Overview of the Limes (Second century AD)

Yonder the Barbarians…

Wide-spread they stand, the Northland’s dusky forests,
Ancient, mysterious, brooding savage dreams;
Within them dwells the Forest’s mighty God
And wood-sprites in the gloom weave magic secrets.1

Like the slash of a sword, the band of cleared ground cut a swathe hundreds of metres wide through the ancient forestlands. Along its central axis marched a continuous palisade of sharpened three-metre high stakes; over a distance of 80 kilometres (50 miles)2 this barrier rarely deviated from its northern alignment with the Pole Star. It was flanked by a deep ditch, a raised sentry walk, a service road and a chain of two-storey watchtowers (Fig. 1). Substantial stone forts, each about 10-15 km apart, lay a few hundred metres to the rear of the palisade; linked to the service road, they suggested support in depth. Ripples of movement, of human activity, ran along the barrier. The slow progression of sentries, the dash of a cavalry patrol and the flicker of signals from the balconies of watchtowers underlined the military nature of the barrier. Small civilian settlements and farmlands had spread from the protective shadow of the forts: from them and from forest clearings occasional plumes of woodsmoke drifted into still air. One might sense that beneath this living presence, this orderly combination of military preparedness and colonization, lay a persistent awareness of unseen but tangible threats.

Fig. 1 – Final form of the Upper Germanic Limes (eastern Odenwald) (© Römerkastell Saalburg)

Such was a typical scene in the middle of the second century AD along the Limes Germanicus3, just one section of the long German frontier of the Roman Empire (Fig. 2)4. This particularly vulnerable sector lay at the edge of the Odenwald forests to the east of modern Heidelberg and was about 100 km east of the river Rhine; it was here that the German tribes would break through in the third century AD and bring havoc and ruin to the Rhinelands of the Empire.

Fig. 2 – Rhine-Danube (Rhenus-Danubius) frontier of the Roman Empire (3rd. century AD)

To the north the line of fortification extended toward the distant river barriers of the Main and the Rhine, to the south it would suddenly change direction, become stoney in character, and reach out eastwards until it struck the Danube. Wherever possible it took advantage of difficult contours and rode the high ground. In its final form the Limes stretched, mostly overland, for about 550 km (340 miles) between the two ‘wet’ frontiers of the rivers Rhine and Danube. It was thus more than four times longer than Hadrian’s Wall in Britannia. Beyond the Limes were the turbulent tribes of Free Germany (Germania magna). For almost two hundred years the Limes was manned and held by generations of Roman auxiliary troops: ultimately, it embodied nearly a thousand watchtowers, typically 500 metres apart, and sixty forts. Today remains of the Limes are fragmentary but its remarkable course, often marked upon modern tourist maps, can be traced for hundreds of kilometres across the rural landscape of Germany as it links two great rivers, the Rhine and the Danube.5 Along with the Roman road system, the Limes ranks as a marvel of ancient times. It is justifiably described as the greatest surviving land memorial in Western Europe.

As one might expect, the Romans took infinite interest and pains in defining and consolidating the limits of their vast imperial possessions. Humankind is and always has been intensely preoccupied with this aspect of life: one thinks of the Great Wall of China, the Berlin Wall and the Iron Curtain in Europe and, quite recently, the Israeli security barriers. It is basically a matter of living space, or Lebensraum, and, not surprisingly, Academe, fortified by political considerations, actively studies this subject of frontiers, ancient and modern.6

  1. Customary quatrain provided by Jean Sibelius as a programme note for his tone poem Tapiola (1925).
    (Quoted by permission of Breitkopf & Härtel KG, Wiesbaden) []
  2. To convert from kilometres to miles, approximately, multipy by 6, then divide by 10. []
  3. Limes is usually pronounced ‘lee-mes‘; its plural form is limites. []
  4. Der römische Limes in Deutschland, C.Conrad Theiss Verlag Gmbh & Co. Stuttgart, 1992: Special edition 2000 for Nikol Verlagsgesellschaft mbh & Co. KG, Hamburg. ISBN 3-933203-36-8. []
  5. H. Schönberger, The Roman Frontier: an Archaeological Survey, Journal of Roman Studies 59 (1969) 144-97. []
  6. C.R.Whittaker, Frontiers of the Roman Empire: a Social and Economic Study (Baltimore & London: The John Hopkins University Press, 1994) ISBN 0-8018-4677-3. []