A Reminder of the Mighty Roman Empire


What is over 1,900 years old, more than 300 miles [500 km] long, and one of the most magnificent historical monuments of the Roman Empire in Central Europe? The answer: the limes. *

THE limes is the collective name for a series of fortifications built by the Romans in an effort to secure their northern border against Germanic tribes. Today these fortifications testify to the might of the ancient Roman Empire.

The original meaning of the Latin word limes is ‘a man-made path that crosses a territory, dividing it in two.’ The limes was built as a path, or road. It was not originally meant to be a frontier. Once built, however, the limes developed into a frontier. Its construction marked a dramatic turning point in the history of the Roman Empire.

Why Was the Limes Built?

The Germanic tribes on the other side of the northern frontier of the Roman Empire​—a region sometimes called the barbaricum—​were hostile to Rome. In that area, tribes such as the Chatti commonly carried out border raids. The Chatti were fierce warriors, so a military campaign against them would have been costly.

Instead of trying to invade the barbaricum, the Roman army built the limes across it, forming a corridor running at an angle between the Rhine and Danube rivers, through unconquered territory.  In places, this corridor was cut through thick woodland. It was patrolled by soldiers, thus offering travelers relatively safe passage.

At first, the Romans simply made a broad pathway. In time, wooden towers that could accommodate soldiers were built along the road. Each tower was built within sight of the next. Alongside the road, a nine-foot [2.7 m]-high palisade of pointed wooden stakes was built as well. Afterward, a rampart and trench were constructed. In places, a stone wall and stone watchtowers were added.

In remote regions, more forts were built to house the troops. Finally, by the third century C.E., the limes boundary in Germany was over 300 miles [500 km] long. It included 60 large fortresses and numerous smaller forts. Moreover, guards went out on patrol from at least 900 watchtowers. Some say that these were three stories tall, up to 30 feet [10 m] in height.

Artificial Frontier

Thus, what started as a pathway through enemy land became an artificial frontier. The limes border ran beyond Germany into what is now the Netherlands, as far as the coast of the North Sea. And in Roman England, Hadrian’s Wall and the Antonine Wall were built to secure the border against the Caledonian tribes residing in what is now Scotland.

The limes was never intended to seal the border completely. Gates were built that allowed the population of the barbaricum to cross the limes into the Roman provinces of Rhaetia and Germania Superior. This afforded the people an opportunity to trade goods.

The limes provides evidence of a dramatic reversal of Roman policy. T. W. Potter writes: “To Roman eyes, the  notion that the empire should possess finite boundaries was for many centuries all but inconceivable.” The frontier thus marked “the beginning of a decisive change in policy, from expansion to retrenchment.”

How Much Still Remains?

By the third century, the long, slow decline of the empire had begun. Eventually the army withdrew from the limes frontier. The fortifications fell into disrepair; stones and timbers were taken for other uses. The frontier of one of the mightiest empires the world had ever seen was soon overgrown and neglected and was gradually forgotten.

However, the end of the 19th century saw growing interest in Roman history and tradition in Germany. Since then, short sections of the limes trench, rampart, and wall have been restored, as well as a few forts and watchtowers. Still, there are large sections that have not been restored, and they are hardly recognizable.

One of the finest reconstructed forts is the Saalburg in the Taunus region, some 25 miles [40 km] from the branch office of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Germany. The fort measures 500 feet by 750 feet [147 m by 221 m] and is surrounded by a moat and a stone wall with watchtowers.  It originally housed about 500 troops. In the center of the fort is its most important building, the headquarters, or the principia.

At the rear of the principia is a shrine where the ensign, or standard, was kept. The booklet Limeskastell Saalburg (Limes Fort Saalburg) states: “The shrine for the standard was dedicated to the patron gods of the Roman Empire and to the worship of the emperor. A guard of honor paraded in front of it by day.” Thus, the limes restorations confirm that religion played a role in military life.

Since this restoration, the limes boundary has become a popular tourist attraction. In many places the route established by the limes is now a footpath for hikers. If you come to Germany, why not take a look for yourself? You will see a striking reminder that sooner or later, even the mightiest of human empires go into decline and disappear.


^ par. 3 In English, the word “limes” as used here is pronounced as if it were spelled “limees.”

[Box/Picture on page 15]


The Roman army was made up of legionnaires, who were Roman citizens, and support troops (auxilia), who were recruited from peoples conquered by the empire. The army’s smallest unit was the contubernium, consisting of some ten soldiers who lived together. Ten contubernia were headed by an officer, the centurion. Sixty centuries made up a legion, which totaled from about 4,500 to 7,000 soldiers.

“An army marches on its stomach,” said Napoléon Bonaparte. Rome recognized this fact long before Napoléon did and fed its troops well. “There was never a mutiny in the Roman army because of bad food,” comments Archäologie in Deutschland. In fact, “in some parts of the Roman world, the food of the troops was of better quality than that of the civilian population.”

Daily rations consisted of fresh meat, fruit, vegetables, wheat bread, and oil. Yet, the soldiers were not spoiled. “The Roman army did not have a cafeteria,” explains the above magazine. Each contubernium had to prepare the food for the soldiers within that group.

After 25 years of military service, a Roman soldier was given an honorable discharge and, in recognition of his service, a sum of money or a plot of land. An auxiliary soldier was granted Roman citizenship for himself and his children. “Service in the Roman army was for many men the quickest way to become a Roman citizen,” reports the book Der Limes zwischen Rhein und Main (The Limes Between Rhine and Main).

[Map/Pictures on page 16, 17]

(For fully formatted text, see publication)


–– Limes frontier

1 Wiesbaden

Palisade and a stone watchtower

2 Butzbach

Wood-frame watchtower with loam walls

3 Weissenburg

North gate of a stone fort

4 Saalburg

One of the finest reconstructed forts

5 Rainau

Wooden tower and a palisade

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