The Roman Border in Ancient Germany

  1. Introduction
  2. On the concept of the Limes
  3. The Limes as a military border
  4. The Limes as a Medium of Cultural Exchange
    1. Cultures of the Limes Zone
    2. Trade and Diplomacy as Forerunners of Roman Culture
      1. Acculturation or Assimilation? Romanization in the Limes Zone
  5. Conclusion

1 Introduction

The Limes in the Germanic provinces and in Rhaetia was long regarded in older research as a “bulwark against the barbarians” (Bakker 1997, p.111), as a border wall of the Imperium Romanum and thus as the border of the civilized world of antiquity against the Germanic Barbaricum.

In recent decades, however, this view has changed significantly. The border between the Roman Empire and Magna Germania is now no longer seen primarily as a military installation for protection against the tribes of Central and Northern Europe (as can still be seen in Planck 1976 (cf. Planck 2016, p. 405)), but as a transitional zone regulated by Rome between the Roman Empire and “free” Germania (cf. Theune 2012, p. 57). For at the latest since the establishment of the Romans in Gaul as a result of the Gallic War, Romans and Germanic tribes came into regular contact with each other, both as enemies and as allies and trading partners, as evidenced by numerous Roman imports into Germania (cf. Bücker 1997, pp. 135-140).

After the devastating defeat of Varus in 9 AD against the coalition of Germanic tribes led by the Cheruscan Arminius, the punitive expeditions of Germanicus did not lead to a decisive victory that would have made Germania as far as the Elbe a Roman province, also due to the early recall by Emperor Tiberius, who did not see the costs of establishing and maintaining a large Germanic province in any proportional relationship to the risks (cf. Pohl 2010, p. 14 f. and Erdrich 2012, p. 308 f.). Thus, most of Germania remained free from direct Roman rule, even though direct and indirect Roman influence remained noticeable (cf. Steuer 2021, pp. 1030-1042). This is also evident in the example of the Limes: people, ideas and goods passed the border in both directions, so that a lively cultural and economic exchange could take place (cf. Theune 2012, p. 57). Although this already existed before the construction of the Limes (cf. Steuer 2021, p. 1030), it was channeled through the Limes to certain border crossings and possibly even intensified as a result.

The purpose of this work is to present the role that the Limes played at the borders of the Germanic provinces and in Rhaetia in the Roman imperial period in cultural exchange and to investigate how strong the influence of Rome on Germania actually was. It should be tried to represent as large a spectrum of interaction as possible, which is why this work is not limited to the area of the Upper Germanic-Rhaetian Limes, but also includes the Lower Germanic Limes. Theoretically, the limes further east along the borders of Noricum and Pannonia could have been included, but this would have clearly exceeded the scope of this work. Where it makes sense for the purpose of illustration, however, some examples from this area are also used – though of course much less extensively. A special emphasis will be placed in the study on the aspect of Romanization and its extent on both sides of the border, and to what extent and by what means this process took place.

For the purpose of this study, reference will be made to monographs on the Germanic tribes and the Limes, as well as to specific essays in anthologies on Limes research and cultural exchange at the Limes, and on Romanization within and beyond the provinces. Due to the nature of the object of study, results of archaeological research will also be drawn upon.

Before beginning the actual investigation, it is necessary to point out the problematic nature of the term Germanic and its use in this work, since it has been controversially discussed in research for decades, but it cannot simply be eliminated. According to the current state of knowledge, the term was popularized mainly by Gaius Iulius Caesar after he encountered the Suebian commander Ariovist at the beginning of the Gallic War. Caesar referred to the people in Ariovist’s wake as Teutons, in contrast to the Celts (also a controversial term for similar reasons) native to Gaul (and elsewhere, including Germania), and assigned them the area east of the Rhine and north of the Danube as their homeland. Even if, according to today’s research, it can be assumed that a large part of the inhabitants of this area had spoken Germanic languages, the term Germanic was an invention whose use in Caesar’s case was probably based on mainly political motivations. In reality, the “Teutons” themselves probably did not have a strong sense of belonging to one another; if they did at all, they probably saw themselves as members of the tribe or, even more likely, merely as members of their own village or family community. Nevertheless, the term “Germanic” has become a collective term for the tribes between the Rhine and the Danube, and for this reason it will be used as such in this work, knowing that it is mostly fiction. Only for the most part, because there are also indications of a distinctive linguistic – which has already been pointed out – as well as cultural connection of the tribes described as Germanic to each other, which at least partially justify the Germanic concept. Steuer also points out that “many an archaeologist advises to continue using the term Germanic, for all its critical distance, because of its general intelligibility.” (Steuer 2021, p. 28, see also pp. 30-32. on the linguistic definition of the Germanic concept and from p. 30 on Caesar’s Germanic concept). In this context, I will take the same position as Steuer regarding the term Germanic: “Despite these concerns, […] I will […] also [speak] of Germanic and Germanisch as well as of Germania. There are otherwise problems with the words to be chosen and with the scientific literature to this day, which does not dispense with these designations.” (ibid., p.33).

