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Map of Upper Germanic & Rhaetian Limes

The Limes Germanicus (Latin for Germanic frontier) was a remarkable line of frontier (limes) forts that bounded the ancient Roman provinces of Germania Inferior, Germania Superior and Raetia, and divided the Roman Empire and the unsubdued Germanic tribes, from the years 83 to 260. At its height, the limes stretched from the North Sea outlet of the Rhine to near Regensburg on the Danube.

The Limes Germanicus was divided into:

The total length was 568 km (341 miles). It included at least 60 castles and 900 watchtowers.

Contents

History

Reconstructed Limes near Saalburg, Germany.
Reconstructed stone wall near Rainau-Buch. In the foreground: stone tower "WP 12/77"

Roman border defences have become much better known through systematic excavations financed by Germany and through other research connected to them. In 2005, the remnants of the Upper Germanic & Rhaetian Limes were inscribed on the List of UNESCO World Heritage Sites as Frontiers of the Roman Empire. The Saalburg is a reconstructed fortification and museum of the Limes near Frankfurt.

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Augustus

The first emperor who began to build fortifications along the border was Augustus, shortly after the devastating Roman defeat in the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest in 9 AD. Originally there were numerous Limes walls, which were then connected to form the Upper Germanic Limes along the Rhine and the Rhaetian Limes along the Danube. Later these two walls were linked to form a common borderline.

14 to c. 73

From the death of Augustus (14 AD) until after 70 AD, Rome accepted as her Germanic frontier the water-boundary of the Rhine and upper Danube. Beyond these rivers she held only the fertile plain of Frankfurt, opposite the Roman border fortress of Moguntiacum (Mainz), the southernmost slopes of the Black Forest and a few scattered bridge-heads. The northern section of this frontier, where the Rhine is deep and broad, remained the Roman boundary until the empire fell. The southern part was different. The upper Rhine and upper Danube are easily crossed. The frontier which they form is inconveniently long, enclosing an acute-angled wedge of foreign territory between the modern Baden and Württemberg. The Germanic populations of these lands seem in Roman times to have been scanty, and Roman subjects from the modern Alsace-Lorraine had drifted across the river eastwards. The motives alike of geographical convenience and of the advantages to be gained by recognising these movements of Roman subjects combined to urge a forward policy at Rome, and when the vigorous Vespasian had succeeded Nero, a series of advances began which gradually closed up the acute angle, or at least rendered it obtuse.

Remains of the Limes.

Flavian dynasty

The first advance came about 74 AD, when what is now Baden was invaded and in part annexed and a road carried from the Roman base on the upper Rhine, Straßburg, to the Danube just above Ulm. The point of the angle was broken off.

The second advance was made by Domitian about 83 AD. He pushed out from Moguntiacum, extended the Roman territory east of it and enclosed the whole within a systematically delimited and defended frontier with numerous blockhouses along it and larger forts in the rear. Among the blockhouses was one which by various enlargements and refoundations grew into the well-known Saalburg fort on the Taunus near Bad Homburg. This advance necessitated a third movement, the construction of a frontier connecting the annexations of AD 74 and AD 83 . We know the line of this frontier which ran from the Main across the upland Odenwald to the upper waters of the Neckar and was defended by a chain of forts. We do not, however, know its date, save that, if not Domitian's work, it was carried out soon after his death, and the whole frontier thus constituted was reorganised, probably by Hadrian, with a continuous wooden palisade reaching from Rhine to Danube.

Hadrian and the Antonines

The tower "WP 14/55" at the Upper German-Raetian border wall

The angle between the rivers was now almost full. But there remained further advance and further fortification. Either Hadrian or, more probably, his successor Antoninus Pius pushed out from the Odenwald and the Danube, and marked out a new frontier roughly parallel to, but in advance of these two lines, though sometimes, as on the Taunus, coinciding with the older line. This is the frontier which is now visible and visited by the curious. It consists, as we see it today, of two distinct frontier works, one, known as the Pfahlgraben, is an earthen mound with stakes on top and ditch in front of the mound, best seen in the neighbourhood of the Saalburg but once extending from the Rhine southwards into southern Germany. The other, which begins where the earthwork stops, is a wall, though not a very formidable wall, of stone, the Teufelsmauer; it runs roughly east and west parallel to the Danube, which it finally joins at Heinheim near Regensburg. The southern part of the Pfahlgraben is remarkably straight; for over 50 km it points almost absolutely true for Polaris.

