Schlögener Schlinge © WGD Danube Upper Austria Steininger

The Danube as a border

The Danube Limes of the Romans and where our borders are today

The Romans once did not mince their words (why should they?) and said straight out what was the matter: "No one comes in here whom we do not want to have". The speech was of that Roman great empire, into which they let only those people who were approved, or who were, became or were made "Roman citizen". For who was a Roman and who was not - who was a "native" and who was not - who was allowed into the supposedly civilized world of the Imperium Romanum, that was not necessarily only a question of birth. But that was - even then - among other things also a question of power, of money, of military patents or marriage policy. One was a Roman citizen with or without the right to vote, free or unfree. Or one was a barbarian.

Does this sound familiar? In the 21st century? Do we also determine nowadays who, where and why someone is allowed to feel "native" in a country, behind certain borders? Does it depend on education, power, celebrity, origin, language? Then as now?

Danube Carnuntum Haimburg © Angelika-Mandler
Danube Carnuntum Haimburg © Angelika-Mandler
Across borders - then and now

Where do borders begin and end? For 400 years, the Limes was the "outer border" ("Fines imperii" - the imperial boundary) of the Roman Empire. You can see: Even the conceptualizations of us humans have hardly changed after 2000 years. In Europe the call for "isolation" is getting louder again, in the USA a wall to Mexico is an unspeakable topic.

Border protection was already a big issue in the Imperium Romanum. 2000 years ago, a partly fortified border fortification, partly running along the river, stretched across the whole of Europe: The Roman Limes was a perfect installation to demarcate, secure, separate, protect the great Roman Empire from the external barbarian peoples. Over a length of 5500 kilometers, the Limes once separated the then "civilization" of the vast Roman Empire from the barbarians.

The Danube Limes was part of this border and ran along the Danube in present-day Bavaria, across Austria (such as at Oberranna, Schlögen and Enns), Slovakia and Hungary to Serbia and Romania. Continuous walls, on the other hand, were built in northern England (Hadrian's Wall), for example, and there were also walls, forts and watchtowers between the Rhine and the Danube (Upper Germanic-Raetian Limes) as an almost continuous fortification.

Towns that we today take for granted as being in the vicinity of Vienna, such as Klosterneuburg Abbey or Petronell-Carnuntum, were located directly on the Limes and thus directly on the border to the barbarians north of the Danube. Fortifications at the Limes consisted of camps, forts and, above all, watchtowers.

The camps developed into small towns where people lived, loved, celebrated - where elsewhere in the empire, too. a Along this border, the Via Istrum, the Danube Trail, also developed. Remains of the fortified towers along the Limes can be found in imperial Upper Austria, in Tulln and Zeiselmauer, among other places. But in many places the Limes of that time has become invisible today. For our eyes at least. In the case of the Raetian Limes in Germany, which has UNESCO World Heritage status, the ground profile was scanned with an infrared laser scanner in order to discover the course of the now "invisible" bulwark: In this way, it was even possible to detect individual postholes of watchtowers! The Limes Pannonicus, in turn, is a part of the Danube Limes, which extends from Klosterneuburg to Serbia. From the ruins in Devin near Bratislava, the Romans once had a particularly good view down to the Wet Limes.

In today's Austria, the Limes ran from Carnuntum to Schlögen to the Donauschlinge - forts were always found here at intervals of 14 kilometers. Up to Linz, this route corresponds to the federal road today.

Photo credit: (2) Klosterneuburg Abbey Garden (c)Wienerwald Tourismus GmbH_Bauer
The Danube Limes as a Symbol of Peace? The aspired UNESCO World Heritage Status

However, the former limes in the Danube region is no longer completely visible as a fortification line, because the Danube itself was often enough of a border for the Romans. In order to be able to have such a cultural asset protected by UNESCO as such, preserved structures must be present throughout the area or be traceable and continuous. And these buildings, if they exist, must also be nationally protected cultural assets, as well as be considered worthy of long-term preservation.

