Thursday, 22 January 2015

Nessana, Forts, and Camels

I'm in the process of doing some resarch on a paper to be presented at the upcoming CACW here in Winnipeg, and something I plan on turning into a journal article at the conference's conclusion.  That paper's on the military and the wider community in sixth century Nessana, a village in the north/central Negev, and how the military interacts within that community.  I have vague designs on completing some sort of network analysis, though I'm not entirely sure how feasible that is (not enough people, not enough in a generation, will it give any kind of meaningful results, etc.).

Getting back to Nessana, probably the most remarkable thing about this site is the survival of a fairly significant cache of papyri, many of which detail the military's involvement in local life.  That brings me to the subject of the paper, and this entry - on my thoughts so far.   Initially the view was that the fort (kastron) at Nessana was built in the fifth century, possibly in the later end of the century too.  More recently, however, the view is that it was constructed in the fourth century, and in particular during the reign of Theodosius I.  One of the catches from this redating is the absence of the site from the Notitia Dignitatum, which purports to be, or I guess which for many people is, a resonably accurate indication of the disposition of the military in the east and west of the empire around 400 (generally speaking - the dates vary a little for east and west, and with respect to their relative dates of occupation).  What does this mean?

If the fort was built in the fourth century, especially later in that century, then we should expect the troops listed therein to appear in the document somewhere, particularly under the Dux Palaestinae (Nessana's province shifted back and forth a few times in late antiquity, and Palaestinae is one of its provinces).  There are other sites from the region listed under that frontier commander such as Birsama and Zoara, for instance.  So if the fort was built in time for the publication of the ND, what were the soldiers that were presumably there?  Why were they left out?  It's too early for Arab federates, which tend to be a later addition (6th century), and limitanei were well-used at this stage.  Is it the case that what we call a fort shouldn't be?  Not everything with walls is necessarily a fort (and this is something I'll have to take a look at - excavation reports).  Unfortunately none of the papyri go back that early, so it's not like we can find evidence for soldiers in their midst (though we do not doubt they were there later).  So maybe soldiers weren't there from the get-go and the fortified place shouldn't be considered a fort, at least in thes sense of a fort being associated with soldiers.  On the other hand, the ND is not without its problems, and it's entirely likely that some details were left out - and Nessana was hardly the heart of the empire.

The other issue to discuss for the moment is the identity of the soldiers who were later there.  They were originally thought to be part of the Arithmos of the Most Loyal Theodosians.  Now, this is disputed.  In truth, the evidence isn't strong enough to make a case one way or another.  We have the unit title but once in the archive, and it comes in reference to two soldiers, who say they're from Nessana, but are based in Rhinocorura.  The thinking now, generally speaking, is that if they're soldiers based in Rhinocorura in the Theodosian unit then it would stand to reason that that is where they are based, and the "from Nessana" (apo kwmhs Nessanwn) bit should be discarded.  And yet, soldiers were regularly stationed away from their main unit, and for all that a day's march is a considerable distance in antiquity, we have plenty of evidence for soldiers operating much further from their units in other places.  Does apo in this context have to designate the place they're from?  I admit the inclusion of kome is, perhaps, suggestive, but I have my reservations.

Regardless of identity, there is good reason to believe that camels made up a significant part of their retinue, at least on the basis of two camel lists/orders (P. Ness. 35 and 37).  Does this mean they were camel-cavalry?  Maybe - why else would you order a bunch of camels?  This, at least, is what most people assume (they used camels).  On the other hand, it's not impossible that the soldiers could have been infantry who relied on camels for transport alone of supplies, though possibly too of men.  That doesn't necessarily mean that they fought on camels.  Indeed, camels would make a lot of sense given the environment.

In sum, what do I think so far?  I need to see the excavation reports so that I can see why people have dated the fort the way that they have.  I still have doubts about the fourth century date.  Also, I'm not 100% convinced that the unit isn't the Arithmos of Most Loyal Theodosians.  Why can't they be off on some other duty as part of a unit mainly based in Nessana?  Could they not also be from Nessana too (born there - and working for the unit based there)?  Also, must they be camel-warriors?  Again, not convinced.  Not sure there's much in the way of equipment-finds that might be suggestive one way or the other, but I don't see why they might not be just for transit.

And there we have it.  More to come, most likely...

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