Exploring the Limes Germanicus – images from Rome’s Germanic Frontier

From one end of the empire to another!

The Roman empire encircled the Mediterranean Sea, and beyond that, lay its frontiers. At its height, the empire stretched from the Atlantic Ocean to the Black Sea, through the deserts of the Middle East to the Red Sea, and across North Africa.

The “Limes” represents the border line of the Roman Empire at its greatest extent in the 2nd century AD. It stretched over 5,000 km from the Atlantic coast of northern Britain, through Europe to the Black Sea, and from there to the Red Sea and across North Africa to the Atlantic coast. The remains of the Limes today consist of vestiges of built walls, ditches, forts, fortresses, watchtowers and civilian settlements. The two sections of the Limes in Germany, Hadrian’s Wall and the Antonine Wall are now all inscribed on the World Heritage List as the “Frontiers of the Roman Empire”. (Source UNESCO)

Limes Unesco
© Carole Raddato

The Germanic Limes was a line of frontier fortifications that bounded the ancient Roman provinces of Germania Inferior, Germania Superior and Raetia, dividing the Roman Empire and the unsubdued Germanic tribes from the late 1st century to about AD 260.

Upper Germanic & Raetian Limes (click to zoom)

The Upper German-Raetian Limes extends to a length of 550 km between the Rhine in the north-west (near Rheinbrohl) and the Danube in the south-east (near Regensburg). It consisted of about 900 watchtowers, numerous small forts and over 60 large forts for cohorts and alae (Roman allied military units). Better described as a guarded border line than a military defence system, the Limes enabled traffic to be managed, movement of people to be controlled and goods to be traded and taxed.

Rather than expand, secure… the Limes-Emperors (Trajan, Hadrian & Antoninus Pius).
RömerWelt, Rheinbrohl

Having recently moved from London to Frankfurt, I started to explore the Upper Germanic Limes last October. I followed the Limes Road (Limestrasse), a UNESCO World Heritage site encompassing more than 70 towns and villages along the path, with a whole collection of excavation sites, forts, reconstructed towers and museums. Visiting the entire length of the Limes Road will take a few trips. The section covered in this post is from Rheinbrohl (the northern beginning of the Upper Germanic Limes) to Saalburg Roman Fort, north of Frankfurt in Hesse.

WP 1/1 – Reconstructed Limes Watchtower (not historically correct), Rheinbrohl.
© Carole Raddato

This reconstructed watchtower represents the beginning of the Upper Germanic Limes near Rheinbrohl, the so called “caput limitis“. Unfortunately the first stretch of the Limes and the small fort that protected it have been completely destroyed due to gravel extraction. Limes tower 1/1, which was reconstructed in 1973, is situated about 120m southeastern of its original location on the right bank of the river Rhine.

From there the limes ran eastward away from the Rhine in a wide arc across the Rhine valley plain.

WP 1/37 – Reconstructed two-floored Limes Watchtower (not historically correct), near Oberbieber.
© Carole Raddato

The watchtowers were located close behind the limes in distinctive positions with lines of sight between each other. WP 1/37 (photo above) was constructed in 1970. Its basement was established in stone building method, its upper floor in framework technology with circulating external gallery. The appearance of the tower does not correspond any longer to today’s state of research. The tower gives however a good idea of its favourable location as point of observation and of the general function of the limes as signal system. Along the limes messages could be passed on from tower to tower with fire, smoke or bugle call up to the next fortlet. (Source: Archäologische Denkmalpflege Koblenz)

WP 1/37 – Reconstruction drawing of a Limes watchtower.

From the 2nd century AD, the towers at the limes, first built from wood, were replaced gradually by more rugged stone towers. These usually had a square surface area of 5m by 5m and a height of approximately 10-12m. The entrance was on the first upper floor, which also served as lounge for the 4-8 men strong tower crew. On the ground floor the supplies were probably stored. The guard soldiers in duty stayed on the second upper floor. From the outside gallery they could look out in all directions. The towers were visible far away in the area by their bright colours. (Source and illustration: Archäologische Denkmalpflege Koblenz)

WP 1/68 – Reconstructed three-floored watchtower near Hillscheid.
© Carole Raddato

The reconstructed watchtower 1/68 near Hillscheid  appears to be the most accurately reconstructed Roman tower along the Limes Germanicus today. It was completed in 1994 and its interior was designed as a museum. Roman auxiliary forts and watchtowers were painted in white with red grout.

Reconstructed foundations of the Limes watchtower WP 1/71 near Hillscheid.
© Carole Raddato

Not all watchtowers were fully reconstructed. Some were only partly rebuilt from preserved foundations. This is the case of WP 1/71 (photo above), a square stone tower with 5.60 m on each side and a wall thickness of 100 cm.