The concept of the Limes is similarly problematic, as has already been indicated. For this reason, this paper will begin with a brief examination of the concept of the Limes as it is understood today. Despite the change from the interpretation of the Limes as a military defense fortification to a zone of cultural and economic exchange, the border fortifications certainly also possessed military functions and strategic significance. In this context, it makes sense to take a closer look at these aspects for a better understanding of the border as such.

The following chapter will deal with the actual cultural contact and the nature of the same. The focus here is obviously on the cultures of the Limes zone and how they influenced each other, which is why it is worth taking a closer look at the cultural network of the Limes zone before and after the arrival of the Romans. Special attention will be paid to the Roman-Germanic relations and to what extent one can speak of a Romanization of the population of the Limes zone. The types of cultural contact, especially trade and – to a lesser extent – diplomacy, will also be examined.

The paper is rounded off by a short review of the most important points of the investigation and a conclusion on the role of the Limes with regard to the cultural contact between Romans and Germanic tribes and the Romanization of the Limes zone. The current state of research, as far as it emerges from the research in the context of this work, is also briefly presented and an outlook on possible future research perspectives is given.

2 On the concept of the Limes

Benjamin Isaac already demonstrated in his essay published in 1988 that the use and thus also the meaning of the term limes had changed over time – from the early imperial period to late antiquity. Originally, the limes probably only meant a road with the purpose of military movement, reconnaissance and securing supplies. This road could have been secured with watchtowers and forts or similar, but it was de facto not an actively contested or defended border between two opposing powers of any kind (cf. Isaac 1988, p. 126 f.). It was not until around the year 100 AD that an understanding of the term as a kind of border gradually became established, although there was never any talk of a “hermeneutically sealed”, militarily fortified bulwark. These borders could be secured by military installations afterwards, but the term limes in itself would have nothing to do with a military defense position – the interpretation which was preferred in the older research – as the use of the same not only for the description of the outer borders of the Roman Empire, but also of provincial borders, makes clear (cf. ibid., p. 128 f.).

From the 4th century on, according to Isaac, the term was also used in the sense of a frontier zone (cf. ibid., p. 132), an interpretation that Whittaker already finds in the imperial period. To explain his definition of the term, the author refers to two English terms for frontier, “frontier” and “boundary”: the former focuses on the borders of (one’s own) society and their expansion, probably to be understood in a spatial-political as well as in an economic sense, the latter on the relations between societies on this side and on the other side of the border. For a holistic study of the borders of the Roman Empire in general, and thus of course of the Lower Germanic and Upper Germanic-Rhaetian Limes in particular, both perspectives must be included, since although the Roman Empire nominally had borders marked by boundary stones or the like, these were merely part of a dynamic transition zone that manifested itself on both sides of these borders (cf. Whittaker 2004, pp. 5f.). In this context, Whittaker defines the term limes as “the land that forms the furthest extent of a country’s settled or inhabited region” (ibid., p. 6), i.e. clearly not as a borderline, but as a border zone that is also populated.

Whittaker addresses this population and points out that, according to Strabo, the gentes (tribes, peoples) beyond the imperial borders also fell within the empire’s sphere of influence. Strabo even goes so far as to claim that these peoples of the periphery belonged to the empire, even if their land was not nominally organized into provinces (cf. Whittaker 1997, p. 16). It was not until the death of Augustus that actual borders of the empire were recognized at all (cf. ibid., p. 35); before that, a certain sense of “empire without borders” (imperium sine finem) seemed to prevail (cf. ibid. p. 32), although this remained an important component of Roman ideology in relation to borders and to expansion even after Augustus (cf. ibid., p. 36). This means that, in a sense, people did not want to accept that Rome’s power knew borders at all (cf. ibid., p. 68), not even in a geographical sense, which may have contributed to the fact that the limes remained relatively open and thus permeable in both directions, which has already been briefly referred to in the introduction and will be discussed in more detail in chapter 4.

The investigation of the cultural contact in the area of the Limes can therefore not be limited to the course of the military installations along the borders of the provinces, but must also include the areas directly in front of and behind the border, i.e. the entire border zone, and perhaps even beyond. For the time being, however, it is still appropriate to consider these military installations, which had led to the misunderstanding of the Limes as a mere defensive installation against the barbarians, because these were also part of the border area and influenced the life of the local population.

3 The Limes as a military border

As already mentioned in the introduction, the view of the Limes as a mere military defense structure is now considered outdated. Von Schnurbein rightly points out that the border fortifications were more a demarcation line than a strategically valuable obstacle against invading Germanic tribes (cf. Von Schnurbein 1992, p. 72). Nevertheless, it cannot be denied that in the case of the Upper Germanic-Rhaetian Limes certain fortifications – for example in the form of palisades (in the case of the Rhaetian Limes later even walls (cf. Wesch-Klein 2012, p. 119)), ditches and watchtowers – existed over long stretches and that these were secured by a network of forts connected by roads. However, not too much importance may be attached to the actual defensive quality of these fortifications, as they hardly constituted an obstacle for a determined force, also due to the fact that their sheer length made the effective defense of the entire complex impossible. The real strategic value lay in the communication network provided by the towers, which were in visual contact with each other, and roads, which could be used to notify the garrisons within the nearby forts, which could then intercept intruders (cf. Steuer 2021, p. 1023). In contrast to the Upper Gemanian-Rhaetian Limes, the border of the Roman province Germania Inferior remained a “wet” border along the Rhine, which was relatively “easy to secure”. Here, there were also forts in the immediate hinterland of the border, whose garrisons could be used for security in case of an invasion (cf. ibid., p. 1025).

