The Limes and Hadrian’s Wall

Rome's Northern European Boundaries

By: Peter S. Wells

Originally Published in 2005

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Every wall demands attention and raises questions. Who built it and why? The Limes in southern Germany and Hadrian’s Wall in northern Britain are the most distinctive physical remains of the northern expansion and defense of the Roman Empire. Particularly striking are the size of these monuments today and their uninterrupted courses through the countryside.

The Limes, the largest archaeological monument in Europe, extends 550 km (342 miles) across southern Germany, connecting the Roman frontiers on the middle Rhine and upper Danube Rivers. It runs through farmland, forests, villages, and towns, and up onto the heights of the Taunus and Wetterau hills. Hadrian’s Wall is 117 km (73 miles) long, crossing the northern part of England from the Irish Sea to the North Sea. While portions of Hadrian’s Wall run through urban Newcastle and Carlisle, its central courses traverse open landscapes removed from modern settlements.

We can see ruins of stone-built structures (in some cases partially restored today) along both walls. Created during what is known as the Early Roman Period, both walls slice through the countryside, seemingly undeterred by obstacles that earlier Iron Age builders and later medieval builders avoided. For example, one stretch of the Limes, between Walldürn and Welzheim, is straight over a distance of 80 km (50 miles).

Even if we did not know the historical background to these walls, their monumentality would make apparent that each had been constructed under the direction of a powerful cen­tral authority commanding vast amounts of labor and resources. As such, the Limes and Hadrian’s Wall belong to a series of very large ancient walls that includes the Great Wall of China, Offa’s Dyke between England and Wales, and the Danevirke in northern Germany. All required enormous efforts to construct and maintain, and thus imply powerful states that commanded their creation. These great physical monuments never disappeared from their landscapes, as did so many other ancient structures.

The Creation of the Walls

The two walls were built at roughly the same time, though their precise chronologies are extremely complex because they were constructed in phases over a number of decades. Roman armies under Julius Caesar conquered Gaul (modern France and lands farther to the northeast) between 58 and 51 BC, making the Julius Caesarr the eastern boundary of Roman territory north of the Alps. In 15 BC, legions led by Tiberius and Drusus conquered the lands south of the Danube River in what is now southern Bavaria, making the Rhine and the Danube the frontiers of the Roman Empire in northwestern Europe. Shortly after the conquest, the Roman military began constructing bases along the Danube. Regensburg became the largest and remained the principal Roman military and civil center of the region until the 5th century AD. In the AD 80s under the Emperor Domitian, the triangle of land between the upper Rhine and upper Danube was added to Roman Berri‑Cory, and in succeeding decades a frontier line was laid out to enclose that land. A linear boundary between the Rhine and the Danube was apparently first closed under the Emperor Hadrian in the AD 120s, along the line shown on the map.

In its fully developed form, the Limes in Germania superior consisted of a palisade of oak trunks on the outside, then a ditch some 8 m wide and 2.5 m deep, followed by an earth bank over 2 m high, then a road, along which watchtowers stood. In Raetia, the fully developed Limes included a stone wall some 3 m high with watchtowers behind or on the wall.

Turning to Britain, Roman legions under the Emperor Claudius conquered most of it in about four years starting in AD 43. Around the end of the 1st century AD, a linear bound­ary with a road now known as the Stanegate was laid out just south of the later Hadrian’s Wall. In the AD 120s and 130s, Hadrian’s Wall as we know it today was constructed. In its completed form it consisted of an outer bank, an outer ditch, a level berm, a stone wall perhaps as high as 6.5 m, a road, an inner bank, an inner ditch (known as the vallum), and another bank. This whole defensive complex was up to 120 m wide.

Research excavations continue to sort out the building his­tories of both the Limes and Hadrian’s Wall. Unfortunates, excavated portions often yield no chronologically diagnostic remains, making dating of the structural phases difficult.

The Purpose of the Walls

The purpose of these two walls has been the subject of much debate. Were they meant to be fortifications from which Romans would battle potential invaders? Or were they linear demarcations of the boundaries of the Empire? Scholarly opin­ion now favors the latter interpretation and sees the motivation behind constructing them as Hadrian’s concern with establishing clear frontier lines between Roman territory and the peoples beyond. At the same time, the walls served to monitor and control movement across the frontier. Gates in the walls make it apparent that passage through was a regular occurrence, and it was never Roman policy to keep people out altogether.Merchants and other travelers needed to be able to move across the frontiers, and the system of gates and nearby forts provided means for the troops to control such passage.

The role of the Limes and Hadrian’s Wall as monuments to Roman power should not be underestimated. Surrounded as we are today by monumental architecture—skyscrapers, enor­mous bridges, and great cathedrals—these Roman walls may not strike us as unusually grand. But in the northwestern European landscape of the first centuries AD, they were very impressive. No other structures extended for such distances or cut such remarkable swaths through the countryside. These walls were material manifesta­tions of the central message that Rome wanted to communicate to the peoples beyond its provinces—Rome’s power is not threatened by barbarians across its frontiers.

The Limes was maintained for about a century and a quarter, until Rome withdrew back to the upper Rhine and Danube after AD 260. Hadrian’s Wall served its purpose for three cen­turies, until the final disintegration of Roman power in Britain after AD 410.

