If the Roman conquest of Gaul was, eventually, a triumphant success, Germany was a dismal failure. Germany was separated from the Roman Empire by the Rhine to the west and the Danube to the south. It was a long border. Would it not be sensible to cross the Rhine and push the border 300 miles to the east to the Elbe, thus eliminating the long Danube border to the south?
Augustus ordered his son-in-law and putative successor Drusus to start capturing Germany and he spent several years there with considerable success, but in 9 BC he fell off his horse and died. The project was abandoned, but in AD 9 another attempt was made. Varus was sent out with three legions, but having rampaged over much of Germany, he was caught in a dark forest and his army was massacred. Augustus wailed ‘Give me back my three legions’, but the conquest of Germany was abandoned, this time for good.
The extent of the preparations can be seen in the discovery of what was intended to be the new town in Germany at Waldgirmes, just north of Frankfurt. Here a new town was being laid out with a forum and rows of houses, and a grandiose equestrian statue of the emperor, but all was abandoned. This is what London would be like if Boudica had won!
Why did the Germans win? Because it seems they were so backward. If you conquer a great empire as Alexander did with the Persians, you remove the emperor and take his place yourself, and with just a little bit of tweaking the whole empire is yours. But Germany was not an empire, it was a series of small tribes, each firmly independent. Capture one and all the others still remain fiercely independent. And when seen from the old fashioned anthropological point of view, Germany was very backward. State formation had not begun.
(A distinguished German archaeologist once remarked that on the Roman side of the frontier, plant remains of spices were frequent. But once you get beyond a day’s journey from the frontier, plant remains of spices die out. In other words, those in the Roman sphere had their food spiced up, the Germans did not. The difference between civilisation and barbarism?)
Germany was in fact in two parts: the area to the south, south that is of Frankfurt and the river Main, was occupied by Celts, speaking a Celtic language and building Celtic hillforts. To the north were the Germans speaking a proto-Germanic language, living in villages, with no hillforts. The most advanced Germans appear to have been those further north still, in Denmark and Scandinavia, the forerunners of the Vikings. In the ensuing years they would accumulate considerable quantities of Roman goods, presented to them as gifts to keep them quiet. The finest of these, the Gundestrup cauldron may have come from Thrace, modern Bulgaria, with wonderful scenes of Celtic life.
But if it was not to be possible to conquer Germany, would it not be possible to snip a little triangle off the bottom corner to shorten the distance between the Rhine and the Danube? Let us enter the saga of the German Limes. Limes (pronounced leemaize) is the Latin for frontier, and the German limes was an inferior version of Hadrian’s Wall.
For whereas Hadrian’s Wall was built to a more or less coherent plan in stone, the Limes was built of a series of timber towers, intermittently connected by a timber palisade; though it must be admitted that whereas Hadrian’s Wall is 80 miles long, the Limes is over 300 miles long, with 900 watchtowers and 120 forts; but it is certainly not coherent. The earliest work appears to be in the north, in the plain of the Wetterau. This is a wonderfully fertile stretch of country, but it was probably border territory between the Celts and Germans and largely unoccupied, so the Romans had their eye on it. Here the earliest forts may have been built under Domitian in the 70s and 80s, but the dating is uncertain, and they may not have been built until Trajan, AD 105 – 115.
The work of investigating the Limes was begun in the late 19th century by the great German historian Mommsen, who set up a Commission and persuaded Kaiser Wilhelm to excavate a complete fort at the Saalburg. The emperor set his army to work who excavated it with military thoroughness. Archaeologists still argue over the result. The frontier was built in four stages: first came the roads – and frontiers often tend to begin with roads. Then came wooden watch towers along the roads, with more substantial forts in the rear. Finally the watchtowers were linked up by a wooden palisade and a ditch.
The story of the Limes is complicated, because it was spread over a number of Roman provinces. When Augustus was reorganising Gaul, he split off two separate provinces along the Rhine, called Lower and Upper Germany, where all the troops were stationed. A third province, Raetia, was formed to the South along the River Danube, and the construction of the Limes fell between two provinces, Upper Germany and Raetia, and the governors in each province had different ideas as to what a frontier should be like.
Most of the story belongs to Upper Germany where the initial watch towers were laid out, if not by Domitian in the 80s, then under Trajan (105-115). But the line of the palisade and ditch was probably the work of Hadrian in the 120s at the same time as Hadrian’s Wall in Britain. However, as in Britain, there was a rebuilding under Antoninus Pius. In Britain the Antonine Wall was built from AD 142 onwards, and in Germany the central part of the Limes was pushed forward to the east some 20 – 30 kilometres in the 160s and was rebuilt in a straight line 80 kilometres long, with virtually no deviation.
Meanwhile the story in Raetia was different and it was not until the 160s that a continuous defence was built. This was indeed in stone, but a miserable affair compared to Hadrian’s Wall, only 4ft wide instead of 10 – 12 ft wide: it is called the Teufelsmaur.
The German Limes did not last long. In around 250 the Germans broke through and invaded Gaul. It was a terrifying decade: in the East, the Roman Emperor was captured by the Persians and held prisoner, along the Rhine plague raged, possibly an early and virulent form of measles or smallpox, and an independent Gallic Empire was set up. When eventually central control from Rome was re-established, the Limes frontier had vanished. The territory beyond the Rhine was never recovered and the Rhine and the Danube once more became the frontiers of the empire.
They were not very good frontiers, for whereas the Upper Rhine north of Mainz is broad enough to be a formidable barrier, south of Mainz it becomes progressively smaller and easier to cross. The Germans were growing steadily stronger and the Roman army progressively weaker. A defence along the rivers held more or less for the next 100 years, but then in the years following AD 400, the Germans broke out, and the Anglo Saxons turned Britannia into England, and the Franks turned Gaul into France. Roman civilisation collapsed, and a new era emerged: the Barbarians had won.