One of the functions of the border fortifications was thus to secure the Roman provinces and their population. However, they also served other purposes. Another function was probably the marking of a border between the Empire and Barbaricum according to international law. The term limes is obviously used here in the sense of the border line, visible on the military installations. In addition, the border fortifications were used both for the control of people and goods crossing the border and the collection of taxes and customs duties, as well as for the defense of the empire against smaller groups of warriors. Wesch-Klein rightly points out that the Limes was not a static border, and that the border fortifications were moved several times over the course of time, often due to current incidents. For example, an advance of the Upper Germanic-Rhaetian Limes is associated with the Batavian Revolt in Lower Germania: the intention was to create the possibility of a faster and more efficient response to Germanic threats in the future by moving the border further inland. However, a “clear, conspicuous demarcation of Roman territory from the settlement area of ethnic groups living in front of it was omitted” (cf. Wesch-Klein 2012, pp. 119-120). This border demarcation makes it clear that the Limes certainly also played a role as a strategic means of combating acute threats and preventing future incursions into imperial territory.

Steuer also assumes that border shifts were related to the inhabitants on the other side of the border. According to him, an earlier shift of the Limes into Upper Germania and Rhaetia, away from the previous, wet border at the Rhine and Danube, can sometimes be explained by an increased appearance of Germanic settlers in these areas. Other reasons, such as the “shortening of the line […] or the useful gain of fertile farmland” are also cited, but regardless of their weighting, a certain “pressure” seems to have emanated from the new settlers, which Rome countered with several border changes in the first two centuries after Christ (cf. Steuer 2021, p. 1024). What was meant by this pressure was probably a perceived threat emanating from the Germanic tribes on the other side of the border, which made a border shift necessary for the purpose of better surveillance from the point of view of the Roman Empire. However, these Germanic tribes were not only to be found beyond the Limes, but also in the forts as part of the garrisons that were deployed to secure the border (cf. ibid., p. 1029) and probably also in some civilian settlements, such as those of the Neckarsueben (cf. Pohl 2010, p. 18).

Despite the Germanic threat, “In the 2nd century […] relative calm prevailed for a long time on the Germanic frontier,” at least until the outbreak of the Marcomannic Wars. After Marcus Aurelius’ victory over the Marcomanni and Quades, his son, Commodus, made peace with those tribes, whereupon they became relatively “predictable partner[s] of the empire,” which also led to an increased emergence of Roman imports compared to other areas of Magna Germania. Pohl speaks of a “relatively strongly Romanized ruling class” and reports an increasing settlement of Germanic tribes on the Roman side of the Limes. Despite this partner relationship between Marcomanni and Quades on the one side and Romans on the other, the preceding conflicts led to the expansion and strengthening of Rome’s military presence on the border (cf. ibid., p. 25 f.).

That this assessment of the situation as a threat was not completely wrong is shown by the forays of the Germanic tribes into the territory of the empire. Apart from the prospect of booty, another reason for the invasions seemed to have been the search for new settlement areas. Steuer attributes this, among other things, to a “population pressure” in the interior (cf. Steuer 2021, p. 1045).

In general, however, warlike conflicts between Germanic peoples who settled near the Limes were rare, since they benefited from the economic development that accompanied the prosperity of Roman civilization and the needs of the Roman army. If there were armed conflicts, forays or even invasion-like incursions of larger warrior troops or even whole armies, these were mainly carried out by the associations from the interior, which profited less from the frontier economy (cf. ibid., p. 1049).

Wesch-Klein aptly sums up the military aspect of the Upper Germanic-Rhaetian Limes as a “well-monitored border line”, the laying of which mainly served the “self-protection of the Romans against unwelcome attacks”. Nevertheless, it was not a “defensive structure” capable of fending off larger Germanic warrior troops or even invading armies. However, the complex network of forts connected by patrolled roads in the immediate hinterland of the limes was an efficient means of transmitting news in the event of such an incursion, which could then be quickly reported, whereupon adequate troops could be mobilized in the legionary camps of the provinces to intercept the invaders (cf. Wesch-Klein 2012, p. 131).

Thus, within the framework of this study, it should be sufficiently shown that the Limes, especially in the south, also had a military role. This does not mean, however, as has been mentioned several times, that the Limes stopped the cultural exchange between the Empire and Barbaricum. Rather, it directed this exchange into channels that were easier for the Romans to control without noticeably weakening its intensity. The Germanic garrison crews mentioned above are also partly responsible for this, as they brought Roman goods and ideas to Germania, as will be shown in the following chapter. The Romanization of certain social strata of Germanic tribes mentioned in the context of the Marcomannic Wars is a phenomenon that can also be observed at the Lower Germanic and Upper Germanic-Rhaetian Limes, and which may even be considered characteristic of the Roman-Germanic borderlands.

