The German Frontier

In trying to enter the spirit of that Roman world I have chosen to give some prominence to the Latin naming of regions, towns and rivers (Table I). The word limes has carried several different meanings but by the first century AD it was being applied to the military patrol path or road that ran along a Roman frontier. Later it was used in a more general manner and commonly applied to any fortified zone marking an imperial border. Thus, in Germany, it referred to the nominal zone of separation or demarcation between two worlds, that of the ordered provinces, subject to Roman administration, and that of the wild, potentially turbulent tribes. Specifically, in the eastern Odenwald region it defined the frontier between the Roman province of Upper Germany (Germania superior) and the Free Germany (Germania magna) of the barbarian tribes.

Table I

Over centuries of construction the degree of fortification on the Limes developed from a simple chain of isolated watchtowers and forts to a continuous barrier of either timber or stone. A typical combination of watchtower and palisade of oak or pine stakes is illustrated in Fig. 3. In order to understand how the Limes came into being we need to go back to the early years of the first century AD. By then the legions of Rome had established a northern frontier zone based upon the Rhine (Rhenus) and Danube (Danubius). In its entirety, the northern boundary of the Roman Empire would eventually stretch across Europe from the North Sea (Mare Germanicum) to the Black Sea (Pontus Euxinus), a distance of some 3,000 km (Fig. 2). Both rivers were deep, swift and frequently flanked by broad marshlands. Despite the dangerous and unpredictable character of these waters, which would persist for centuries, the general policy of the Romans was to to use them as lateral conduits for supplies and communication and to establish themselves on both river banks. Their general posture was aggressive and acquisitive and, as part of a ‘manifest destiny’, they long regarded eventual tenure of lands beyond the Rhine and Danube as nothing less than a divine right. In personal terms, Roman commanders were much aware of the political kudos that accrued from military conquest of new territories.

Fig. 3 – Reconstruction of palisade and early type of watchtower (Schwabsberg⇔Buch, north of Aalen, Baden-Württemberg).

The northernmost frontier region of the Roman Empire lay in Britannia (Fig. 2) where it was defined by two other limites, Hadrian’s Wall (stone) and the Antonine Wall (turf). If we make an extrapolation from their eastern ends in a south-easterly direction across the Mare Germanicum (North Sea) we come to the western end of the continental Rhine-Danube frontier (Fig. 4). Here, in the Roman province that would come to be known as Germania inferior (Lower Germany), the marshes and many shifting tributaries of the Rhine estuary served as a rather vague frontier that was defended by a scattering of relatively small strongpoints. Moving upstream along the Rhine we find strong legion fortresses sited at Noviomagus (Nijmegen), Vetera (Xanten) and Novaesium (Neuss). In due course, two Rhineland settlements would be granted the prestigious status of colonia (colony), receiving the proud titles of Colonia Ulpia Traiana (Xanten) and Colonia Claudia Ara Agrippinensium (Köln). These two coloniae administered themselves and all citizens held Roman citizenship. This was naturally a matter of civic pride as there were only about 150 coloniae in the whole empire.

Further south lay the province of Germania superior (Upper Germany)10 and the established Rhine settlements of Mogontiacum (Mainz), Argentoratum (Strasbourg) and Vindonissa (Windisch). Each of these three towns housed at least one Roman legion and was sited at a nodal junction of the road system. Sturdy bridges of timber encouraged ribbon settlement of the opposite bank of the Rhine and, when need arose, facilitated military expeditions eastward into Germania magna.

Imperial expansion beyond the Rhine as far as the river Elbe (Albis), a distance of about 400km, was long considered to be a practical possibility. Probing campaigns were launched from time to time into an uncharted wilderness of ‘fearful forest and stinking bog’ and by 9 BC the legions had reached the Elbe. An extremely fragile infrastructure of log roads, Romanized settlements and isolated forts was founded between Rhine and Elbe. These activities were undoubtedly helped by the knowledge and experience of traders of all nationalities who were already familiar with the territory. We know that these men, despite the hazards, travelled far and wide beyond the Elbe, establishing trade routes on land and sea.11 Roman coinage and trade goods such as bronze and glass wares have been found as far north as Denmark and Scandinavia. Traders would have advised the Romans on the identity and intentions of the volatile German tribes and, when literate, made possible the exchange of messages between friendly chieftains and Roman authorities.

  1. The creation of Germania inferior and Germania superior dates from the reign of Domitian (AD 81-96). []
  2. Sir Mortimer Wheeler, Rome Beyond the Imperial Frontiers (London: G.Bell & Sons, Ltd., 1954) []