Roman Limes in Germany – Borders of the Roman Frontier
Cover photo by Michael Graber
The first time I saw the words, “Germanic Limes”, I immediately flashed to those tart green citrus fruits… but I couldn’t have been further from reality. The Roman Limes in Germany are leftover border fortifications from the days of when Germanic Tribes and Roman Troops were keeping a sharp eye on each other. By the 2nd Century AD, this border ran from the North Sea south along the Rhine, then east and south to Regensburg. That’s a 550 Km long stretch of border to watch, the 2nd largest manmade structure next to China’s Great Wall. Although the fortifications weren’t huge, there are still enough remains almost 2000 years later for us to get an idea of what they were like. And thanks to these photos from my friend Michael Graber, now we can also appreciate the Watchtowers.
Since 2005, the Limes in Upper Germania have been part of the Roman Empire World Heritage Site, and there has been a petition to include the rest of them as well.
Roman Limes in Germany
In Latin, the plural for “lime” is “limits”. Romans considered these to be boundaries or markers delineating the edge of their frontier. So why build a wall? Why not push conquer all of Germania?
Roman Watchtower, photo by Michael Graber
In 9 AD, the Romans lost 15,000 troops at the Varian Disaster. A little battle you may know better as the “Battle of Teutoburger Wald”. After this, the Romans decided it would be better to build a wall, rather than battle the savages, and the “Limes Germanicus” were born. The limes were the official northern boundary of the Roman Empire from 83 AD to 260 AD.
There were three parts of this elaborate system. The Rhaetian Limes along the Danube, named for the Roman province of Raetia, now Tirol and parts of Switzerland. The Upper Germanic limes along the Rhine and across the Taunus to the Main, and the Lower Germanic Lines from the North Sea in the Netherlands to the lower Rhine. (It’s confusing because Upper is below Lower in my mental map) Because the borderline followed rivers, it was easy to move troops and supplies up and down. Although they were clear boundaries, the limes were never really meant to keep anyone out.
Roman troops constructed the limes much in the same way that they built fortifications around their camps. They dug a Pfahlgraben, or long ditch, then used the excavated earth to build a mound or wall. Not a HUGE wall, more of a marker. On top of the wall would be pointed sticks or spears. The limes wouldn’t keep out anyone who was really determined to cross over, and they honestly weren’t designed to do so… but they did prevent animal rustling. (Apparently, the Germanic Tribes liked to liberate Roman livestock.) And they did prevent large groups from streaming through.
To better oversee the border, the Romans built watchtowers all along the limes, within sight of each other. Altogether there were 900 Watchtowers! They had full view of the limes, and could signal each other with smoke or fire to alert against invasions. The Watchtowers, like this reconstructed one here, were small buildings, 5 meters by 5 meters square on the bottom, and 10 to 12 meters tall. The bottom level was for sleeping and storing food, while the upper story gave the soldiers an unobstructed view. Usually 4 to 8 soldiers were stationed at each one.
Roman Watchtower Photo by Michael Graber
Behind sets of Watchtowers, they built fortresses, 60 in all, all within view of multiple towers. Near the fortresses there would be real stone walls, called a Teufelsmauer. You can visit a reconstructed fortress at Saalburg. This fort and museum is in Bad Homburg, close to Frankfurt, and open to the public.
Saalburg in Bad Homburg
Near the fortresses the Romans Built actual stone walls. Archeologists discovered that the original walls were whitewashed.
In 2005, UNESCO made the Upper Germanicus Lime and the Rhaetian Lime part of the “Frontiers of the Roman Empire” World Heritage Site. Today you can still see traces of the limes, and follow much of the 350 miles of ditch.
You can learn more about this site here–> Frontiers of the Roman Empire
Check out this fantastic video about the limes….
Other Roman Ruins and sites can be found all around Germany. Most notably in Trier where you find Baths and the Porta Nigra.
Also part the Porta Praetoria in Regensburg
photo by Karen Lodder
Thanks again to Michael for his wonderful photos!
photo by Michael Graber
For more information about the Romans in Germany…
The Battle that Stopped Rome is an in depth look at the Battle of Teutoburg Forest, and the Roman Frontier in Germany is an in depth video look at the limes.
The Battle That Stopped Rome: Emperor Augustus, Arminius, and the Slaughter of the Legions in the Teutoburg ForestAdventures in Archaeology – The Roman Frontier in Germany
A fascinating story. Many years ago while driving back roads of southwestern Germany I first “discovered” the Limes. Never encountered many other visitors and often in spectacular settings, in my imagination I could visualize the Roman world in a place I thought I knew. Thanks for the memories.