On the border of the empire - The Roman Limes

By Nisa Iduna Kirchengast - Editors: Daniel Kunc, Thomas Mauerhofer

The border fortifications of the Roman Empire, also known as the Limes, are among the most important archaeological monuments in Europe. Originally, the Latin term limes or ripa referred to a border path or a (river) barrier. Over time, it developed into a comprehensive system of unique border fortifications that served to protect the Roman Empire. However, these fortifications not only provided military security, but also promoted political, economic and cultural developments that had a lasting impact on the European region.

The most important sources on Roman history and the borders of the Roman Empire are ancient writings and archaeological finds. Historical authors such as Tacitus provide valuable information, but Roman coins and military architecture, which are examined using modern archaeological methods such as geophysical prospection or 3D documentation, also contribute to research. The conquest of today's Austrian territory began in 15 BC under Emperor Augustus, when strategically important points and trade routes were secured. From the middle of the first century, military camps and fortifications were systematically built along the Danube. In the fourth century, Emperor Valentinian reinforced the border fortifications once again due to increased barbarian incursions. In the fifth century, however, the Huns conquered the province of Pannonia, whereupon the Roman border troops withdrew and the Limes was gradually abandoned. The Roman remains in the Danube region have been studied since the Middle Ages and early modern times, with systematic scientific research beginning at the end of the 19th century. Today, various Austrian scientific institutions and the Federal Monuments Office are working together to research the Limes.

© NOE Landessammlungen

© Archive Museum Carnuntinum - Heidentor Petronell-Carnuntum, 1st half of the 20th century.

The structures, which were used for almost 500 years and stretched over more than 5000 kilometers, still characterize many cultural landscapes today and formed the basis of numerous cities. The Danube Limes, which stretched from the source of the Danube in present-day Germany to the Black Sea, was part of the wider frontier of the Roman Empire. It consisted of a network of forts, legionary camps and watchtowers positioned along the southern bank of the Danube at intervals of 10 to 30 kilometers. In times of peace, these fortifications facilitated trade with neighboring Germanic populations on the other side of the Danube and enabled a continuous cultural and economic exchange, as the Roman military also represented an important source of income.


The Danube Limes World Heritage Site also includes numerous archaeological monuments, including the amphitheater of the civil city in Petronell-Carnuntum.

The Austrian section of the Danube Limes stretches over 360 kilometers and includes well-known sites such as Enns/Lauriacum, Vienna/Vindobona and Carnuntum. Especially in Austria, many important fortifications along the Danube Limes are well preserved. The western section of the Danube Limes, including the Austrian part, was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2021. This underlines its influence on European history and the importance of its remains for our understanding of the past. Other sections of the former border of the Roman Empire have also already been recognized as UNESCO World Heritage Sites. These include Hadrian's Wall and Antonine's Wall in Great Britain and the Upper Germanic-Raetian Limes and Lower Germanic Limes in Germany and the Netherlands.

Today, archaeological sites and museums along the Danube Limes offer a fascinating insight into the life and history of the ancient Roman Empire. Austria is part of the Danube Limes World Heritage Site with 22 individual components. These sites in Upper Austria, Lower Austria and Vienna include the remains of forts, military camps, civilian settlements and economic facilities along the river. Then as now, the Limes was not just a border between different areas, but rather serves as a connecting element between people of different cultures who share a common history.

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