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Limes Germaniae - German Palisades

The most famous of the Roman frontier fortifications was that which served for a defence to the empire against the Germanic tribes, who from their proximity to Italy and their threatening attitude were the enemies whose sudden attacks were most formidable to Rome. The name by which it was known to the Romans was, as long as it skirted the frontiers of Vindelicia, the Limes Rhaetiae, and afterwards the Limes Germaniae: in modern times - for the wall, or at least its foundations, can still be traced almost continuously - it is called the Pfahlgraben or Teufelsmauer. The earthen rampart with accompanying ditch, called "Pfahlgraben", was in Upper Germany, and the stone wall known as the "Teufelsmauer" [Devil Wall or Devil's Dyke] on the northern line of Rhaetia.

The "Limes" (stockade, or better, palisade) which united Raetia and Upper Germany was necessary because the Rhine and Danube did not always give a convenient border, but left near Basel an acute angle which had to be connected with the empire. In the time of Augustus, of course, matters were so improved that the Rhine and Danube were no longer referred to as the border lines of the empire.

The Danube section, the so-called Teufelsmauer, was built for the protection of the agri decumates, those lands which were given over to Romans and barbarians alike for a fixed rent of ten per cent. of their produce. This Limes transdubianus was five feet high and twelve feet broad, and was protected for long distances by a moat and a second wall. The Limes transrhenanus was higher, sixteen feet on an average, and was provided along its whole length with a moat twenty feet wide and ten deep.

Leaving the left bank of the Danube at Kelheim between Ratisbon and Neustadt, it describes a curve westward as far as Lorch, at which place the Limes Rhaetiae comes to an end after a course of 108 miles. Here the direction which the fortification pursues turns at right angles, and follows the stream of the Neckar as far as Wimpfen, whence it runs due north until it meets the Main at Worth. Descending that stream to the parallel of Frankfort, it then bends round until it meets the northern extremity of the Taunus chain, and after passing those mountains gradually approaches the Rhine, which river it finally reaches between Andernach and Remagen. This section, which formed the Limes Germaniae, measured 228 miles.

The German limes was not the work of an individual from one day to the other, nor was it made after a certain plan, but it represented the toil of generations. Inasmuch as forts, chains of forts and frontier lines belong to that limes as a basis for aggression and self-protection which later was erected in the rear of the empire, its history extends to the middle of the second century from the early years of the first. The outer forts which make up the limes itself became an immense and continuous border line. Later, walls and trenches were added, watch-towers built at equal distances from each other, with a military road in the rear, and many systematically distributed fortifications behind the wall. Thus was fixed the frontier of the country.

In respect of construction the Limes Germaniae was greatly superior to the Limes Rhaetiae. The former of these consisted of a succession of forts, placed as a rule about nine miles from each other. In certain portions of the line thus formed, the rivers along whose courses the forts were built, the Neckar and the Main, were themselves a sufficient limit to prevent ingress into the Roman territory; elsewhere a boundary wall was erected, not indeed connecting the forts with one another, but running in front of them at a distance seldom exceeding one-third of a mile. This was protected by a fosse on the outside, and had watchtowers built in it at short intervals on the inner side.

In the Rhaetian Limes, on the other hand, the forts were constructed without any regular succession, and the barrier was not only destitute of a fosse and watch-towers, but was formed of stones rudely piled together. Walls and embankments, however, such as those just described, by no means formed a necessary part of a frontier fortification. The Rhaetian frontier began at the Danube above the mouth of the Altmiihl near Kelheim, and reached to Pfahlbronn in an irregular arc; and thence to Raetia north of the Danube. There the German limes began. From Hohenstaufen, near Pfahlbronn, it ran in the form of an angle to near the end of the Raetian limes, through the woods to Walldurn over hills and mountains, rivers and swamps, thence to Muhlberg-on-the-Main. There the walls were displaced by the river to Gross-Kreuzenberg above Hanau, but the dense row of forts continued. A second row was added, and an inner and older one which began near Worth Hanau, on the Main to and along the River Neckar.

There were unitary Posts in the north of Britain, but there is no trace of them along the Numidian border, nor where security was afforded by the presence of a great river, such as the Rhine in its lower course, the Danube, or the Euphrates. What was essential to the system of defence was the chain of military posts; and so independent was this, that, even where a legion was established in the adjacent territory, its camp did not necessarily form part of the chain, but might lie at some distance towards the rear. Such was the case with York and Chester in Britain, with Mogontiacum (Mainz) behind the German Limes, and with Lambaesis in Africa; in all which instances the legion that was stationed there was connected by roads with the outlying posts, so that it was able to support them when necessary.

The opposite plan, where the camp was included in the system of defence, is found on the lower Rhine and on the Danube. A certain extent of territory both within and without the line of defence was appropriated by the defenders, so that no barbarians were allowed to occupy it - a precautionary measure which was quite reasonable, since the position to be guarded was so exposed. Beyond the Limes a broad stretch of land was left uncultivated, the trees cut down, the shrubbery burnt away. A considerable commerce was carried on with the Germans, but the barbarian traders were only allowed to approach the Limes at certain points and at stated hours. .They were obliged to accept and to pay for an escort of Roman soldiers, and they themselves were not permitted to carry arms. The Roman merchants, on the other hand, penetrated far into the German lands. In the present Sweden nearly five thousand Roman denars of the first and second century after Christ have come to light, and Roman productions have been found in the most distant parts of Germany.

