Frontier stories: The Rhine and Danube

The great rivers of the Rhine and the Danube defined the edge of the Roman Empire in much of Europe.  These great river frontiers were as important for trade, communications and supply both within and across the Empire and with the Empire’s ‘Barbarian’ neighbours as they were for defence or controlling movements of people. They were patrolled by fleets of ships and by forts, signal stations and roads. Important towns developed as commercial centres for trade along the rivers and with the ‘Barbarian’ neighbours. These places have left a rich legacy of archaeological remains giving fascinating insights into the Roman world which in many cases along the Danube continued under the Byzantine Empire of the east.

The Roman Empire reached more or less its fullest extent under the reign of the Emperor Augustus in the first century AD.  Different parts of the Frontier line ebbed and flowed over the next three hundred years, but the overall area remained much the same.  The Rhine and Danube rivers formed the edge of the Roman Empire in much of Europe for over 400 years. The use of these rivers as boundaries was probably determined as much by their importance for trade both within the Empire and with it’s ‘Barbarian’ neighbours as by the needs of defence. 

These frontier areas were cultural melting pots, where Rome came face to face with the outside world.  Trade made these areas rich and at the same time Rome invested huge sums in impressive buildings that communicated the might and splendour of the Empire. Huge sums were invested in paying and supplying a large professional army of legionary and auxiliary troops who were based in forts along the rivers, connected by signal stations and roads while fleets of naval ships patrolled the waters.

These were busy, prosperous, cosmopolitan places that have left an amazing and rich archaeological legacy of one of the World’s greatest and most influential Empires with many stunning sites to see and explore. Each part of the Frontier has their own fascinating story to tell, of individual lives, of Imperial ambition and splendour, and of dramatic struggles that have helped shape the modern world.

It was the loss of three legions across the Rhine under the general Varus in 9 AD that led the Emperor Augustus to limit the Empire within the existing frontiers.  The Dacian and Marcommannic wars in the 2nd century AD dictated Roman Imperial policy and affected much of what are now Romania and Hungary for over 100 years, and were recorded on the famous columns of Trajan and Marcus Aurelius in Rome.  There are fascinating invididual stories too, such as that of Marcus Agrippa, an officer under Hadrian, who began his career commanding a regiment of Britons on the Danube, transferred to Britain to command a regiment of Spaniards on Hadrian’s Wall, returned to the Danube, eventually becoming second in command to the Governor of Britain.