Then something dawned upon me. I was in ‘Rome’.
Perhaps far later than I should have, I realized I was living directly on the front lines of one of Rome’s greatest wars! Right here on the Rhine, right where I stood, Rome’s crack Legions fought it out with the Germanic barbarian hordes.
The Germanic tribes had been a royal pain in the ass ever since the Visigoths sacked Rome in 414. The way it was supposed to go was; Rome would come to town, and you were supposed to submit. If you resisted the Romans would destroy your army and carry away your women and children in chains. That was pretty much it. But it seems the Germans never got the memo, they kept fighting.
Well, it might have had something to do with the fact that for about 200 years Rome had been regularly invading Germany. Or maybe Rome’s rich villages just across the Rhine were just too easy pickings for the warlike Germanic tribes to ignore? After too many years of back and forth with the Germans, the Romans had had enough. In 9Ad Emperor Augustus sent General Publius Quintctilius Varus with three legions across the Rhine in to Germany to teach the Germans a lesson they wouldn’t soon forget. Yet, General Varus fell into a trap and at the Battle of the Teutoborg Forest his army was slaughtered nearly to a man. The annihilation of the Seventeenth, Eighteenth and Nineteenth Legions represented a loss of roughly ten percent of Rome’s deployed military strength. The US invaded Iraq in 2003 with about 250,000 troops, so if you can imagine 25,000 of them being surrounded and killed by Iraqi forces over a single weekend, you can get the measure of Rome’s defeat.
As legend goes the loss of Varus’ three legions in the Teutoborg Forest nearly drove Emperor Augustus insane. By then in his mid-70s, he was reported to have walked around the palace tearing at his robes and banging his head against the wall. Ancient sources tell us that his hair grew long and unkempt and for the rest of his years he could be heard to wail at night “Varus, give me back my Legions”! But Varus couldn’t, he fell with his troops in the Teutoborg Forest. Then and there Augustus and the Roman Empire decided once again that they had had enough. Rome had been expanding since its early days and Augustus decided that the Rhine River was as good a northern border as any and if they couldn’t subdue the Germans, they would lock them out and throw away the key. Besides, whats up there anyway other than trees, swamps and wave after wave of big, hairy barbarians?
Rome’s answer was to fortify its border with Germany and give up ever trying to conquer them. Yet it would be utterly impossible to construct a wall running along the entire border. At that time, Rome’s territory in question stretched from Holland to the Slovakia, the distances involved were simply to immense, even for the Romans. The answer was the Limes. Not an actual wall in the ‘Great Wall of China’ sense, but more of a string of mutually supporting border fortresses, castra, anchored by large military cities such as Mianz and Bonn.
The whole Limes system is about is about 350 miles long, contains 60 forts and up to 900 watchtowers. The concept was to have a series of rapid reaction forces permanently stationed on the border ready to deploy in case of a barbarian uprising. If the Germans attacked in one spot, the defenders could hold out long enough for a nearby castra or city to dispatch reinforcements. In most places the Limes consisted of little more than a handful of watchtowers (castellum) behind a raised earth palisade. In other places it was in fact a wall.
Actually, the Limes Germanica was not Rome’s only defensive construction. The Raetian Limes were further to the south near Austria. There were also the famous walls in Britain, Hadrian’s Wall and the Antonine Wall as well as Limes in North Africa and Limes Aribicus in modern-day Syria and Palestine.
However, the best representation of the Limes are found in Germany and the focal point is in a little known place called Saalburg. There, archaeologist working in the 1800s unearthed the foundations of a Roman castra there and set about restoring it to its former glory. You can visit Saalburg today, in 2009 we took a drive and visited as many of the Limes locations as we could. With a bit of imagination, it was not difficult to picture.