Tower of the Limes

This frontier remained for about 100 years, and no doubt in that long period much was done to it to which precise dates are difficult to fix. It cannot even be absolutely certain when the frontier laid out by Pius was equipped with the manpitts and other special fortifications. But we know that the pressure of the barbarians began to be felt seriously in the later part of the 2nd century, and after long struggles the whole or almost the whole district east of the Rhine and north of the Danube was lost, seemingly all within one short period, about 250.

Late Roman empire

Germanic invasions in the late 3rd century led to the abandonment of the so-called "Upper Raetian Limes" in favour of a Roman defence line along the rivers Rhine, Iller and Danube (Donau-Iller-Rhine-Limes) with watch towers in sight contact and heavily fortified castra at important passes (e.g. Castrum Rauracense instead of the previously unwalled Augusta Raurica near to Basel) and in the hinterland of the frontier (e.g. Vindonissa in today's Switzerland).

Description and functionality of the limes

The limes itself is a relatively simple construction. It is similar to the fortification that a travelling troop of Roman soldiers would construct every evening to protect the camp from attacks. On the outside, the soldiers dug a ditch. The earth from the ditch was used to build a mound. On top of the mound stakes were attached. The Limes had a deeper ditch and a higher mound. The stakes were higher too and on several parts of the limes, instead of stakes there was a simple wall. Behind the wall/mound a system of control towers, built of wood or stone, was installed, each within sight of the next one, and usually able also to signal to the forts several kilometers to the rear.

The Saalburg, a reconstruction of a Roman fort.

The limes was never able to prevent whole Germanic tribes from entering the territory of the Roman empire. This was not the intention of the builders. Near the watch towers, the limes was open to passage, especially by traders or persons coming to live or work within the empire. The purpose of the limes was control of the traffic. To cross the limes it was necessary to pass the towers, and so come to the notice of the garrison, or to climb or destroy the wall or the stakes. Only individuals or small groups could climb the obstacles without being noticed, and they could not drive stolen livestock with them. Large groups would be noticed. They could destroy one or several towers, but this also would come to the attention of the Romans. This knowledge of all groups crossing the border was important for the Roman empire. For a territory as large as the Roman empire, there were amazingly few soldiers. Almost all of the legions were based close to the frontiers. Any hostile group who managed to pass this area of defense could travel within the empire without significant resistance. The purpose of the limes was early warning of attack, deterrence of casual small-scale raiding, and the ability to react while the enemy was near the legions.

Towns and cities along the limes

Upper Germanic Limes

Germany:

Lower Germanic Limes

Reconstruction of the watch tower of Fectio

Germany:

The Netherlands:

Notes

References

Primary sources

(none yet)

Secondary sources

  • This article incorporates text from the Encyclopædia Britannica, Eleventh Edition, a publication now in the public domain.
  • A good English account can be found in H. F. Pelham's essay in Trans. of the Royal Hist. Soc. vol. 20, reprinted in his Collected Papers, pp. 178-211 (Oxford, 1910), where the German authorities are fully cited.
  • D.I. Woolliscroft, Roman Military Signalling. Stroud and Charleston: Tempus Publishing, 2001. Pp. 191. ISBN 0-7524-1938-2. A study mainly of intervisibility along the Rhine and British limites.

External links

See also


1911 encyclopedia

Up to date as of January 14, 2010

From LoveToKnow 1911

LIMES GERMANICUS. The Latin noun limes denoted generally a path, sometimes a boundary path (possibly its original sense) or boundary, and hence it was utilized by Latin writers occasionally to denote frontiers definitely delimited and marked in some distinct fashion. This latter sense has been adapted and extended by modern historians concerned with the frontiers of the Roman Empire. Thus the Wall of Hadrian in north England (see Britain: Roman) is now sometimes styled the Limes Britannicus, the frontier of the Roman province of Arabia facing the desert the Limes Arabicus and so forth. In particular the remarkable frontier lines which bounded the Roman provinces of Upper (southern) Germany and Raetia, and which at their greatest development stretched from near Bonn on the Rhine to near Regensburg on the Danube, are often called the Limes Germanicus. The history of these lines is the subject of the following paragraphs. They have in the last fifteen years become much better known through systematic excavations financed by the German empire and through other researches connected therewith, and though many important details are still doubtful, their general development can be traced.

