Rome on the Rhine

Forget dragons, here be Saxons and Franks!

Where’s the frontier? If you were Rome, it was where the barbarians lurked, those peoples who failed to see the benefits of living under Rome’s wise rule. If you were one of the Germanic tribes, it was the place you massed before attacking the Romans and reminding them who really owned the place. If you are a modern person, it is the area called the limes, the line of civilization and Roman ruins that demarcates civilized Europe from those people over there.

I’ve tramped the Limes from Castra Vetera to Augusta Vindelicorum east to Vindobona, Aquincum, and a few other places. “And I’ve tramped Britain and I’ve tramped Gaul/ and the Pontic shores where the snowflakes fall/ As white as the heart of Lalage, as cold as the heart of Lalage,” with apologies to Rudyard Kipling. I’ve not reached the Pontic shores yet, and I don’t foresee doing so in the near future. But I’m quite familiar with the Roman frontiers in Central Europe.

Rome Was Here. (Sopron, Hungary)

Cologne, Xanten, Trier, Mainz, just north of Frankfurt, down towards the Alps on the Rhine, along the Danube at Regensburg, under what’s now Vienna and Budapest… Dig a hole and you’ll find Rome. Until the 1800s it was even easier, especially in Hungary and parts east, because so many things remained above ground, lightly looted for stones but otherwise untouched. Then along came the modern tractor, and away went the ruins, because it’s easier to plow over than around and who needs those rock lumps when the collective farm demands more acreage, Comrade! And anyway, empires are bad. The future is what matters.

And these are just the major ones.

Rome wanted a secure border. The peoples moving out of Central Asia and northern Asia wanted space, and eventually trading goods. Rome sort of won a few rounds, but as we know, a lot of things combined so that in the end, numbers won out and the “barbarians” overran the western Roman Empire. People kept on living in the former Roman sites, with one notable exception. Xanten was abandoned and no one moved back in, preserving it in unusually “pristine” condition for archaeologists.

Otherwise the barbarians looked at what Rome had left and admired it. Some of them wanted to copy it. Happily, a relatively small group of people had actually preserved a lot of Roman ideas, instructions for building things and organizing people, and the Romans’ official language. Not the everyday koine Greek, but Latin. So the Christian Church began Romanizing the barbarians, or at least their leaders. In time, a leader of the Franks, Karl, or Charlemagne, would decide that he could recreate the Roman Empire but with the pope as the pontifex maximus.

Despite what a lot of educated people had assumed, between 476 and 800, the Roman Empire didn’t completely disappear. It faded into memories, and people used its remains for other things because the population crash in the 500s made life really, really hard. But Roman ideas and Roman technology remained around in small pockets and preserves, and people kept tinkering and discussing and improving until the Carolingian Renaissance and the High Middle Ages.

Most of what people recalled of Rome’s frontiers was on the Rhine. Why? Because of Julius Caesar’s little travelogue and political pamphlet. “Omnes Gallia in tres partes divisi est…” [waits for former Latin students to recover from memories] And the Rhine stayed a major trade route for such trade as there was. If you look at the maps, there are very few rivers that flow from the Alps to the north. The Rhine was where it was at. The Frankish kingdoms were on the Rhine, the Saxons and Bavarians inched Rhine-ward for a while, and civilization had bloomed on the Rhine. So did lots of little toll castles, and robber barons, but nothing’s perfect. Even Rome hadn’t kept everyone peaceful and honest.

5 thoughts on “Rome on the Rhine

  1. Interesting post. Alas, I’m feeling extra snarky this afternoon….

    How can we tell for certain that the barbarians won? Because the EU holds sway over most of Europe. 😛

  2. To be Frank, I’m not sure what Angles the Saxons had when they Jute kept pushing westward with Geat determination.

    And I Goths to know.

  3. And yet another reason why there are more ‘mongrel’ blood lines than not in Europe. Fighting was NOT they only thing they did over the Rhine! 🙂

  4. The Roman empire continued to exist in the east as a political entity for quite some time.

    Constantine ushered in an era where the Roman secular civil government coexisted with the church. There were some periods where the major bishops had not really split on doctrine, and where a single government controlled the whole of the empire.

    There eventually were permanent splits between the eastern and western empire, and between the eastern and western church. The western church was fairly unified under the bishop of Rome, and the western empire fairly fragmented. This seems to have something to do with the western church’s experiments in military power. The eastern church retained a number of competing major bishops, and the eastern empire remained politically unified for quite some time. This probably has something to do with the assumption of religious authority by the Byzantine emperors.

    The wannabe western emperors had the model of the eastern emperors to look to. If you believe the Ligonier Michael Godfrey church history DVDs, the interplay between the later ‘re-established’ western emperors and the bishop of Rome looks a lot like simple power politics.

    Pontifex maximus was a pagan Roman title. I forget if that was the title Caesar collected early on by rigging the vote, or if he collected it latter after the civil war. He doesn’t seem to have been a sincere believer, so his actions with the various priesthoods prior to his murder were probably stage management for whatever goal his mad self-aggrandizement was driving him towards.

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