The Roman Limes

On the frontiers of the Roman world

Two thousand years ago, the northern frontier of the immense Roman Empire runs straight across the current territory of the Netherlands. In Latin, this frontier is referred to as “limes”. The limes extends for thousands of kilometres in total. It runs from the north of England up to the edge of the Sahara Desert in Africa. In the Low Countries, the frontier is formed by the River Rhine.

In order to defend their frontier, the Romans build several watchtowers and army camps. In the vicinity of Nijmegen, a camp is established that can accommodate two legions of six thousand soldiers each. With their tunics, shiny helmets, shields, and swords, the well-trained Roman soldiers must have made quite an impression on the local population. The Roman presence certainly exerts a major influence on the environment. Impressive temples and bathing establishments are erected, and farms are created. Increasingly more land is used for agriculture. The Romans also bring the first written language to the region: Latin. They introduce their own idolatry but also incorporate Germanic gods. At several locations, they erect temples devoted to Hercules Magusanus, a combination of a Roman and Germanic deity. Also, trade flourishes, because in addition to its role as a frontier, the River Rhine also serves as a major transport artery. Supplies and commodities are shipped in.

Attack from the north
To Roman eyes, the uncivilised world commences north of the limes. This area is inhabited by Celtic and Germanic tribes. The limes also evolves into a more symbolic border, which sets a limit to the power of Rome. The direct dominion of the Romans does not extend much farther than the River Rhine, although their initial ambition is to expand their territory. This ambition is thwarted in the year 9 AD, when Germanic troops crush three Roman legions near the Teutoburg Forest, in current Germany.

North of the River Rhine, Roman dominion over Frisian territory continues until 28 AD, when the Frisians successfully revolt against the Roman oppressors. At the Emperor’s command, in 47 AD the Romans start to retreat behind the River Rhine, which thus becomes the natural northern frontier. After the revolt, trade continues as usual, as does the Roman cultural influence on the Frisians.

Roman territory south of the limes also sees revolts against Roman oppression. The best-known example is the Batavian uprising in 69 AD, led by Julius Civilis. For a long time, the Batavians lived in peace with the Romans and even served in the Roman army. However, during the struggle for power that arose after the death of Emperor Nero, Civilis takes charge of an insurrection that the Romans manage to suppress after about a year. Hundreds of years later, during the Eighty Years’ War, the story of this Batavian uprising is used as a source of inspiration for the resistance against Spain.

From the third century AD, the number of Germanic attacks increases considerably. The Romans are forced to leave the limes and eventually retreat behind the Alps. Traces of the Roman era can still be found in the Netherlands. Several locations in the old frontier region date back to Roman times. Furthermore, new artefacts are regularly found. For example, a watchtower and two vessels were discovered during the construction of the new Leidsche Rijn district in the city of Utrecht.