4 The Limes as a Medium of Cultural Exchange

4.1 Cultures of the Limes Zone

Whittaker assumes that a border zone, in contrast to a border line, “integrates those who are culturally diverse” (Whittaker 1997, p. 73). In relation to the Limes in the Germanic provinces and Rhaetia, this means that an essential characteristic of the Limes was the cultural contact and exchange between Romans and Germanic tribes and, in part, probably also Celts. In general, the “Germanic” provinces must be assumed to have a heterogeneous population consisting of Celts, Germanic tribes, and immigrants from other parts of the empire (cf. Spieckermann 2008, p. 307).

Especially with regard to the Lower Germanic Limes, which followed the course of the Lower Rhine, it makes sense to point out that the river itself, contrary to what was postulated by the Romans (as by Caesar mentioned in the introduction), never represented a border between cultures. In the centuries around the birth of Christ, both Germanic and Celtic peoples were to be found on both sides of the Rhine. The same applies, of course, to the area where the Upper Germanic-Rhaetian Limes was later to run. Here, too, different ethnic groups lived, and the erection of the border fortifications did not change this much (cf. Whittaker 1997, p. 74). On the territory of the provinces Germania Superior and Raetia Germanic settlement traces can be proved relatively early, according to Frank since the 2nd century BC, next to the “long-established” Celts (cf. Frank 1997, p. 69). Similarly as these Germanic tribes had not displaced the Celts from South and Central Germany, but coexisted with them, the Romans did not displace the Celts and Germanic tribes from the provinces of Lower Germania, Upper Germania and Rhaetia. Untransgressible cultural borders existed neither before nor after the arrival of the Romans in these regions (cf. Whittaker 1997, p. 74).

In contrast to the ethno-cultural diversity of the limes zone is the relatively low population density of the border areas in the Roman imperial period, at least on the Germanic side. The immediate foothills of the Rhaetian Limes seemed to have been virtually settlementless for a long time, and there were hardly any settlers at the Upper Germanic Limes either, at least according to the archaeological finds. Roman historiography also does not mention any tribal names for the few groups located in this area (apart from the already mentioned Neckarsueben on the Roman side of the border), which could speak for their small number, but also for a lack of strategic relevance from the Roman point of view. Unlike the aforementioned Marcomanni before their pacification by Marcus Aurelius, these few settlers seemed to have lived in peaceful coexistence with the population on the Roman side of the Limes, as evidenced by “numerous Roman imported pieces.” These were apparently so widespread that they were found “in practically every Germanic homestead,” which could speak for distinct trade relations. Under certain circumstances, the Roman goods could have found their way to Germania in the luggage of Germanic mercenaries in the service of the Roman army, for example those who were stationed in the forts along the Limes, or they could even have been loot. Frank, however, seems to consider the latter more unlikely, since he only speaks of “isolated pieces of booty” (cf. Frank 1997, 69-72).

According to Whittaker, the foreland of the Lower Germanic Limes on the Germanic side seemed to be similarly sparsely populated, whereby it should be emphasized that the southern bank seems to have been quite densely populated, even by Germanic tribes, the Batavians and Cananefates, who provided or had to provide auxiliary troops for the Romans. According to the author, this lack of population was also one of the reasons why the Limes in Lower Germania was not moved forward, as in the case of the Upper Germanic Limes. From the point of view of the Romans, it probably did not make sense to go further north, since the costs of the conquest and the associated difficulties in supplying the army, as well as the administrative costs of the economic development that followed the conquest, were not worth the increase in territory (cf. Whittaker 1997, p. 88 f.), an assessment that is reminiscent of Tiberius’ position on the campaigns of Germanicus, and to which reference has already been made in the introduction.

Frank counters, however, that the foreland of the Lower Germanic Limes was “densely populated throughout the Roman imperial period” and that Germanic settlements were located close to, practically opposite, the “Roman settlements and military camps. According to him, many of the auxiliary units released from service also settled in this area (cf. Frank 2008, p. 9). Von Schnurbein admits that the area of the Upper Germanic-Rhaetian Limes may not have been as empty of settlements as previously assumed and refers to the intensive forestry, which both before and during the expansion of the limes installations in some regions (specifically the example of Giessener Becker is mentioned here) indicates a higher population density (cf. Von Schnurbein 1992, p. 76).