The policy of opposing uncivilized tribes by the construction of the limes, a raised embankment of earth or other material, intersected here and there by fortifications, was not the invention of the Emperor Trajan [r. 98-117], but it owed in great measure its development to him. It is probable that the northernmost part of the great limes Germaniae, from the Rhine at Rheinbrohl, nearly midway between Coblenz and Bonn, to a point on the Main east of Frankfort, where that river suddenly changes its course from north to west, was begun by Domitian. The extension of this great barrier southwards to the point at which it met the limes Raetiae was undertaken by Trajan, though it cannot be said how far he carried the work, which was not entirely completed till long after his time.

The strength of Aurelian [r. 270-275] had crushed on every side the enemies of Rome. After his death they seemed to revive with an increase of fury and of numbers. They were again vanquished by the active vigour of Probus [r. 276-282], who, in a short reign of about six years, (6) equalled the fame of ancient heroes, and restored peace and order to every province of the Roman world. The most important service which Probus rendered to the republic, was the deliverance of Gaul, and the recovery of seventy flourishing cities oppressed by the barbarians of Germany, who, since the death of Aurelian, had ravaged that great province with impunity.

Since the expedition of Maximan, the Roman generals had confined their ambition to a defensive war against the nations of Germany, who perpetually pressed on the frontiers of the empire. The more daring Probus pursued his Gallic victories, passed the Rhine, and displayed his invincible eagles on the banks of the Elbe and the Neckar. He was fully convinced, that nothing could reconcile the minds of the barbarians to peace, unless they experienced in their own country the calamities of war. Germany, exhausted by the ill success of the last emigration, was astonished by his presence. Nine of the most considerable princes repaired to his camp, and fell prostrate at his feet. Such a treaty was humbly received by the Germans, as it pleased the conqueror to dictate.

Instead of reducing the warlike natives of Germany to the condition of subjects, Probus contented himself with the humble expedient of raising a bulwark against their inroads. The country, which now forms the circle of Swabia, had been left desert in the age of Augustus by the emigration of its ancient inhabitants. The fertility of the soil soon attracted a new colony from the adjacent provinces of Gaul. Crowds of adventurers, of a roving temper and of desperate fortunes, occupied the doubtful possession, and acknowledged, by the payment of tithes, the majesty of the empire.

To protect these new subjects, a line of frontier garrisons was gradually extended from the Rhine to the Danube. About the reign of Hadrian, when that mode of defence began to be practised, these garrisons were connected and covered by a strong intrenchment of trees and palisadoes. In the place of so rude a bulwark, the emperor Probus constructed a stone wall of a considerable height, and strengthened it by towers at convenient distances. From the neighbourhood of Newstadt and Ratisbon on the Danube, it stretched across the hills, valleys, rivers, and morasses, as far as Wimpfen on the Necker, and at length terminated on the banks of the Rhine, after a winding course of near two hundred miles.

This important barrier, uniting the two mighty streams that protected the provinces of Europe, seem to fill up the vacant space through which the barbarians, and particularly the Alemanni, could penetrate with the greatest facility into the heart of the empire. But the experience of the world from China to Britain, has exposed the vain attempt of fortifying any extensive tract of country. (6) ' An active enemy, who can select and vary his points of attack, must, in the end, discover some feeble spot or some unguarded moment. The strength, as well as the attention, of the defenders is divided; and such are the blind effects of terror on the firmest troops, that a line broken in a single place is almost instantly deserted. The fate of the wall which Probus erected, may confirm the general observation. Within a few years after his death, it was overthrown by the Alemanni. Its scattered ruins, universally ascribed to the power of the Daemon, now serve only to excite the wonder of the Swabian peasant.

Extensive as these fortifications were, they could not have kept off a serious and organized attack on the part of the Germans; but none such was to be dreaded for two centuries after the wall was begun. It was the petty plundering expeditions to which it was intended to put an end, and this object was in the main attained. Behind their wall the Roman veterans, the soldiers and camp-followers, as well as the friendly German settlers, passed a secure and civilized existence. If danger threatened, signals were exchanged from one watch-tower to the other, and the forces concentrated at a given point.

In the opinion of the great historian Mommsen, the limes was not intended, like Hadrian's Wall between the Tyne and the Solway, and like the great wall of China, to oppose an absolute barrier against incursions from the outside. It was useful as marking definitely the boundary of the Roman sway, and as assuring the Romans that no inroad could be made without intelligence being had of it beforehand, while the limes itself and the system of roads behind it enabled troops to be directed rapidly to any threatened point, and the fortified positions could be held against large numbers till reinforcements arrived. Great importance was no doubt attached to the perfection of the lines of communication bearing on the limes.

Since the Germans settled near the limes after the third century, the huge and no longer useful work has gone to decay and ruin. The walls were turned into plains by the slow and silent erosion of the rivers and the winter frosts; the wood of the watch-houses was made use of by the Germans and rotted; the towers and forts furnished convenient stones for building and the structures became as flat as the plain. The limes continued to exist, however, in another interesting form. The impression it had made upon the German possessors was too strong not to influence the names of the places in that vicinity. Thus cities as Wall, Damm, Pfahl, Hag, etc. Its memory is also kept alive in the names of fields and localities.

In November 1938, Adolph Hitler proclaimed that the newly built Siegfried line would be called the Limes.

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Page last modified: 09-07-2011 13:28:54 ZULU