Historical story

Romans in Northern Germany

Archaeologists are increasingly finding remains of Roman military settlements east of the Rhine in Germany. This indicates that the Romans were much more active outside the Limes, the fortified frontier of their empire.

A life-size monument to the Germanic hero Arminius, known in German as Hermann, rises high above the trees of the Teutoburg Forest . In that northern German forest, Hermann and his alliance of Germanic tribes defeated three Roman legions led by General Publius Varus in AD 9.

After the defeat in the Teutoburg Forest the Romans gave up their attempts to conquer Germania and retreated west of the Rhine River. That river then became the Limes , the heavily guarded northern frontier of the Roman Empire.

The monument to Hermann was erected in 1875, a few years after the foundation of the German Empire. So a nationalistic story about a Germanic hero who, centuries ago, drove a bunch of Romans out of the country and made the Germans independent from the Roman yoke, came in handy. Some archaeologists therefore wonder whether too much significance has not been attached to the illustrious battle.

In recent years, more and more indications have been unearthed that the Romans continued to be present east of the Rhine even after the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest. In 2008, for example, revenge expeditions showed that they got much further than expected when a Roman battlefield was found on the Harzhorn, more than 200 kilometers from the Rhine. Recently, there have been more indications of Roman presence in Germany, even after the Limes emerged.

Wooden towers

In 2011, archaeologists discovered six small Roman military bases near the town of Göttingen nearly 200 kilometers from the Rhine. These are fortified wooden towers that were used during campaigns to transmit messages. According to German archaeologists, they were probably built in the first or second century. So far after the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest and after the Romans would have withdrawn behind the Rhine.

According to ancient historian Jona Lendering, the fact that these towers were built is an indication that the Romans continued to stir in the Germanic areas. In addition, they seem to have some sort of semi-permanent character; they were presumably used in more than one campaign.

“This find also indicates that the Romans considered the area around Göttingen safe. After all, they left the towers there when they retreated back to the Rhine. If they did, because nothing precludes the possibility of a full-fledged military base being found in this area and that there was a time when they considered retaking the areas,” says Lendering.

But such a spectacular find has not yet been made at Göttingen. Last year, during the construction of a railway bridge near the German village of Limburg, archaeologists discovered remnants of such a large Roman army base. Limburg is about 35 kilometers north of the Rhine, two big day marches in Roman times. The camp was about fourteen hectares in size and could accommodate at least 3000 soldiers.

The problem is that it is currently difficult for archaeologists to determine exactly how old the discovered army base near Limburg is. Parts of “amphoras” have been found:– jars in which wine was kept, among other things – of a type that was used in the Augustan period (ca. 63 BC – ca. 14 AD). However, the distinctive edge of these amphorae, which can be used for more accurate dating, is missing. Whether the base was immediately evacuated after the Roman defeat in the Teutoburg Forest or was later used to recapture lost territories from the Germanic tribes, it is not yet clear.

Confirmation (update May 7, 2013)

Further archaeological research at the discovered army base near Limburg, east of the Rhine, has shown that it concerns the remains of two different Roman army bases. The oldest camp has a size of about ten hectares. North of it turned out to be a newer camp of about four hectares. In the northern camp, nails have been found that were used in Roman boots. They are unmistakably of a shape and size that was in use during Julius Caesar's campaigns around 50 BC.

This is seen by German archaeologists as a firm confirmation that Julius Caesar was also active east of the Rhine during the period when he conquered Gaul. Caesar himself describes in his war diaries how his army built bridges over the Rhine, but until now there was no archaeological evidence for that story.

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