Lower Germanic Limes in the Rhineland
A Wet Border and the Seed of Urban Centres
What is now a UNESCO World Heritage used to separate the Roman Empire from Germania. Today, travellers can feel times long past in many stations along the border as they explore historical building monuments and learn more about the Romans’ lives. Tour highlights include Cologne, Xanten, and Monheim.
The UNESCO added the Lower Germanic Limes to its World Heritage Sites in July 2021, making it the sixth cultural heritage in North Rhine-Westphalia. The river border with a length in excess of 400 kilometres served to separate the Roman province of Lower Germania from free Germania for about 450 years, starting around 15 BCE. From Rhineland Palatinate, it continues all the way to the Dutch North Sea, corresponding to the course of the Rhine at the time. Even now, the partial section of 220 kilometres that runs through North Rhine-Westphalia offers innumerable traces of Roman military power, architecture, and explorative spirit.
Where foot soldiers (legionaries) once trained for their next battles in Roman fortresses and army camps, museums built on the facilities’ former foundations are now telling us of their everyday lives. Where their cultural life used to pulsate in urban centres, where people used to trade and work, soil monuments, streets, and building residues now bear witness to the incredible architectural effort necessary to design and maintain a civilian Roman city with its attractions. This makes the Lower Germanic Limes of outstanding historical relevance for development of the urban centres in the Rhineland. Its decisive role in the region’s history can still be traced along its anchor points.
Administration of the Province of Lower Germania
Cologne, the metropolis on the Rhine that was granted the highest town rights by the Romans in 50 CE, was called Colonia Claudia Ara Agrippinensium (CCAA) during and after the time of the Roman Empire. It offers history fans a glimpse of the former magistrate’s palace (praetorium). The strong foundation walls of the building from where the commander in chief and representative of the Roman Emperor administrated the Province of Lower Germania are still evident under the Spanish Building in the old town. The Roman-Germanic Museum (temporarily relocated to the “Belgian Building” at the Neumarkt), the Roman Tower, the Roman North Gate, and the Roman foundations of the Cologne cathedral are not far from there.
The remnants of the Kastell Divitia-Deutz are worth a visit as well. They can be admired during a guided tour through the historical vaults underneath the former abbey church of Alt St. Heribert. A bronze model on the Kennedy banks on the right side of the Rhine also illustrates the surprising development level of fortification technology in late antiquity. The Rhine was first crossed by a bridge in 310. The size of the central supporting pillar of the Rhine fleet, called the Kastell Altenburg and located in Cologne-Marienburg since about 370, in contrast, can unfortunately only be guessed at based on soil findings. It was able to hold up to about 1000 soldiers, and a gigantic fleet of ships was anchored there.
A little further north along the important river, specifically in Xanten, an entire archaeological park is telling about life in the former harbour town of Colonia Ulpia Traiana, which existed from about 100 to 275 CE. It was one of the largest military settlements along the Limes. Hobby historians of all age groups can discover the former town walls, the harbour temple, and the amphitheatre in reconstructions true to the originals. The LVR Roman Museum is embedded into the beautiful backdrop of the archaeological facility, standing on the foundations of the entrance hall of the former town bath, the Basilika Thermarum, while teaching about its 2500 exhibits – from the legionaries’ armour to valuable ceramic bowls. Ongoing research in the former Colonia and military camp Vetera Castra I on nearby Fürstenberg are some of the tasks tackled by a team of experts that comprises archaeologists, architectural researchers, historians, and restorers.
Military Base from Late Antiquity Turned Museum
The historical Haus Bürgel estate, located in the middle of the nature preserve Urdenbacher Kämpe between Monheim and Düsseldorf, offers more information about a former military base. Once a Roman fortress and with a history spanning more than two millennia, the Late Roman facility houses a themed museum that breaks down its past. The eight exhibition areas cover subjects such as the architecture of the 64x64 metres large castle, shipping on the Rhine, and the presence of soldiers stationed here. Explorers can also find an archaeological outdoor path around the east and south walls, with paving indicating the positions of several towers, a gate, and the former fortress bath.
Other destinations around the Lower Germanic Limes are located, among other places, in Bonn and Neuss, where the streets of the former “Castra Bonnensia” and “Castra Novaesia” military bases continue to characterise the local infrastructure layout to this day.