The Walls as Links to the Past

Both the Limes and Hadrian’s Wall have been foci of concerted preservation efforts for well over a century by a variety of governmental agencies in their respective countries. In recent years, both have been extensively developed as tourist attractions, creating stresses and conflicts between the interests of preservation and those of public access. As immense linear structures, they differ from other prominent physical remains of the Roman presence in northern Europe, such as the self-contained Porta Nigra at Trier and Fishbourne Palace in southern England. The visitor to the walls has a different experience from that of viewing Roman ruins in a modern city such as Cologne, Regensburg, or York. When we see the mosaic floor from a Roman villa beneath the Römisch-Germanisches Museum in Cologne, or a recon­structed Roman dining room at the Museum of London, it is relatively easy to imagine what a wealthy city-dweller’s house was like. But at the Limes and Hadrian’s Wall, we can examine only a small portion of each immense structure at one time. The fact that neither corresponds to any modern political bor­der adds to the sense of their antiquity—they belong to a dif­ferent world from ours. While reconstructions of Roman buildings and displays of tools, weapons, and jewelry, along with films and television programs about the period, often suggest that the Roman world was not very different from ours, encountering the two great walls can make a visitor feel that the Roman world was unlike anything we know today.

Local governments and tourist bureaus promote the Limes and Hadrian’s Wall and make them accessible. A German Limes Route allows the visitor to follow the course of the Limes along a marked 700-km tour from the Rhine to the Danube. Reconstructed portions of the Limes system, partially restored remains, and museums are well labeled. Nature trails in the hilly western portion of the Limes allow the visitor to enjoy natural and human history together, and a cycle trail enables the bicycle enthusiast to follow the course of the Limes. Roman-themed guided tours, special exhibitions, and festivals illuminate visits. Maps and guidebooks designed for all levels of popular and scholarly interest are available. Similarly at Hadrian’s Wall, well-marked routes direct the visitor to espe­cially interesting portions of the system, and numerous maps, brochures, and guidebooks help to orient and explain. A Hadrian’s Wall Path leads the enterprising hiker along the entire course. Excavated and partially restored sites and well-arranged museums provide the visitor with a rich variety of materials pertaining to the Roman presence.

In the world of the late 20th and early 21st centuries, in which national boundaries change with great social and eco­nomic turmoil, and regional cultural and political identities are forged and contested, these two-millennia-old walls across the landscapes of southern Germany and northern Britain can help us to put modern events and challenges into meaningful long-term perspective.

World Heritage Sites

Hadrian’s Wall was named a World Heritage Site in 1987. This designation means that a UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization) com­mittee has judged it to be of “outstanding universal value” as a site of exceptional cul­tural importance. The nomination process is complex and requires lengthy preparation of reports and plans by governmental agencies. Cultural officals in the four German states through which the Limes runs—Bavaria, Baden-Württemberg, Hesse, and the Rhineland-Palatinate—have spent the past three years preparing papers for its nomina­tion, with the hope that the Limes will win the World Heritage Site designation in 2005.


PETER S. WELLS is Professor of Anthropology at the University of Minnesota. Among his principal inter­ests are interactions between peoples on the two sides of the Roman frontiers in Europe. Two of his recent books on the topic are The Barbarians Speak: How the Conquered Peoples Shaped Roman Europe (Princeton, 1999) and The Battle that Stopped Rome (Norton, 2003).

Bernd Engelhardt, Director of the Landshut office of the Bayerisches Landesamt für Denkmalpflege, and Richard Hingley of the Department of Archaeology at the University of Durham provided helpful informa­tion and generous hospitality in connection with my preparation of this article. Simon James of the Department of Archaeology of the University of Leicester sent me a copy of his important recent paper cited below. James Mathieu and two anonymous reviewers provided helpful suggestions on an earlier version of this article. I thank all of these colleagues for their assistance.

For Further Reading

The books by Baatz and Breeze are guides to the walls, with excellent maps and descriptions of particularly well-preserved portions. The websites and provide the potential visitor with numerous links to detailed information about places to visit, paths, visitor’s centers, and museums.

Baatz, Dietwulf. Der römische Limes: Archäologische Ausflüge zwischen Rhein und Donau. 3rd ed. Berlin: Gebr. Mann, 1993.

Breeze, David J. Hadrian’s Walls. 2nd ed. London: English Heritage, 2003.

James, Simon. “Writing the Legions: The Development and Future of Roman Military Studies in Britain.” The Archaeological Journal159 (2002):1-58.

Shotter, David. The Roman Frontier in Britain. Preston, England: Carnegie Publishing, 1996.

Wamser, L., ed. Die Römer zwischen Alpen und Nordmeer Mainz: Philipp von Zabern, 2000.

Wells, Peter S. The Barbarians Speak: How the Conquered Peoples Shaped Roman Europe. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1999.

Whittaker, C. R. Frontiers of the Roman Empire. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994.


Cite This Article

Wells, Peter S.. "The Limes and Hadrian’s Wall." Expedition Magazine 47, no. 1 (March, 2005): -. Accessed February 28, 2024.

This digitized article is presented here as a historical reference and may not reflect the current views of the Penn Museum.

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