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Image and identity in the Roman military world

The project explores Roman perceptions of multiple identities (regimental belonging, soldier and civilian, gender range, ‘civilized’ citizen and ‘barbarian’ other) through the study of Roman triumphal art, military equipment, individual soldiers’ self-presentation, and military service. These perspectives have direct bearing on world military history and still inform army training, self-identity and motivation in the modern world. Soldiers, academics, museum designers, wargamers and leisure historians all have an interest in Roman military culture for the long shadow it has cast into the present.

The project works with three fields of ancient pictorial evidence:

  • Trajan’s Column in Rome, Italy (dedicated in AD 113). This is the most impressively extensive, surviving building from the Roman period with sculptural depictions of more Roman soldiers, barbarians, and other people than any other known single monument to survive from antiquity. It represents the highest achievement of metropolitan Roman artists.
  • The sculptural art of the Roman army stationed in northern Britain. The forts along Hadrian’s Wall generated a mass of carved works dating principally to the 2nd and 3rd centuries AD, created by and for soldiers. This occasionally depicts soldiers and their adversaries on triumphal and funerary monuments, but also provides a rich religious iconography.
  • The sculptural art of Palmyra in Syria. This ‘caravan’ city had the wealth, and locally available fine limestone, to create detailed representations of gods, aristocrats, caravan-guards, deceased citizens, and some Roman soldiers.

These three fields allow very different cultures to be studied in comparison between metropolis, west and east through similar genres of sculpture. Resultant prominent themes include:

  • The origins of professional armies and military identity in world history.
  • Dress, weapons, body-language and iconography as indicators of societal placement, status and self-identity.

Together these fields build up a coherent picture of how Roman soldiers were perceived by broader Roman society, and how soldiers celebrated their own identity and achievements through images. These men, with their women and children, formed a cross-empire military community which developed from the 1st century BC through into the 7th century AD within the kind of standing army not seen again until the later 17th century.

Impact Pathways

  • Consultation on a major National Geographic article on Trajan’s Column (227.4, April 2015)
  • Hosting and organisation of The Eighteenth Roman Military Equipment Conference (RoMEC XVIIII, St Andrews, June 2016) with supporting magazine articles (Minerva), mixed academic and non-academic attendance, and re-enactment/reconstruction displays of Roman cavalry. Themed as Cavalry in the Roman World, the conference accompanied consultation work for the Hadrian’s Cavalry exhibitions in nine co-ordinated museums along Hadrian’s Wall (2017), culminating in the Turma! display of 30 reconstructed Roman cavalrymen at Carlisle (July 2017).
  • Magazine articles on Roman cavalry and equipment (Ancient Military History, Desperta Ferro).
  • Consultation work on gallery design in museums on Hadrian’s Wall: Corbridge, Housesteads (Northumberland) and Birdoswald (Cumbria)
  • Development of two image archive websites:

Underpinning Research

  • ‘Roman victory and barbarian defeat on the pedestal reliefs of Trajan’s Column’, Coulston, J. C. N. 2017 Traianssäule – Siegesmonument und Kriegsbericht in Bildern. Schöner, G. & Mitthof, F. (eds.). Wien, Austria, p. 95-112. 
  • Equipamiento militar romano. Da las guerras Púnicas a la caida de Roma, Coulston, J. C. N. & Bishop, M. C. 2016 Madrid: Desperta Ferro Ediciones. 
  • 'Germans and other 'minority' barbarians in the armies on Trajan's Column', Coulston, J. C. N. 2015 NON SOLUM...SED ETIAM. Festschrift für Thomas Fischer zum 65. Geburtstag. Henrich, P., Miks, C., Obmann, J. & Wieland, M. (eds.). Rahden, Germany: Verlag Marie Leidorf GmbH, p. 73-82.
  • ‘The Maryport altars revisited’, Coulston, J. C. N. 2015 Weihealtäre in Tempeln und Heiligtümern. Busch, A. & Schäfer, A. (eds.). Friedberg, Germany, p. 381-96.
  • 'Monumentalising military service: soldiers in Romano-British sculpture', Coulston, J. C. N. 2014 Life in the Limes. Studies of the People and Objects of the Roman Frontiers. Collins, R. & McIntosh, F. (eds.). Oxford: Oxbow, p. 68-78.
  • ‘Courage and cowardice in the Roman imperial army’, Coulston, J. C. N. 2013 War in History. Madigan, E. (ed.). Vol. 20.1p. 7-31.
  • ‘Late Roman military equipment culture’, Coulston, J. C. N. 2013 The Archaeology of War in Late Antiquity. Lavan, L. & Sarantis, A. (eds.). Leiden: Brill, p. 463-92p.
  • 'Military equipment of the ‘long’ 4th century on Hadrian’s Wall', Coulston, J. C. N. 2010 Finds from the Frontier: Material Culture in the 4th-5th Centuries. Collins, R. & Allason-Jones, L. (eds.). York: Council for British Archaeology, p. 50-63 (CBA Research Report; vol. 162).
  • 'Art, culture and service: the depiction of soldiers on 3rd century AD military gravestones', Coulston, J. C. N. 2007 The Impact of the Roman Army. De Blois, L. (ed.). J.C. Gieben, p. 529-61. 
  • Roman Military Equipment: From the Punic Wars to the Fall of Rome, Coulston, J. C. N. & Bishop, M. C. 2006 Oxbow.  
  • 'Military identity and personal self-identity in the Roman army', Coulston, J. C. N. 2004 Roman Rule and Civic Life: Local and Regional Perspectives. De Ligt, L. (ed.). J.C.Gieben, p. 135-52. 
  • 'Overcoming the Barbarian. Depictions of Rome's Enemies in Trajanic Monumental Art', Coulston, J. C. N. 2003 The Representation and Perception of Roman Imperial Power. De Blois, L. (ed.). J.C. Gieben, p. 389-424. 



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