertens, the archaeological series produced by the CRAN at Université Catholique de Louvain.

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1 Brulet R. 1990, La Gaule septentrionale au Bas-Empire : occupation du sol et défense du territoire dans l’arrière-pays du Limes aux ive et ve siècles, Trier ; Bayard D. and Fourdrin J.-P. (eds) 2019, Revue du Nord. Hors-série Archéologie 26. Villes et fortifications de l’Antiquité tardive dans le nord de la Gaule, Lille.

2 Rome Transformed. Advancing research through the interactive use of digital visualization/provocation: [accessed in December 2023].

3 Rural Riches. The bottom-up development of post-Roman northwestern Europe: [accessed in December 2023].

4 Vanhoutte S. (ed.) 2023, Change and Continuity at the Roman Coastal Fort of Oudenburg, 3 vol., Relicta Monographieën 19, Leiden, DOI:,,

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James Dodd, « Colloque – James Dodd (org.), Late Roman Fortifications: New Methods and Approaches »Frontière·s [En ligne], 9 | 2023, mis en ligne le 20 décembre 2023, consulté le 16 juin 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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James Dodd

F.S.R. Postdoctoral fellow, Université Catholique de Louvain

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Le texte seul est utilisable sous licence CC BY-NC-SA 4.0. Les autres éléments (illustrations, fichiers annexes importés) sont « Tous droits réservés », sauf mention contraire.

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