A treasure hunt, of sorts

Elizabeth Fagan

No one can really accuse the ancient Romans of being low key or disinclined to draw attention to themselves.  On the contrary, everywhere they went, they marked the landscape with monuments, erected by officials or institutions, but also by private individuals.  The ancient lands of Armenia and Iberia (modern Georgia) were no exception to this Roman drive to declare their presence (and often their beneficence or magnanimity).  

In the South Caucasus, which is composed of modern Armenia, Georgia and Azerbaijan, the Lesser Caucasus mountain range forms an almost-impenetrable geographic barrier between Armenia and Georgia.  Because of this barrier, in the first and second centuries A.D., Romans moved through the South Caucasus primarily from two points of entry: to the north of the Lesser Caucasus range, they traveled from the east coast of the Black Sea into the area now known as the Republic of Georgia.  To the south of the mountains, the Romans ranged across land from Anatolia and the Near East into the Armenian Highland. 

My dissertation research focuses primarily on the movements and actions of the Romans in the area occupied by the modern Republic of Armenia, inquiring into what methods they used to establish and maintain authority in a region unwilling to accept that authority for long.  However, while investigating the Romans in Armenia, it quickly became apparent that this seemingly impenetrable mountain barrier did not delineate a sociopolitical boundary of control, or an “edge” of the Roman Empire or its hegemony. 

Therefore, to consider Roman activity and authority in the region more holistically, this summer I went both to Armenia and to Georgia to look at archaeological evidence of Roman interaction with local kingdoms.  I went to museums, to various sites, and talked with scholars of the period, to get an idea of the impact that the Romans might have had to the north of the Lesser Caucasus mountains.

Sometimes I found the inscriptions in museums so small that they were never opened unless you started annoying locals standing nearby with your sad attempts at Armenian or Georgian (both rather difficult languages!).  Sometimes they were covered with decades of dust inside the basements of huge museums.  And sometimes they were actually on display in the museums.  When I studied a large inscription erected in honor of the Roman emperor Trajan (r. 98 – 117 A.D.) in an exhibit in Yerevan, I worked so long at the inscription that tour guides began to talk about me in their tours of the classical-period remains and I became part of the exhibit.  “Look!  An archaeologist!” 

The Roman inscriptions are on display, they are in dusty archives, they are in storage accessible only to scholars who know the right people – they are so scattered across the South Caucasus that you could say the Romans are still leaving their mark all over the landscape.  It thus takes perseverance to track down inscriptions across the region, not to mention time and money, so I’m grateful to the History Department, the Anthropology Department, the Social Sciences Division, and also the U.S. Department of State for their help in funding my research over the years.

Elizabeth Fagan is a joint PhD student in History and Anthropology.