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In memoriam; Denis Bain Saddington (1931-2011): praefectus de auxiliis historicorum.


An Appreciation

An appreciation of Professor Saddington as a military historian, which I have been asked to offer, may denote (for some) a limited field. 'Military history', however, if narrowly perceived, hardly reflects his broad scholarly interests, encompassing besides Roman army and frontier studies, Roman social history, issues of education and literacy, early Christianity and patristic studies, and late republican and early imperial Latin epigraphy. He delighted in the epigraphical congresses almost as much as in the Roman army gatherings. For Professor Saddington the study of the Roman army's auxilia units was more a matter of social and administrative history than tactical and strategic issues. Only one--and that among his last papers - addressed tactical matters. (1) Concerns for romanization and reconciliation or blending of different cultures generally underlay many of his publications, perhaps reflective of the cultural environment of his domicile. He could reflect on the meaning of 'frontier' (in a sense) from personal experience in a way totally foreign to western European or even some North American colleagues, whose notions of 'frontier', in comparison, could seem rather academic or theoretical. His commentary on Josephus' Bellum Iudaicum, in progress at his passing, deprives us of a work that would have brought many aspects of his extensive expertise in numerous fields into sharper focus. A collection of his papers in the MAVORS series of Roman army papers was also contemplated.

For this writer, an origo for Professor Saddington's interest in Roman auxilia remains obscure. Perhaps it came, or at least was strengthened, as a Rhodes Scholar at Corpus Christi College, Oxford, where he studied with Frank Lepper. Oxonian influence may be reflected in largely limiting his work to the period before Hadrian, since Ancient History at Oxford traditionally ended with the death of Trajan (11 August 117). In any case, he will always be remembered as his generation's leading authority in this field. Although regional studies of auxilia had appeared, (2) no comprehensive assessment had been attempted since G.L. Cheesman's improvement on the RE articles of Theodor Mommsen's student, Conrad Cichorius. (3) In 1975 a preliminary study of auxilia from Augustus to Trajan preceded his more detailed monograph of 1982 covering Caesar to Vespasian. Unfortunately, this work, published by the University of Zimbabwe, remained difficult to acquire or even to consult. (4) A republication of this work by a North American press (long negotiated) remains unclear at this writing.

If Professor Saddington occasionally devoted papers to individual units and the study of military diplomata - the latter now a 'cottage industry' with the proliferation of new discoveries of diplomata (often of unclear provenience), found through metal detectors and disseminated via the antiquities market - his unique approach was never to lose sight of the auxilia as a general phenomenon and to view the 'big picture'. He remained an historian, as opposed to a 'documents-ologist'. (5) A series of papers continued his stress on auxilia as a collective with attention to issues of integration and distinction. (6) Besides terrestrial forces, Professor Saddington also turned his attention to the relatively neglected topic of Roman fleets as an expansion of his interest in auxilia. (7) Further, the auxilia like the Roman army as a whole remained a 'work in progress'. Augustus' establishment of a professional standing army was only a first and incomplete step. Army organization and practices as historical phenomena are not static. The evolution of ranks and titles demanded investigation, which Professor Saddington's admirable expertise in the relevant epigraphical and literary sources facilitated. (8) A paper of 1980 remains one of the few attempts to study the command structure within auxilia units. (9)

Although the theme of a particular author as a 'military historian' can produce a wide variety of papers, often without attention to stringent criteria for what a 'military historian' is or what one should do, to his credit Professor Saddington produced a series of such papers on Tacitus, Velleius Paterculus and Suetonius and based his analyses not on technical aspects of tactics, strategy and command decisions, but rather on his own philological and epigraphical strengths. The results were fruitful studies of each author's use or avoidance of technical terms, problems of proper readings of the texts, and again the evolution of ranks. (10) As with his studies on the gradual development of military titles, he appended tables for individual ranks and prosopographical lists, thus rendering each paper a valuable reference tool for future work.

Finally, in an age when the 'face-of-battle' approach to military history has produced many studies of widely differing quality on the psychology of the individual soldier and its effects on the overall performance of armies, Professor Saddington, an avid reader of Tacitus, did not ignore Tacitus' emphasis on the psychology of armies. He approached this 'mine-field' of scholarship with a proper emphasis on the psychology of the mass rather than the individual--battle is after all a group activity and armies are socially collective actors--and with a sophisticated understanding of the multiplicity of psychological aspects involved. (11) Future Roman 'face-of-battlers' might do well to ponder his paper.