As far as civilian settlement on the Roman side of the limes is concerned, the extent of this is also still debated. Around the forts, settlements of the civilian followers of the garrisons often developed, which could also evolve into villages and towns over time (see also Spieckermann 2008, p. 309). Where the population ultimately came from and how it is to be classified ethnically and culturally, however, remains controversial. Tacitus refers to an influx from Gaul into the Decumate region (cf. Von Schnurbein, p. 77). Spieckermann confirms that even under Emperor Domitian there was an influx from Gaul and describes the extent of the same as “considerable” (Spieckermann 2008, p. 309). Later, from the 2nd century AD onwards, the settlement became much more dense, which could be explained by the immigration of inhabitants from other parts of the empire into the Germanic province and the settlement of veterans (cf. Von Schnurbein, pp. 77-79).

Thus, while the question of population density does not seem to have been conclusively resolved, based on the current state of research, one can at least assume a heterogeneous population of the limes zone both before and after the establishment of the Romans in Central Europe, regardless of how many people actually lived there. There is even some evidence that the ethnic and cultural diversity in these areas increased due to the influx from other parts of the empire and the settlement of veterans (cf. ibid., p. 79). As has already been alluded to, of particular interest to this study are the interactions of Germanic peoples and Romans with each other, on both sides of the border. The nature of these interactions and how they influenced the lifeworld of the natives will be examined in the following.

4.2 Trade and Diplomacy as Forerunners of Roman Culture

As has already been reported, Roman goods were found in almost all Germanic settlements in the limes zone and there are several possible routes by which these products could have reached Germania. Steuer divides Magna Germania into three areas or zones that were penetrated to varying degrees by Roman goods, from which conclusions can be drawn about the relationship between Romans and Germanic tribes in each area. The area immediately in front of the Limes was characterized by continuous “contact” and trade, while the zone beyond the Limes was mainly characterized by diplomatic relations with the Romans, which could also include gifts from Rome, and by exchange with the Germanic tribes “close to the Limes”. Further inland in Germania, in Steuers third zone, Roman goods were found mainly due to loot and not due to trade contacts or diplomatic connections, as in the zones closer to the Roman Empire (cf. Steuer 2021, p. 1040). By the way, not only material products but also ideas had come to Germania in this way (cf. ibid., p. 1033).

To this combination of trade, diplomacy and raids as ways of Roman goods and ideas into the Germanic world should be added the possibility of transferring both products and “technology and way of life” by returning Germanic mercenaries to their homeland (cf. Bücker 1997, p. 135). Germanic peoples within the Roman provinces, for example the Batavians in Lower Germania, slowly adapted to Roman life, but without completely renouncing the traditional. Traditional dwelling stable houses were “supplemented by stone foundations” instead of being completely demolished and rebuilt in Roman style. This change was also accompanied by military service, which many Batavians now performed in the Roman army (cf. Steuer 2021, p. 1033 f.). Even parts of the “rural population” had learned to read and write in the course of this limited Romanization, by the way (cf. ibid., p. 1049). However, Spieckermann also confirms that this was a lengthy process and that the Batavians retained large parts of their traditional way of life over a long period of time. Only “veterans and traders” lived in the more Romanized cities, while most of the tribe continued to live in the countryside, where the traditional native way of life prevailed. Further south in the province and in Germania Superior, however, the Roman way of life seemed to assert itself more quickly than in the north among the Batavians (cf. Spieckermann 2008, p. 307 f.).

Of particular interest for the limes zone and thus for this study is cross-border trade, which according to Steuer was characteristic for the border zone. Whittaker explains this, among other things, by the necessity of supplying the border troops (cf. Whittaker 1997, p. 113 f.). On the Lower Rhine, “cattle, horses, and sheep” were exchanged for grain. Apparently, a shortage of the same prevailed in Germania, Whittaker refers in this context to comments of Caesar and Tacitus in relation to the unwillingness of the Germanic tribes to cultivate land and to a population increase in the 2nd century AD, and this shortage led to what the author calls a symbiotic relationship between the cattle-raising Germanic tribes north of the Rhine and the intensive agricultural Roman provincial population south of the Rhine (cf. ibid., p. 118). Whittaker assumes that this border trade between Romans (often probably members of the Roman military) and natives on both sides of the border led to the formation of a new socio-economic system in the area of the Limes, which characterized life there (cf. Whittaker 2004, p. 89).

Evidence has been found along the Danube Limes in Marcomannic areas that Roman soldiers maintained outposts within Germania and that Roman traders were also to be found among the Germanic tribes, especially in princely or manor houses. These traders exchanged Roman goods for local goods, including amber and grain. There are also signs of such outposts on the Middle Rhine, although less clearly, since only Roman pottery was found here (cf. ibid., p. 116 f.). Also on the Lower Rhine, more precisely in the Ruhr area, there are indications that there had been Roman outposts and even entire merchant settlements on both sides of the river (cf. Steuer 2021, p. 1053).