Public interest must also be at the top of the list for a potential UNESCO World Heritage Site: So if today a hotel stands where a Roman troop camp used to be on the Danube Limes, then that is - well - not conducive to World Heritage status. But still 98 "components" would have been found for the submission of the Danube Limes as UNESCO World Heritage. At the moment, however, the project of the Danube Limes as a transboundary UNESCO World Heritage Site of Austria, Slovakia and Hungary worthy of protection seems to have landed on the long bench for the time being. A last-minute change on the part of the Hungarian competitors caused UNESCO to postpone the joint application.

Nevertheless, there are always remains of the "wet Limes" worth seeing. In addition, it is also important to note the other side of this initially military border: The Limes was not always and everywhere only a place of military or hostile conflicts between Romans and barbarians. More often the Limes was a place of trade, of cultural exchange of ideas and achievements. Thus, a Danube Limes as a UNESCO World Heritage Site could also stand as a symbol for peace, for a united Europe in the broadest sense.

Devin Slovakia © Angelika Mandler
Devin Slovakia © Angelika Mandler
Reaching its Limits - The Roman Camp Arrianis (Klosterneuburg)

On the occasion of his keynote speech at the opening of the exhibition "Roman Camp Arrianis - the Limes in Klosterneuburg" in the magnificent Sala Terrena on March 30, 2018 in Klosterneuburg, historian Philipp Blom also talks about borders. About the borders of the Roman Empire, to which the decadent empire had reached and about borders of today. Which, after a time of opening borders, have apparently become important again.

"Today, too, many have the feeling that our empire has reached its limits and ... perhaps that is why the call for new borders is becoming louder again," the historian said during the keynote address. And borders are always places where civilization ends and barbarism begins. Borders have also become important again because what we have seems to be threatened.

It was no different with the Romans. But nowadays, more and more problems arise that can no longer be controlled or solved even by borders: Climate change and financial crises, for example. Moreover: "Walls are no help against loss of control," says Philipp Blom. "The Roman Empire showed weakness for the first time when it fortified its borders and built walls. It could no longer successfully project the value of its civilization, and it was too vast to control its territory. The collapse, however, came from within, with the soldier emperors who only wanted to enrich themselves in power. Here it is permissible to draw parallels: Those who want to build walls and draw borders today should think carefully about what is actually being demarcated and defended."

The Limes in Klosterneuburg was the northern border of the empire and left behind many a ground find, including gravestones, which were presented in the 2018 annual exhibition at Klosterneuburg Abbey. Today, Klosterneuburg Abbey stands where the Roman camp once stood - a camp with a civilian town, a military camp, lively trade and everything else that a small town of that time had to offer: News from the ancient Romans?

At the time when Klosterneuburg, as "Arriana Castra", was the westernmost auxiliary camp of the Roman province of Pannonia, the Imperium Romanum had already reached its organizational, supply and communication limits, according to Blom. Another parallel to the present time? At the end of the 2nd century, the climate became colder and the resources of the Roman Empire scarce. Waves of invasion threatened, forts on the Raetian Limes were overrun by barbarians, and the wet Limes increasingly became a site of raids.

The rich Carnuntum camp was not as vulnerable as the Raetian Limes - there, the Roman dolce vita lasted quite a long time, until the Romans finally ran out of money for defense.

Is an empire that starts to hide behind its borders (again) an "empire tainted by its own decadence" - as Blom elaborates and rouses? Does it boil down to the fact that empires that hide behind walls - then as now - will eventually lose their vitality?

Philipp Blom is a master at packing his extensive knowledge, research and expertise into this stirring "festive speech", which also shows us here in Klosterneuburg, in the former Roman camp Arrianis on the Danube Limes, that we always somehow reach our limits. Then as now.

Photo credit:
(1) StiftKlbg_RoemerlagerArrianis (c) Michael_Himml_lowres
(2) ML_15_Klosterneuburg_PRESSENiederösterreich-Werbung Michael Liebert
Discover the Danube Limes - TIPS
  • Roman camp Arrianis - gravestones are history books. Annual exhibition 2018 at Klosterneuburg Abbey
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