WP 2/1 – Reconstructed watchtower 2/1 near Bad Ems, the first and oldest tower constructed at the Limes.
© Carole Raddato

The replica tower WP 2/1 near Bad Ems was built in 1874 in honour of Emperor William I, who was a regular spa guest in Bad Ems. It is the first and oldest reconstruction of a tower at the Limes. The design was inspired by images of watchtowers on the Trajan and Marcus Aurelius’ Columns in Rome and no longer corresponds to the current state of research.

Mould of a relief from the column of Marcus Aurelius in Rome with Limes towers and palisade along the Danube, Limesmuseum Ruffenhofen.
© Carole Raddato
Roman watchtower and beacon on the lower Danube frontier – Detail of plate IV: The watch on the Danube (Scene I) – The Reliefs of Trajan’s Column by Conrad Cichorius (wikipedia).

For a long time, only a strip cleared through the woods existed on the Limes, a patrol track monitored by wooden towers. Under Hadrian, the patrol track along the border was additionally secured with a continuous palisade fence: the Limes line was closed (source: The Roman Limes in Europe, Friedrich Lüth). The preserved wall lines and reconstructed palisade you see on the picture below demonstrates this.

Preserved wall lines and reconstructed palisade near watchtower 2/2.
© Carole Raddato

While there is no reconstructed milecastle on Hadrian’s Wall, you can see an authentic reconstruction of a fortlet at Pohl. It has been reconstructed close to its original position, together with a typical watchtower based on recent research.

The reconstructed Roman fortlet, Limeskastell Pohl.
© Carole Raddato

This reconstructed fort is designed as an open air museum with lots of exhibitions and events. It also functions as an information center as well as a central starting point for many activities in the region.

The reconstructed Roman fortlet, Limeskastell Pohl.
© Carole Raddato
Limeskastell Pohl, reconstructed barrack room.
© Carole Raddato
Reconstructed watchtower (WP 2/23), Limeskastell Pohl.
© Carole Raddato

Today, the Holzhausen fort, now located deep down the forest, is among the very best preserved fort along the Limes. It was erected under Emperor Commodus (180-192 AD) and survived until the abandonment of the Limes in the years 260 AD. The Cohort II Treverorum served as the fort’s garrison. The name of the 500-man unit has been handed through several building inscriptions.

Limeskastell Holzausen, Porta Dextra.
© Carole Raddato

Several stone foundations from the headquarters building (principia) are recognisable in the interior, particularly the semi-circular apsis of the standard’s shrine. The campaign symbols of the troops were stored here, and one also paid tribute to the emperor (photo below).

Limeskastell Holzausen, semi-circular apsis of the standard’s shrine.
© Carole Raddato
The Aides, or shrine, at the centre of the office block on the far side of the headquarters building, where the regimental standards were preserved and kept on display, Saalburg Roman Fort.
© Carole Raddato

The best representation of the Limes is to be found in Saalburg. There, archaeologists working in the late 1800s unearthed the foundations of a Roman fort and set about restoring it to its former glory.

The Porta Praetoria (Main Gate) with statue of Antoninus Pius and inscription referring to Wilhelm II., Saalburg Roman Fort.
© Carole Raddato

Saalburg is a Cohort fort located just North of Frankfurt and is the most completely reconstructed Roman fort in Germany.

The courtyard of the Principia (Headquarters building of the Roman garrison), Saalburg Roman Fort.
© Carole Raddato

After 83 AD a small wooden castle was built on the site where Saalburg Fort stands today. By 135 AD, the wooden fort was converted into a cohort fort with a crew of about 600 men, protected by a wooden palisade and stone watchtowers.

The Porta Principalis Sinistra, Saalburg Roman Fort.
© Carole Raddato
Inside the basilica or entrance hall, Saalburg Roman Fort.
© Carole Raddato

Behind the entry gate to the right lies the granary (horreum) which now serves as a museum. Between the two doors we see the bust of the founder of the Saalburg Museum, Professor Louis Jacobi.

The reconstructed horreum (grain store – granary) now houses the museum, Saalburg Roman Fort.
© Carole Raddato

Numerous photos of the Saalburg fort and the museum can be viewed here.

The varied landscapes through which the Limes line passes, and the fascinating Roman heritage offer great walking and cycling opportunities. Much of the line of the Limes is followed by the Limestrasse road which links many fine traditional towns and villages.

Signposted footpaths deep down the forest
© Carole Raddato

Further photos of the Limes Germanicus can be viewed from my image collection on Flickr.

Links and further reading:

German Limes Commission

Deutsche Limesstraße

Frontiers of the Roman Empire (youtube channel)

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