However, the extent to which this trade took place has not yet been conclusively clarified. Erdrich contradicts what he sees as the popular thesis of intensifying border trade at the Lower Rhine in the course of the imperial period and associates the presence of Roman goods in northwestern Germania with “Rome’s foreign and security policy decisions” rather than with trade (cf. Erdrich 2012, p. 328). According to Erdrich, trade had no significant influence on Germanic life beyond the Limes (cf. Erdrich 2012, p. 310), apart from various types of relations – also of a diplomatic nature, which, as has already been mentioned, could also include the handing over of gifts – with the upper classes, which will be discussed in more detail. These relations are also seen here as an indication of the difficulties in the actual defense of the border: Instead of securing the Limes sufficiently with troops, which was especially difficult during crises in other regions of the empire, allies were sought beyond the border (cf. ibid. p. 320). According to the author, the frisii minores, who were often in diplomatic relations with the empire and whose settlement area at times (beyond 9 AD) even nominally belonged to the empire and maintained very close economic ties with Lower Germania and the Cananefates native to that region, represented a certain exception as far as border trade was concerned. In this context, however, it must be mentioned that Erdrich speculates whether, under these circumstances, the territory of the frisii minores may not or even must not be considered part of Germania Inferior. The economic and diplomatic contacts would then still be strictly speaking cross-border, if one accepts the Rhine as the border of the empire, but the diplomatic or economic partners would have been de facto part of the empire. In this case, by the way, it would be an area that was not opened up by military but by economic and diplomatic means. It should also be mentioned that Erdrich does not see the appearance of Roman goods (“utilitarian pottery”) in Germania as the “work of traders”, but only speaks of an “opening of the previously almost hermeneutically closed imperial border” (cf. ibid., p. 326). In which other way the objects reached the northwest of Germania after this opening of the border is not explained at this point. Also the image of the hermeneutic border, which is opened when needed, is questionable in the context of the image of the Limes as a dynamic and permeable socio-cultural, as well as economic transition zone.

That there were relations of a diplomatic and economic nature between the Roman Empire and the inhabitants of Magna Germania should in any case have become obvious, even if their extent and intensity is disputed. This problem and whether these relations led to a Romanization of the limes zone and its population and, if so, to what extent, will now be discussed in conclusion.

4.2.1 Acculturation or Assimilation? Romanization in the Limes Zone

What is Romanization? Romanization, according to Steuer, is “about material goods that imitated Roman things, about Roman customs, illustrated in the eating and drinking utensils in the ‘princely tombs,’ in cultural influences […], in the organization of larger military formations, and apparently also in the cultic sphere through the adaptation of Roman statues of gods to their own deities.” (Tax 2021, p. 1032). This was often not only “an adoption, but a transformation,” illustrated by the example of the (older) Futhark, the first Germanic characters, which (probably to a large extent) were inspired by the Latin alphabet (cf. ibid. f., on the origin of the runes cf. among others Düwel 20084, chapter 9).

Unfortunately, all aspects of Romanization listed by Steuer cannot be dealt with here due to lack of space; instead, the study will focus on the effect of this complex process on the local population, especially in the area of cultural change as a whole, insofar as this took place. Helpful here is a look at Spieckermann’s phases of Romanization in the Germanic provinces. Dividing these phases chronologically into three periods, “1. the formative period from the conquest to ca 70 AD; 2. the phase of consolidation until ca 150 AD; and 3. the heyday and phase of intensive ‘self-Romanization (Romanisation) until the fall of the Limes in 230/260 AD.” (Spieckermann 2008, p. 307). It can be assumed that the so-called “fall of the Limes” in Raetia and Upper Germania was less relevant for the Romanization process in Lower Germania. In the Gallic (Celtic) parts of Germania Superior this process seems to have been faster than in the Limes zone, among other things due to preceding cultural contact with the “Greeks, Etruscans and Romans” (cf. ibid.). According to Spieckermann, the Romanization was mainly driven by the military and in this context by “the integration of the local elites”, a procedure that will be returned to shortly (cf. ibid., p. 308). Later, the military is even described as a “school for Roman culture and values” in the context of the progressive Romanization of the provinces in the 2nd century AD and the associated increased recruitment of locals. “Eating habits and “grave luxury” were adopted by the provincial population in this way. The latter also included funerary reliefs, which were adopted, for example, by the elite of the Celtic population native to Mainz (cf. ibid., p. 309).

Pohl also assumes that in parts of the areas occupied by the Romans and settled by Germanic ethnic groups, one can certainly speak of a progressive process of Romanization, for example in the case of many groups on the left bank of the Rhine in the province of Germania Inferior (cf. Pohl 2010, p. 29). Among others, the already mentioned Cananefates should be emphasized here due to their role as auxiliary troops for Rome (cf. Erdrich 2012, p. 309). Also the pottery, which was produced in this area, slowly changed under the influence of the Romans compared to the Frisians settling north of the imperial border (cf. ibid. 306 f.).

