The Roman limes

A limes was a border defense or delimiting system of Ancient Rome. It marked the boundaries of the Roman Empire. The Latin noun limes had a number of different meanings: a path or balk delimiting fields, a boundary line or marker, any road or path, any channel, such as a stream channel, or any distinction or difference. In Latin, the plural form of limes is limites.


The limes Romanus 
The word limes, hence, was utilized by Latin writers to denote a marked or fortified frontier. This latter sense has been adapted and extended by modern historians concerned with the frontiers of the Roman Empire; e.g., Hadrian's wall in the north of England is sometimes styled the Limes Britannicus, the frontier of the Roman province of Arabia facing the desert is called the Limes Arabicus, and so forth.

So far the traditional definition and use of the term. It is now more common to accept that "limes" is not a term used by the Romans for the imperial frontier, fortified or not. This is a modern, anachronistic interpretation. The term became common after the third century when it denoted a military district under the command of a "dux limitis"

The "Roman Limes" represented the border line of the Roman Empire at its greatest extent in the 2nd century AD. It stretched over 5,000 km from the Atlantic coast of northern Britain, through Europe to the Black Sea, and from there to the Red Sea and across North Africa to the Atlantic coast. The remains of the Limes today consist of vestiges of built walls, ditches, forts, fortresses, and civilian settlements. Certain elements of the line have been excavated, some reconstructed and a few destroyed. The two sections of the Limes in Germany cover a length of 550 km from the north-west of the country to the Danube in the south-east. The 118-km-long Hadrian’s Wall (UK) was built on the orders of the Emperor Hadrian c. AD 122 at the northernmost limits of the Roman province of Britannia. It is a striking example of the organization of a military zone and illustrates the defensive techniques and geopolitical strategies of ancient Rome. The Antonine Wall, a 60-km long fortification in Scotland was started by Emperor Antonius Pius in 142 AD as a defense against the "Barbarians" of the north. It constitutes the northwestern-most portion of the Roman Limes.

The most notable examples of Roman limites or limes are:

* Hadrian's Wall - Limes Britannicus (UNESCO World Heritage ID 430bis-001)
* Antonine Wall - in Scotland (UNESCO World Heritage Site[2][3])
* Limes Germanicus, the Germanic & Raetian Limes (UNESCO World Heritage ID 430bis-002)
* Limes Arabicus, the frontier of the Roman province of Arabia Petraea facing the desert
* Limes Tripolitanus, the frontier in modern Libya facing the Sahara
* Trajan's Wall, the frontier in Moesia Inferior (currently in Bessarabia and Dobrudja)
* Limes Alutanus, the eastern border of the Roman province of Dacia
* Limes Transalutanus, the frontier in the lower Danube
* Limes Moesiae, the frontier in eastern Romania and Moldavia

The stem of limes: limit-, which can be seen in the genitive case, limitis, marks it as the ancestor of an entire group of important words in many languages; for example, English "limit". Modern languages have multiplied its abstract formulations. For example, from limit- comes the abbreviation lim, used in mathematics to designate the limit of a sequence or a function: see limit (mathematics). In metaphysics, material objects are limited by matter and therefore are delimited from each other. In ethics, men must know their limitations and are wise if they do.

An etymology was given in some detail by Julius Pokorny, Indogermanisches Etymologisches W├Ârterbuch. According to him it comes from Indo-European el-, elei-, lei-, "to bow, bend; elbow." The Latin meaning was discussed in detail by W. Gebert[4]

The sense is that a limit bends across one in some way. The limes was a cross-path or a cross-wall, which the Romans meant to throw across the path of invaders to hinder them. It is a defensive strategy. The Romans never built limites where they considered themselves free to attack. As the emperor had ordered the army to stay within the limites except for punitive expeditions, they were as much a mental barrier as material. The groups of Germanic warriors harrying the limes during summer used the concept to full advantage, knowing that they could concentrate and supply themselves outside the limes without fear of preemptive strikes.


Reconstructed wooden tower nearby Rainau, Germany
In a few cases they were wrong. The limit concept engendered a sentiment among the soldiers that they were being provoked by the Germanic raiders and were held back from just retaliation by a weak and incompetent administration; i.e., they were being sold out. They therefore mutinied. The best remedy for a mutiny was an expedition across the limes. Toward the later empire, the soldiers assassinated emperors who preferred diplomacy and put their own most popular officers into the vacant office.

Reconstructed east gate at Welzheim

Roman writers and subsequent authors who depended on them presented the limes as some sort of sacred border beyond which human beings did not transgress, and if they did, it was evidence that they had passed the bounds of reason and civilization. To cross the border was the mark of a savage. They wrote of the Alemanni disrespecting it as though they had passed the final limitation of character and had committed themselves to perdition. The Alemanni, on the other hand, never regarded the border as legitimate in the first place. The Romans were foreigners changing native place names and intruding on native homes and families (see under Alemanni), only to be tolerated at all because they were willing to pay cash for the privilege and offered the blandishments of civilized life.


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