The Germanic peoples were feared by the Romans. The Rhine was able to hold back the raiders from the north. For a while, at least.
The Germanic peoples were feared by the Romans. The Rhine was able to hold back the raiders from the north. For a while, at least. Wikimedia

The Emperor’s new frontier

Around 1,600 years ago, the Roman Emperor Valentinian I had the Rhine and Danube borders extended by a substantial amount. He wanted to protect the empire from the onslaught of the peoples of the north.

Katrin Brunner

Katrin Brunner

Katrin Brunner is a self-employed journalist specialising in history and chronicler of Niederweningen.

Emperor Valentinian I was furious. For decades the Romans had been making payments to a number of barbaric tribes of the Alemanni in order to secure their own borders. Barbarian tribes as paid defenders of the Roman Empire? Not on Valentinian’s watch. He cancelled the payments, and readied his troops for conflict. In 365 AD all the signs were pointing to war. The ancient historian Ammianus Marcellinus gives a very detailed account of the period and its problems. Surprising from today’s perspective, he wrote his texts mostly in Latin, despite being a native Greek.
Portrait of Valentinian I
Portrait of Valentinian I Wikimedia
When the Germanic peoples broke through the Limes in present-day Germany between 213 and 259 AD and advanced south, the Roman leadership moved the border to the Rhine. Starting in 369 AD, the Emperor’s troops strengthened and improved the dilapidated and neglected fortifications of earlier Roman builders along this strategically important stretch of water. Unlike Hadrian’s Wall in Britain or the Rhaetian Limes, the Rhine fortification did not consist of a continuous wall and associated forts. Watchtowers and defence towers were erected at short intervals. Around 50 fortifications were built between Basel and Stein am Rhein.  The construction work was arduous and dangerous: the workmen and the soldiers who were guarding them were frequently shot at from the opposite bank.
Roman watchtowers along the Rhine.
Roman watchtowers along the Rhine. Classics Library, UZH

Everyday life in the watchtower

Once the fortifications were complete, the frontier guard service began. This could last several weeks. With a ground area of around 11 to 12 square metres, one can imagine how tight the available space was. To ensure a good view of the surrounding area, the tower was probably about 10 metres high. Archaeologists believe that a guard detail consisted of four men, who lived on the upper floor. This could only be reached by means of a ladder. A narrow parapet walk ran around this storey. Supplies and personal belongings were stored in the lower part of the tower. Most of these towers were protected by a rampart and a sturdy palisade fence. Domestic animals such as pigs or poultry, which were part of the menu, roamed about in the area between the tower and the fence. A Roman border guard’s day mainly meant observing the opposite bank. In addition, equipment and weapons had to be repaired and maintained. Forest clearance around the tower was also part of everyday life. This was necessary in order to have an unobstructed view across the Rhine at all times.
Reconstructed Roman watchtower.
Reconstructed Roman watchtower. Wikimedia

Infuriated to death

Historian Ammianus Marcellinus describes Emperor Valentinian I as a man with an ‘inferior’ education. Like his father, the young Emperor got caught up in internal political intrigues. The tribune owed his appointment as Emperor of the Western Empire to a series of deaths and fortuitous occurrences. According to Ammianus, his contemporary witness, Valentinian I had “…a natural tendency towards cruelty and passionate outbursts of anger…” Showing mercy was completely alien to him. “…should he once show leniency, that too seems insincere…” Inferior education and proneness to violent rages notwithstanding, the Emperor showed great skill in the matter of warfare and in fortifying the Rhine border. In 368 AD, he orchestrated a conspiracy to murder an important leader of the Alemanni in order to weaken the enemy. This too was part of his strategy for securing the border. On 17 November 375 AD, Valentinian I died following a stroke brought on by one of his mighty fits of rage. He was only 54 years old. However, rumours abounded, and still persist today, that the Emperor had been poisoned. Just three years after his death, around 30,000 Alemanni and Franks crossed the Upper Rhine. Around 406 AD, the Roman troops withdrew from the Rhine once and for all and turned their attention to their homeland, Italy, where the invading Visigoths had made themselves at home.

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