top of page
  • Writer's pictureMeirion Harries

DAY FIFTY SEVEN The Germanic Limes

I'm trying to persuade the Race Marshal to read John Lanchester's The Wall but she is currently more interested in a rather large swirl of buttered pastry with home-made hazelnut filling. So, for anyone interested, the mise en scene is Britain after the polar caps have melted and drowned much of the world. The eponymous Wall stands firm on the coastline, holding back the sea. Shoot-to-kill conscripts man the Wall, fighting off a rapacious tide of sea-borne refugees.

John Lanchester could have set his novel in Germany in the centuries immediately after Christ: but for the sea, read tide of Germanic tribes. There is a very good aphorism that explains German history. I can't remember it exactly, but the sense is to characterise national boundaries: so for the British - the sea; the French - the land; while Germans are citizens of the air ie. Germany is where a Germanic dialect is spoken. And those boundaries of the air throughout history, and even in our own time, have not stayed put.

At no point have Germanic lands been identical with the boundaries imposed in 1945. When the Frankish (ie. German) Charlemagne was crowned Holy Roman Emperor in 800 AD, his rule extended across much of what is now the European Union.

the Germanic empire at Charlemagne's death in 814 - tributary states in pale green (c)wikicommons

Nine centuries before Charlemagne, the Romans had tried to take these lands. They were successful in the west, but from the moment Caesar characterised his opponents as Germans and built the first bridge across the Rhine to attack them, the legions always struggled.

The famous date in schoolbook history is 9 AD when the great German hero Hermann annihilated three advancing legions under Publius Quinctilius Varus in the forest of Teutoberg. Despite folkloric beliefs, this defeat did not really stop the Romans pushing east: contemporary military maps show very detailed information about the terrain all the way to the Oder River in Poland, well beyond the Elbe.

They never stayed to colonise. More than that, they felt the threat to the empire from the eastern tribes to be so acute that they were forced to build an equivalent of John Lanchester's Wall - or of our own (later) Hadrian's Wall – which held back the unruly Germans for two hundred years, until the middle of the third century.

The Limes Germanicus (Limes here meaning boundary) runs 353 miles from roughly Rotterdam down the south-north-flowing Rhine to Mainz, where the river stops being a significant barrier, and then across open ground to the west-east-flowing Danube at Regensburg. Only the southern and western edges of Germania fell within the Empire: in modern geography, the states of Baden-Württemberg, southern Bavaria, southern Hesse, Saarland and the Rhineland.

the Limes Germanicus overlaid on the modern states of Germany. The Rhine and the Danube are under the black line and the X marks both where we are and the cross-country section between the rivers. All the land east and north of the black line remained German (c)wikicommons

The main worry for Roman strategists was the vulnerable cross-country link between the Rhine and the Danube. This they secured with a line of cross-country fortification, straight except where they utilised a section of the River Main. The Limes Germanicus was simply built, with the resources to hand - earthen banks topped with wooden stakes. Less simple were the 900 watchtowers and 60 strategically-positioned brick forts to house ever-ready infantry and cavalry. Though essentially a mound, ditch and stakes, the Limes is still considered the world's second longest built structure behind only the Great Wall of China. When the sun is low and shadows cast, it too may be visible from space with the naked eye.

a reconstructed watchtower (c)wikicommons

Our cake stop, Crailsheim, lies just outside the lands that were once Roman - but yesterday we crossed into the Empire at the town of Aalen (pausing at a sports shop called Decathlon, to renew my lycra). I rather like Aalen but when Edward Robinson, whose maps of ancient Israel inspired modern biblical archaeology, visited Aalen in 1827 he was horrified:

Aalen is one of the most singular, dirty and old places I have ever seen. There is but one street - all the rest of the houses stand huddled together, with only narrow crooked lanes between them - and those were full of women sitting at their doors at work. Over the clock of the Rathaus is the figure of a human head with a pipe in its mouth which turns with every swing of the pendulum and produces a ridiculous effect - it is called 'the Spy'.

The 'Spy of Aalen' is now the symbol of the town. The story is that the man with the pipe went to spy on an army that was about to attack the town. He walked into the enemy's camp and announced that he had come to count their cannon and men. His gall apparently so impressed the enemy commander that he spared the town.

If, after weeks in Roman-free Germany, one needed proof of their presence, then the Limes Museum convinces with 1,500 artifacts, displays of Roman life and an archaeological park dotted with columns and statues and the excavated foundations of barracks for the cavalry squadron Ala II Flavia Milliaria. The conserved fortifications are remarkable – and the Germanic Limes as a whole now has UNESCO World Heritage status.

an elegant face guard from the Aalen Limes Museum (c)aalenlimesmuseum

And if you enjoy cycling as much as I clearly do, then you might be happy on the cycle path that runs the length of the Limes. The wonderfully-organised Deutcher Limes Radweg rolls you past watchtowers, forts, Roman baths, moats and palisades and, of course, through an ever-unfolding panorama of regional sausagery.

A nice ten minute film about the Limes -

A twelve minute tour of the town of Aalen -

Music from one of Aalen's famous sons, Carlo Christopher Waibel Simon aka Cro performing in his famous panda mask -

71 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All


bottom of page