To conclude with some personal notes, this writer, the recipient of perhaps one of his last 'snail mail' letters in a packet of his always valuable offprints and reviews, had first encountered Professor Saddington at the 1989 Limes Congress in Canterbury. Thus began a friendship, which subsequently blossomed at subsequent Limes Congresses and the Lyon Congresses on the Roman army, but also through correspondence both electronic (a medium with which he felt uncomfortable) and traditional, which he preferred in his often almost illegible scrawl. His affable nature, combined with a charming 'old school' set of manners and his unquestioned scholarly auctoritas, rendered him a magnet for consultation by both scholarly peers and young students. His 'old school' style found reflection in the extreme restraint and generosity of his innumerable reviews, which a familiar could read with amusement, in the knowledge that the reviewer was probably gritting his teeth as he wrote. The esteem, with which Roman army scholars held him, was in evidence at the 2009 Limes Congress in Newcastle, where he was selected for that congress's Committee of Honour, a tradition of that congress, whereby at each convention notables of Roman army studies are singled out for their significant life-time achievements.

At his passing he was preparing for his annual pilgrimage north. He had become essentially a regular summer fixture at the Institute of Classical Studies in London and other major western European libraries, such as that at the Romisch-Germanische Kommission in Frankfurt. He often traveled light. The memory of his gigantic rucksack remains, as does the sound of his accent, so distinct to a North American ear. Others may chronicle his official appointments, extensive service to editorial boards, and memberships in scholarly organizations. But, when asked in 2010 to write in support of renewal of his travel funds, this writer could only be amazed at the prolific productivity of conference papers and reviews. Denis was still going at full pace, when others of his age might have been slowing down.

At the preliminary festivities to the closing banquet of the Limes Congress in Newcastle (2009), Professor Saddington was seated with myself and the late Colin Wells. A young German scholar with a strong interest in provincial fleets approached. Soon he and Denis sequestered themselves for an intense discussion. With amusement and fondness, I turned to Professor Wells and commented something to the effect that here we were at that congress's banquet, a time for frivolity and merry-making, but Denis was holding 'office hours'. Professor Wells smiled in agreement. But that was Denis Saddington - ever the devoted and friendly teacher.

Everett L. Wheeler


Denis matriculated at Parktown Boys' High School in Johannesburg before taking a BA with majors in English, Latin and Greek, and then an Honours degree in Classics (First Class). He thought about a career in teaching and completed a Higher Diploma in Education at the Johannesburg College of Education. However, the award of a Rhodes Scholarship took him to Corpus Christi College, Oxford, where he chose to work with Frank Lepper. While he did not complete his degree at Oxford, Denis retained strong links with the university and his subsequent academic development bears the imprint of another scholar of colonial origins, Sir Ronald Syme: Denis and Ursula Vogel were the greatest exponents of prosopography in South Africa.

On returning to South Africa Denis served for one year as a lecturer in Classics at the then University of Natal before taking up a lectureship at the University of the Witwatersrand in 1958. His first major piece of research was an MA thesis entitled The Function of Education According to Writers of the Latter Part of the Fourth Century A.D., accepted for the degree in 1963; this was followed by a PhD awarded in 1970 for his dissertation, Problems in the Development of the Auxiliary System in the Roman Army of the Late Republican and Early Imperial Period. In 1967 Denis moved to the then University College of Rhodesia in Salisbury (Harare) to succeed Harold Guite; he remained there through the difficult years of the freedom struggle into the early years of the independent Zimbabwe, rising to full Professor of Classics in 1978 and editing the Proceedings of the Classical Association of Africa (PACA). From 1983 to his first retirement in 1993 he was ad hominem Professor of Roman History at the University of the Witwatersrand and thereafter he held a senior lectureship at the University of South Africa from 1994 to 1996. From 1997 to his death in 2011 Denis was Honorary Professorial Research Fellow and Professor Emeritus at the University of the Witwatersrand.
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Author:Wheeler, Everett L.
Publication:Acta Classica
Date:Jan 1, 2012
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