From the death of Augustus (A.D. 14) till after A.D. 70 Rome accepted as her German frontier the water-boundary of the Rhine and upper Danube. Beyond these rivers she held only the fertile plain of Frankfort, opposite the Roman border fortress of Moguntiacum (Mainz), the southernmost slopes of the Black Forest and a few scattered tétes-du-pont. The northern section of this frontier, where the Rhine is deep and broad, remained the Roman boundary till the empire fell. The southern part was different. The upper Rhine and upper Danube are easily crossed. The frontier which they form is inconveniently long, enclosing an acute-angled wedge of foreign territory - the modern Baden and Wurttemberg. The German populations of these lands seem in Roman times to have been scanty, and Roman subjects from the modern Alsace and Lorraine had drifted across the river eastwards. The motives alike of geographical convenience and of the advantages to be gained by recognizing these movements of Roman subjects combined to urge a forward policy at Rome, and when the vigorous Vespasian had succeeded the fool-criminal Nero, a series of advances began which gradually closed up the acute angle, or at least rendered it obtuse.

The first advance came about 74, when what is now Baden was invaded and in part annexed and a road carried from the Roman base on the upper Rhine, Strassburg, to the Danube just above Ulm. The point of the angle was broken off. The second advance was made by Domitian about A.D. 83. He pushed out from Moguntiacum, extended the Roman territory east of it and enclosed the whole within a systematically delimited and defended frontier with numerous blockhouses along it and larger forts in the rear. Among the blockhouses was one which by various enlargements and refoundations grew into the well-known Saalburg fort on the Taunus near Homburg. This advance necessitated a third movement, the construction of a frontier connecting the annexations of A.D. 74 and 83. We know the line of this frontier which ran from the Main across the upland Odenwald to the upper waters of the Neckar and was defended by a chain of forts. We do not, however, know its date, save that, if not Domitian's work, it was carried out soon after his death, and the whole frontier thus constituted was reorganized, probably by Hadrian, with a continuous wooden palisade reaching from Rhine to Danube. The angle between the rivers was now almost full. But there remained further advance and further fortification. Either Hadrian or, more probably, his successor Pius pushed out from the Odenwald and the Danube, and marked out a new frontier roughly parallel to but in advance of these two lines, though sometimes, as on the Taunus, coinciding with the older line. This is the frontier which is now visible and visited by the curious. It consists, as we see it to-day, of two distinct frontier works, one, known as the Pfahlgraben, is an earthen mound and ditch, best seen in the neighbourhood of the Saalburg but once extending from the Rhine southwards into southern Germany. The other, which begins where the earthwork stops, is a wall, though not a very formidable wall, of stone, the Teufelsmauer; it runs roughly east and west parallel to the Danube, which it finally joins at Heinheim near Regensburg. The Pfahlgraben is remarkable for the extraordinary directness of its southern part, which for over 50 m. runs mathematically straight and points almost absolutely true for the Polar star. It is a clear case of an ancient frontier laid out in American fashion. This frontier remained for about zoo years, and no doubt in that long period much was done to it to which we cannot affix precise dates. We cannot even be absolutely certain when the frontier laid out by Pius was equipped with the Pfahlgraben and Teufelsmauer. But we know that the pressure of the barbarians began to be felt seriously in the later part of the 2nd century, and after long struggles the whole or almost the whole district east of Rhine and north of Danube was lost - seemingly all within one short period - about A.D. 250.

The best English account will be found in H. F. Pelham's essay in Trans. of the Royal Hist. Soc. vol. 20, reprinted in his Collected Papers, pp. 178-211 (Oxford, 1910), where the German authorities are fully cited. (F._ J. H.)


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