It is now necessary to verify whether the process of Romanization taking place in the provinces can also be transferred to the limes zone itself. As already described in the previous chapter on the basis of Steuer’s division of Magna Germania into different zones, Roman influence varied depending on how close the corresponding zone was to the Roman Empire. Whittaker’s division into areas of varying degrees of penetration of Roman goods, and thus of Roman culture and Romanization, is similar: one area, described as “Vorlimes,” which was also penetrated by Roman imported goods at the level of everyday objects (as examples, “ceramics, wine, and probably wheat” are mentioned here), and an area further inland, into which only the more valuable “prestige objects of bronze, glass, and silver” entered. In the case of the prelimes, most of the Roman goods were confined to the upper class dwellings referred to as “manor”, which Whittaker takes as an indication that “Roman occupation reinforced local aristocracies beyond the frontier” and the socially lower classes benefited less from Rome’s economic and cultural influence, an assumption we have already encountered in the context of the Marcomannic Wars. Nevertheless, it must be pointed out that these imported goods, even in the pre-Limes area, were relatively few in number compared to the Roman-Germanic provinces, and therefore we cannot speak of a complete Romanization of the population of these areas, nor of one comparable to the Roman provinces. The main recipients of Roman influences were the socially better off, the chiefs, kings and princes and their entourage, while the bulk of the population was influenced to a lesser extent or in some cases probably not at all (cf. Whittaker 1997, pp. 122-125). Whittaker adds to this in a later work that the regions closer to the border – especially in the Frisian tribal area – would be subject to a continuous influx of Roman imported goods, while further inland these tended to occur in waves in phases. This phenomenon can possibly be attributed to the return of auxiliary troops instead of intensive trade contacts, as in the case of the Frisians (cf. Whittaker 2004, p. 16). The close relationship between at least the frisii minores and Rome has already been pointed out by Erdrich. Also the view that Roman goods appear in the interior only in phases coincides with Erdrich’s assumption that they reached Germania as diplomatic gifts in times of crisis. The latter aspect, of course, differs from Whittaker’s assumption that Roman objects reached Germania in the luggage of returning auxiliary troops, but the two approaches are not mutually exclusive.

Although the number of Roman goods on the Roman side of the Limes was larger than on the Germanic side, they were the same kind of objects, namely predominantly those of everyday use. This means that – similar to “free” Germania – the majority of the population under Roman administration also did not benefit from the luxury and prestige goods of the empire: ” […] in the range of goods they used, they resembled each other more than they did their own upper classes” (Whittaker 1997, p. 127 f.). This division into a social upper and lower class, characterized by the unequal distribution of these luxury and prestige goods, is thus consistently evident on both sides of the Limes: Germanic mansions as well as Roman villas on both sides of the border contain these goods, while the socially lower classes were limited to everyday objects, not only of Roman but also of Germanic make (the specific example Whittaker uses here refers to pottery associated with the Frisii and found in settlements on both sides of the Lower Germanic Limes) (cf. ibid., p. 128). In this context, with regard to the limes zone, it seems more appropriate to speak of a social prosperity boundary that ran through the society on both sides of the border, rather than an actual geographical prosperity boundary, which Wesch-Klein points out (Wesch-Klein 2012, p. 120).

Whittaker sums up the social situation at the Limes when he reports that “the rural population on either side of the frontier zones was apparently little affected by Roman culture, while the native leaders were as tied to the Roman economy as were the Roman urban and military classes.” (ibid., p. 129). Steuer confirms this by pointing out that Roman jewelry, i.e. prestige goods, was found beyond the Limes in Germania, but that “despite the close proximity” they were “different worlds.” Only among the elite a more profound change took place, which was shown, among other things, by their ability to speak and write Latin (cf. Steuer 2021, p. 1034.) Roman finds make up “only a small fraction in the context of the other finds in the settlements of Germania,” and one can speak of no or only very limited Romanization among the lower social classes, even in the immediate run-up to the Limes (cf. Steuer 2021, p. 1035.). Steuer summarizes this as follows: “The Teutons gladly adopted many things from the Roman world […] but they did not want to become Romans.” (ibid., p. 1037).

Erdrich also implies, as has already been shown, that the influence and intensity of trade across borders and, in this context, Romanization should not be overestimated (cf. Erdrich 2012, p. 306 f.). Overall, notable trade was virtually nonexistent until the second half of the second century AD, and even then it seemed to be largely related to the Marcomannic Wars of Marcus Aurelius. Even among the Cananefates settling south of the Rhine on imperial territory, an adoption of Roman pottery began relatively late and then only partially; Germanic pottery was still preferred, an assessment which directly contradicts Pohl’s previous commentary on the pottery of the Cananefates (cf. ibid., p. 321 f.). According to Erdrich, at least as far as northwestern Germania is concerned, Roman wares found themselves in Germania mainly due to “foreign and security policy decisions of Rome in times of profound domestic and military crises”, which entailed either military interventions, such as the Marcomannic Wars, or intensified diplomatic contact (cf. ibid. p. 328).

5 Conclusion

As mentioned in the introduction, the image of the Limes has changed considerably in recent decades with regard to its function. Although most seem to agree that the limites in the Germanic provinces and Rhaetia were not the military bulwarks they were once thought to be, and that the limes did allow for cultural contacts, there is disagreement about their nature. While Steuer and Whittaker see trade as the main medium of cultural transfer, Erdrich strongly rejects this, and sees the appearance of Roman cultural goods of a material and ideological nature in Germania rather as an indication of a Roman foreign policy designed for security and crisis management. It is certain that Roman goods and ideas reached Germania in a variety of ways, including trade and diplomacy, as well as “souvenirs” of Germanic mercenaries and as spoils of war, only their weighting seems not yet entirely clear.

