1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Limes Germanicus

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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 têtes-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 Württemberg. 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 100 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.)