Also not conclusively clarified with regard to the cultural contacts in the limes zone, but for obvious reasons of high importance, is the question of the exact ethno-cultural composition before, as well as after the arrival of the Romans in the later border zones and the population density. There seems to be agreement only that even before the Romans there were heterogeneous populations, and that these were composed of both Germanic and Celtic cultures. How exactly these individual peoples stood to each other and to Rome, in which relationship and in which relation, could contribute to a better understanding of the influence of the limites on the lifeworld of the natives. This is especially true for the Upper Germanic-Rhaetian Limes, from which, compared to the Lower Rhine, we know relatively little information regarding the peoples and their relationships to each other and to Rome.

Regardless of the type of population, there seems to be some agreement that Roman influence was relatively low overall, on both sides of the border. Moreover, Romanization was for the most part limited to the elite, while the lower social strata remained largely untouched by the civilizing achievements of Rome. Steuer mentions that B. Bleckmann speaks of “an intertwining between the Roman and Germanic worlds,” that is, that an “interweaving of cultures” took place (cf. Steuer 2021, p. 1033). Despite this intertwining in some areas, the traditional Germanic way of life persisted in many places, even in the Roman provinces.

Steidl speaks of the Limes as a “sharp dividing line between two completely different cultural systems” (ibid., p. 1055). Galsterer also speaks in reference to the Rhine in Lower Germania, and thus also in reference to the Limes, of “a cultural border” (Galsterer 2000, p. 20). Whether these statements can be agreed with is questionable in the context of this work. As has already been mentioned, in recent decades the opinion has predominantly prevailed that the limites were permeable and, above all, also dynamic border zones, which were not intended to suppress trade and cultural exchange, but to control and steer them. The extent to which this exchange, both cultural and economic, had taken place, however, seems less clear, as is evident from a comparison of Erdrich’s, Steuer’s, and Whittaker’s positions. That certain social strata of the inhabitants of Magna Germania and the Germanic provinces, as well as the Rhaetian province, were closely related to the Roman Empire seems obvious. With regard to these elites, one can certainly speak of a certain process of Romanization. As far as the lower social strata are concerned, such an evaluation is much more difficult and an answer, if such an answer can be given at all at the present time, must differentiate, similar to what has already been done by Whittaker and Steuer. Germanic peoples (and Celts) who lived near the Limes obviously came into more intensive and frequent contact with Roman culture than was the case with the inhabitants further inland of Germania. However, even among the population near the Limes, Romanization seemed to be strongly limited, this applies both to those who lived beyond the Limes and to those who lived within the provinces, even if the latter were admittedly more influenced, at least quantitatively, in the form of Roman goods. Despite all this, the population in the border area seems to have retained basic aspects of their way of life over the centuries, such as the traditional residential stable house, time-honored burial customs, and also other religious customs and traditions.

In the face of this conclusion, the question must be asked what ultimately was the influence of the limes on the cultures of the limes zone, if it had apparently changed so little. The fact that the border fortifications also served a military and strategic purpose has already been presented and must not be forgotten in a holistic view of the borders of the Roman Empire in Germania and Rhaetia. What should also not be underestimated, however, is the influence across the Limes on those members of the upper social classes who were in intensive contact with Rome. For these tribal leaders, princes, chieftains and noblemen were most likely also instrumental in the formation of the new major tribes of Late Antiquity, including the Franks on the Lower Rhine and the Alemanni on large parts of the former territories of Germania Inferior and Raetia. Whittaker had noted that the Germanic elites in the Limes antebellum area differed little, if at all, from the elites within the provinces. Two of the most influential Germanic leaders of the first century AD, as is well known, were the Roman-educated Arminius and his Marcomannic counterpart Marobodus, who had also enjoyed a Roman education. Can this assimilation of the social upper class of Germania near the Limes to the Roman elite be seen as the beginning of the Germanic imitation of the Roman Empire, culminating in the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation? This would be an interesting question for a study of the development of these relations in late antiquity and their influence on the tribes that remained in the area that would later become the empire.

For this work, however, the conclusion must suffice that the Limes or the Limes zone had no great influence on the majority of the native population, whether Celtic or Germanic. Only among the upper classes a cultural change took place as a result of the cultural contact with Rome. The socially lower classes on both sides of the border continued to live largely in the same way as they had before the arrival of the Romans, except for the introduction of some new utensils or changes in pottery. Germania remained for the most part culturally Germanic and the frontier zones remained heterogeneous, although the ethno-cultural composition changed due to the arrival of new settlers from other parts of the empire, although the extent to which this circumstance changed life there remains unclear. Further research on the ethnic and cultural diversity of the limes zones during the late imperial period and Late Antiquity could shed light on this issue. Based on the current state of knowledge, however, it must suffice to say that Rome’s influence did have its limits.


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Cover Photo by Cherubino – Own work, CC BY 3.0,


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